Broken bones, a bruised lung, a concussion—reports of cast member injuries painted ambitious Broadway production Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as a modern-day Icarus, flying too close to the sun with stunts. Every time a mishap hit the headlines, I thought: They need Cirque. But when Kà performer Sarah Guyard-Guillot tragically died in a fall this past June, and Zarkana’s “Wheel of Death” sent an acrobat to the hospital this month, I was reminded that no one is invincible.
Whoever fills Spidey’s red boots should keep that in mind when Turn Off the Dark transitions to Vegas next year. The move adds to ongoing discussions about safety versus spectacle, in which the commenting public has been surprisingly lucid and balanced. On the Huffington Post’s coverage of Cirque’s fatal accident, one commenter says: “I respect and am even held in awe of what these people do. But no one has to risk their life for entertainment.” While one comment points out the incredibleness of Cirque’s safety record, another hits on the elephant in the chat room: “Cirque du Soleil audiences are just like NASCAR audiences. If there is not a chance of a fatal accident they aren’t going to buy tickets.”
Audiences don’t want accidents to happen, but they do want to be thrilled by the possibility. The higher a stunt is off the ground, the louder we gasp—just as we do for a hard hit in football. Debate is raging right now about NFL refs calling too many penalties, protecting players from “playing the game” amid uproar about chronic brain injuries. One of the greatest quarterbacks ever, Brett Favre, who is suffering from memory loss, dropped a bombshell on The Today Show last week. He said that if he had a son, he’s not sure he would let him play.
No one is advocating for the end of football or its violent aspects, and I haven’t seen mass outcry for Cirque or other big productions to stop or even rein in stunts. The idea of sanitizing athletic spectacle isn’t as easy a sell as buffing the sharp edges off of playground equipment. I think athletes and audiences accept that they can’t have it both ways, and they’re both choosing to take the risk.