It is Always Tech Week for Flying Director Johnny O. Pickett

by Michael Eddy
in Flying
Dracula at Center Stage Theatre at the Midland Center for the Arts in Midland, MI. Pickett was on site for two weeks working with director Keeley Stanley-Bohn, production designer Kristen O’Connor, and the cast/crew in creating the many flights in the show.
Dracula at Center Stage Theatre at the Midland Center for the Arts in Midland, MI. Pickett was on site for two weeks working with director Keeley Stanley-Bohn, production designer Kristen O’Connor, and the cast/crew in creating the many flights in the show.

Johnny O. Pickett is a senior flying director with Flying by Foy, where he’s worked since 1999 becoming a full-time flying director in 2003. Prior to Foy, Pickett worked as a carpenter on Siegfried and Roy, coming from years teaching technical theater and working professionally at theaters across the U.S. He has an MFA in design and technology from UNC Greensboro and a BA in theater from East Tennessee State University. When you think flying, certainly Peter Pan comes to mind, and indeed to date, Pickett has done 127 different productions of Peter Pan, but there is no shortage of shows in which actors take flight. Pickett’s overseen flying in productions at numerous regional and university theaters across the U.S. as well as creating flying effects for Monty Python’s Spamalot on Broadway; Wicked in Tokyo; Babes in Toyland and Sha-Kon-O-Hey! for Dollywood theme park.

“Literally, as a flying director, you generally live in everybody’s tech week,” laughs Pickett. “You know everybody’s going crazy because it is their tech week. For me, last week I was in somebody else’s tech week and the week before that, I was in somebody else’s tech week. Next week I’ll be in another show’s tech week because our gear gets rented by the week. We get brought in sometimes literally days before a show opens. I prefer when we can come in a little earlier.”

Flying Director Johnny O. PickettPickett normally finishes on Wednesday and the production opens on Thursday, which is really not enough time for the flying to gel and settle he feels. “It’s much more effective if they’ve got a few days of dress rehearsals between when I finish working with them and when they open,” he comments. “But, you know, budgets… Sometimes they can afford to bring us in for three weeks; and sometimes they can’t.” It is a matter of timing with the set as well he notes, “I come in fairly late in the process, because for a show like a Peter Pan where Peter is flying through the window and landing on a fireplace, all those scenic elements have to be structurally finished enough to use. You can’t come in too early in the process because the scenery isn’t finished. So there’s always that really tight window in the middle there, just before opening that we generally come in.”

One of the things that Pickett has become adept at by being a flying director with Foy, is taking on a range of roles in a production that he’s supporting. “The challenge as flying directors, we wear a lot of different hats,” he says. “We’ve got to be the safety people; rigging experts; choreographers; and public relations people. One of the really cool things is we get to work with everybody from junior high schools to Broadway. In the last couple of months, I have gone from a high school to the National Theatre of Canada in Ottawa to Saturday Night Live. I did the flying for Jesus Christ Superstar Live where I flew John Legend. The next week after that, I was in a community theater in Tuscaloosa, AL. So, you know, we get to really run the gamut and work with everybody from A-listers to eight-year-old kids that are just stepping on the stage for the first time in their lives.”

‘We want flying in our show.’ 
“Everybody comes at this with their own approach,” explains Pickett. “Some people have never flown before, have no idea what it involves. All they know is they want some flying. At times, we come in to it blind, as to what they’re looking for. They’re just trusting me; they’ve left basically blank spots in their production that I come in and fill.” 

“In other cases, they’re very specific in what they’re looking for and hopefully we’ve worked that out in advance. But there again, that’s one of those things that you sort of deal with on site. I can ask, ‘what do you want in this scene?’ Even if it’s a show like Peter Pan—there’s the play version, there’s the musical, there’s the ballet, there’s the book that people take and create scenes from that were never in the play, there’s several play versions that people will create their own individual productions. Quite often I have to just look at it and ask, ‘Okay, what are you looking for here? I know what the storyline is, but what are you trying to communicate at this point?’ I try to work as a collaborator or a facilitator. Whatever the needs may be.” 

