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Northeast Middle School students rehearsed a flying scene for their upcoming show “Peter Pan” at the Minneapolis school last week. The flying equipment cost several thousand dollars.

Nicola Losik , Star Tribune

Northeast Middle School's theater program takes flight

  • Article by: Anna Pratt
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • April 16, 2013 - 10:51 PM

During a rehearsal last week for the musical “Peter Pan” at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis, eighth-grader Nadija Hunt tried to channel the natural flying style of the title character.

It was an adjustment, singing and moving with the music, all while suspended in midair from a thick black wire and a harness. But it wasn’t long before Hunt seemed to enjoy the ride, announcing from the stage: “I like to go fast.”

In the school’s production, which runs this Thursday through Saturday, a handful of characters will appear to fly, an illusion the crew is creating with the help of the Las Vegas-headquartered Flying by Foy.

The company, which specializes in staging flying effects for productions big and small, got its start when its founder, Peter Foy, engineered Mary Martin’s memorable flight in the 1954 Broadway production of “Peter Pan,” according to its website.

Bringing in the company to rig the flying is just one way that the six-year-old theater program is upping the ante this year. The production also will feature a live orchestra made up of members of the Northeast Community Band.

These developments came about as a result of the community pulling together, said director Dudley Voigt.

“Every year the program reaches farther and invests in resources. It’s been building to this point,” she said — and many students have grown with the program.

Voigt had been trying to get the rights to “Peter Pan” for several years.

She was inspired to stage the popular musical after a production she saw some time ago moved her tears.

“It’s not just about the idea that Peter won’t grow up. There is this bittersweet choice Peter and Wendy make about not living in each other’s world,” she said.

Similarly, adolescents are at an age where they’re torn between being a child and a grown-up, she said.

It’s a feeling that might hit home for some eighth-grade students, especially as they get ready to move on to high school, she said.

Gearing up for Peter Pan

The 50-student cast and crew began rehearsals after school in January.

Chris Pratt, a theater volunteer whose son Charlie plays the part of John Darling in the show, said that early in the planning process he and other parents and the director began to dream.

“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get the main characters to fly,’ since it is just an integral part of the show.”

A big question was whether “it was even the right thing to do for a middle-school performance,” he said.

After considering the high level of participation in the theater, the group decided it was worth the investment.

Almost one-fifth of the student body participates in the theater, surpassing sports. “There are a number of kids who really get turned on to the theatrical experience, and I think it helps keep many of the kids motivated to go to school,” Pratt said.

To stage the flying, the group had to raise nearly $6,000. It was a major coordination effort to get school and district permission for the flying, line up Foy and collect donations. But word seemed to spread fast.

Pratt hopes that ultimately the effort helps to “generate community spirit and buzz about the school,” he said.

Creating the illusion of flight

To create the flight illusion, a system of pulleys, cables and ropes is mounted on custom tracks along the school’s 1950s-era trusses, Pratt said. Foy shipped 959 pounds of gear to the school to set it up.

The “fliers” wear harnesses that hook onto wires that dangle over the stage.

Johnny Pickett, a flying director with Foy, trained the group on the equipment.

A group of five “flying operators” pull on ropes to send the “fliers” into the air. To get the right amount of force, “They have to be really focused and in tune to the moment,” Pickett said. “How you pull on the rope affects how it looks onstage. It’s a partnered dance between them and the performer to make it all work.”

Each character has a different demeanor while flying. To help the players get a feel for the task at hand, Pickett told the group about how flying is a storytelling tool.

In the book, children are said to begin life as birds. They fly to their parents as babies, he said. When Peter Pan begins to transform from a bird into a boy, he learns of adulthood, something he’d rather skip.

That’s where Neverland comes in. Like Peter Pan, “Most kids want to play and have fun,” he said. Even as adults, “We’d love to give up responsibility and play, but we know that can’t happen.”

‘Every kid’s childhood dream’

Ahlam Mussa, a seventh-grader, who plays Jane, described the flying as “a little uncomfortable at first, but once you’re up there it’s fun. It feels like you’re actually flying,” adding, “It’s every kid’s childhood dream.”

Mike McQuiston, whose son Conor plays Captain Hook, is the technical director at the Minnesota Opera, where he’s also turned to Foy for flying effects.

The flying adds an element of excitement to any show. In this case, it’s fun to see how “the kids have fun, and there are lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ when people lift off the floor,” he said.

It’s also symbolic for “advancing the theater program, letting people know it’s about more than putting on a skit,” he said.

He hopes the theater program will “continue to grow and push boundaries and reach for bigger and better things,” he said.

 

Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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