In the stage play of Peter Pan, Peter makes a dramatic entrance by flying through an open window into the Darling children’s bedroom. Flying, of course, requires some elaborate rigging involving pulleys, wires, ropes, harnesses, and someone to pull the rope to create the action. Lots of rehearsal makes the action appear as effortless as, well, flying.
Many years ago I was cast as one of the pirates in a community theater production of Peter Pan. The young woman selected to play Peter (I’ll call her “Agnes”) had a wonderful singing voice and impressive acting experience. While you might expect the actor playing a prepubescent boy to have a slight build, our leading “boy” was more rounded, though not quite Rubenesque.
Since on-stage flying can be a somewhat risky business, the director was careful to maintain the highest safety standards. He secured the rigging services of the same firm that had flown the Broadway performances. Then, to be certain that Agnes had full trust and confidence in her flyer, the director convinced her somewhat reclusive fiancé (I’ll call him “Fred”) to pull the ropes.
To create the illusion of flying, the actor stands upstage, outside the window and a wire leads from the actor’s harness through the window, then through a pulley located high above mid-stage, then is attached to a rope that is held by the flyer, who stands offstage. When the flyer pulls on the rope, the actor is lifted through the window. As the flyer gradually relaxes the force, the actor gently lands in center stage.
The physics involved in getting an actor in the air is fairly simple: To lift a pound, the rope puller must exert a pound of force. Unfortunately, Agnes outweighed Fred by a fair margin. On Fred’s first attempt to get Agnes into the air, he firmly gripped the rope as high as he could reach and dropped to the ground. The net effect of this effort was to lift Agnes about two inches off the ground, just enough to send her crashing into the back side of the window set. A few more tries, equally unsuccessful, clearly indicated that the flying protocols required some rethinking.
After consulting with the rigging crew, the director brought in a step ladder. With Fred four steps up the ladder, he was able to grab the rope much higher off the ground. The theory was that, by jumping off the ladder while holding the rope, he would be able to lift Agnes the required height to clear the window sill and land in the bedroom.
Fred climbed the ladder and grabbed the rope, ready to jump. Agnes took her place behind the window, ready to fly. The cast held their collective breaths, ready to witness theater magic. The director gave the cue, Fred jumped, Agnes flew, the cast exhaled. As Fred smoothly dropped to the floor, Agnes smoothly flew through the window. As Agnes smoothly landed on the stage, Fred smoothly sailed four feet up into the air, still holding tightly onto the rope. He dangled there for just a few seconds, but it seemed much longer to those of us watching in the wings, trying not to laugh.
After a few more jumps, Fred and Agnes had the timing down perfectly, and the performances went off without any problems. But, to this day, I still wonder why the director didn’t choose a rope puller with a little more heft. Perhaps Agnes had pulled a few strings to get Fred into the play.