Dallas — You might say that Jessie Sherman's life has done a 360. Since she was 5 years old, her nickname has been "Tinker Bell." And now she is Tinker Bell in Peter Pan 360, Theater Threesixty's national tour of J.M. Barrie's classic tale of the boy who refuses to grow up, coming to the Dallas Arts District Nov. 11 through Dec. 6 in association with the AT&T Performing Arts Center. This high-flying version staged inside a giant circus tent originated in London's Kensington Gardens and combines live action with projections that surround the audience for an immersive experience.
Sherman is a bundle of energy even on the phone—well suited to embody the volatile fairy, which until this production has been traditionally played on the stage by a light or the sound of a bell; sometimes both. A graduate of the Second City Conservatory, Sherman's background is in sketch comedy and more traditional productions, like Enchanted April, Little Women, Metamorphoses, Dog Sees God and Kimberly Akimbo. She took time to talk to TheaterJones about fairy training and the evolution of Tink.
TheaterJones: What makes Peter Pan 360 unique?
Jessie Sherman: The main reason this show is unique is that it brings a very classic story that everyone knows into the 21st century through this incredible theater-in-the-round space. It's a really special theater because it's a big-top tent with no support structure on the inside so audiences get a completely unobstructed view with 15,000 square feet of projection space combined with our storytelling. The projection space is much more than the average Imax screen, so the audience is totally immersed in Never Land, and it's interactive, so when we're flying through Never Land, the landscape is zooming past, making it feel like you're flying with us. I always see parents holding their little kids over their heads and "flying" them with us. It's pretty amazing!
Did you have to do any special training to perform Tinker Bell?
Ohhhhhh, yes. It's really funny too, because since I was 5 years old, my nickname has been "Tinker Bell," so this feels very kismet-y. Tinker Bell is a fairy, so she flies, making it a very physical role. Also, she has so few words that she says, so she can only shout out these basic words to convey her feelings. She has a tiny body, and it can hold only one emotion at a time, so she really feels it. Plus, her whole world completely revolves around Peter. All those things in combination with the flying create this incredible challenge as an actor because what do you do when you don't have many words? I worked very closely with a circus choreographer and trained in physical movement, like quick movements, standing still and holding my ground. I also worked with Freedom Flying from the United Kingdom, training with these amazing flight techs. I spent hours in the harness. The rigging is delicate and uses two-point harnesses with wires at our hips. To go forward is basically like a permanent crunch. It requires a lot of control to spin within the wires.
Do you have any fear of heights?
I've never really been afraid of heights, but we are flying 40 feet in the air. They started us in the harness by taking us up to the highest point in the tent to see what it would feel like, and I have to say, I was pretty sweaty. But once we started flying, there was no fear whatsoever. It really feels like you're flying. We each have our own flyer—she's hidden in the audience with a joystick. I am basically her real-life video game! It is her job to make sure the flight looks real. All of us who fly have calloused hipbones from rehearsals and then spending two hours in the harnesses for each show.
Traditionally, Tinker Bell is played by light. What's it like to embody her as a person?
I sort of feel like "Thank God someone finally did this," because to me, Tinker Bell has always been such a bright, spontaneous character. Her personality is so big! The fact that someone finally said "Let's make her a person" is great. I'm so proud to be able to bring her to life. She has a very childlike quality. She is a very present character who has no filter.
How much of Tink were you able to infuse into the character? Is she written with an edge, or did you help develop that?
The show originated in London in Kensington Gardens, so there have been a couple of different Tinks, and the role has morphed with each incarnation. Our director for the tour had an idea of what he wanted her to be. The original character was more punk. Our director wanted her to be more spunky and mischievous—certainly not your traditional fairy. She has a really good mix. We've brought a little more of the fairy back into her character. In the original script, she swore, but I think they realized they needed to tone down the language a little. There's a balance there to keep the quality of being a diva and still be likeable, but she can be a little bit of a bitch, especially to Wendy.
How much has your background in improv helped in creating this character?
It's been extremely helpful because there is a lot of comedic energy in being Tinker Bell. For example, she has a tantrum on the floor over nothing, but she's just feeling how she feels. For me, it's been everything because there is such limited dialogue and essentially no stage direction so there really was nothing but a totally blank canvas. When I auditioned, they said "We want to see you play physically and emotionally like Tinker Bell would," then they shouted out emotions to me, like frustration, anger, feeling sorry, being devastated, happy. It was just me and my instincts. Tinkerbell was just in there.
What is your favorite moment in the show?
I love the Tink revival, when she drinks the poison, and the audience has to revive her. No spoilers, but there is a really cool sequence in reviving her. It's a cool moment for the audience and the actors and the opportunity for them to interact with us in the show.
So, just between us, what does Tink really think of Wendy?
Well, just between us: Tink hates Wendy. She's an uppity, spoiled, intrusive, no-good lady. But to be honest, it's no secret. She makes it very apparent to the audience.