Me + (circus + academia) = ?

I am much of the way through studying on the inaugural MA in Circus Directing (Circomedia, Bristol), and it’s already been mind-altering. Just like my body in its pre-retirement aerialist days, this poor old brain has been stretched and strengthened, stimulated to function in new and exciting ways. Contextualising and giving a vocabulary to form the fuzzy thoughts I’d been having for years but never knew how to express.

Having come to the end of my physical journey with circus due to age & injury several years ago, I found myself wanting to explore my relationship with the art form further and deeper. I was falling in love with directing circus, and struggling to find role models out there who I could contact for advice, or look to for precedence. Essentially, I’d been searching for this course before it even existed. I spent two years looking at physical theatre, dance and directing MAs in other universities in the UK and abroad, reading their prospectuses and seeing what kind of performers and performances were connected with them. None of the them spoke to me and my specific circus-y needs, all would involve relocating to another city, and I wasn’t prepared to uproot myself from my beloved Bristol for something that wasn’t a perfect fit. Then, as luck would have it, I heard that they were thinking of running an MA at my old circus school, Circomedia. IN MY HOME TOWN! I contacted Bim (course director) to discuss what I wanted from a course of this kind – what knowledge I hoped to gain and, ideally, who from. The course began in September 2017, and I’m loving being a student again.

The main struggle I have on this MA is the academic writing/reading involved. There’s not actually that much of it, as lots of the research is practical, but I’ve not written an essay in over 20 years and my mother tongue these days is that of performance description, reviews (and funding applications), not that of academia. It would appear that there is a whole world out there (who knew?) of people communicating in some weird formalised language with odd rules (no talking in the first person) and strict formats (quotations using over 40 words should be indented, single-spaced and without quotation marks), and much academic writing seems to have scant regard for the poor person reading it. And there’s so little writing about actual circus directing, because it’s all so new. Stuff is starting to appear, from Montreal and Scandinavia, from the USA and other small circus enclaves around the world. These rare articles, dissertations and theses are written by people with a passion for contemporary circus, and in a language I can understand, perhaps because the writers know that their primary task is one of communication, and they know their audience, sorry, their ‘readers’.

One of the joys of the MA is that I am given free rein to geek out about the subject. What does it mean? Why does it make people feel the way it does? Why do I like this piece of work and not that? How does it compare to other art forms? Who is making interesting work? Why does circus need directors? And what is this thing ‘circus’ anyway? We few, we happy few, we band of MA students sit in our little common room and discuss these questions and more. For hours. We argue fervently about this theory or that show. We disagree whilst grinning, happy to be amongst like-minded souls, and meeting each other’s gaze with a knowing smile. Realising that we’ve found our tribe.

This is the first year the course has run, and its not perfect by any means. But it is really important that it does run, and that other circus research MAs are created, for how are we as a sector going to develop and flourish if we can’t interrogate the art form itself? Performing circus is so all-consuming, that its only now I’ve stopped and am looking at it from the outside, that I feel I can truly ‘get it’. On the treadmill of training, managing injuries, administrating a small business, seeking commissions, selling yourself, working on other people’s visions whilst still trying to make the circus that you want to make, it is really difficult to find the time to think. To think deeply about the whys and the what-does-it-means. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do this, and I know that my work will benefit. I can’t wait to try out my new brain.

Creating Narnia at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

I’ve been working as Aerial Director on this project since earlier this year. The creation process started with conversations with Sally Cookson about how to stage the story in this theatre. Excitingly, the semi-circular amphitheatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was to be transformed into a playing space in the round. This causes some staging challenges, including for any flying, because not only do the actors and set have to work on all sides, but there’s very little ‘backstage’ or ‘wings’ space to store props and hide technical trickery.

I travelled up for an initial site visit in May to see what the possibilities for rigging were. Its a brilliantly large space with loads of height but, with the show being in the round, not really anywhere to rig aerial equipment where it could be both easily removed when not needed AND stable enough to have bodies hanging from it. Kit rigged from lighting fly bars would move around and bash into expensive lights/sound equipment when performers climbed about on it. Further discussions with the technical staff at the theatre were had, and I went away with some ideas of what is and isn’t possible.

