Cue the fairy dust: flying performers in Peter Pan

Published On: November 23 2023

With a little bit of fairy dust and magic, audiences across the UK will be enjoying theatre productions of “Peter Pan”, with the obligatory flying sequences of course.

J M Barrie’s play “Peter and Wendy” was first produced in London at Christmas 1904, with the book version not published in 1911. So Peter Pan was always a stage creation, and thanks to Barrie bequeathing the copyright to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, every single performance of his work contributes much-needed funds to the hospital charity too.


Flying in

There has been a long tradition of “flying’ in the theatre with the original systems used primary to lift painted scenery ‘flats’ in and out to change the scene. The system of ropes, pulleys and counterweights was sometimes operated by experienced sailors, who communicated via whistles. It’ led to the tradition of no whistling on stage unless you wanted scenery to be dropped on your head…. In 1888, tho first counterweight system was introduced which is still the basis for flying scenery today in most performing arts venues.


The Kirby wire

However, for “Peter and Wendy” back in 1904, a more efficient (and safe) system was required. The Kirby Pendulum System (aka Kirby wire) was developed for the show which enabled a performer to be raised and lowered by a single operator, rather than a team. Inventor of the system, George Kirby also devised a revolutionary harness that allowed them to make complex moves in the air, and (more importantly) could be attached and detached in a matter of seconds to a flying wire.

Flying still involves a series of flying lines and special harnesses for the actors, but most systems are now computer controlled using pre-programmed cues. These are triggered at specific points in the performance by the operator/s, and can perform multiple and complex manoeuvres. In article on a new musical theatre production that features flying, Hoist magazine explained that:

“The Motion Control System …. will perform both complex 3D performer flight and simple rotational and linear moves.”


So, how do load cells fit in?

According to the CEO of the motion control system company:

“The entertainment industry standard is to include four sets of physical limit switches to restrict travel, two of which are safety-related, a detections system to prevent cross wrapping of the wire, brake monitoring of two independent brakes, and encoding systems (often one on the motor and one on the drum). Additionally, there may also be load cells, safety cover monitors, and multiple motors.

“Each performer flight system could include two, three, four or even eight hoists carefully synchronised to give the illusion of human flight. Machinery has to be fast and able to accelerate quickly while also taking impact loads exceeding 2G. Configure that into stunt work and the machinery could be moving 500kg loads at 12m-plus per second.”


New week, new venue

There is another challenge, in that productions on tour need to adapt their set-up to a different venue every week or so. The current winter tour of “Peter Pan: an arena spectacular” (3) tours to big arenas in Liverpool, Cardiff, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Nottingham and London all within the space of a month. Here again, load cells will be in action ensuring that not only the performers but the audience are safe too by measuring and monitoring loads, from Peter flying over their heads, the elaborate lighting rig, the galleon that “sails” through the audience, and the giant TV screens to relay the action.

If you prefer your Peter Pan a bit more traditional, (but still with load cells no doubt), Birmingham’s Old Rep Theatre will be presenting “Peter Pan The Musical” throughout December. As Michael Painter of co-producers the BOA Group said:

“We intend to do justice to this beautiful story and world-renowned British musical adaptation by honouring its’ traditional flavour, embracing the nuances of our Victorian repertory theatre, whilst celebrating new technology and innovation.”


Other productions to watch out for

Other productions of “Peter Pan” this December include:


Need load cells for your theatrical spectacular?

Just call us with your requirements and challenges – we are always happy to talk load cells!