Skydiving on stage: transcending the fear

by Kristin Idaszak

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

(Photo featuring Emily Aust, photo credit to Jim Carmody)

The day after my fiancé asked me to marry him, we jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.

Unwittingly, it turned out to be an apt metaphor for lifelong commitment. Skydiving is a thrilling and terrifying plunge towards something that is both known and unknown, something that provides a surprising and unexpected grace, and could possibly end in death. (The metaphor admittedly breaks down a bit at that last bit.) My fiancé jumped before me, and as I crouched at the edge of the airplane’s open door, watching him plummet thirteen thousand feet down at the ground, I couldn’t remember any of the instructions my skydiving instructor gave me. So out I leapt, trusting that the clouds would catch me.

Skydiving, or my experience of it, goes something like this: two hours of waiting on the ground, ten minutes of flying into the sky, two minutes—or an eternity—of freefalling, and finally a transcendental period of floating. By the time I reached the ground I knew it was an experience that I had to share. I also knew it was an experience that I’d never be able to capture through words or through a traditional play.

A few weeks later I embarked on a devising process with a sound designer, a choreographer, and a composer to attempt to create a theatrical experience that captured some piece of jumping out of an airplane. To do this we needed to reconceive the audience’s spatial relationship to the art and the artists. We wanted to rotate the theatre 90 degrees to recreate the radically revised relationship to the earth at the point of jumping. Since we weren’t allowed to flip the theatre on it’s side, we asked the audience members to lie on their backs.

The overall aesthetic was an unholy marriage of high tech and low tech. One of the performers was rigged from the grid, suspended by a thick chain about six feet over the audience members’ heads. I wanted the mechanism of her rigging to be obvious, to signify to the audience that we are in a land of impressionistic theatricality, not psychological realism. The aerial performer was strapped with a GoPro—a small camera that, for an exorbitant fee, you can strap to yourself during skydiving to record the experience. The feed from the camera was projected onto a giant video wall, showing not the typical landscape of clouds and mountains, but the theatre itself, from her upside down and sideways perspectives

The second performer was located on the tension grid, and the piece began with her (me!) screaming in terror, freefalling. And then a giant expanse of fabric stretched across the audience, fluttering gently over the supine bodies, creating a gentle breeze. It’s a soothing experience, reminiscent of the elementary school game of parachute, contrasted with a monologue about the skydiver reckoning with her impending death.

From underneath the parachute, the audience members could see the aerial performer swinging over their heads, and when the parachute was taken away after the monologue ended, the two performers revealed that they were the same woman, one jumper suspended in eternal freefall and one in eternal floating.

It’s that paradox—absolute fear and absolute serenity—that is the visceral core of my memory of the original experience. After my parachute deployed, my tandem instructor and I bonded over our shared fear of heights. My instructor congratulated me on my engagement and told me that he thought getting married was far more frightening than jumping out of an airplane, and I didn’t entirely disagree.

It was a funny conversation to have several thousand feet in the air, but I think for both of us there was something about the act of literally throwing yourself mind and body into the heart of your fear that allowed us to transcend it. For me, the best art is created in that way: by saying, this, this is what I’m the most afraid of, let me go there. That leap into the terrifying unknown is the genesis and the beating heart of my work. At its best, fear transforms into courage. And that point of transformation is what I hope to offer my audience.

(Huge thanks to my brilliant collaborators and co-creators: Emily Aust, choreographer and performer, Ryan Welsh, MUGIC designer, and Yen-Chung Yang, sound and video designer.)


Kristin Idaszak’s plays have been produced or developed with companies in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Providence, and Washington, DC (The Inkwell). She has received residencies from the Qualcomm Institute and Calit2 (San Diego), the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and Stage Left Theatre (Chicago). She was nominated for a Jeff award for Best New Work for co-writing Theatre Seven’s We Live Here. Her play The Liar Paradox received the 2nd Place Paula Vogel Award. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Playwriting at the University of California, San Diego.