- BC Games
Fear and fearlessness takes centre stage in The Highest Step in the World
One year ago, Felix Baumgartner ascended to the edge of space in a massive helium balloon. Wearing a spacesuit equipped with just 10 minutes of oxygen, he jumped.
Red Bull Stratos, as the space diving project was called, became the most-watched live event in Internet history. For the majority who get weak-kneed looking over an apartment balcony, it appeared Baumgartner had a few too many Red Bulls.
But David van Belle understood. Sort of.
The co-creator of The Highest Step in the World—a compellingly unusual play opening at Gateway Theatre tonight (Friday)—has no desire to free fall from space, let alone an airplane, but it reinforced how he imagined such a jump.
On stage, van Belle recreates the magic of space, and our fascination with it, by jumping from the final frontier without leaving the theatre.
Co-written with director Eric Rose, The Highest Step in the World is inspired by the true story of test pilot Joseph Kittinger’s 102,800-foot jump from a weather balloon in 1960. It also explores the lives of others who’ve perilously stepped into space, including Vesna Vulović, a Serbian flight attendant who survived a 33,000-foot fall without a parachute, and Icarus of Greek mythology.
The play is a story of fear and fearlessness, told by a single actor (van Belle) in a harness. It integrates projection and live flying.
The show premiered in 2010 and took three years for van Belle and Rose—self-professed NASA nerds—to create. Watching a documentary about Kittinger gave van Belle the idea for the show. Kittinger set the record for the highest free fall, decades before Baumgartner, by jumping from an open-air gondola in a duct-taped suit.
“I was just so amazed by that and what it would take for somebody to leap from that height,” said van Belle in an interview.
He and Rose, now co-artistic directors of Ghost River Theatre in Calgary, set out to put together a theatre show they weren’t sure was possible. They brought the idea to Alberta Theatre Projects, which premiered the show in 2010 as part of its PlayRites Festival.
The Highest Step in the World’s stop at Gateway is part of an ongoing tour. van Belle estimates he’ll have completed nearly 70 shows after the Richmond engagement.
“I feel stronger this time out,” said van Belle, 42. “I do a lot of working out to prepare myself for it—a lot of yoga, a lot of core work, that kind of thing.”
The team behind The Highest Step does things normally not seen in the theatre, including van Belle “meeting” the audience each night.
“There’s a lot of direct address, and you can’t hide from an audience in this. You really have to talk to them. That I find a really rewarding experience in the different cities we’ve played the show.”
Although the play is structured around Kittinger’s jump—ascent, jump, descent—it’s more than a history lesson. It keys on the necessity of risk in life, and it’s told to audiences in one 75-minute act that offers, in van Belle’s words, “a total theatrical experience.”
“We found that to put it all into one act, it really creates an exciting, relentless experience for an audience. We found that an audience just sort of leaves the theatre breathless. It’s a good show to bring people to that don’t necessarily know they like theatre yet because I really feel like we are speaking the full language of the theatre in the show.”
The Highest Step in the World
•A Ghost River Theatre production on at Gateway Theatre’s MainStage until Oct. 26
•Written by co-artistic directors Eric Rose (director) and David van Belle (performer)
•Tickets, $30 to $48, at gatewaytheatre.com or at 604-270-1812