Rigging flying stunts for theatrical productions is a job, and this guy does it.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Even though we’ve gotten used to gee-whiz stunt effects in movies and on television, when we see someone take to the skies on stage it can still take our breath away. Stu Cox is the flying director for Soulpepper’s production of Angels in America (which plays through September), and he’s the man responsible for getting those titular angels off the ground.
Cox is a dreadlocked, kilt-wearing Louisville, Kentucky native with a BFA in theatre design and production. He has worked with ZFX Flying Effects for the past eight years, and has lived in Toronto for just over a year. His previous credits include the Stratford Festival’s staging of Tommy, an opening ceremony for the International Children’s Games, the Green Day-penned American Idiot musical, and several productions of Peter Pan.
He spoke with us about frightened actors, invisible wires, and the perks of being able to bestow the power of flight.
Torontoist: In theatre, a director handles the actors, the action, the staging, and the mood. How do flying directors take those concepts into consideration when creating a flight effect?
Stu Cox: Very much in the same way. I’m just using a flying effect to help tell a story. If you think of it as a different type of medium or tool, it’s very much the same thing. What is the desired reaction from the audience? What are we trying to say? A good flying effect helps to answer these questions.
Walk me through some of the technical work that you do when you’re creating an actor’s flight plan: initial consultations, rigging harnesses, and all the behind-(or, in this case, above)-the-scenes work that needs to come together to create a seamless effect.
First of all, I start with what the director wants to “see” on stage. Then we discuss the actor’s and operating crew’s abilities and experience. Once I have that information, I get the physical dimensions and description of the venue from their production department and the actor’s measurements from the costume department. Looking at all this, I decide on the best type of flying equipment and harnesses to get that effect, and order up appropriate parts, lengths, and amounts to be shipped to the theatre. When I arrive on location with the gear, I work with the venue’s production staff to get it rigged and installed in the air. After we are fully safety checked, I begin to train the actor on how to “fly,” and the crew how to operate the flying system. This can be a fairly physically and mentally demanding job on both the crew and the actors—it’s like learning a new sport or style of dance—but after they have the basics, we can begin to choreograph the actual effect. It’s a lot of repetition, some tweaking, and more repetition to get a flying effect ready. When the effect is ready, we integrate it into the show, coordinating it with all other aspects: actors, lighting, scenery, music, and so on. Then we make adjustments as needed to get an effect that is safe, fulfills the director’s vision, and adds to, not detracts from, the show.
What happens when an actor is hesitant to get into a harness? What kind of techniques do you use to coax someone up there?
It depends on what the issue is. Is he really scared of heights, like a phobia? Is she nervous because she has never done it before? Maybe nervous because there was a past bad experience? Regardless, I start by getting them to talk, and to keep talking. This gives them something to do, and a way to work off some of the anxiety. It also gives me a chance to get to know them better, discover their problem, and work out a solution. These solutions can range from baby steps, such as starting out low and slow, then gradually building to the full effect, to being a coach and helping an actor or operator drill on a particular move until they execute it confidently and consistently.
Tony Kushner has said that Angels in America should be staged with a deliberate lack of theatricality—no blackouts, for instance, and that visible wires aren’t a problem. How do you reconcile this ethos with your usual work, which is often designed to be as invisible as possible?
Various styles of theatre and other performance follow the same or similar choices. To me it’s about making a design decision that works with the overall show. Invisible lines are definitely “magical,” but they are only one way to make a good flying effect impressive.
What’s the best part of your job?
Being the guy that can make people fly, duh! That leads to climbing around in venues, meeting other professionals, and eating some very interesting foods. I’ve been working backstage for over twenty years now, and being a flying director has allowed to work on shows all over the world, where I’ve gotten to meet some of the coolest people out there.
Because of an editing error, this post originally said that Soulpepper’s Angels in America will run through October. In fact, the show closes in September.