Theater & Arts

Flying to Neverland missed by just inches

I'm too fat to fly.

It's Tuesday morning, and I'm standing in a cold, shadowy Memorial Auditorium theater. A problem with a circuit breaker has plunged the front part of the house into darkness. On stage, half of Captain Hook's pirate ship, one of the major sets for the Musical Theaterworks Fresno production of "Peter Pan," is bathed in a dim bank of lights fortunately still working.

I'm here to get strapped into one of the trademark harnesses provided by Flying by Foy, the nation's pre-eminent theatrical flying consultant firm, and experience what it's like to soar above stage. Just like Peter and friends. The nifty plan was cooked up by the theater company.

I drape my coat on a set piece, remove my belt and contents of my pockets -- did Wendy Darling carry a cell phone? -- and prepare for takeoff.

The problem: My waist is, um, about five inches too big.

"Nope. Isn't going to make it," says Johnny Pickett, the Foy company on-site rep, as he tries to loop the harness around my front section. He's been in town for a couple of days teaching actors and their handlers the fundamentals of flying. "Not even close."

Before you start to razz me about my admittedly less-than-tight-bicycle-shorts-worthy waistline, please realize that Pickett is trying to fit me into the harness that Peter Pan (alternately played by Tony Thammavongsa and Sonya Venugopal) is slated to wear for this community-theater show. We're talking about a contraption designed for a young, petite performer with a 28-inch waist. Sorry, but no way.

And here I've been thinking only lovely thoughts ever since I entered the theater.

The complication: These harnesses have to be ordered in advance, and no one told Pickett that he was being asked not only to make Peter and gang fly but a newspaper reporter, too.

Still, it means I get a chance to chat with Pickett, who travels the country for the Foy company. In 10 years as a flying director, this will be his 67th production of "Peter Pan." Though his company designs flying routines for lots of different shows (including the new "Billy Elliot" on Broadway), the musical adaptation of the J.M. Barrie story about the boy who refuses to grow up is the classic of the flying canon.

The Foy company made Mary Martin fly on Broadway in 1954 when she starred in "Peter Pan." There's something about the show that affects both children and adults, Pickett says. We identify with the longing for a childhood that lasts forever -- but realize that growing up has its advantages, too.

"We feel that emotional tug between the two worlds," Pickett says.

Even with all the other flying shows that have come along in the 50-plus years since "Peter Pan" the musical opened, it's still considered one of the more complicated shows to coordinate in terms of moving performers above stage.

In many shows, such as "The Wizard of Oz," the flying is mostly confined to characters making entrances and exits. But in "Peter Pan," flying is tied intricately to the action, music and story. All those movements have to be choreographed. Needless to say, the handlers backstage pulling on the cords have to know how to work together.

Five cast members in total fly in "Peter Pan": the title character and the three Darling children, and then a grown-up version of Jane in the last scene.

Peter gets to do the most elaborate flying, requiring two handlers. One works a rope that makes the character lift up and down. The other works the rope that makes him travel from one side of the stage to the other.

Because of the geometry involved, the handlers wind up hoisting about two-thirds of the performers' weight, so depending on the size of the actor, you can get a real workout.

Though my own flying experiment belongs in the Wrong Brothers category, the theater company is determined I see someone fly this morning. Director Jeff White volunteers. Pickett is almost as skeptical of him fitting into the contraption as he was of me. But White is a few inches more slender than I, and as he sucks in his breath, I can't help but wince as the harness clicks shut.

"Oh, that's going to be snug," one of the stagehands says.

What a trooper, though. Pickett hoists White up, and even though there are, well, certain impacted body parts of the director that look as if they wish they could be somewhere else at the moment, he swings above the stage with aplomb.

He's flying!

As for me, I can't help but feel a twinge of jealousy. I'm grounded because of mechanical difficulties. And I don't even get a voucher or hotel room.

Guess I'll have to drive to Neverland like everyone else.