August 6, 2010

He flies so that others may fly. They call him “Schu.” He’s Jason Schumacher, one of ZFX Flying Effects’s crew of ten flying directors who travel around the world setting up stage rigging for flying effects, devising flying choreography, and training actors, actresses and crew members for hundreds of productions a year. They handle everything from community theatre Peter Pans to dinner theatre Wizards of Oz and from Broadway’s Wicked to corporate shows when CEOs want to make a flying entrance a la Mission Impossible.

This June, Schu was in Dallas working on the Dallas Theatre Center’s revival of the musical Its a Bird ... It’s a Plane ... It’s Superman, which required star Matt Cavenaugh to levitate musically. It’s one of the 140 to 150 productions he’s worked in his nearly three years with ZFX, during which he’s trained hundreds of performers to zip up, down, and around (summersaults included, if need be).

In that time, he’s never had a flyer back out of the deal, but he says, “We do have to deal with fear of heights. It’s just a matter of easing them in and building a sense of trust that overcomes the fear.” Then, too, he has never had a performer get too ambitious during flight, but, he says, “I’ve had a few operators who were initially a bit overly gung-ho. Safety has to be the primary concern ... art, truth, and beauty are wonderful, but safety is number one.”

An Alaskan native who studied theatre at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Shumacher moved to New York to pursue a hoped-for career as an actor. “I have always been active in martial arts,” he says, “so it was natural to also go into stunt work and some fight direction.” Three years ago, he participated in a workshop on flying and fighting (“aerial violence,” he calls it), and the ZFX participants suggested he send in a resume. As a result, he now spends about ten months a year on the road.

For Superman at Dallas’s brand new Wyly Theatre, Schumacher worked with two of the company’s crew members who came in from the scene shop to be part of the running crew for the show, carpenter Matt Gill and assistant technical director Squeak Henderson. They assisted in rigging the flight mechanism, and then, with Schumacher in the harness, they learned how to move him up and down and right and left at will.

“It was the hardest work we’d done,” says Henderson, “a full upper-body work-out. Schu says we look great with ‘Body by ZFX.’”

Schumacher says they used a manual system with a 3-to-2 lift assistance, “which is good for a single adult male on the line.” Henderson points out, however, that there’s a scene at the end of the musical when Cavenaugh, as Superman, flies with Zakiya Young, as Lois Lane, for what Henderson calls, “their love moment in the sky.” She has her own harness, “but it’s on the same rig, so the compensation ratio, all of a sudden, is one-to-one,” he says.

“Matt Gill has the safety slot,” says Henderson. “If he lets go of the ropes, Matt comes down. If I let go, he just stays where he is. We both wear gloves to operate the rope, but Matt’s on his third pair of gloves. I just started on my second,” he said during the show’s final week.

Schumacher may remember the Superman gig for other reasons. The production played at the brand new Potter Rose Performance Hall in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. “It’s the first time I ever got to string a system indoors in sunlight!” he says. The north, west, and south walls of the hall are all windows allowing a view of the sky and the skyline, but with shades that close up for performances.

Sometimes there’s a bit extra for Schu to do. For the Dallas production of Superman, he had to also train Rob McCollum, the host of the morning television show Good Morning Texas, so he could make an aerial entrance for the programs’ feature on local Channel 8. McCollum then interviewed him in order to show the TV audience what was involved in his overhead summersaulting, which he said was “a blast,” but was also very hard work. “It’s a great abs workout,” he says, echoing Henderson’s comment about “Body by ZFX.”

For Schu, however, it was just another day at the office. 

From Wicked to Wizard
ZFX’s Flying Directors Work the Ropes