“Holy shit … hollyyy shiiittt.” I had become the audience member I so loathe — the whisperer. And a profane one at that. But I couldn’t help myself, and I was not alone. Hands at my mouth, fingers pressing down on my eyelids, I couldn’t look, but I had to look. I squirmed like an idiot in my seat, terrified, elated. I wasn’t the one being tossed so high my head almost hit the lights hanging from Memminger Auditorium’s ceiling. But I felt like it. We all did.
In college I studied abroad in London for four weeks because I was an English major and reading 19th century British lit on a verdant hill beneath gray skies at Hampstead Heath was kind of the end all be all. During my visit we saw a production of Sweeney Todd in the city; one of the actors playing a young boy (I think Tobias Ragg?) fell at least 10 feet from a platform, collapsing on an ankle. He was whisked off stage and his understudy neatly filled in. The audience was left craning their heads towards the stage and the ushers: “Well is he OK?” The show went on, as it must, and we never knew what became of the fallen fellow.
About four minutes into Il N’est Pas Encore Minuit, something also happened; with more than a dozen bodies on stage, it was hard for anyone (at least those in my seating area) to discern exactly what. The lights came on and the performers on the floor rushed out to the nearest exit door.
I figured it was part of the show, some kind of distraction to keep the audience on its toes. Surely it wasn’t some kind of Sweeney Todd collapse — these guys were used to bending and twisting and flying. But the lights stayed on, the audience began to talk above a whisper. There was a five minute, then 10 minute off-the-cuff intermission. Someone had gotten hurt. But the show must not go on.
Well, not until the entire company was satisfied that the injured performer — a male who hurt his knee, I gleaned from some usher gossip — was going to be OK. A few people in the audience left, knowing they’d be late to their dinner reservation, what with a delayed show and torrential downpours. A mother had to take out a crying toddler (there were more kids in the audience than any show I’ve seen thus far, and PSA it is mostly kid-friendly). A few people with lanyards ran around frantically — a rep for the company came out and thanked us for our patience. I was in no rush, though. Sitting solo, still in awe at the first few moments of the performance, I clasped my hands tightly. If I had had a dinner reservation, or a toddler, or even an ansty date, I would’ve been concerned, frustrated even. But I was relieved, and touched, really. No man left behind. It wasn’t show business as usual. We were watching a family, a crazy talented strong-man gravity defying family, but still, a family. And if one was injured, all were injured.
The lights dimmed — the audience cheered. I settled back in my seat, thinking, as one who lives by aphorisms so often does, well, lightning doesn’t strike twice. And it didn’t. The rest of the performance went smoothly.
The show was able to incorporate jazzy dance routines, human towers quite literally almost touching the lights of the ceiling, and quiet, moving moments of one man simply helping another. The performers encouraged each other, engaged with the audience through winks and smiles and shrugs (there was no dialogue until a speech post-standing ovation) all while looking completely at ease jumping off of a see-saw, flipping in the air, once, twice, then landing in a perfect pencil precision on the outstretched hands of a spotter. It was incredible.
It’s hard to imagine someone who looks so normal (and that’s the thing — the acrobats are all shapes and sizes, no tiny dancers or vein-popping muscles to be seen) can be so strong. I’m still gently patting my head after witnessing not once but twice the same two men balance head to head, like, one of the men is upside down attached only by his wobbling skull to the man beneath who is balanced on a square of plywood held up by the shoulders of four men. I thought having a solid tree pose in yoga was tough. It’s mind blowing, but, also, at the end, soul soothing. The company suffers an injury, a mistake on the opening night of its Spoleto run. But they come back out, half the company on the shoulders of the rest. They walk across the stage, one side towards one half of the audience, the other side towards the rest. They turn, two humans tall, and walk toward the center of the stage. They collapse in a gentle puddle of arms and legs before resurrecting, standing two people tall once again. Individually they’re strong, impressive, charming, but also fallible, subject to sprained ankles and twisted knees and unexpected falls. Together, though, they’re invincible.