Flight School: Ursula Aloft
As some of you may know already, I’m reprising one of my favorite roles this summer: that of Ursula the Sea Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This time it’s for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL. It’s always fun to revisit a role, and here’s the really fun part this time around: Ursula gets to FLY.
(Bear in mind that since Ursula is an octopus – sort of – that her scenes are water scenes. This means that her flying is actually more of a grandiose floating, a wafting, a gentle settling on the ocean floor. At least that’s the goal.)
I’ve always wanted to learn the art of stage flight, but I’ve never been cast in a role that called for that special skill. Fortunately, the director for this production of Mermaid, Geoffrey Sherman, is a man of singular vision and exquisite taste – meaning he agreed with me when I said I thought Ursula’s first appearance should be aloft.
Five of us will be flying in the ASF production of Mermaid: me, Michelle Pruiett as Ariel, Billy Sharpe as Scuttle the Seagull, and ensemble members Danielle Marie Gregoire and Andrew Eckhert, who are the stunt doubles for Ariel and Prince Eric and will also be performing some aerial gymnastics in “Under the Sea.” Michelle has flown before, but the rest of us had not, so there were varying degrees of nervousness involved as we all gathered early one Tuesday morning for “Flight School.”
Our flying director was Daniel Kondos of ZFX Flying Effects, who spends some 300 out of 365 days of the year traveling from venue to venue to instruct actors and crews in the fine art of stage flight. First we were all fitted for harnesses: Michelle, Andrew and Gabrielle were put into somersault harnesses, which gives them the freedom of movement they need for their swimming sequences (as well as allow them to rotate 360 degrees!). Billy and I were fitted for simple seat harnesses, which will basically allow us to be raised and lowered.
The harnesses had to fit good and tight. Once we thought we were well and truly buckled in, we were required to squat and the straps were tightened even more. There was a certain amount of wincing and groaning as we all got used to binding in unusual places. One’s flabby bits tend to get shoved up around one’s ribcage or down by one’s thighs. The somersault harnesses were trickier to fit, as the center of balance has to be just so.
Billy was first in the air: with Dan’s instruction and the assistance of fly crew, he performed some basic up-and-down, back-and-forth action and then hurried off to dance rehearsal (Scuttle not only flies, he tap dances!).
Next up was Michelle, who was very relaxed and graceful in her rig (she’s played Ariel before, as well as Peter Pan). She took a few practice twirls and somersaults before determining that the swivels weren’t in quite the right position, so while her harness was being adjusted, I got ready to become airborne. It would be fun to say I was nervous and jittery, but to be honest, I felt like a little kid at Christmas – I was so thrilled I couldn’t stop grinning. Here’s my first flight, with Dan directing:
The original idea for Ursula’s entrance was that I would get rigged up off stage left and be lifted above the proscenium level. Then I’d be flown into position above the set (out of the audience’s line of sight) and be lowered in for my Big Entrance. Unfortunately, with all the lights in the way, I couldn’t be lifted high enough to be hidden. A rethink was in order, and while that was going on, Danielle and Andrew took their first spins in the harness (literally: Dan had them do a couple of somersaults to see how their rigging fit). Here’s a look at their maiden voyages:
It was great fun watching everyone dipping and swirling around the stage, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the air again. Finally the big set piece representing Ursula’s Lair was brought into position and after a brief confab with Geoffrey, Dan and the flight crew, I was lifted into the rafters off stage left (about 30 feet up). With a slight up-and-down motion reminiscent of an octopus bobbing through the briny, I was lowered to the stage area just to the left of the Lair.
It was good, but not quite good enough. After another confab, we repeated the journey, only this time I alighted briefly on top of the Lair before being lowered to my landing spot on deck. Much more effective! When we added the entrance lines and music, plus my rehearsal skirt just to get a sense of how it would all look, I think everyone was happy:
So this old dog learned another new trick and is feeling pretty happy about it. I can’t wait until we get into tech, so I can get back in the air again. I’m eager to experience what happens when I’m completely tricked out in Full Ursula, tentacles and all. Meanwhile, my dreams are all full of flying!
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