No production of a show like “Peter Pan” or “Mary Poppins” would be complete without the actors magically flying through the air.
But the system that makes this possible is anything but magical. You have to do more than “think lovely thoughts” to get off the ground.
There are only a handful of companies in the U.S. that provide theatrical flying effects, and one of them is located in Louisville.
I recently visited ZFX Flying Effects, located in an industrial area just north of Churchill Downs, to learn about what they do and to take a turn in the air myself.
One wall of the massive rehearsal studio is painted bright green (in hopes of attracting Hollywood stunt productions), and there are mats on the floor. Because when you’re hurling people 20 feet in the air, it’s important to have a soft place for them to land.
Using a complex system of pulleys, cables, tracks and harnesses, ZFX can fly scenic pieces, like the chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” that comes crashing down at the end of the first act. Or they can fly people. They can provide performers, usually aerial specialists, or they can teach actors who have never been in the air.
They’re working with Actors Theatre of Louisville on a production for this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, a play that is partially inspired by “Peter Pan.” But most of the company’s work comes from out of town.
“This last year, I went to South Korea, we went to Trinidad last year, we spent two months in China a couple of years ago, all over the place,” said Brian Owens, a flying director and aerial choreographer with ZFX.
For the past two years, he’s traveled to Beirut to produce flying effects for “Arab Idol,” a spinoff of “American Idol.” ZFX has also flown celebrities such as Taylor Swift and 50 Cent, but many of the company’s clients are school and community theaters doing plays like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Mary Poppins.” They also have one very special annual client.
“The biggest show that we do every year is Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas,” said Owens. “It’s a huge megachurch. We fly 30 people in a 90-minute show every year for Christmas.”
So why is this company located in Louisville, which is not exactly a hub of the entertainment industry? Owens said ZFX originated in Las Vegas but was looking for a base closer to the east coast. They initially set up in Louisville as a second facility in addition to their Las Vegas location, but soon found that it was more cost-effective to be in one place.
“Once they moved to Louisville and got this big space and realized that labor was cheaper here and property was cheaper here — man, we’ll just move everything from Vegas,” Owens said.
Whether they’re working on a theater piece, a corporate event or a sporting event, Owens and his colleagues build and install the special equipment that’s needed. In addition to the huge rehearsal space, ZFX has a production facility with welders and fabricators who make everything, because the equipment that ZFX uses is not the kind of stuff you can buy off the rack. They’ve even developed a special process to turn stainless steel aircraft cable black so it disappears onstage, and they sell a lot of it to Cirque de Soleil.
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The technology is cool, but the real reason I’m here is to fly.
The first step is getting fitted with a harness, which looks like a tangle of seatbelts when Owens initially holds it up. He says this harness is one of the keys to the company’s success, because it’s comfortable, easily adjustable to fit a wide range of sizes, and it can be worn underneath a costume.
He helps me step into it, like a pair of pants, and the straps go around the upper parts of my legs. The two cables that will lift me into the air clip to the harness at the hips, with a small connector that clicks reassuringly into place.
The cables are connected to a small motorized unit that runs along a track installed near the ceiling.
Owens goes to the control board, presses a few buttons.
My feet are off the ground.
It’s a weird feeling, because the harness concentrates all the body weight in the pelvis. But this type of harness is also easy for non-acrobats (like me) to use, because you don’t really have to balance — you just have to sit in it.
Owens first lifts me a foot or so off the ground, then about five feet into the air. It feels much higher than that, but I trust that he can eyeball a distance. The motor of the equipment is very quiet, all the better to create the illusion of magic.
He moves me back and forth along the track, swooping me up and down as I go. He’s taking it easy on me, but there are a couple big drops. It’s almost like being on my own personal roller coaster. I can’t stop laughing.
After a few minutes, it’s time to come in for a soft landing. It’s nice to feel my feet on the ground again, but I’ll think differently about flying the next time I go see a production of “Peter Pan.”