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The King of Tiny Things

Fluidity and collaboration

Picture1For someone who's spent the last few months cramming for their GCSEs, being involved with Metta Theatre's energetic and exciting rehearsal process for The King of Tiny Things was a refreshing use of my week. The production has taken shape rapidly, with the prospect of an informal showing of the work on Friday afternoon working as a constant source of motivation. This week has mainly been spent creating and perfecting the show's circus sequences, and then joining them together to make a performance that runs smoothly. The company also familiarised themselves with their costumes, with one performer, who plays the Daddy Long Legs learning a complicated movement routine on stilts and our Slug getting used to her sleeping bag. Dealing with important themes like fear of change and ageing, the show uses insects to teach its two protagonists, Jeanne and Chrissie, about how it's important to accept, embrace and enjoy the complicated affair of growing up. It's touching to see such small organisms used to convey enormously relevant ideas. The method of doing this was quite unlike anything I'd ever observed before, as director Poppy is not overly prescriptive or constantly giving specific instructions. Instead, she trusts the company's combined knowledge and experience of circus, allowing them to work together to develop powerful scenes. Their confidence in their creation meant that they became braver and more inventive as the week progressed. The faith that the performers have in one another allows them to constantly throw ideas into the continuous discussion forum that defines this rehearsal method. However, she skilfully facilitates this process so that the outcome is not only physically impressive, but also highly focused towards the objective of any given moment. This collaborative technique was just as engaging to watch as the theatre that it produced was.

Picture2One of the aspects of the rehearsal process at Metta that intrigues me the most is the fluidity of it: no idea is ever set in stone. This flexibility means that scenes never cease to be altered for the better, and there's always room for a new and ingenious way of doing something. Aside from watching the four performers in action, I was sent on various errands on behalf of the company. Meeting a complete stranger in central London to pick up a trolley full of juggling clubs made me realise what a sociable profession circus-theatre is - it feels like nobody is unwilling to help a fellow juggler or hand-balancer. This experience has not only opened my eyes to the brilliance of The King of Tiny Things, but the exuberance and enthusiasm of those who work so tirelessly and creatively to tell his story. I've not only gained an insight into acrobatics, stilt work and juggling, but the way in which a small company manages to pull off spectacular work. Thank you Metta and hope the production flies!

By Laura Henderson

Circus transformations

As we roll into our third week with The King of Tiny Things, I am still continually
boggled by the talents of our cast, but my eyes are starting to open up to the
symbolic possibilities of our show. Not only through the medium of our circus
performers' skills, but through the creatures whose stories that we are telling.
On one level we see people playing garden insects, and can believe the creatures
journey on that level, but because it is a human on stage, we are able to draw
human lessons from the discoveries that the insects and bugs make. Without giving
away the story, there is something really beautiful in seeing the life cycle of a bug,
performed by humans on stage. I know that one of my anxieties (isn't it for
everyone) is a fear of change. Our Caterpillar goes through a fascinating and
enormous physical change in the show – it transforms into a Butterfly, an almost
totally different creature and it is understandably reticent about this. By watching a
human being undergo this, we can't help but be aware of our own fear of change. We
also see the butterfly emerge from a difficult period and embrace its true­ self,
unafraid to fly and newly confident. That kind of human message might fly above
the heads of our younger audiences, but the inbuilt symbolism means a story of
creepy crawlies has a deeper resonance for an older audience.

