Ben Hewis: Learning to fly with the RSC
Our deputy editor ticks an item off his bucket list that he didn't even know was on it
Interviewing Lin Manuel Miranda; being taught a dance by Drew McOnie; reciting the Queen Mab speech on the Globe stage directed by Jamie Lloyd – three things on my theatrical bucket list. Something I've never harbored a deep desire to do was learn to fly (I'm afraid of heights and couldn't open my eyes at the top of the Eiffel Tower). But when you get offered the chance by the Royal Shakespeare Company you can't really say no.
A few weeks ago I got an email with the subject 'Wendy and Peter Pan: Video opportunity.' Great, I thought, Christmas is coming up, this will fit nicely into our content schedule. But then I opened the email. ‘How do you feel about learning to fly?' the lovely Amy Belson, PR for the RSC, asked. Needless to say, my editor was more excited at the prospect than I: if my feet aren't touching the floor then you can forget it. But I relented and booked in a date for a trip up to Stratford-upon-Avon.
A week later I received another email from Amy asking me a few questions for ‘health and safety' measures including my height and weight. I'm a big lad, free wine and nibbles at press nights doesn't help that, but I haven't told anyone my weight for at least two years. Do I tell the truth and embarrass myself or lie and risk falling to my death? I tell the truth and immediately sign up to Weight Watchers online. Amy also advises that I prepare by doing some ‘core exercises', so I eat an apple.
When we arrive in Stratford we meet Mariah Gale (Wendy) and Rhys Rusbatch (Peter Pan) for a chat about the show. Rhys tells me about the months of training he went through to be able to fly as much as he does in the play, I start to worry that I'm going to look ridiculous. My nerves at this point are so bad I struggle to put together a string of words that remotely resemble questions, but these guys are pros and lovely to boot, you can see our video interview here.
Later we had lunch in the fab rooftop restaurant. Forgetting about Weight Watchers points I opted for the rooftop cheeseburger followed by the chocolate orange baked alaska. Only after licking the bowl clean did the regret hit me like a wrecking ball, I've got to learn to fly now, with a belly full of food. How could I make such a schoolboy error?
Once I arrived in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Senior Automation Technician Daniel McDonald, provided me with my harness and told me it would be easier to use than the ones they actually use in the show. Production manager Pete Griffin swore there was no way I was the weight I'd provided, I took that as a compliment and suddenly I was full of confidence. "You have to think a happy thought until it fills your whole head," Mariah (Minnie to her friends) tells me, "and just remember to breathe" Rhys adds.
The following few minutes are hazy, mainly because I forgot to breathe and so my vision was actually blurred, but it offered a good insight into the strength the actors need, just keeping myself upright for a few minutes felt like doing 100 sit-ups. The view from the top was dizzying, it would be even more so for Minnie and Rhys as they are suspended like toys around the outside of the mobile and spun around.
Watching the video back it's apparent that what I accomplished looked less like flying and more like a stricken fisherman being hoisted into a Sea King helicopter. My visions of flying around the RST like Robin Williams in Hook were way off, but what I did get was a newfound respect for the actors that have to do this for real, nine times a week. They go through months of strength training to get to peak fitness, I can't imagine how knackered they must get, not to mention remembering lines, cues and direction. So bravo to them, and of course to the team backstage that keep them - and for a short while me - safe throughout the run.
Wendy & Peter Pan runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31 January 2016.