Magic is often defined as a mysterious or supernatural power, but it usual relies more on technology and clever minds than it does on otherworldly influences. The theatre is one of the best places to experience this concept. While great examples of technological magic can been seen on the silver screen, there is nothing like experiencing the magic of a theatrical production, live and in person.
One of the best examples of theatrical magic is automation. Automation finds its roots in the age old trick of making an actor fly with a rope an pulley. As technology has continued to advance at incredible rates, so has automation. What was once a simple mechanical principle in action, is now a multi-faceted computer controlled system relying on electrical motors, aircraft cable, specialized tracks, carriers and a series of important safe guards. We can now rely on computer programming to control Peter Pan’s flight through a window, or a dramatic battle on a vertical stage, or even Mary Poppin’s dramatic exit over the heads of an audience.
As an automation technician at Tuacahn Center for the Arts, I have operated over 60 performances of Disney Mary Poppin’s. This has given me the opportunity to work with one of the leading companies in the the automation business; Flying by Foy. Foy has been in business for more than 50 years and has provided automation for theatres, concerts and events all over the world. In an article from Stage Directions, Joe McGeogh pointed out that there is more to automation than making people fly “… because it has to sync right up to the music, and when it all happens just right, there’s the magic!” (Coakley, Stage Directions)
Perhaps one of the most magical moments in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins, is the Step in Time proscenium walk. In this scene, a specialized automated carrier lowers two flywires to Burt on the stage left base of the proscenium arch. These attach discretely to a special harness. On cue, Burt walks 30 feet up the proscenium wall and steps unto the ceiling. At this point, he begins an upside down tap dance all the way across the 80 foot “proscenium” and walks down the stage right wall.
Working with a flight director from Foy, our performer, and the musical director, we were able to separate this motion into eight individual cues that create a fluid effect, with multiple points for changes in motion, like stepping off the wall and unto the ceiling. This also allows various opportunities to safely stop and lower the actor in the event of an emergency.
Mary Poppins includes over 40 automation cues to control a total of 12 separate flights which include eight different actors. While it is a great opportunity to experience the powerful effects of automation, it is by no means the most advanced. Shows like Ka and Beatles Love by Cirque du Soleil employ much larger amounts of automation equipment, contributing to the flights of Volkswagen Beetles and entire mid air battle scenes.
Many shows, like those performed by Cirque or Mary Poppins at Tuacahn, continue to amaze audiences with their magical flying effects, but it’s important to remember, these effects come from the clever minds and technological advances in the world of automation. Their contributions to the entertainment industry have made our theatre going experience more memorable, more fun, and most importantly, more magical.