We are also dealing with the human story of two sisters growing up, and making
discoveries together in the garden. Just as our bugs are not always eager to move on
to the next stages of their lives, so our sisters, Chrissie and Jeanne, revel in the fear
and delight of their garden adventure, and wish that time could stand still. I think
everyone has those moments that they wish they could return to – the thrill of
unbridled play with a close friend or a sibling, the feeling of adventure late in the
garden, under the stars as the sounds of the night begin to surround you and take
over your imagination. The children that come to see our show, will share in that
sense of excitement as they sit in the theatre. So too will the adults that watch, but
their excitement will be tinged with the warmth of nostalgia that childhood
memories bring. Since we started rehearsing I know that I have recalled with
pleasure a particular Summer spent with my two best friends as an 11 year old. I
wonder if that is a coincidence? Perhaps. I think it more likely that in a period of
change in my own life (I only just left University and the whole world is seeming
really rather big and full of complexity) the stories that we are telling have begun to
speak to me, to fill me with a sense of longing for a blissful time in the past, as well
as hope for the future. The King of Tiny Things just might do the same for you. I
hope it will.

By James

Our circus journey

Our circus journey
Just a few weeks to go now before we open our latest show The King of Tiny Things- show 3 in our 10 shows for Metta10 - 10 shows to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Metta Theatre. It's a circus and puppetry adaptation of the delightful story by celebrated children's author Jeanne Willis and Gwen Millward, packed full of puppetry and song, and most of all circus. So I've been musing on our relationship to, and ongoing love for, the weird and wonderful art-form that is circus.

As Tom Wicker so eloquently wrote in the Stage recently, British Circus is having a bit of a moment. With the wonderful Circumference's beautiful Shelter Me currently running at Theatre Delicatessen, Barely Methodical Troupe's spectacular Bromance touring the country and Circus Geek's hilarious, quirky and astonishing Beta Testing about to close at Udderbelly Festival (where we open July 11th), there's a lot of home-grown talent to enjoy. Not to mention every show ever made by juggling genius Gandini, especially the mesmerising 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures.

So what is it about circus that gets us so excited here at Metta towers, apart from the obvious - that it's full of excitement. Our big thing always, as with all the other art-forms we exploit, has been using circus as a tool to better tell the story. Sometimes this works amazingly well, sometimes it means we fall into the trap of making something serve the story at the expense of a wow-ier spectacular trick. But we've never been so interested in the tricksiness of a trick - hence our ongoing love for aerial work performed 30cm, rather than three metres, above the ground. I think at the heart of it all is the constant potential for failure and conversely the permanent need for hope. There is a collective willingness for something to succeed - a shared moment of hope between audience and performers that the ball will be caught rather than dropped, that the aerial artist will remain airborne rather than fall. Circus unifies an audience like no other artform because everyone is willing the performers to succeed with the knowledge that in some instances failure can mean serious injury or even death. And that creates an immediate investment in the work from the audience - it's very hard (unless you have such circus-blindness that you've lost the ability to be wowed by virtuosic physical feats) to sit back in your seats, both metaphorically and literally. And as a company led by a director with a penchant for symbolism and metaphor and a Motley trained designer circus also affords a myriad of aesthetic possibilities. An aerial hoop becomes both a prison and the bottom of a well, a red aerial silk by turns a wedding sari, a flow of poisoned water and an escape route.

We started our circus journey 5 years ago with our adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry - starring west-end actor and musician Loren O'Dair who spent 45 minutes of the show airborne, after a rather gruelling six months training in

aerial, with our circus choreographer (and veteran British circus maker) Shunt co-founder Layla Rosa. Plus a soupçon of juggling from the wonderful and multi-skilled Jon Hinton. It was a beautiful show which sold out it's short run at the Southbank Centre in 2011 (note to self - we should bring that one back!!!).

Next came our first foray into creating a full blown circus-theatre show (as well as our first foray into making outdoor performance, and indeed our first foray into work for young audiences). We started developing Monkey & Crocodile in 2012, winning a National Centre for Circus Arts (then Circus Space) Lab:time award for it in 2013 and then touring the full show throughout playgrounds across the country. As well as the lovely Layla we also worked with aerialist Rosie Rowlands as an acrobatic aerial monkey, a wonderful foil for Phillip Whiteman's skateboarding, apple juggling Crocodile.

