‘Leo’ a demanding show for former acrobat

2012 Spoleto Festival USACircle of ElevenLeophoto by Andy Phillipson

In a culture where people find it increasingly difficult to sit still, one could argue that live theater has a tough job engaging its audience. As genres blur and more is required to keep people entertained, artists are finding new ways to hold our interest.

Germany-based group Circle of Eleven brings to this year’s Spoleto Festival “Leo,” a one-man show, utilizing live performance, acrobatics and projected film.

“Fooling around with gravity has always been my big passion, and I started to seriously think about how to stay in the air when I did a lot of trampoline work,” said Tobias Wegner, who plays the title character and is the brains behind the show.

“I am quite convinced I share this interest with a lot of human beings.”

“Leo” occurs on a split stage, where the action takes place on one half and an image of Leo is projected at a 90-degree angle on the other half. The production plays with concepts of shifting gravity and altered perspective in which identical spaces operate under opposing gravitational laws.

Wegner holds the stage alone, without words, for more than an hour, relying entirely on his body to tell the story.

Primarily trained as an acrobat, Wegner attended the Ecole Superieure des Arts du Cirque in Belgium, where the students learn circus techniques but also take classes in acting and various dance styles ranging from ballet to African.

“That obviously influenced me and made me more of a creator in a culture of performing arts pieces rather than the usual circus acts, Wegner said. “Leo” is considered physical theater, a genre with origins in multiple disciplines. Performers are required to have more physical control and flexibility than in traditional forms of acting, and in some ways need skills closer to contemporary dance than drama.

“Artists drift outside understood boundaries of ‘dance’ and ‘theater’ when they’re investigating ideas they can’t articulate in one domain or the other,” explained Zac Whittenburg, a former professional dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre and Hubbard Street Dance, and writer for Dance Magazine and Time Out Chicago.

“While traditional genre distinctions aren’t exactly endangered, hard-to-categorize performances are increasingly common. Once almost solely seen under big tops, circus arts in particular have tumbled their way into dance, traditional theater, live music and more.”

Evan Parry, associate professor at the College of Charleston, is trained in stage combat and the Viewpoints method, a highly physical form of acting.

“One-person physical theater pieces are less common than monologue performances,” Parry said. “They are certainly challenging in different ways. Physical theater performers are generally required to be in great shape.”

For Wegner, the physical challenge of maintaining the performance alone presented certain obstacles.

“At the beginning, I thought, ‘There is no way to do this stuff for 65 minutes!’ But as the creation runs along, your body starts to develop specific knowledge and tiny shortcuts and adjustments here and there to make life easier, and after a couple of weeks you go, ‘That’s it? Well, then let’s do it all over again.’ It’s been so much fun!”