There are people who dream of directing a play or a movie. The director Tom Moore has done both. But he has always dreamed of “flying.”
“It was a childhood fantasy,” said Mr. Moore, 79, a film, TV and theater director whose credits include the original Broadway production of “Grease” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “’Night, Mother.”
“I liked the circus, but loved the ultimate act, which was the trapeze,” he said. “I would wait for that.”
But Mr. Moore never thought he had the athletic ability to swing, stretch out, then fly from a long horizontal bar, often 30 feet in the air. He wasn’t good at baseball, and, at 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds, he was too small for football at West Lafayette High School, in Indiana. “I just assumed I was not good at sports,” he said.
So instead of running off to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Mr. Moore, who grew up in Meridian, Miss., before moving to Indiana, went to the Yale School of Drama. He did rather well, with “Grease” on Broadway back in 1972, which ran for more than 3,300 performances; the show “Over Here!” with the newcomers John Travolta, Marilu Henner and Treat Williams; and the play “’Night, Mother,” which he also directed for the 1986 film starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft.
His TV credits include episodes of the 1980s drama “Thirtysomething,” “ER,” “Felicity” and “Ally McBeal.” Along the way he was nominated for two Tonys and three Emmys. (More recently, he coedited the book “Grease, Tell Me More, Tell Me More,” for the Broadway show’s 50th anniversary this year.)
Around the age of 50, after the demise of a relationship, he was looking for new adventures. (He is single now and cheekily describes his longtime partners as “a series of valued novellas rather than the one great American novel.”) In 1996, while on vacation at the now-defunct resort Club Med in Playa Blanca, Mexico, he was drawn to a trapeze rig on the beach, and signed up.
Trapeze was a perfect blend of theatricality and athleticism, and he loved it. He even took part in a show at the end of the week.
This spoke to his nascent acting ambitions. “I was never a good actor,” he admitted. “Acting is all about revealing and opening oneself up, and I couldn’t do it.” But he was a performer.
He “flew” a few more times at another Club Med in Huatulco, Mexico, over the next year, and decided he wanted to incorporate his holiday pastime into real life. By then he was living in the Hollywood Hills, still directing but feeling somewhat restless, and he asked around for names of trapeze teachers. One kept popping up: Richie Gaona, who came from a famous trapeze family, the Flying Gaonas. Mr. Moore wasn’t sure Mr. Gaona would work with an amateur, but Mr. Gaona agreed. And so, he began learning trapeze in earnest on a rig in Mr. Gaona’s backyard in the San Fernando Valley, about a 40-minute drive from Mr. Moore’s home.
“I learned everything from Richie,” he said. “He was amazing. And then I was into it big time and would go three to four times a week.”
He got so immersed in the art of trapeze that he ended up making a documentary about the Gaona family called “The Flight Fantastic.”
“I think I did things a bit backward because I was so passionately involved in my work and building a career, I didn’t explore the athletic side of me until late,” said Mr. Moore, who considers himself an intermediate amateur. “Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you’re a trapeze artist.’ I’m nothing of the kind. It’s a sport for me and fun, but I know the skill and talent required to practice the art of trapeze.” (The following interview has been condensed and edited.)
What’s your favorite thing about the sport?
You can’t think about anything else on the trapeze. If you think about anything else, you’ll fail. That’s a great escape in itself.
What’s the hardest thing about the trapeze?
Swinging on the bar is the preparation for all tricks that one does on the trapeze. The stronger it is, the higher it is and the more precise it is, the better the trick. It takes a long time to learn to swing. Timing is everything. People think you need strength to do it. Men particularly try to muscle up, but that’s not really it. It’s all about timing and grace. Trapeze at its best is more of a dance in the air.
Have you ever gotten hurt?
I once had an accident. People think you have a net so you’re fine, but the net can be the most dangerous part. You have to land on your back. If you come in on your legs and feet or knees, you’ll bounce wildly out of the net. You can get severely hurt. The safety lines were holding me back from extra height, so I took them off for a trick, but I was so excited that as I was coming into the net, I was landing on my stomach. I was in the middle of flipping over to my back and I didn’t make it all the way. I bounced extraordinarily high into the air and I came down on the ridge rope, the edges of the net, face first. It sliced through my entire nose all the way to the cartilage underneath.
A friend handed me a towel and said, “Put this over your face.” I thought she was trying to stop the bleeding, but everyone was so traumatized by my face. I had done some real damage. An amazing surgeon was able to do the work, a reconstruction of the nose. Mind you, I had done this without telling anyone I was going to do it, or I would never have been allowed. So, I deserved what I got.
How often do you trapeze these days?
Maybe once a month. Twenty-five years ago I was willing to sacrifice anything — even time in my career — to get to trapeze, but one matures, even in trapeze. I go when I feel like it rather than on a regular schedule. I’d like to be as good as I was at 60 when I was doing it all the time and when I had a big trapeze birthday party for 250. But I’m not, and that’s OK. But I don’t have any intention of giving it up because I still enjoy doing it.
Do the physical demands of trapeze take a toll?
Any time I’m away from it and go back, I hurt. As you get older, it’s the joints. They’re in more pain. It’s not as easy as it used to be, but I don’t want to ever stop because I know that once I stop I won’t go back. If you keep doing it, then your body gets used to it.
I always practice my hardest trick first, because it requires everything I have to give. I’m telling my body, “This is what you have to do.” It’s like going into the water, whether you edge out inch by inch or plunge right in. It’s better for me to plunge in.
What has trapeze given you on an emotional level?
My athletic pursuits have given me a great sense of self. Many people my age have long ago retired to observation. They’re no longer a participant. I don’t feel that way at all. Attitude, spirit for life, capacity for curiosity and joy are the most important things one can have.
I just keep doing what I can do, and fortunately that seems to be quite a bit.
I feel my whole life has been reinvention when needed, which I think is a fantastic way to keep staying young. There’s always something new if one stays open to it.
Images: Nicholas Albrecht