Stage flight at St. Paul's Magic: With the help of cable, ropes, harnesses and strong crew members, five middle school students will take flight in "Peter Pan."

November 21, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Peter Pan would be proud.

As if powered by nothing more than pixie dust and good thoughts, the five students at St. Paul's Schools fly across the stage in a production of "Peter Pan" rich in special effects that opens tonight.

And it looks so easy -- if you ignore the custom-made harnesses, more than 100 feet of steel cable, yards of rope and crew members taking cues through wireless headsets, all of which help get the young actors off the ground.

"These kids are doing phenomenal jobs," said director Paul Tines before dress rehearsal. "I think you are going to see some real magic."

It's little short of that when 13-year-old Brittany List, as the lithe Peter, coaxes actors playing the three Darling children -- Wendy, Michael and John -- to fly as she does.

With nine crew members hauling ropes in the crowded wings, the four are lifted and pulled back and forth along a trolley, as they finally glide through the night toward Never-Never Land.

"It's really neat to be up there and moving around," said Emmy Brooks, an eighth-grader at St. Paul's School for Girls, who plays Wendy.

"Every day the flying gets better and better," added Brittany, as the two were being laced into their swimsuit-like harnesses before rehearsal. The maid, played by eighth-grader Ashleigh Brodsky, also flies in this production.

Although the airborne actors can control some of their movements by the poses they strike and the direction they move their arms and legs, they largely are at the mercy of those who pull the strings.

"I tend to run into things -- dressers, ships. I've done it all," said Brittany, explaining a dimension of stage fright that besets only actors who fly.

Matt Yates, 12, who plays Michael, said the harness tends to spin around. To counteract a spin, Matt said he's learned to move his legs opposite the direction he's spinning. His stage brother, John, is played by eighth-grader Greg Sell.

During the first act of dress rehearsal this week, "Peter Pan" crashed into a bed during a landing. The actress, Brittany, took it in stride.

"Are you all right?" asked crew member, Josh Freemire, once Brittany was back to earth.

"Yeah, the bed didn't hurt," she said breezily as she threaded her way among the backstage ropes.

St. Paul's -- which is co-ed through fourth grade and then all-male -- and the neighboring St. Paul's for Girls share The Ward Center for the Arts and collaborate on theater productions and upper-school theater classes.

With Tines in charge, the schools are used to doing several ambitious productions each year, in a grueling schedule. Already this year, the schools have put on "Our Town," and they plan to produce "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

But the technically sophisticated "Peter Pan" seems to have gone beyond the normal challenge, even for them. The cast is made up of 38 middle-school youngsters, the crew numbers 30 and the $8,000 budget reportedly has been exceeded.

"We wanted to do something a little special. Right now, this feels like we've really pushed the limits," said technical director Ken Hankins, fretting over last-minute details at the dress rehearsal.

In addition to the fly lines, the set includes a 24-foot-long free-standing pirate ship, too heavy to move on and off stage when loaded with pirates and lost boys.

Never-Never Land has moss-laden hillsides suitable for climbing and hiding, and Tinkerbell is played by a yellow-green light that flits about and shimmers -- for a rental fee of $500.

For the flying apparatus, the school hired A. E. Mitchell & Co. Inc., a Lorton, Va., theatrical rigging firm. The company installed three 45-foot steel tracks across the stage and rigged them to take the actors not only up and down, but also from side to side.

The company also fit the flying students for their harnesses and provided an adviser to teach the crew how to operate the rigging.

Because of the way the tracks and trolley are rigged, the crew lifts only half the weight of the person on the other end. Still, crew members at the rehearsal were often crouched low, their gloved hands pulling hard while Peter and Wendy were flying high just a few feet away.

Bill Sauerbrey, the Mitchell & Co. field representative assigned to the play, said this "Peter Pan" is a standout.

"In my experience, this is very ambitious for a middle-school production. This is something I would have expected for high school and college productions," he said.

Tines agrees. "Peter Pan is a huge show," said the director. But he allows no shortcuts. "We're doing 'Peter Pan' the way it should be done."

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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