George Mason High School alumnus Gregg Curtin hopes that an online fundraising campaign will help his performance troupe Fighting Gravity bring their blacklight stage show to Broadway.
The group gained a worldwide audience in the summer of 2010 with its first appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” a televised talent competition. For that live audition, the houselights were shut off, the blacklights were turned on, and the curtain was drawn to reveal four figures in white. Yellow balls surrounded them, seemingly suspended in mid air. The electronica beat kicked in and Fighting Gravity, as the name suggests, delivered a performance that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
“I don’t think any of us could explain what that feeling is like,” Curtin said of the group’s appearance on the show. “Your stomach is fighting everything you have. You’ve got butterflies. You’re nervous. You’re worried you’re going to get buzzed from one of the judges.”
Three of the figures treaded on air, spun from side to side, and manipulated the glowing orbs all under the direction of a puppet-master overhead. Constant cheers from the audience underscored the techno sounds the performers danced with precision choreography.
Curtin is tight-lipped about how Fighting Gravity creates its illusions onstage.
“When people ask how we do it, we’ve answered everything from magic, to magnets, to wizardry – just kind of funny responses because obviously we don’t want to reveal our secrets,” Curtin said.
But when the lights in the theater went back on during that audition performance for “America’s Got Talent,” a little piece of the secret was revealed. It took more than a dozen performers to create the performance, dressed in black and white on different parts of their body to be either obscured by the darkness or illuminated by the blacklight.
In a talk after their performance with one of the show’s celebrity judges, the admission that none of the performers had any dance training elicited another spurt of applause and surprised laughter from the audience. They were fraternity brothers at Virginia Tech, most of them engineering and business students, who had discovered their performing talents by chance the year prior.
The group formed when the fraternity brothers were planning to perform at a benefit talent show on campus. They were inspired by the blacklight theater popular in the Czech Republic and classical Japanese kabuki theater. They updated these traditions, combining them with electronic dance music and choreography for a modern audience.
They performed at the benefit show for a few thousand students, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“They just went wild,” Curtin said. “That gave us the first step in realizing ‘hey, this is kind of cool.’ But we didn’t think it would take us further in life.”
But a few months later, Curtin sent an audition tape to “America’s Got Talent” and the group was invited for a live audition in New York City. They’d be performing for a much larger audience than that first show at Virginia Tech – three celebrity judges, thousands of audience members, and millions of NBC viewers.
They earned the approval of all three judges in their live audition and moved on in the competition, creating more and more involved performances with less and less time to prepare. They only had a few days to put together their final performance, which Curtin says included one of the group’s most difficult illusions to date. The performers acted out a battle between good and evil on two levels, with the top-tier “good” figures cast in blue light and the bottom-tier “bad” figures cast in red. At one point, the figures mirror one another, which means the red figures had to turn completely upside down and dance during the performance. With this finale, Fighting Gravity took third place in that year’s “America’s Got Talent” competition.
After the show aired, the group went on a nationwide tour with the other top 10 acts from that year’s contest. They performed on Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve, made a guest appearance on the following season of “America’s Got Talent,” and even traveled back to Virginia Tech for a show. But when the touring was done, the performers had to find a way to keep Fighting Gravity going.
“We did have to come back down to earth after the show and realize some of us had to finish school; we have to be able to support ourselves financially and make sure we’re covering all of our bases,” Curtin said. He went back to school, earning his degree in electrical engineering, but now Fighting Gravity is his main job. Cost prohibits the group from staging its own shows, so for now they earn money by performing at events for large corporations that can finance their act. But they’re planning a workshop that Curtin hopes will help the performers develop their act and get investors interested in financing a full-length show. They’ve turned to Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform, to solicit donations for the workshop from supporters. The Fighting Gravity project has until May 20 to raise $50,000; thus far, it has raised about $14,000.
Curtain’s goal is that one day Fighting Gravity, in the Blue Man Group model, will be able to open shows around the world and run them simultaneously. But right now, the group’s next step is to translate their Kickstarter funding into success that will help them realize their dream of staging a show in New York City.
“I’m hoping that everyone from Falls Church and that community can help us reach our goal and know that if they can help Fighting Gravity succeed, they’re helping one of their own to succeed as well,” Curtin said.
For more information about Fighting Gravity, visit fightingravity.com.