Matt DeCaro, a junior at Wilde Lake High School, had been rehearsing the same line for weeks: "Second to the right, and straight on to morning," he said. But this time, when he pointed to the sky, his body slowly lifted off the floor. He was flying back and forth across the stage, and so were the actors playing the three Darling children, Wendy, John and Michael.
Wilde Lake, home to the 750-seat Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts, has long been known for the high quality of its student productions. But Peter Pan is sure to be the most uplifting to date.
Tracy Adler, who has been directing student plays at Wilde Lake since 1990, does not believe in doing things halfway. When she decided to stage Peter Pan, she knew she would figure out a way to get the students to fly.
"I was not interested in doing Peter Pan unless, here at Wilde Lake, we could make them fly," said Adler, taking a break from an 11-hour dress and technical rehearsal just days before the premiere.
Getting the main characters off the ground was not as easy as wishing on a star. It required technical help from ZFX Flying Effects, a company based in Louisville, Ky., that has provided harnesses, pulleys and technical expertise for productions ranging from the traveling tour of Wicked to high school and regional theater productions around the country.
Sandy Harned, a ZFX representative who arrived in Howard County on Friday to orchestrate the effect, said Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz are the shows that ZFX works with most often. Nearly any auditorium will do, she said, though she reserves the right to inspect the property to make sure it is safe.
To create the illusion of flight, the students are outfitted with elaborate harnesses that go around their torsos and between their legs. Hooks on the backs of the harnesses connect to backstage pulley systems that are controlled by parent volunteers in the wings.
The work is physically demanding, both for the students who must give the impression of effortless flight, and for the parents, who wear leather gloves to keep their hands from blistering and huff and puff as they pull the ropes.
"If you watch our group here, you'll see we're struggling," said Ric Boule, one of the pulley-pulling parents. "This is really hard, physical work."
Boule, a leader of the booster club and parent of 15-year-old Jenna, who is a pirate and a mermaid in the show, said working the pulleys is a "huge time commitment," but "everybody pitches in to give the kids these experiences that they'll always remember."
Some of the parent volunteers do not have children in the show, he said. Also pitching in with the rope system are Art and Rain Hall, parents of the theater's technical director, Kerry Brandon; and Dan Nathaniel, a 2006 Wilde Lake graduate.
According to Harned, the pulley system provides only a small mechanical advantage in helping to lift the five actors who fly during the production. And parents holding the ropes know that if they let go, the actors will fall.
DeCaro, 15, the Wilde Lake junior who is playing Peter Pan, said the harness causes some physical soreness, but the sensation of flying is worth the pain. "It's an experience," he said.
When he tried out for the play, he said, "I thought I'd be flying if I was Peter Pan, but I didn't think I'd be Peter Pan."
Usually, the part has been played by a woman, mainly because a smaller body is easier to hoist into the air.
Throughout weeks of rehearsal, the actors and stage technicians had to imagine the flying scenes. Flight was added in the final days, which meant tweaking the scenes to account for time spent getting airborne and then floating to earth, as well as figuring out how to quickly hook and unhook the harnesses, noted Adler.
The drama department spent "in the high four figures" for ZFX's services, said Adler.
There was no consideration of creating the effect in-house, she said, and no discussion of reducing the cost by having Harned leave after she put the system in place. Safety considerations were all-important, noted Adler.
Tressa Allred, 17, a senior who plays the part of Wendy, said flying is more difficult than it looks. "When they pick you up, it puts that strain on you," she said.
But the experience is worth the discomfort. "It's really cool. I love it," she said. "I kind of wish I got to fly even more."
"Peter Pan" will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Tickets are $10 at the school or $12 at the door.