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The Ups and Downs of Aerial Acrobatics Inspire Marnie & Phil: A Circus Love Story

A second-generation circus performer tells a semi-autobiographical tale at Evanston’s Actors Gymnasium.

A young Hernandez-DiStasi after a Barnum & Bailey performance.   Photo: Courtesy of Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi

As a child you may have dreamed of running away to join the circus, but by seven years old Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi was already there.

“When I was 11 or 12,” recalls Hernandez-DiStasi, a second-generation aerialist and teeter-board flyer, “I remember saying, ‘I’m going to go be a nurse. As soon as I turn 18, I am so outta here. When I got to be 18, I was like, ‘Actually, this life is pretty cool.’”

Hernandez-DiStasi (who doesn’t divulge her age) is the daughter of Lisette Hernandez, a hand balance artist and aerialist. Hernandez-DiStasi learned to “fly” as most children learn to walk.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, the Hernandez Troupe—Lisette and her Cuban-born husband, Manuel, plus Sylvia and her brothers—performed around 500 shows, including a three-year stint with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from 1989-91. The Hernandez clan were teeterboard specialists, and Sylvia was a “flyer,” the one launched heavenward by a small springed platform to perform a few aerial tumbling moves before landing on her brothers’ shoulders.

A Hernandez Troupe show in 1990

“People are like, ‘That must have been so glamorous and exciting,’” says Hernandez-DiStasi. “But I never knew anything else. It was just my life.”

That life provides much of the inspiration for Marnie & Phil: A Circus Love Story, DiStasi’s lightly autobiographical show running through March 20 at the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston. The 90-minute piece opens on a pair of doddering, crotchety seniors—Marnie and Phil (played by DiStasi and David Catlin)—before launching backward in time to the two on their first day of circus school. The play follows the duo as they evolve from preteen novices (played by Sadie Sims and Nico Añón) to circus stars.

Much of the plot unfolds in midair: aerial routines on silk straps, suspended hoops, and twirling ropes show Marnie and Phil and their evolving relationship. DiStasi’s son Griffin, 16, is in the show’s 17-member teen ensemble, a group that delivers a Busby Berkeley-worthy number on unicycles.

Watching her son, Hernandez-DiStasi recalls her own training. “I watch him do stuff and I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe my parents were like, “Yeah, we’re going to have you flip up 20 feet and land over there.”’ But we were never irresponsible—I was trained very, very well.”

“Once you’re old enough to realize that what you do is dangerous, you also realize that it isn’t unsafe,” she says. “You never do anything you aren’t trained for and you’re always hyperaware of what you’re doing. I’ve seen more people get injured just running across the room.”

That’s not to say things didn’t go horribly wrong during DiStasi’s years in the circus. Take, for instance, the time the elephant she was riding decided to charge.

“I hated riding elephants to begin with,” she recalls. “They’re smelly and bristly and their hairs poke you. Once I was on one who was supposed to be in back but decided to stampede to the front of the line. With me, hanging on while he goes running. The trainer eventually stopped him, but it was scary. I’m glad I can say I got to ride an elephant in the circus, but while I was doing it I was like ‘OK, this is not fun.’”

The Hernandez Troupe broke up in the early 1990s because, Hernandez-DiStasi says, she wanted to go out on top. “We had 30 acrobats in our group. We all ran out every night, came tearing the length of the ring to do our number. There was one woman, older than me, she couldn’t do that run anymore. I didn’t want that to happen to me.”

But leaving was tough. “I had no idea how to be anything but a circus girl,” says Hernandez-DiStasi. She landed in Chicago in 1991 and “lost a few years” before helping with a circus-themed show at DePaul University. “It was like a window opened. I was like, ‘I can choreograph. I can design rigging.’” And when Lookingglass hired her as a flying coach for its 1993 production of The Master and Margarita, DiStasi says she found a home. “All of a sudden I was in this new circus family.”

In 1995, Hernandez-DiStasi founded the Evanston-based Actors Gymnasium with Carlyle Coash, Reader critic Tony Adler, and her husband, Larry DiStasi. Today hundreds of students enroll at the school, where classes range from fight choreography to aerial acrobatics.

“My life is so full,” says Hernandez-DiStasi, “but I didn’t realize how much I missed performing until we opened Marnie & Phil. When we started it, I was like, OK, this will be my swan song. But who knows, maybe it’ll be the beginning of something new. ”

GO Marnie & Phil: A Circus Love Story runs through March 20 at the Actors Gymnasium, 920 Noyes, Evanston. actorsgymnasium.org

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