Features Published 2 October 2014

Nights at the Circus

Tim Lenkiewicz, Artistic Director of Square Peg, and Billy Alwen from Cirque Bijou on the practicalities of touring circus and staging outdoor work.
Natasha Tripney

Cirque Bijou’s Source. Photo: James North

Tim Lenkiewicz:  Touring Rime this year has been an incredibly positive experience and it’s really validated an opinion that I’ve held for a long while: contemporary circus isn’t as niche as many people think it is. We’ve taken Rime to many venues who’ve never programmed circus before and rather than being met by a wall of confusion or disinterest, we’ve actually been faced with a very positive reception all round.

Programmers tend to be very cautious of this type of work and are rightly concerned that there are a lack of developed audiences for new circus outside London. My opinion is that the demand and the audiences are there, but because of connotations around the term ‘Circus’, it can be extremely difficult to make marketing effective at encouraging ticket sales. Looking forward we believe that addressing this gap could lead to a much better developed audience base and as a result many new and exciting opportunities in future.

Billy Alwen: I would agree that the issue of developing audiences for the work is really crucial and sometimes contemporary circus is a difficult art form to market and sell to new audiences as Circus still has many different connotations and guises and means different things to different people. At the same time marketing teams like to use circus to bring new audiences in as its generally more accessible than theatre, has exciting skills, and importantly exciting images to attract new people to live shows outdoors.

We haven’t marketed Source heavily on it being circus. We have concentrated on it being an outdoor theatre show which contains elements of circus – and dance and story. The images sell a show to a great extent and because our machine already existed in another form this helped enormously.

Technically we haven’t found too many issues either – partly because we tried to keep the technical requirements of any venue down to minimum but also because we spent a lot of time preparing the ground through many site visits and conversations with venue production teams.

Source was created as large scale outdoor two-year commission to tour six venues during the Summer and Autumn of 2014 – working in partnership with EEA to deliver work with young people and communities in six residencies at outer London venues Arts Depot, Harrow Arts, Watermans, The Albany, Millfield Theatre, and Tara Arts.

These are six very different venues with different ambitions and experiences of producing outdoor work which came with six very different show sites – high streets, parks, housing estates, alleyways – and six different groups of community participants. Our budget was very tight and we had to take into account the fact we were playing locations where often English is not the first language. We wanted to  tell a story with local context in each location; to connect with heritage and history, to connect and engage young people, and to take outdoor work to audiences that had little experience of live work in outdoor spaces.

The advantages of the tour for us has been getting to know new venues and theatres and finding some exciting creation spaces for outdoor work in unexpected places. The show was made at Millfield Theatre in Edmonton, which has great facilities for making outdoor work. It has a good indoor theatre space and the team was excellent in supporting the work.

We built a self-contained mobile set in the form of a human powered tunneling machine, which has a built in battery powered sound system and circus rigging to minimize the technical requirements at the show sites. The machine also acts as a parade vehicle which helped build audiences and act as a pied piper, drawing people to the show site.

Communication is always a challenge when making outdoor work, and even when technical requirements are kept to a minimum, and many site visits have been made, things can change at a public outdoor sites very quickly and you have to be prepared to adapt and change quickly. The show was designed to have several parts to it which could be used or changed depending on the space. This flexibility saved us on a number of occasions. In some cases we had to react very quickly to incidents in the local community that were greater than the project and this is probably the biggest challenge we faced. Unlike a theatre space, outdoor spaces and the community’s they sit in are as unpredictable as life.

Square Peg's Rime.

Square Peg’s Rime.

Tim: Personally, I think flexibility is one of the keys to the success of this last tour of ours. This year we’ve performed in many theatres who have never programmed circus, and our current production, Rime, does have some very serious technical requirements. From the outset I understood that this would be one of the most challenging things for venues who aren’t used to circus, so I set out with the aim of de-mystifying circus technicality and also to facilitate our set-up in the simplest way possible.

Firstly, almost none of the venues we visited (including our rehearsal venue) had the technical facilities we needed as the rigging for Rime requires very specifically positioned high strength anchor points.  If performing out doors, we either hammer stakes into the ground or use ballast, but indoors, in theatres this isn’t possible. So whilst initially structuring the project, I looked at the reasons that venues seemed to struggle with the technical requirements of circus and discovered that the main worry was cost.  I then realised that I could install test and certify the anchor points we required without incurring the huge installation costs that many rope access and rigging safety companies would charge.  This instantly opened many tour booking doors that were previously closed to us.

I suppose this is a result of the fifteen years I spent as a professional circus performer before setting up Square Peg Contemporary Circus, and connects intimately to one of the things I really believe about directing circus: One has to have a deep and detailed understanding of all the technicalities of in order to know what can and cannot be done.  So in the case of Rime I designed and specified all the rigging and coached the group acrobatics as well as directing the show.  It might sound as though I am in quite a unique position to be able to do all these different things, but I think there is starting to be a new generation of Circus artists who do have all these different competencies, and are therefore able to make things easier for venues who aren’t used to programming Circus.

Regarding the venues we visited, I found that all of them were extremely helpful but that there were many differences in how they expressed their support of our work at a contractual level.  From the outset, we treated each venue the same in that we simply set out to make our performances possible whatever it took. Obviously these differences reflect the financial situations that the venues find themselves in, rather than  their actual attitudes to the work, but it’s always worth trying to be as self sufficient as possible in order to increase possibilities.

This is also linked to venues’ understanding of what a Circus company needs from a receiving theatre. I was surprised to hear from my production manager that some venues hadn’t expected us to need access to a washing machine and dryer (acrobats sweat a lot!) or to the stage for three/four hours before a show to warm up and train and I think that the work we’ve done this year has gone some way towards improving that understanding, but I would also say that programmers and venue managers need to learn that they also need to read the tech spec provided by circus companies and that it’s not just intended for the technical manager and might include things to do with the performers’ ‘technical requirement’ for warming up several hours before the show and stretching afterwards and as a result affect staffing and scheduling.

But having said that, we carried out in depth planning well in advance and as a result, none of the venues we visited proved particularly difficult to work in, and I hope they felt the same about Square Peg.

Regarding rehearsal and training, Circus is very similar to dance in that the performers require continuous training in order to be able to do their work well and avoid injury, but different from Dance in that each performer has very different skills so we can’t simply call everyone for company class.  Throughout this tour we scheduled training and R&D weeks where we get the whole company together without the pressure of performance simply to train and develop their skills. Usually in these weeks each day includes, three hours of acrobatics, two hours of dance and another two hours of creative work.  This is partially in preparation for creating our next show, but also to improve the sense of company that we have and to improve everyone’s fitness to avoid injuries.  This is extremely unusual in the UK, but I believe it is one of the keys to developing our work into the future and maintaining our artistic integrity whilst also pushing our technical acrobatic potential.

Billy:  I think the majority of venues did understand what we needed and were flexible enough to adapt to using non traditional performance spaces and rehearsal spaces. In fact most embraced it as it brought the venue to life in different ways by having strange contraptions sat outside venue spaces and rehearsals going on in the open air.

The gaps in shows does effect momentum and it means that you are constantly evolving the show and changing, editing and improving the work. If we had gone from show to show we wouldn’t have had time to sit back and evaluate the performance and then evolve the work. The residency’s of five days at each venue enable us to make something that could evolve depending on space, engagement of different groups of young people.

Square Peg’s Rime has just finished a UK tour. Cirque Bijou’s Source will be at Market Square, Deptford, on Sunday 5th October as part of The Albany’s Deptford Fun Palace.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.



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