Maybe the best way to tell the story of the new Utah play “Jump” begins with a date gone wrong. Against his instincts, Austin Archer took the challenge to go skydiving.
It was windy that day, but Archer, a Utah-raised actor and writer who suffers from extreme motion sickness, wanted to know if he could actually step out of a plane. “In my brain, I was either going to die or I was going to live,” he says.
After the thrill of the freefall, after Archer’s parachute opened — that was when things began to get crazy. He was spinning hard in the air, thrown around from side to side in the wind. All the motion caused him to get sick. Sick, that is, as in really sick.
He vomited over himself and his instructor. Even after he safely landed, Archer was disoriented and nauseated. He continued vomiting for several hours until he received medical treatment.
Considering the moment of facing death and the aftermath of survival are some of the themes of “Jump,” which is Archer’s first play to receive a production.
The play opens April 5 and runs through April 15 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, a co-production by Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company and Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory. “A total collaboration fest,” says co-director Robert Scott Smith.
Archer’s play was selected for a theater award from The David Ross Fetzer Foundation, which supports young artists in honor of its namesake. Fetzer, a Utah actor, filmmaker, musician and theater producer, died at age 30 in 2012 of an accidental drug overdose.
“Jump” explores what happens after an accident. The story revolves around a cocksure instructor, Erick (Matthew Sincell), who takes Phil (Darryl Stamp) skydiving to mark his 60th birthday and as a way to examine his son’s recent death. Afterward, Erick comes to fall in love with his doctor, Michelle (Nicki Nixon), who has her own history of trauma. Later, he is confronted by Phil’s widow, Abigail (Teri Cowan).
“A lot of the characters in the play are trapped in grief and trying to metabolize loss,” says Andra Harbold, the show’s co-director. Adds Smith: “The play is in motion, the entire piece. Everyone is suspended, free-falling.”
One of the challenges of staging “Jump” is representing that thrill of actually falling through the air. The theatrical use of physical movement represents “everything I love about theater,” Sincell says, the creative problem-solving that asks the audience to suspend disbelief.
The staging incorporates a dual set of slack lines and the negative space underneath them. “There’s a journey in the piece that’s so cinematic in structure, it’s very propulsive,” Harbold says.
The co-director says she’s intrigued by the tension in the bliss of free-falling giving way, in an instant, to the shock of something going wrong, which brings the consideration of upcoming death. That ecstatic moment feels Shakespearean, similar to the way the Bard’s characters often experience a jolt of shocking clarity before an onstage death, she says.
As they’ve collaborated on the play, many of the production’s cast and crew have revealed their own experiences with skydiving and the way, as Sincell says, it opens up a conversation about death. Harbold’s grandfather, for example, died in a military skydiving accident.
Sincell jumped successfully in Reno several years ago, in tandem with an instructor, James Fonnesbeck, who went by the nickname The Fonz. Fonnesbeck was one of the squad of jumpers dressed like Elvis Presley who were filmed skydiving in the 1992 movie “Honeymoon in Vegas.”
On Sincell’s tandem jump, Fonnesbeck let him hold the altimeter and pull the parachute cord. They had the rare experience of holding hands in a circle with other divers, all strangers, “while we were careening toward the Earth,” Sincell says.
And in what now seems a prescient scenario to “Jump,” the actor opened The Salt Lake Tribune several months later to read a news story of a parachute failure that killed his instructor along with a 75-year-old grandmother who was taking her first jump.
Beyond his writing, Archer has been seen as an actor on local stages (recently in Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Newsies” and SLAC’s “HIR”) and a freelance choreographer for local schools. In addition, he’s been recording his original songs for more than a decade. A recent song, “Taught to Lie,” will be heard in the sound design before the opening of “Jump.”
And that might be another of the play’s collaborations, although a more mysterious one. Through the production of his play, Archer has realized how similar his musical influences are to Fetzer’s. He knew Fetzer as a castmate, Archer says, and admired him as a talent “about to become something big.” And he did, posthumously, with the foundation.
When • April 5-15; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with additional 4 p.m. matinees on Saturdays, and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets are limited but available for shows April 6 and 12-15.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theatre, 133 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 ($10 with student ID), at 801-355-ARTS or planbtheatre.org/jump