For most of us, flight is a superpower that comes only in dreams. Not so for Andrea Gentry. A flying director at ZFX Flying Effects, Gentry specializes in suspending actors on both stage and screen, including the soaring Ebenezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) and Ghost of Christmas Past (Molly Brennan) in Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. With the 40th annual iteration running through December 31 at the downtown theater, we asked Gentry how she makes her actors airborne.
“Flying director” is a pretty neat title for someone who doesn’t work at an airport. How did you get into this profession?
I started out as a ground rigger, helping set up the equipment that takes people up. I didn’t know anything about flight design, but I was drawn to the science and mathematics of it. I studied theater in college, but I was always strong in science and math. When it came time to learn rigging, I was like, “I can do this thing." The flight director marries the art of storytelling with the science of flying. It’s my job to execute whatever vision the director has for flight—the rigging, the choreography, everything.
Besides actors in Peter Pan or A Christmas Carol, who and what needs to fly?
Pretty much anything you can think of. I once flew a Toyota Avalon in Danville, Kentucky. They were opening a new plant there, and for the big grand-opening, they wanted a flying car.
The demand for flight is pretty constant. I travel a lot. I went on tour with the Korean pop star Taeyang this year—he’s like the Brad Pitt of South Korea. ZFX has a scenic automation hoist that I ran to move a component of his set. I’m doing a Peter Pan in Brazil this winter. I did a Wicked in Brazil in 2016. Some of my colleagues just got back from Saudi Arabia, where they did an event with flying carpets.
Is there a weight limit on flying actors? What if Scrooge weighed as much as the Toyota?
The stock harnesses we make have a 250-pound load limit, but we can do custom harnesses for just about anything. It’s mostly webbing and canvas, but you can’t just go to Home Depot to buy the parts to make them. We have an entire fabrication department. We make everything ourselves. Ideally, we start collaborating early in the process so we can learn exactly what kind of flying the director wants.
Are there different kinds of flight?
Absolutely. For Little Mermaid, you want the flying to look like swimming. The way you coach someone for that is different from the way you coach someone who’s flying on angel or fairy wings. Sometimes you want someone to float or hover. Sometimes they’re zipping around. It all depends on the director’s vision. I once did an Evita, where they wanted her to fly high and then melt down like Icarus. So we created this melting-flying effect.
Does the Goodman’s flight choreography change every year?
Different people bring different things to flight, so the choreography is never the same. A few years ago, the Ghost of Christmas Past was this small, muscular man. His choreography was drastically different than what we did with Molly. He was a stoic, Archangel-Michael-with-a-flaming-sword kind of guy. Molly’s more playful and cheeky. She brings a childlike wonder to the role.
Molly also does flips and somersaults, so her harness is different than the one we use for Scrooge [Larry Yando]. With Larry, we stick with the choreography we’ve been using for years. He’s been doing the role for a decade, and ZFX has been working with him for about seven years of that. At this point, we don’t need to reinvent it every year. At their highest, they’re both up with the electrical system.
What happens if an actor gets motion sickness?
Safety is first and last and always foremost. We give the actors hand signals they can use if they ever need to come down. Once they’re in the air, the flying people are not in control. They are effectively a sack of potatoes with knees to help with landing. Part of my job is thinking 20 steps down the line. We have a detailed rescue plan that we leave with our clients, and step-by-step instructions for every contingency.
How does the flying work at the Goodman?
Each flying system—one for Molly and one for Larry—has two operators: one for getting them up and down, and one for moving them through the air. It’s like handling an Etch-a-Sketch. Straight lines going up and down or sideways are simple; curves are much harder. Our operators at the Goodman are amazing. They can stop on a dime if they need to. For the actors, the operators are kind of like dance partners. It’s a visual dialogue between them.
What keeps the wires from getting tangled?
Larry and Molly have to be really careful. When Scrooge is on the ground, there’s only four inches between his wires and Christmas Past’s wires. It’s easy to get them tangled up.
Do you get to fly yourself?
Oh, yes. ZFX has what we call a dojo. It’s a 160-foot-long green screen room. We do film shoots there, but we also use the space to rehearse and try new things. Molly and [Christmas Carol director] Henry [Wishcamper] came down earlier this year and played around with options, all of us working on different things.
Anyone ever gotten stuck? Or crashed?
I’ve had one little mishap, during a flying monkey scene in a Wizard of Oz. A ground monkey got in the way of a flying monkey. The two had a little bowling ball moment. I’m happy to say it wasn’t a flying monkey mishap, but a ground monkey mishap.
GO:A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 31 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. goodmantheatre.org