In 2006, Tristan Sturrock smoldered his way through Kneehigh Theatre's production of Tristan & Yseult, impressing Spoleto audiences as the updated classic's doomed male lead. His real-life partner, Katy Carmichael, was on stage with Sturrock, narrating the story about the star-crossed lovers. At the time, she was pregnant with their second child.
Two years earlier, the couple was expecting their first, a boy. They were in Cornwall at the time, and Sturrock went out to celebrate May Day at Obby-Oss, a centuries-old spring fertility festival. After what we can assume was more than a few drinks, Sturrock walked up a hill to his new home. His cell phone rang. It was Carmichael, so he paused to answer it, taking a seat on a wall.
When he leaned back in the midst of the conversation, Sturrock expected his spine to rest against a hedge. Instead, he dropped down 10 feet to the ground below, breaking his neck in the process. He wasn't dead, obviously. But he couldn't move his body.
What happened next is the subject of Sturrock's one-man show, Mayday Mayday. Directed by Carmichael, the performance blends comedy, physical theater, and illusion as Sturrock takes his audience from the fall to his first steps. And when he was wowing the Spoleto crowd in 2006, physically functional once again, he never thought he'd come back to the festival to tell that very tale. Back then, he just thought he was going to forget it even happened.
City Paper: In the most basic terms, what does it feel like to break your neck?
Tristan Sturrock: For me, there was no pain at all. That comes later. The overriding thing that I found in terms of my break was the instant paralysis, the instant immobility. Your normal instinct when you fall over is to get up, and that just disappears instantly. Because the spinal cord is carrying so many messages, so much information, all your senses of touch change. Basically, all I could feel was this kind of tingling sensation, a fire-and-ice tingling sensation in my hands. That's the only thing I felt. Everything else kind of disappears. It's a very strange thing.
CP: Did breaking your neck influence your decision to make Mayday Mayday a physical show, as it's been described?
TS: I guess that's how I've always made work. That's the way I've always made theater. It's a physical process, and before the accident the sort of work that I made was very physical, and I suppose that's the only way I know how. I was very lucky in the sense that I started to get movement back, but I had the chance to be able to build it back in a certain way and be conscious of every single minute step, so in a way I'm probably more physical now than I was before because I'm more aware of it. So I suppose that's why it's such a physical piece now in the way I tell it.
CP: Why did you also put an emphasis on costumes, sound, and lighting in the show?
TS: I'm telling this story about something that happened to me, and I guess I wanted to put a little bit of distance from me as well, so I use those — although now the show is very pared back. It's actually very simple in terms of effects and costume changes ... I use a very select amount of props and sound effects and lighting effects to suggest a lot of different places and a lot of different people. Again, that stems from the way in which I've always devised and made work with companies. With this piece, as I've said, it's been a case of paring it back and stripping it away to what is essentially a very simple story, an autobiographical thing.
CP: You mentioned that you've wanted to separate yourself from the story. What is it like performing something so personal, and not only you performing it every night in front of strangers, but with your partner directing it?
TS: Yeah, it's kind of strange, isn't it [laughs]. It kind of grew quite organically though, the way that Katy became involved. Originally, it was just me in the room with a camera, and Katy just helped me produce and organize things. I'd say, look, it's much easier if you stand there and we look at this and you tell me how this looks. So it kind of happened very, very quietly and very organically, and obviously she had a good knowledge of the events. We were never, I think, consciously like, you're going to direct this when I do this story. It grew almost sideways in a way. We also don't question it, because if we tried to pick apart that relationship and the way that we work, it might not work, so we carry on because it does work. And I don't think consciously when I'm telling this story the person I'm talking about is Katy or anyone else that I know. Like I said, I keep a distance, because I am a storyteller and I have to have that distance, because then it allows an audience to feel something or an audience to connect with it ... Weirdly, yesterday was the first of May and sometimes it can kind of creep up on you sideways. I was quite emotional yesterday, but you've got to suppress those things in a way. I think you have to keep a distance from something that is very close to you and also allow an audience in, if that makes sense.
CP: Why is Mayday Mayday a comedy?
TS: I think that helps, because you're dealing with something that is very dark. Everyone says often in the bleakest moments is when you find the most humor, strangely. It's just one of those things. The moment when I was at the bottom of the wall, I remember laughing, thinking, well, this is just it, what a crazy way to go. How stupid. And I found it amusing, because there was nothing else I could do. I was in an incredibly terrible moment thinking, 'Oh, this is the way I go — at the bottom of the wall.' There was no gravitas.
And also it helps you to build tension and then release it with an audience using humor, and it allows you to get darker. It's also a piece of entertainment. I think that's very important if you're telling a story: You cannot become too self-serving. You need that light in order to be able to tell something that is potentially very dark or very heavy. You really need lightness to be able to tell a tale like that, an autobiographical tale that deals with those sort of themes. I think humor is vital to get those contrasts. It really highlights the darker moments as well.