In autumn 2013 we also premièred Well - our fusion of aerial circus with Indian classical dance to tell the story of the ongoing tragedy of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. With stunning choreography on the ground by performer Shreya Kumar and in the air from Leyla Rees and another Circus veteran Lindsey Butcher of Gravity & Levity fame. Probably the most beautiful show we have ever made. We also managed to squeeze in a week of R&D at The Point's Creation Space, in Eastleigh, beginning to explore our Circus Magic Flute - surely the most ambitious idea ever - to train circus artists to sing opera, and opera singers to perform circus. Another collaboration with Rosie, as well as acrobat Jack Horner and paralympics performer Milton Lopes. Might still be another 5 years before that one has the funding necessary to put that in front of people...

Then last year in 2014 we began to develop 'The King of Tiny Things' and also our urban Jungle Book which will première (and tour the UK) in spring 2016 thanks to a £90k Strategic Touring grant from Arts Council England. With a 7 strong cast of street-dancing circus artists, plus a 20 strong local community chorus of skateboarding wolves, a beat-boxing bin-man Baloo and a Chinese pole lamp post it's gonna be a biggie! As well as the wonderful Rosie returning to the Metta fold to play Mowgli (oh didn't we mention - we rewrite most of our stories to make the protagonists female).

There was just time in 2014 to sneak in one more circus piece when we were commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to create Switch for the Evening Standard's 1000 Most Influential Londoner's Party. Yes, Stephen Hawking and Boris Johnson both saw it. Just saying. And Leyla Rees and her aerial partner Katie Hardwick aka Starfiz Aerial Duo created a stunning choreography within Will's double helix of light bulbs in a piece exploring twins and epigenetics.

I've even managed to sneak a sequence of egg-juggling into my first play Box, which received a staged reading at English Touring Theatre last week, directed by award-winning Director David Mercatali with Simon Muller and Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan.

Now here we are 5 years down the line and about to open our 5th circus show... gosh no wonder some people think all we do is circus. How did we also fit another 3 UK tours, 1 new opera, 7 new plays (admittedly 6 of them short) and 2 babies into that time (note to self, I think we're due a holiday).

So I think, hope, that this one,  The King of Tiny Things builds on our previous work to create something fun, playful, spectacular as well as deeply moving as we watch two sisters - the fabulous Rosamond Martin and Maddie McGowan overcome both a fear of insects and a fear of the inevitable metamorphoses our bodies all go through in the journey from child to adult. Plus backflips!

By Poppy

Stilts, songs and sobbing


Stilts Songs and Sobbing
Very excited to be writing my very first Metta theatre blog post, as the assistant director for their next show - circus and puppetry extravaganza - The King of Tiny Things. The first week has been jam packed with singing and circus play time, and I have spent a good amount of time in awe of our multi-talented cast. As a fairly fledgling director the professional rehearsal room is already a new thing to me, but circus is something of which I am a real Grade One novice. But already, even after a few days, I think it's going to be magical and the skill level of the circus artists alone has been enough to wow me.
Pretty much the first thing I saw in rehearsals was the wonderful Maddie creating a daddy long legs on three, and then four stilts several metres above the ground. Then we spent some time working through the 8 original songs with award-winning composer Jon Nicholl's - sounding amazing - especially the finale which had Poppy crying so much (in a good way) that she had to hide behind one of the puppets.
The set is also swimming along nicely, and whilst Jon and Poppy were tightening up the rest of the music I lent a hand in the metamorphosis (see what I did there) of a less-than-sturdy shed to serious levels of sturdiness. Without giving it away, I think the newly sturdy shed is going to give us greater scope for some unexpected circus play. Most fun so far has been the opportunity to see Poppy at work – her favourite word is 'play' – rehearsals take place in a friendly collaborative atmosphere, and by playing the cast are finding some really great stuff. Bodes well for a fantastic circus theatre show about bugs for the whole family right? Too right. Also, Noah and baby Finn, part of the Metta Theatre family (who are quite present throughout the whole process) are unbelievably cute.


By James Ellis