Learning to fly!

In J M Barrie’s classic tale, it’s the boy who won’t grow up who instructs the Darling children on how to defy gravity and follow him to Neverland.

So it’s something of a delicious twist that this time around it’s a Wendy who has taught Peter Pan how to fly. The Wendy in question is Wendy Hesketh-Ogilvie, artistic director and co-founder of the North West-based, internationally renowned Wired Aerial Theatre which has become part of Storyhouse’s magical production team for Christmas 2019.

“Everyone comments on that,” she laughs. “But it can become confusing in the rehearsal room if someone says ‘Wendy?’ because obviously there’s more than one of us. Which is unusual.”

Wired has previously worked on productions of Peter Pan for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and last year for the Dukes in Lancaster. But on each occasion the company has created bespoke new aerial action which is unique to that venue. Conversations with the creative team behind Storyhouse’s enchanting seasonal show have led to Wired designing more than one way of ‘flying’, depending on which character it is taking to the air.

Wendy and partner Jamie Ogilvie formed Wired Aerial Theatre at the start of the Millennium – the company celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2020 – and in the last two decades they have become the world’s leading exponents of what is called Bungee Assisted Dance. They create major international pieces of work from their base in Liverpool’s docklands, where Peter Pan cast members have spent their autumn learning how to sprinkle their performances with a little aerial fairy dust.

Wendy reveals: “What I constantly say is ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Because the more complex something is, the more you see it set up. And we all know in magic tricks what takes your breath away is when you think – how did you do that? It’s what keeps magicians in jobs. So, we’ve got to keep it simple, and work to all the performers’ fortes.”

So, just what does it take to learn how to fly?

The theory may be simple, but the practice has required plenty of preparation, with Wendy putting the cast through both physical and mental bootcamps alongside the mechanics of teaching them how to make their aerial adventures seem effortless.

“I put them through an aerobic workout, so the blood gets pumping around their body nice and fast,” she explains. “Their brain realises that there’s been a change and it’s in a ready position to do stuff. I make people aware of the physical work that’s going to go on. I bring attention to their abdominals and all different regions through different exercises. And then I encourage them to do those exercises every day, even if I’m not going to see them. Also, if we’re working in counterbalance (where the weight of the person flying in balanced by someone else on the ground), I make sure they make absolutely brilliant friends with the person who’s going to be responsible for taking them up and down!”

Interestingly, it seems flying can also trigger an unexpected side effect.

“I work with a lot with people who want to fly but who haven’t really thought – how might it feel to go up high?” says Wendy. “And when you do take their feet off the ground, there’s quite an emotional response in some people – of either fear or elation. As soon as they come down, some people literally cry. It’s happy tears but they didn’t understand it was going to connect with them in such a way.”

Of course, it’s laughter, not tears, that will fill the air at Storyhouse this Christmas.

After all, as Peter Pan himself explains: “When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke in to a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about – and that was the beginning of fairies.”