Herocycle gives Evel Knievel’s story new wheels

According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, a hero is someone who leaves the confines of the common life on a quest for something greater, sacrificing the comfortable and familiar.

By that definition, a list of heroes could include everyone from Jesus and Buddha to Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.

But would the list include daredevil and perpetual self-promoter Evel Knievel?

This weekend and next FTF Works presents “Herocycle,” a performance piece that looks at the often tragic and – some argue – heroic tale of the legendary stunt performer.

“Herocycle” examines the heroic nature of Evel Knievel’s career.
Photo credit: Linda Passon–Mcnally

Knievel died in 2007;  concieved by Erik Hoover and Kym Longhi, “Herocycle” began as an abbreviated show in 2008, playing to sold out audiences at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. The story takes place during his final jump, from this world into the next.

Hoover says he was drawn to Knievel’s many contradictions.

Here’s someone who said “Kids, don’t do drugs” – i.e. don’t engage in self-destructive behavior – and then he’d go and jumps over a bunch of Ford Mustangs and break a bunch of bones. He specialized in danger and death defying acts, and for good or ill he was seen as a hero to a generation of people and had an impact on popular culture. But a lot of people thought of him as a clown and a ridiculous glory seeker. That’s very American – fame-seeking celebrities are held up as heroes.

So does the fact that Knievel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp jumps on his motorcycle, resulting in 433 broken bones, make him a hero? Or just a tragic figure? Or even a comic one?

Director Kym Longhi says what makes Knievel a hero is that he wasn’t dissuaded by his failures.

When I started the project I thought it was going to be funny. I grew up in the 70s and dismissed Evel Knievel as an idiot. But the more I studied him the more admiration I gained.  For me he’s a hero because he was able to fail so fiercely so thoroughly and still get up and do it again.

FTF Works production of Herocycle, co-conceived by Erik Hoover and Kym Longhi, at Old Arizona Theatre June 21 – 29, 2013.
Included in image: Jim Peitzman
Photo credit: Linda Passon–Mcnally

Longhi says such determination is a trait of society’s best artists and innovators. How we deal with failure, she says, reveals who we are.

How persistent we are – in art or in life – really distinguishes us. Our successes often define our public persona, but that success was preceded by a number of failures, and we couldn’t have had that success otherwise. I don’t think we discuss failure constructively or creatively. If we did, people would risk more, and I believe that there would be a lot more creative solutions to a lot of the problems that we’re facing.

“Herocycle” incorporates a lot of Joseph Campbell’s thinking on heroes, along with excerpts of interviews with Evel Knievel. And then there’s the music, the aerialists, and the many jumps and crashes from as high as 30 feet onto the stage.

Longhi says she hopes audiences come away from the show feeling more alive. “I want them to take their next jump,” she says, to which Hoover adds “I want them to follow their own hero’s journey. Because I think if more people did that, we’d all be in a much better place.”

“Herocycle” runs June 21-29 at the Old Arizona Theatre in Minneapolis.