Distress call becomes art in Spoleto’s ‘Mayday Mayday’

otaylor@thestate.comMay 23, 2013 

  • If you go “Mayday Mayday”

    When: 8:30 tonight, 9:30 p.m. Friday, Noon Saturday, 8 p.m. May 26 and 1 p.m. May 27

    Where: Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston, 54 St. Philip St.

    Tickets: $35

    Information: spoletousa.org

May Day. In Great Britain, May Day — May 1 — is a celebration of the fertility that comes with a new spring season. There are parties, festivals and rallies.

Mayday. It’s a universally accepted distress call, usually pronounced twice.

On May Day 2004, Tristan Sturrock made a Mayday call — when his phone went dead. Sturrock, who last performed at Spoleto Festival USA in Kneehigh Theatre’s “Tristan & Yseult,” will share his story in the one-man production “Mayday Mayday.”

The festival, which officially begins Friday, runs through June 9. There will be about 160 performances during over two weeks, making it one of the largest in Spoleto history. It’s an extraordinary undertaking for organizers since one of Spoleto’s primary venues, Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, is in the midst of a renovation and the festival will be without it for two seasons.

The TD Arena at the College of Charleston, the home of the Cougars’ basketball teams, will be transformed into a performance venue.

“Mayday Mayday” opens tonight at Emmett Robinson Theatre. When he was on the Spoleto stage seven years ago, few were aware of the drama Sturrock had, unwittingly, starred in. After welcoming summer at Obby Oss, a May Day festival held in England for centuries, Sturrock made his way up a steep hill to the cottage he shared with his girlfriend (now wife). She called him, so Sturrock took a breather on a nearby wall.

He leaned back, expecting to nestle in shrubbery while he talked. Instead, he fell 10 feet and was wedged between a garage and a wall. It’s more entertaining to let Sturrock tell the rest of the story, which includes paralysis, the floating bones in his spinal cord and the surgical options.

It’s a fascinating story, buoyed by music and physical comedy.

“When you tell it as a story on stage, it feels like someone else’s story,” Sturrock said. “It’s kind of fantastic that it happens almost as a piece of entertainment.”

In recent years, popular storytellers have been revealed to be playing loose with facts. Mike Daisey’s story about Apple factory conditions in China was notably retracted by the radio program “This American Life.” Still, Daisey performed “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at Spoleto last year, but he canceled his performance of “Teching in India” and instead assessed himself through a travel monologue.

Sturrock has been fascinated by his memory of the fall — and how it differs from what others recall.

“It’s my perspective of the story, but it’s probably very different from my wife’s,” he continued. “Her experience is different.

“It’s really what you choose to highlight. Some of the details I find less important than other people.”

“Mayday Mayday” was workshopped at Kneehigh Theatre. It began with various characters, but gradually it was stripped to the core.

“I play with the tenses of it,” said Sturrock, who added he never intended to tell this story. “It kind of flashes between past, present (and) future because my story is still going on.”

Sturrock can still be overcome by emotion when performing — discussing, really — what he endured. But he keeps himself slightly removed so the audience can share emotional ownership.

“It sort of creeps up on you,” he said. “It’s triggered by something quite oblique to what went on. You get this sudden surge or wave that’s very emotive.”

If you go

“Mayday Mayday”

When: 8:30 tonight, 9:30 p.m. Friday, Noon Saturday, 8 p.m. May 26 and 1 p.m. May 27

Where: Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston, 54 St. Philip St.

Tickets: $35

Information: spoletousa.org

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

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