Crafton stuntman took plunge and landed a career

Boredom spurred

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Shaun Rolly remembers the moment in 1999 that changed his life.

In stunt school, he was atop a cherry picker 43 feet in the air -- about as high as the roof of a four-story building.

On the ground was an air mattress -- 10 feet long by 8 feet wide -- with a red dot in the center that was only 18 inches in diameter.

The Crafton resident's goal was to jump from the cherry picker and land on his back atop the red dot.

A miss could be fatal or result in severe injuries. The student before him had missed. She was rushed to the hospital.

"From where I was standing, it looked about the size of a quarter," he said, describing the red dot as viewed from the cherry picker. Mr. Rolly had a choice to jump and risk death or play it safe.

About one-third of his fellow students in the United Stuntmen's Association International Stunt School in Seattle decided not to make the jump.

"I was terrified. I knew if I did something wrong, I could die," he said. But he confronted his fear and jumped.

He hit the red dot.

"It taught me to face my fears and not to be afraid to take chances," he said.

His decision to enroll in the stunt school, which he compared to an intense boot camp with 16-hour days, was itself a risk.

He had quit his 9-to-5 job at AT&T Media Services in Pittsburgh, where he wrote and directed TV commercials, to attend the school and had no prospect of a job waiting for him when he returned.

"Many of my friends were concerned. They tried to discourage me and thought it was a bad idea," he said.

But taking a chance worked out well for him.

"I've never had to apply for a job in 14 years," he said.

His first job when he returned to Pittsburgh was staging fights for "West Side Story" by Gargaro Productions. He then landed a spot staging fight scenes for the play "The Fantasticks" at Little Lake Theater in McMurray.

Soon, Pittsburgh Public Theater asked him to direct the sword-fighting scenes in their production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Mr. Rolly jumped at the chance.

"At stunt school, I learned all the weapon's work and excelled in hand-to-hand combat with swords," he said.

Then Point Park University called and wanted him to teach "stage movement with an emphasis on stage combat."

He taught there for six years before taking a position as a resident artist for fight direction at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland and as an instructor at its affiliated Henry Mancini Arts Academy.

On his days off, he appeared in Renaissance festivals as a jouster and sword fighter. He also worked as a weekend entertainer on the Good Ship Lollipop cruises, first playing a clown but later persuading the Gateway Clipper Fleet to change the focus of the show to a pirate theme.

"The response was phenomenal. We had huge audience numbers and fantastic online reviews," he said.

As a pirate, he was able to use the full range of skills he developed as a child growing up in Gibsonia.

"We lived in the woods. There were not a lot of friends around, so out of boredom, I taught myself how to juggle, pantomime and tumble. I thought I was just having fun, but I was developing the skills for my future."

He said his attraction to sword fighting was sparked by watching the laser sword fights in the "Star Wars" movies when he was growing up in the '70s and early '80s.

Then his dad Leonard introduced him to the Errol Flynn movies that featured plenty of swashbucklers and sword fights.

"A lot of it goes back to being a bored kid who loved the movies," he said.

Currently, Mr. Rolly is at work on a production called a "A Pirate's Tale" that combines drama, comedy and song in a story about an unruly band of male and female pirates.

Mr. Rolly came up with the story, and Paul Shapera wrote the music and lyrics for the show.

He plans to stage it as a dinner theater show for the Gateway Clipper Fleet on the Majestic next year and adapt it into a longer two-act stage musical.

An initial staged reading of "A Pirate's Tale" on Sept. 30 at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie gave a packed audience a sneak preview of a show.

Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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