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March 15, 2010

 

McGraw students soar on the stage

Production of ‘Peter Pan’ will hoist cast off to Never Never Land

By J.D. THRASHER
Staff Reporter
jthrasher@cortlandstandardnews.net

McGRAW — With eyes looking down at him, David Hearn dished out orders.
“Only let go of hands when you’re on the ground,” said Hearn, looking up at McGraw student actors suspended midair by strings.
It was a safety concern, first and foremost, he said, but he also wanted the actors to make fluid flying movements, not the rigid jerky movements they had just performed.
The actors were rehearsing a scene in “Peter Pan” where the children are learning to fly. The children hold hands as they ascend and descend. If they don’t hold hands, they can lose their balance and knock over props or parts of the set.
Hearn, the managing flying director for Foy Inventerprises Inc., which features Flying by Foy, said with careful planning, accidents are unlikely, but sometimes actors had to be reminded.
McGraw Junior-High School hired the company to supply equipment for the flying scenes.
In the play, Peter Pan tells the children that flying is easy because it is fueled by thinking happy thoughts.
But Michael Brownell, music director at McGraw Junior-Senior High School, knew his cast needed more than happy thoughts to really fly. Brownell will be directing the school’s production of the show next week.
When he decided to produce “Peter Pan,” Brownell contacted Flying by Foy, and Hearn, traveled to the school from a satellite office in Philadelphia, Pa. to work with the student actors Friday to Sunday.
Brownell was impressed with the company’s record, which includes providing stage equipment for high school shows, as well as productions on Broadway.
Brownell wanted to do something different for the school’s 25th annual musical. In the past the school has performed productions such as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Once Upon A Mattress,” and “The Secret Garden.”
The production of “Peter Pan” marks the first time in the school’s history that equipment has been used to hoist actors in the air.
During Saturday’s rehearsal, Hearn began by rehearsing the first scene in the musical that contains flying.
“I tell them to relax,” Hearn said.
The students, who wore harnesses and were connected to ropes and pulleys, had to get over any reservations they held about dangling 6 feet in the air.
The students cannot control their flight path, but they can control their body movement, Hearn said.
It is a skill that takes some actors time to learn.
“I feel comfortable now,” said senior Elizabeth Niver, who plays Peter Pan. Niver worked with Hearn for the first time in a private session on Friday.
She said she was nervous and had pains in her stomach the first time she was hoisted in the air.
The harnesses that the actors wear have straps that cover their chests and legs.
Niver described wearing the harness as being similar to the tightness felt when wearing a rock-climbing harness.
Within one day, she was able to encourage other cast members to feel comfortable in the air, and focus on their individual performance.
“(Hearn) has been very adaptive and has an excellent rapport with the students,” Brownell said.
There are five cast members whose roles require flying.
Hearn said it usually takes actors a few tries in the harness to get comfortable being hoisted in the air. He said Niver and the rest of the McGraw cast who were required to fly were doing fine. He said there were only two shows at other schools that ran into problems because actors had acrophobia, a fear of heights.
“We give illusion of flight,” Hearn said, about the service his company provides.
Flying by Foy was founded in 1950 by Englishman Peter Foy when he was hired to provide the flying effects on Broadway’s production of “Peter Pan.”
Hearn said the only challenges with the McGraw production is the low stage ceiling. To overcome this obstacle, the flight crew, a portion of the stage crew who controls the movements of the cast, have to focus not to raise the actors too high.
The McGraw flight crew was trained by Hearn, but because Hearn was only hired to give consultation and training up until Sunday, the actual movements during the show will depend on the newly assembled flight crew.
“(Hearn’s) a great teacher, and it’s a lot of fun” said James Sanderson, the flight director for the musical.
Sanderson, a technology teacher at McGraw, who also helped design parts of the stage set, will command the flying during the production dates.
He will watch over where the cast should be and monitor his seven-person flight crew, all students. He said that he is prepared for his responsibility because of learning from Hearn’s expertise.
Hearn said that the flight crew must be focused because accidents, such as actors falling or being in the wrong place on stage, can happen, mainly because flying is not something people do in their leisure he said.
“We’re doing something the human body was not designed to do,” said Hearn of the illusion that will be seen during the actual show.
Hearn said that during his 28 years of experience, he does not remember one accident happening, but Flying by Foy is insured in case an accident does occur.
“Musicals are a good section of student talent,” said Brownell, who selected former student and McGraw alumnus, Patrick Leach, to be his co-director.
Brownell said that the musical experience is a highlight of the McGraw community, as current students, alumni and residents come to see the production.
Niver, who will major in psychology at Nazareth College in the fall, said she is enjoying her role in “Peter Pan.”
“It’s the best experience for me,” said Niver, who has performed in eight productions during her time at McGraw.
The price for hiring Flying by Foy varies by need. Flying by Foy will send a representative, like Hearn, to consult the cast, they will also provide the equipment that is used to propel the cast in the air.
On Flying by Foy’s Web site, the company says it charges $2,750 for the first week of equipment for the cast of characters required to fly; and $2,350 the following week. Brownell said that McGraw’s total cost for the services were close to $3,000.
Funding for the flying effects came from corporate sponsors, ticket sales and program ads in the play bill.
“Peter Pan” is scheduled to be performed at the McGraw Junior-Senior High School auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

 

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