In the famous song from the classic children’s musical “Peter Pan,” Peter and the Darling children describe the exhilarating instant their feet leave the ground:
“I’m flying / I can soar / I can weave and what’s more / I’m not even trying.”
Well, I can report firsthand that Peter, Wendy, John and Michael are a bunch of dirty liars. Flying requires trying. A LOT of it. Especially if you don’t want to look like you’re just helplessly dangling like a piñata — as I did, when given the chance to fly with the cast of “Peter Pan,” an in-the-round production with original songs making its local debut Wednesday in Tysons Corner.
I’d long wondered what it was like for the performers in such productions to be up there — especially their first time on the wires. Was it frightening? Painful? Thrilling? Turns out, it’s a combination of all three. My stage-flight sherpa for the day was Lee Stephenson of Freedom Flying, a British company that facilitates onstage aerial effects. His job isn’t just to manage the safe construction and use of the equipment — his is a directorial role, helping performers understand how to use their bodies once they lift off.
“Fifty percent of it is the technology, but ultimately if the people in the air look like they’re just swinging around, it’s a lost cause,” Stephenson said just minutes before witnessing me enact precisely that scenario.
Technology wise, this production of “Peter Pan” is a special challenge. Performed under a circus-style 100-foot-tall big top called the Threesixty Theatre, the show maximizes the most magical part of the story with a Cirque du Soleil-esque mastery of aerial effects and mid-air acrobatics, with performers twirling on strips of dangling silk. The air-conditioned tent, which seats 1,500, places all structural support on the exterior; there are no poles or scaffolding obstructing the wires or the audience’s sightlines. And the flying is enhanced by computer- generated imagery that forms the backdrop, whether it’s a London nursery or Neverland. It’s probably safe to say that author J.M. Barrie never envisioned his story like this.
Likewise, it takes more than a little sprinkling of pixie dust to get performers into the air. New cast members Dan Rosales and Sarah Charles, who play Peter Pan and Wendy, first trained at New York’s Circus Warehouse, where they acclimated to the sensation of flight.
“Your brain thinks your feet should be on the ground, so it’s a lot of just getting used to what that feels like,” Charles said.
Rosales added: “The first time we got into the harness, it was like a baby trying to walk for the first time.”
But those harnesses are reassuringly tight.
“There’s going to be a little bit of pulling around,” Stephenson said as he buckled me into mine, which fit snugly around the hips — so snugly in fact that, hours later, I felt the beginnings of bruises on my hip bones. (Rosales and Charles wear padded neoprene shorts.) “For the ladies, it’s a little hard,” Charles said. “You get used to it; you suffer for the art.” The two straps that circle under and around your legs bear most of your body weight when you’re upright in the air. For the performers, all of the apparatus is hidden under their costumes, with easy access so the wires can be clipped on and off throughout the show.
The wires are attached to a coat-hanger-shaped frame, which can hold up to 250 pounds. The frames are suspended from four tracks and two fixed points above so the performers can fly in straight lines up and downstage, but not from side to side. If they want to face each other, they have to use their body momentum and a few kicking motions to spin around. And, of course, with a wire on either side, they can do forward and backward flips. (But don’t make the mistake, as I did, of calling these feats “tricks.” “Flight effects,” Stephenson said, correcting me.)
Safety, of course, is the show’s first priority in creating those flight effects.
“Going up here for the first time, you look around like, ‘I’m pretty high up here!’ ” Rosales said. “But you feel so safe, so secure. You’re in good hands.”
Although the flying apparatus is mostly automated, one technician is assigned to every performer and makes adjustments throughout the show. And the performers can come down any time they like, if something doesn’t feel right — a look or a secret signal to their operator is all that it takes to bring an actor back to terra firma. There’s no offstage in a 360-degree theater, so between scenes, the performers go beneath the stage floor or to a platform at the very top of the tent — the maximum flight height of about 40 feet.
In “Peter Pan,” the Darling children think of lovely thoughts to get off the ground: Christmas presents, candy, picnics and the like. I was unable to conjure such pleasantries. Safety reassurances aside, in my last few moments on the ground, my mind wandered to the details of my employer’s workers’ compensation plan. Stephenson gave the crew a signal, and I felt the wires go taut. Before I had time for second-guessing, I was in the air — just a few feet at first, to get used to the feeling. It became immediately clear that I had no idea how my body worked when it wasn’t touching the ground.
“Imagine yourself treading water,” Stephenson said, coaching me as I flailed my limbs in what may have been the world’s first aerial performance of the Elaine dance from “Seinfeld.” “We’re going to cycle the legs gently without locking the knees.”
The best way to look graceful in the air is to move slowly.
“Perhaps if you were in the air, you would move at the speed you normally would, but as an audience member looking at that, it looks too frantic,” Stephenson added. “So the idea is to slow it all down and make it look airy.”
Once you’ve got that down, Rosales said, you must try to forget about the harness and wires. When he and Charles joined me in the air, I felt like I was doing the doggie paddle next to Michael Phelps doing the butterfly.
“That’s the difficult part, but also the amazing part, is bringing the character to the flight,” Rosales said, back-flipping and front-flipping with ease. “It’s about finding out what Peter would actually do in the air, as opposed to what Dan would do suspended in the air.”
A bit of imagination is the final factor in successful flight.
“Your head has to take over, and you imagine that you’re flying,” Stephenson told me. “As soon as you do that and accept it, everything becomes prettier.”
I was never able to make it look pretty during my several short flights, but it was fun — especially when the trio encouraged me to try a flip. Stephenson coached me to raise my arms above my head, bring my heels up behind me to the ceiling and — this is key — straighten my legs to complete the rotation. Instead, on my first try I did a swan dive toward the floor and got stuck halfway around. The third time was the charm.
Finally, Rosales, Charles and I joined hands to assume a soaring position — requiring a seriously toned core — which they do when flying over London from the nursery to Neverland. In the show, it’s the longest CGI sequence, which required rendering 400 miles of Edwardian London rooftops.
“When there’s a lot of action from the projection, we soften the flying,” Stephenson said, “because otherwise the two are in competition with each other.”
Back on the ground, I asked Stephenson whether he was worried that revealing the flying secrets would ruin the magic for audiences. Ditto for the visible frames and wires.
“If you make what’s suspended from those wires interesting enough, people soon forget about what’s above them,” he said.
And so do the performers, Rosales said.
“It’s the most magical thing, to be able to experience it,” he said. “In terms of the height, you just kind of forget about it, because it’s just such sheer excitement. You’re like, ‘Wow, I’m actually flying.’ ”