July 10, 2008

Take Flight With GTCC’s 100th Show


JAMESTOWN It's the story of a dreamer, and what happens when 14 of his 15 minutes of fame have run out.

It's also the story of an unlikely theater program, and what happens when one dedicated dreamer inspires a dream in others.

"Man in the Flying Lawn Chair" is the dramedy summer offering from Guilford Technical Community College. It's also the 100th production offered by the school's theater program, and all 100 have been overseen by program and artistic director William R. Lewis.

"We weren't even keeping count, but someone noticed that it was our twentieth year and did the math," Lewis says. "It's an accomplishment for any college theater."

In addition to performing classics and little-known contemporary pieces, Lewis' students work each May on a new play, usually a debut piece by a playwright.

It seems fitting that this 100th show is one about creative thinking and following one's heart. "Man in the Flying Lawn Chair" is a based-on-fact story of Californian Larry Walters, a truck driver with a dream of flight. On July 2, 1983, he attached 45 eight- foot helium-filled weather balloons to a Sears patio chair and, armed with a pellet gun, CB radio, sandwiches, drinks and a camera, he took off.

He expected to rise to about 100 feet, then shoot out the balloons one-by-one until he landed. Instead, his flying lawn chair soared to 16,000 feet and drifted into the air space of Long Beach Airport.

After some 45 minutes, he shot out a few balloons, but the cables dangling from his chair got entangled in a power line, causing a 20- minute blackout, but allowing him to climb down from his flying contraption. He was promptly arrested, but he also became a national celebrity.

In 2000, playwright Eric Nightengale conceived the play "Man in the Flying Lawn Chair" for Manhattan's 78th Street Theatre Lab program "From Page to Stage," which looks for inspiration in newspaper articles. He collaborated with several other writers to probe Walters' celebrity status as he appeared on a late-night talk show and became a motivational speaker.

In the 25 years since Walters' stunt, it has entered pop-culture status, inspiring a storyline in the "Bloom County" comic strip, becoming referenced in several songs, turning into plots for shows as various as "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Arrested Development," and hitting the silver screen in the Australian romantic comedy "Danny Deckchair."

There have also been copycats, most recently this past April, when a Brazilian priest launched himself with 1,000 helium balloons and was lost in a storm over the Atlantic.

The story also has been the focus of at least one other play and was the title piece in George Plimpton's final collection of essays, too.

"I like to do a comedy for the summer," Lewis says. "The best comedies make you think, and this play does that. It shows you don't have to be a genius to achieve something on your own."

Staging a show in which a man flies in a lawn chair would seem to be a daunting task, but Lewis says he is using tricks of lighting and sound design to make it work.

"The improv group that put it together works in a way I really like," he says. "If they say we're flying,' then the audience accepts that they're flying. Of course, the playwrights' directions in the script also suggest the ensemble dance in a way that resembles flight. We've scrapped that idea for a rendition of Come Fly with Me.' "

In addition, Walters gets a following of groupies that Lewis describes as being like the admiring but clueless aliens in the movie "Galaxy Quest."

"We're having a lot of fun," he says. "I've produced 100 shows. I have 1,000 memories. And most of them are good."

Leslie Mizell is a freelance contributor. Contact her at [email protected]

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