Taking Flight in 'For Peter Pan'

by FTC Advisory Company Member/For Peter Pan... cast member Susan Sweeney

When rehearsals for For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday were weeks away, I will admit that the thought of flying had me more than a bit rattled. I wouldn’t say that I’m phobic about heights, but I have always felt rather woozy looking down from balconies, mountain precipices, and glass-fronted elevators. In the mid-70s, I went limp and nearly blacked out from fright riding a zip-line—eyes squeezed shut—across a deep canyon landscape. But I needed to figure out how to be Peter Pan, so I simply had to get myself ready to tough it out!

During Peter Pan’s three-week pre-tech rehearsal period, flying was imaginary and aspirational. Flight patterns were walked through on the ground, as we spouted the lines we knew we’d be saying while aloft. Long, earthbound flight rehearsals, during which my mind clattered on and on, “How will this work?” / “Will my back/abs be strong enough?!” / “I have to remember not to look down and scare myself to death!” / “Has anyone ever died while flying as Peter Pan??…”

Flight crew member Doug Dion working the cables in the catwalk

Our first day of flight was Friday, November 1. Jamie, our flying instructor from Vertigo (a name, I will confess, which gave me pause), had rigged all our lines and counterweights, and now was going to teach us exactly what flying was about. Celia and I crawled awkwardly into our harnesses, the straps were tightened down, and Jamie asked who would go first. I was surprised to find myself with my hand in the air, shouting “I do!” Jamie clipped my harness ring into the carabiner at the end of the line going up to the catwalk, and Doug Dion, from his post in the catwalk, lifted me about 2 feet off the ground, where I was happy to hang like a side of beef for a minute or so. The next lift was higher—so far, so good. Then, after Jamie offered tips on landing and shifting the position of the body in the air, she asked if I was ready to go for a real flight, which seemed just dandy to me. So up I went, feeling this time that I was beginning to have an experience of something akin to soaring through the air. The most joyful sensation took hold and a cry came out of me that was so open, so free, so happy, it knocked my socks off!

Every performance of For Peter Pan... was a chance to learn new things about flight: how to keep the back arched, so as not to look like a bag of sand hanging mid-air; how to keep from spinning in circles on the line, in order that my face could be more open to the house; how to breathe deeply while in the air and how to land as softly as possible (due mostly to Doug Dion’s incredible sensitivity, empathy and sense of rhythm); how to have each of the six flights be a specific, different experience—in the shape of the arc traveled, in the eye focus points, in the language being spoken while aloft, in the connection of motion/emotion to language.

I felt mighty sad, coming back to earth after the last flight on November 24. Two weeks out from the closing performance, I long to feel that free again. My dreams are populated every night with flight, sometimes problematic, mostly ecstatic and strong and free. I said several times at the post-show talkbacks that if I were Queen, I would grant every human the chance to experience this. It changes everything.

I can’t thank Jen Gray and Forward Theater enough for this extraordinary opportunity.

Susan Sweeney