Directors and creative teams can sit in production meetings and dream up flying sequences, but there are certain times that there are go/no go considerations that as flying director, Pickett needs to deal with in collaboration with the team. “Often, there’re physical limitations to spaces which make it prohibitive to attempt to do something,” Pickett comments. “Take Mary Poppins for example, a very popular show. A lot of people want to do that big—and it’s very exciting—the Mary Poppins’ audience flight. A lot of houses either don’t have the head space to make that happen, or there’s no place for Mary to fly away to—and disappear successfully. Other times there’s places where directors want flights to happen but there’s air ducts or some permanent structure overhead where I cannot put a track. Sometimes there’s physical impediments to what they’re looking for. So, then you have to break the bad news of ‘no, I can’t do that’, but I then lay out option A, B, and C. To try to bring their vision as close to fruition as is physically possible.”

Time Flies
In an ideal world, Pickett would love to be in the early stages of production meetings when the team is discussing the script and planning out the flying sequences. He realizes that was from his days in academic theater, where that time was available. “That physically never happens,” he laughs. “That’s the old academic designer in me, where I got to sit around and do that kind of thing. They call us, sometimes as late as two weeks prior to opening; then we try to shoehorn their show into our production schedule. It really runs the gamut—even in regional and university theater where you would think the whole development process is the thing that gets stretched out—yet flying is thought of as a kind of an afterthought.”

Pickett, and Foy’s wealth of experience is why they can work safely in the truncated time they are often given. When a customer brings in Foy to handle the flying, they get more than just equipment; they also get a flying director, such as Pickett, with their knowledge and expertise, as well as the safety factors that are built into the Foy equipment. “I equate it to this. I can give anybody a paint brush, that does not make that person a painter,” explains Pickett. “The Foy gear is the Foy gear. I mean, it’s bulletproof; it’s very effective. It’s very elegant in its simplicity, but it’s how we use it; it’s how we incorporate it into the play. One of the first things I tell people in the rehearsal process, is that flying is acting; it’s motivated movement just like anything else. Characters fly a certain way for a reason. It’s part of their essence as the character and it’s part of their needs at that moment in the play. We have to discover those things to inform what the physical flight is itself. So, that’s what they get when they get Foy. They get far more than just the equipment and the load-in; more than just a blind facilitation. Sometimes a director knows exactly what they’re looking for and they're not looking for a lot of collaboration. In those cases, then it’s my job to be that facilitator as long as what they’re asking for is safe. That’s where I have to hold the line; ‘is what they’re doing safe and repeatable?’ That’s the bottom line—making sure that whatever we do maintains Foy’s expected level of safety because that’s what the company’s reputation is built on.”  

Pickett walks us through the basics of how Flying by Foy works with a client:
We get the call, ‘We want to fly someone in our production.’ I take information from the client and we have them fill out a questionnaire that gives us specifics on their space—proscenium height, width, do they have a fly system and what kind of fly system, pipe length, grid height, all that type of information. 

If possible, we have them send digital pictures of their space, which gives us an even better idea of what we’re looking at. Then we’ll do further research if we need to; the Internet’s a fantastic resource these days with a lot of spaces specs online. We basically gather all the information we possibly can in advance. We talk with the director and the technical director about the specific show and what effects they’re looking for. From there, we put together a package of equipment. And we box that up, ship that off, and then myself or another flying director will arrive at the space. We work with local crew and supervise the assembly and load-in of the Foy gear. 

From there, we start conducting running rehearsals. We’ll typically have a three-day gig for a Peter Pan or a Mary Poppins. Most standard shows will follow a typical three-day pattern where we’ll go in the first day, do our install during the day, that evening we’ll come back and conduct a three-hour orientation rehearsal period where I fit everybody into harnesses, talk with them about safety, and go over some basic safety protocols with them. We also do a little test flying, so the operators and the performers can become familiarized and comfortable with the physical process.

Day two, I come in and do a blocking rehearsal. We choreograph the flight segments. I’m working with the stage manager and the director, and often the music director. We fit the flights to the scenes and to the music if it’s a musical. Just rough block those in with just the flying performers on stage, none of the other cast members, minimal pieces of scenery. For safety reasons; making sure everybody’s got a clear line of sight, all that good stuff. 

On the third day, we incorporate other cast members that are on stage during the flight scenes to make sure that they’re not in a flight path; go over where they can’t be; and where they can be during those flight sequences. Of course, multiple casts, multiple sets of operators, any of these things that are realities in the performance world, change and alter that routine; add days, et cetera. All of which is discussed in those initial conversations at the beginning.