Betwixt & Between – thoughts on a process

Last night was the premiere of a show I’ve been directing.

About as different from Peter Pan as you can get, this is a small two-hander circus show that I got brought in to direct. Alice & Oceane approached me when putting a funding bid together in early 2016 as they wanted a circus director to work with them in expanding some ideas into a full-length circus-theatre piece. They eventually got the funding, and I spent a few weeks with them in the summer getting to know them and their curious innovative bit of aerial equipment – which we eventually named ‘The Beast’, on account of it’s habit for trapping/pinching/biting various parts of the body.

Unlike the small-cog-in-a-massive-machine feeling I get from working on shows at The National, my input into this show was huge. I was able to facilitate some really early sessions with the performers to establish company values, the style of the work, and what ‘story’ they wanted to communicate to an audience. At the point of me joining the project, Alice & Oceane had an interesting piece of kit and some aerial choreography that they’d created on it. They were both strong aerialists with quite distinctively different movement styles, but with little experience of creating full-length shows with a theatrical narrative. Both were nervous of doing ‘bad acting’ but really up for trying anything. They gamely got stuck into various theatre games including improvisations to free up their voices and express high degrees of emotion. Many of the discoveries made in these early improvisations ended up in the final show, though refined and plotted as part of an overall character journey.

Due to other work commitments of those involved in the project, and availability of a suitable space (always an issue with aerial), rehearsals were few and far between. This had it’s pros & cons. The time-restrictions meant that when we did come together, the pressure was on to cram everything into the precious few hours we had. But circus is so physically demanding that you just can’t work continuously on a scene like you would in theatre. The performers get so tired it becomes dangerous, and I have found that too many consecutive days of physical exhaustion has an impact on their ability to function mentally. The pros of having the sessions so spread out was that ideas had time to settle and ferment. So each time we met afresh, all of us would have new things to bring to the table.

It was quite late in the process (with money & time from the funding pot running out) that we came upon the ‘theme’ of the piece. I had been concerned that we hadn’t found the reason why this piece needed to go in front of an audience…what were we trying to ‘say’? what relevance does the show have? how did we want the audience to connect with the performers/characters? Basically – why do this? We had found early on that the piece was about communication, and had been creating a physical language around this, but in the second-to-last week the lightbulb moment was that the theme was more-specific: it was cross-cultural miscommunication. Once this clicked, then the last stages of the process involved fitting the work created thus far into emotional journeys for the characters that would make sense for the audience. And then finally editing (cutting whole scenes!!), and refinement of the choreography.

We collaborated in various degrees with a movement director, a composer & a costume designer. Again, due to money & time restrictions, the involvement of these important people wasn’t as imbedded as we’d have liked. But their individual inputs were invaluable – each of them bringing expertise that I certainly lack.

The future of this show is funding-dependant. It really needs another month spent on it, with myself and the other collaborators involved further, to truly blossom into the show I know it can be. Fingers crossed we get the support to continue the journey.

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