Theatre is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation
– Stella Adler
“What is this guy doing there on the rope? That’s not theatre!” you say. My thought too. But then, that’s how the man in this image, Philippe Petit describes it himself! A piece of theatre in the sky. Staged way back on 7th August, 1974 when Philippe walked the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Theatre which lasted for all of 45 minutes. Eight crossings. He walked across the rope eight times! No hurry to get to the other end. He sat & even lay down on the rope. He took a bow dangling 1350 feet up in the sky.The camera has captured that dramatic flourish. As he neared the end of the rope, policemen on both sides reached out to apprehend him. He grinned like a mischievous schoolboy & simply turned around on the rope. Who could follow him there?!
This was theatre, no doubt, and it was brought to life on the screen in “Man on Wire”, a fantastic 2008 documentary that relives this remarkable story through reconstruction & narrative of all principal characters. But the drama was not just in the walk, but also in the events leading upto it.
Philippe had to find a way to recce the place, sneak up all the heavy-duty material & smuggle himself & his team members onto the tall tower rooftops. This was no lawful act, by any means. How did they pull this off?
The story, its details are best captured on the screen. Ultimately, three regular friends from France where Philippe comes from, an Australian & a few adventurous Americans help vault Philippe onto the rope. How they size each other up, how they each come to terms with the ‘impossible’ nature of their task, what transpires in their inner beings, what they express, how it all unfolds; everything is fascinating to behold!
First, the task itself. Walk 200 feet without a safety net or a harness, 1350 feet up in the air on a one inch thick rope between twin towers that themselves sway in the blustery wind! If there is one walk we can point to and say, this is no cakewalk, it is this one! This is impossible.
One man believes in the impossible. Philippe Petit. Everyone on the team acknowledge his prowess on the rope. Even on the screen, Philippe seems infallible. But every team member knows this is a brush with death. What does Phillippe make of it? ”If I die, what a beautiful death. To die in the exercise of your passion”, is what he says in the very first scenes of ‘ Man on Wire.”
Philippe’s passion entrances his team members. They start to believe as well. But, the cold hand of common sense nudges them back into the sheer craziness of the stunt, it’s near suicidal nature. Each one has to confront the what-if of things going horribly wrong. Every team member comes to terms with this see-saw struggle in different ways. Some leave. Some stay but can’t be there till the last step. They can’t bear the tension of standing just a few feet away on the edge of the roof top as he is on the rope. Some can do it. They are with him all the way.
This is a quick-and-ready team that never has a settled look to it. It is a team in a hurry. A team not steadily built up. A team cobbled together & muddling its way through. What, if anything, holds this people together? Just two things. Passion and commitment.
Philippe’s passion rubs off on everybody. They sense something; something extraordinary, something magical is in the air! And they want to be a part of it. Once onboard, they are committed to the magical. But equally crucial is their commitment to keeping it real. They want to keep Philippe alive.
In an age of paralysis by analysis, this is a great example of teamwork simplified. No fancy team-bonding or clockwork coordination. Just a strong passion to get going. And an intense commitment to see things through.
What about competence? Nobody sweats over it. Considering what the stakes were, this is significant. Jean-Louis, Philippe’s childhood, seems to be the only one who frets over basic competence. Many get onboard as an adrenalin rush. Philippe’s sheer exuberance powers them into action mode. A bias for action makes the team do rather than think, think, think. They share their plan. And people who share the same spirit of adventure and don’t mind a run-in with the law join. That’s it.
Was anybody indispensable? According to me, Jean-Louis was. He knew how to set up the wire. He had done it before. He & Philippe grew up together. The childhood buddies were slowly getting distanced from each other by the time of this event. Indeed, on this adventure, they never warmed up in spirit towards each other. But – and this is the important part- they continued to play to their strengths & work together.
Jean was someone who anticipated everything & sized up the odds. Philippe had a supreme self-belief in his own ability to beat all the odds. Jean’s gritty realism is the vital antidote to Philippe’s reckless daring. Jean holds Philippe back when things are not ready & Philippe, the performer hates being caged in. Jean takes the lead in aborting the first attempt in January 1974 when it is apparent they are just not ready. Jean secures the tight rope on the tower the time they succeed. Though Philippe walks the rope, Jean Louis keeps him on it.
But don’t teams rally around a purpose? They need a cause, a why. Why did they do all this? Why did Philippe do this?
When Philippe is arrested and brought down to earth, that’s what everybody naturally wants to know. Microphones are thrust in his face as he is being led away. Why did you do this? Here is Philippe in his own words as he reflects on this time. ” Why? Why?!! And that was a very again in my way of seeing America, a very American finger-snapping question. I did something magnificent and mysterious and I got a practical ‘why’. And the beauty of it is that I didn’t have any why.”
There was no why, in the way, we expect it to be. Does this rankle?
Today, we are asked to ‘start with why.’ There is so much emphasis on purpose in whatever we do. Why are we doing this? What are the reasons? Are we clear on why we want to do anything? If we are not, we are told something is amiss. Life is drifting by.
Here we have a story that has no clear ‘why’ & yet has struck a chord with many people since way back in 1974. People are moved by it, inspired by it! And the genesis of the story does not even have a clearly articulated why. The 2008 documentary, itself an amazing work of art, has immortalized the story on celluloid. A movie is being made and will release in September 2015. So, there is no denying that the story exercises a powerful pull.
What is significant about this? For me, it provokes a deeper reflection on whether the ‘why’ matters in every aspect of life at all times. I refer to the ‘why’ in terms of understanding reached through deliberation & thinking. Is it the only way to reach the ‘why’? Can I create the ‘why’ in terms of action reached through spontaneous action? Am I using deliberation & thinking as a way to avoid action because I can rationalize needing a ‘why’ first before I can swing into action? Is the insistent search for a why an indication of the self-delusion?
I leave the last words to Philippe, the performer extraordinaire.
“To me, it is really so simple that life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge, and then, you are going to live your life on the tight rope.”