Sorry, failure just doesn't fly with Peter Pan's instructor

Theater: A Las Vegas firm leaps into action to ground actors' doubts and get them and their plays off the ground.

July 07, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Julie Herber belts out some famous Peter Pan lyrics: "Look at me, way up high, suddenly, here am I, I'm FLYING!"

But she isn't.

Here is the magical act-one scene when Peter woos theater-goers by floating in midair, when Wendy, Michael and John learn to fly, when children in the audience, for this moment, believe dreams can come true.

And the performers are grounded.

It is just two days before tonight's benefit performance at Theater on the Hill. And the cast at the Westminster playhouse has a problem, with only 48 hours to solve it. They can't get off the ground.

Enter David Hearn.

The actors call him savior. Hearn prefers "flight supervisor."

He works for Flying By Foy Inc., a Las Vegas company that has specialized in creating flying effects on the stage since 1941. Who taught memorable Peter Pans like Jean Arthur, Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan? Foy.

But hiring Foy brings a load of stress. Since the firm's time is precious, it swoops in just days before a play opens. And in the final days of rehearsal, when the cast should simply be tweaking, all progress comes to a halt as Foy shifts attention to a theatrical oddity: Flight training.

"You realize this is madness," says Ray Ficca, director of the four-week Theater on the Hill production, which is performed at Western Maryland College. "If anything else -- a dance, song or scene -- needed to be rehearsed in this fashion, this late in the show, we'd cut it."

The day before the benefit, Herber is rehearsing her grand entrance as Peter Pan: Flying through the nursery window, in search of his shadow and the elusive Tinkerbell.

Herber's landing is treacherous. Her knees plunk hard onto the wooden stage. She motions that she's fine. But frustration is on her face. The flight supervisor has work to do.

It's time to train Wendy, Michael and John, the children of the nursery who accompany Peter to Never-Never Land.

Joshua Michael Welsh, 13, who plays John, has been jogging and doing push-ups for weeks to get in shape. After all, hanging from a wire 10 feet above the stage is harder than it looks. The actor must be strong, just to keep his body from spinning like a phone handset when the cord is untwisting. The great fear, the performers say, is singing as the audience stares at your backside.

Seven-year-old A. J. Dorsey (Michael) is all excitement. Hearn calls him to put on his harness. He pumps his little fist into the air and lets out an "Oh yeah!" The youngster loves to climb rocks and trees. He says this beats it all.

The crew hoists the three performers up, and the wire holding John nearly catches Wendy in the face. Hearn gives instructions to correct the problem. The next run looks much better, and Hearn is satisfied.

"You see," he says to anyone listening. "It's organic."

15 years, two disasters

Hearn, a former theater teacher at Temple University, arrived on Monday in a pickup truck full of equipment. He works about 55 shows per year -- 30 "Peter Pans" and a potpourri of others such as "The Lion King," "Mary Poppins" and "A Christmas Carol." In 15 years, he's had just two disasters, and they were minor.

A 6-year-old playing an angel in "Hansel and Gretel" realized quickly she had acrophobia and dropped out of the play.

"And one Peter Pan had a bad plate of seafood for dinner and lost her cookies halfway through the rehearsal," Hearn says. "But that was the seafood. Not the flying."

Theater on the Hill is under contract not to say how much it paid for Foy's services. On average, Foy charges about $6,500 for training and five-week equipment rental, plus accommodations for the instructor and transportation of the equipment.

The play opens to the public Friday and runs Thursdays through Sundays until Aug. 1. Tonight's performance, the cast's final dress rehearsal, raises money for the Montessori School of Westminster and for Shepherd's Staff, a local outreach center.

When rehearsal began three weeks ago, all the director had was a 10-page manual from Foy, laying out the exact positioning of characters that would make the flying smooth, once it happened. Wisely, Ficca didn't improvise at those spots.

"You're not in control of about 15 minutes of the show," Ficca says. "They are."

But it's worth it.

"What an effect," Ficca says. "The greatest goal of this show is to reach the little kids. The adults will like it. That one little kid who goes `Wow' -- I can't think of anything more important."

Secrets stay that way

Foy is mum on the specifics of how the rigging works. It involves about 45 feet of tracking and pulleys that can't be photographed or described by reporters. Foy prefers that the audience use its imagination.

"People come in saying `I know how they did it,' " Hearn explains. "It's like knowing the magic of a magician."

By lunchtime yesterday, Hearn's magic was coming together.

It has been painful, says Herber, 37, to sing "I'm Flying" hundreds of times over the past three weeks without flying.

"We've been going through the whole process saying, `Oh, then we're gonna fly,' " she says. "There's something missing."

Not anymore.

Herber lifts off. She begins her song and is weaving from one side of the stage to the other, moving her body gracefully like a dancer as she floats.

She lands on the fireplace. Takes off again. Lands on a bed. And up again, singing to Wendy, John, Michael and the audience as she goes.

"Here am I," she screams with emotion. "I'm FLYING!"

And she is.

Pub Date: 7/07/99

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