Making OWEN MEANY Soar

June 15, 2017
Natalie Hulla
For the first time since the 2007 production of Dracula, the Playhouse is exploring new theatrical heights. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the show’s title character literally soars above the Marx Theatre stage. The Playhouse has hired ZFX Inc. — the largest flying effects company in the world — to provide expert production advice, custom equipment, skilled and safe installation and effective flight choreography for the production.

Throughout A Prayer for Owen Meany, audience members bear witness to visions Owen receives about his future. “Sometimes he sees himself flying through the air or he foresees events that might happen to him,” Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison explains. “There is a supernatural element to the storytelling, moments of fantasia or theatricality that represent Owen’s visions. They are a manifestation of his divinity, and they are made possible using the ZFX stage technology. The stage machinery, the flying rig and all of the special effects are meant to let us see the world through Owen’s eyes.”

While the Playhouse has had performers fly before, the effects from ZFX are new to Playhouse stages. “This is a little bit different,” Robison says. “Past productions, such as Dracula and Peter Pan, have only sent actors back and forth across the stage. We have a lot more control over the flying effects this time because of the modernization of stage technology. It’s not simply back and forth, up and down; Owen will be able to twist and turn and to go at different paces. Everything is controlled by computers now, as opposed to when stage flight first originated with people holding ropes from the wings.”

Although they won’t be holding ropes offstage, extra crew members are required to operate the flying equipment. “ZFX will have one of its flying directors on site for a week prior to the start of tech rehearsals to oversee the installation of the rig and to train our crew in the specifics of its operation,” Playhouse Production Manager Phil Rundle explains. Several Playhouse crew members already have experience with flying effects, but each rig is different, so the ZFX flying director will make sure that the Playhouse team knows this one inside and out.

Because flying is integral to the show, the entire design process factored in implications of the equipment. “The set design has to incorporate the overhead flying track, and its location dictates where several critical scenes have to be staged,” Rundle says. “That staging defines where the props for that scene have to be used. Since many of the props will be moved by a lift, each of their locations dictated where the lift has to be set up. Finally, the set design also has to allow a clear travel path for the flying cables and a location for the flying system operators. It’s all intricately intertwined.”

In addition to regular tech rehearsals, A Prayer for Owen Meany’s rehearsal schedule includes several “flying rehearsals” during which the flying director will train each cast member who uses the equipment and coordinate the flight choreography with the director, cast and crew.

“Successful flying effects always require close coordination between the crew and the cast,” Rundle says. “It takes a lot of practice to make it look smooth and natural.”

To learn more about the Playhouse production of A Prayer for Owen Meany, visit the production detail page.
Image from Blake Robison’s Round House Theatre production of A Prayer for Owen Meany.