Backstage in the dark, behind the black curtains at the Anne ArundelCommunity College theater, in the hush before the play begins, PeterKaiser prepares to work magic.
Mechanical magic, that is.
He grasps a thick rope hanging from the ceiling and jumps off a 6-foot-tall stepladder. The theater manager's weight -- connected to the rope through a complicated series of pulleys -- propels a small figure in green up off the floor and through a French window.
The audience gasps as petite Judy Golden vaults through the air, far from the stage, far from everyday existence.
Technology has made the magic world of Peter Pan about as real as it can get.
But catapultinga young woman 16 feet in the air -- and then keeping her aloft to dart and dance and sing -- isn't easy. It isn't cheap, either.
For the musical, theater director Bob Kauffman hired Flying by Foy, the premier company in the world for flying effects. Foy's company handled flying for the original Mary Martin production of "Peter Pan" and works routinely with Broadway shows and at Radio City Music Hall.
"When we decided to do 'Peter Pan,' I decided unless we could do it right and use the flying effects, I didn't want to do the show," Kauffmansays. "We also needed to make sure we were doing the flying as safely as humanly possible."
The expertise of the company pushed the tab of the play from the average budget of $15,000 for a musical to $27,600, but Kauffman says it's worth it.
"In all modesty, it's one of the better productions we've ever done. We have an excellent cast, and I'm pleased as all get out with the technical effects; I love theflying," he says.
Exactly how the mechanics are put together is kept a secret, as befits such a magical musical. From the wings backstage, though, one can observe a slender wire that hooks into a harnessworn by the actor and actresses who fly: Peter and the three siblings he befriends.
The wire can hold up to 1,200 pounds, so Golden's 105-pound frame wasn't a challenge, mechanically.
But she hadn't had much practice wearing a corsetlike harness that includes a steel plate covering most of her back.
"It pulls up hard on your ribs, and it was uncomfortable at first. Now that I'm used to it, it's all right," says Golden, sprinkling magic dust on her nose before a matineeperformance this week.
For her entrance through the bedroom window, Golden picked up special techniques earthbound actors never encounter. She had to learn how to arch her back so the harness didn't makeher look hunched over. She had to learn to stay "front," or facing the audience, by moving her legs a certain way.
"At first I didn't know what to do," says the 24-year-old. "They kept telling me to use my legs, throw my body and head toward the front. It's still difficult and sometimes I lose it, but when I'm relaxed the flying is the most fun, especially when I come through the windows and the audience goes 'Ohhhhhh!' "
She learned, during weeks of practice, to use her training in dance -- modern, jazz and ballet -- to move her legs properly.
The flying team backstage had to learn a lot, too, says Golden, laughing.
"When we first tried it, they kept running me into the doghouse. Or I'd whip across and smack into the fireplace, or hit the lights. Now, it's easy."
To Kaiser, theater director and head of the flying team, the trickiest part was coordinating several fliers at once. "When the three children fly, we have three people (backstage) moving them via ropes, and the children are holding hands. That makes coordinating them perfectly rather difficult."
The techniqueof landing someone gently (and magically), is somewhat like "easing off a clutch in a car. Not too much or they'll hit too hard," he says.
Kaiser was most impressed with how casual Foy seemed about the flying effects. "It's all matter-of-fact to them. 'Yeah, we'll do thisand hook that up.' Here at the college, people were worried about the cables holding up. To Foy, it was like: 'We've done this for years;it's nothing to worry about.' "
Still, emphasizes Kauffman, the flying meant the necessity of having tight rules. "Nobody other than the four children being flown are ever in harnesses or leave the ground. Nobody but the five (technicians) assigned to flying ever touch the flying (apparatus). There's no messing around."
Less complicatedwas a second special effect, this one for the ethereal Tinker Bell. The college rented a computer-driven laser from an Oregon company. Itcreates a small, red fairy with wings that flutter as it flies all over the room.
The show seems to be a hit, Kauffman says. The two remaining Sunday performances are sold out, and six additional shows this and next weekend are close to capacity.
That's good for the college, given the cost of the production. And it's good for Kauffman, he says, to watch the gasping faces of children when Pan flies into the room.
"Professionally, when the dance ballet comes along," he says, "I just want to sit back and enjoy it because it's making everyone else happy."