Before another site visit in June, there was a two week (non-aerial) R&D period in London with the core creative team and a few actors. I was able to attend for a few days and it was hugely useful to get a sense of what the design of the set was to be, which of the big key scenes might have the potential for aerial, and how Sally was approaching the style of the storytelling. I put together a selection of aerial images involving hemp-like ropes & nets (for Aslan), white drapes of fabric & silks (for the White Witch), various hanging oddments (for the Professor’s house) and some sketches of what a winched up Witch might look like. These images & ideas, along with others from the set designers, were put into the ‘pot’ – we shared a dropbox folder amongst the creative team – and were referred to in conversations with Sally about what effects were most suitable for which scenes.

Another site visit to the theatre involved lots of discussions with the technical team whilst stood on the stage pointing upwards, along with scribbled drawings of rigging and trussing. With the addition of a square of truss fixed at ten metres, and some ‘docking stations’ for the lighting bars, we figured a way to get the vertically-rigged aerial equipment into the space, and importantly out of sight again.

For another aerial effect, we hired in a fancy winch system and had a harnessed actor lifted into the centre of the airspace above the stage, before she is lowered down through a trapdoor in the stage floor.

All in all, I think the aerial elements work well within this show, though because of limited timings within the silks scene, the performers never get as high as I’d like. And I’m sad that I wasn’t able to get any actors ‘appearing/disappearing’ by climbing out of view or entering from above. This was because the grid of this theatre is fixed in such a way that it would be really difficult for an actor to safely access any ropes/silks that are rigged. It is a shame, as I think that this is one of the magical effects that can be enacted by strong & confident performers with a good head for heights. The other disappointment for me was that I wasn’t able to get the cloudswings rigged any further out. At this point in the show near the end, an effect where the four main characters are swinging over the audience would’ve been amazing.

The show runs till the 27th January.  www.wyp.org.uk/events/lion-witch-wardrobe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia beckons

And so, it would appear I’m blessed to be working again with Sally Cookson on a Christmas show for the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe is a co-production between WYP and Elliott & Harper, and excitingly is going to be presented in the round.

Creative works have already begun, with R&D sessions in London and Bristol exploring the narratives, music, puppetry, movement, and (my area) the flying. The design of the space, with it being in the round, means that there’s no wings to hide behind, and no easy way to get aerial kit or people into the air. I could write a whole other post entirely about how we are going to fill the airspace in certain scenes, but I don’t want to announce any spoilers yet…

Casting is underway, and rehearsals start up in Leeds in early October. (the same time as I start my MA in Circus Directing at Circomedia – eek!)

Here’s a link to the WYP website, with some early R&D video clips (no aerial, sadly):

https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/lion-witch-wardrobe/

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.

La Strada & Angels in America

Exciting news to start the new year with.

I’ll be working with Sally Cookson again on her stage adaption of the Fellini film, La Strada. My job as Circus Consultant on this one will be to advise on the circus elements in the show, as the story centres around characters working as old-school-style touring street theatre/circus performers. I’ll know more once I get stuck in, but the cast & crew on this one looks great.

http://www.lastradalive.com

 

And I’ll be back at the National Theatre this spring too, working on Angels in America. Directed by Marianne Elliott, this is 2 plays telling the story of relationships through an AIDS affected America in the 1980s. I’ll be working as Aerial Director again, so I get to play with the rigging department at the National – so many toys – though there’ll not be nearly as much flying as in Peter Pan.

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/angels-in-america

Peter Pan at the National

I am aerial director for the National Theatre’s 2016 christmas production of Peter Pan. Lucky me!!

The original show was created for Bristol Old Vic in 2012. The show was very well received and is being re-made for the National Theatre, with the same core creative team from Bristol coming to London to make the magic again.

I will be working alongside Sally Cookson (director), Mike Akers (dramaturg), Benji Bower (musical director), Katie Sykes (costume designer), Michael Vale (set designer), Aideen Malone (lighting designer), Dan Canham (movement director), Toby Olie (puppet designer & director), RC Annie (fight directors), Dominic Bilkey (sound designer).

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/peter-pan