When Cathy Rigby was a gymnast, winning world titles and representing the United States in the Olympics, the sport was all she focused on. When she was done, she really didn't have another career in mind.
"I knew I wanted to get married and have children because I didn't get to do some normal things," she says. But she did do some television early on with ABC Sports and got some advice that if she wanted to continue, she'd better take voice and acting lessons.
She did, studying for seven years, then she got a role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in California regional theater, and the rest was a new kind of history. Nowadays it seems only natural that she would combine her gymnastics talent with her diminutive height (she says she's "five and a quarter," her husband calls her 4'11") in a role that seemed tailor made for her: Peter Pan.
What is surprising is that she's done it so long. She'll be 60 years old this December and she's still doing aerial flips — and on the ground, cartwheels, handstands and handsprings, she assures us.
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In a couple weeks, Rigby will be back in Houston with what she promises are bigger flying tricks and more dramatic and dangerous sword fights as part of the national tour of Peter Pan brought here by Theatre Under the Stars.
Even after her formal retirement at Peter Pan, the Tony Award nominee continued doing some regional theater shows in California to support a charity she founded called Discovery Arts. Rigby had never made a habit of going out into the lobby after a show, but she started doing it then. And she refound her Peter Pan fan base.
"I had such a great feeling with the people who were coming. It was this generation of people who had seen the show prior and they had a history with the show," she told the Houston Press in a phone interview.
"If I can do it better and if I can do it fresh and I can do the flying more spectacular than ever, then maybe one more time," she said she told herself. "I've had the best time."
Asked about the enhanced flight scenes, Rigby gets technical:
"Before I would have a single harness. On the one I'm wearing now, I have three points where I can hook up and fly. At the center of your back is a single wire which allows you to do a pendulum sort of swing on a track.
"But what we've added with the double harness, it allows you with two wires connected to your hips to really flip and do more horizontal flying and flipping and spinning that you can't do with a single wire. It's especially kind of complicated and wonderful in the fight scene in Marooners' Rock. Peter lands on pirates in a way that looks a little more real."
Unlike in many traveling shows, the flying on this version of Peter Pan is not automated, Rigby says. "The great thing about working with people, you have a partner who you trust. You breathe together, you move together. "
Two men run her wires during the show, she says, including Paul Rubin, a.k.a. "The Fly Guy," an acclaimed master at designing aerial flights onstage. "We've been together almost 18 years. You don't see them (during the show). It's too bad you can't go backstage. In the nursery scene, one is pulling me up and down, the other side to side. One is jerking you forward and the other is landing you on a dime. During the aerial ballet, as the sets break away the kids are also flying. While he's flying me, he's also giving instructions to the three flyers who are flying the kids."
Rigby says kids from the audience come up to her all the time surprised by the difference between her stage persona and herself. "I have little kids who'll go, 'You're not a boy.' 'Wait a minute, you're really young onstage.' I'm kind of grateful that I have the ability to play the role and it keeps me young and it forces me to work out."
Of course, also keeping her young is that she spends a lot of time around kids doing the show. "The most remarkable are the kids who are six or seven and do eight shows a week. I can't imagine having that kind of focus at six or seven years old.
"The only thing, the funny scene that has happened in the past, in the nursery scene it's a fairly long scene between the time the kids fall asleep and Peter does his whole scene and starts flying. We've had the kids fall asleep, actually. And when Wendy calls to them to wake up and come flying with Peter, she really means wake up!"
Rigby does say, however, that this tour is absolutely the last, last time. "We go till April. This time I know this is the last time I'm going to do it."
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