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!