CircusFest, Roundhouse, London; 22nd April 2016
If we pay attention to the writings hung around the bare brick walls of the Roundhouse’s Dorfman Hub, where the opening installation of new multi-platform concept Me, Mother is underway, we can clearly read that this is ‘a show about circus and motherhood, not a circus show about motherhood.’
But, just as all of our identities are formed out of various relationships with motherhood (yes, men’s too), so are the identities of all the show’s performers and creative team deeply rooted within their various relationships to circus. Stories that connect these things are the materials that have built the Me, Mother project.
The installation precedes a theatrical presentation in another of the Roundhouse’s spaces, and features a cascade of preoccupations from the dozens of women who have been involved in the project so far. The artistic goal is not just this live event, but an ongoing conversation, and women from around the world have already contributed home videos and testimonial to feed into the presentations.
The two creative directors of MES – a multimedia storytelling studio – are John Ellingsworth and Duncan Wall, who are both prominent figures in the ongoing movement to raise awareness and discourse around contemporary circus arts. A key part of the project is to be an online digital archive that will continue to collect and present particpants’ stories.
The installation is crowded today with delegates from Canvas Lite, a circus industry showcase and networking event. Chains of paper taken from Open Space devising sessions hang down around the archways that lead away into the depths of the building beneath the Main Stage. In the middle are four projection screens, broadcasting different sections of video, and an iPad feed from the developing web-archive. It’s like being in the centre of a brain, bombarded with thoughts about what the show could be, about having, being, or not being a mother, about circus training and lifestyles, about ways these elements can combine or clash.
Some of the notes are thought-provoking, some are poignant, as are some of the words caught from the talking heads above us. There’s an overwhelming volume of material to dip in and out of, and I wonder whether the parts about devising the theatrical elements are relevant if this is ‘a show about circus and motherhood.’
The poignancy and matter-of-fact humour are honed much better within the live show element, which has been directed by Matilda Leyser. What transpires is largely improvised, however the structure and rehearsal process to facilitate this have led to a cohesive ensemble show.
Leyser, at seven months pregnant, is one of the five performers onstage too. Slackline artist Linn Broden is also visibly pregnant. Aerialists Tina Koch and Charlotte Mooney are both recent mothers (and two of the co-founders of Ockham’s Razor), and Grania Pickard loves training straps ‘because it’s brutal’, but is unsure if she wants to become a biological mother after spending most of her life assisting in her severely disabled brother’s care.
The company also includes composer and musician Elizabeth Westcott, who loops her violin in and out of the events on stage and, behind the scenes, Catherine Boot as Assistant Director/co-devisor and Tina Dekens as story co-ordinator.
Within a structured format written up on white-boards at either side of the stage, the women introduce each other, and move from trivialities into deeper and more resonant stories. It’s gentle, and moving, and honest, and brave. Less for the improvised nature of the show – which feels instead supportive and unthreatening – than for the decision to place experiences of motherhood in front of a public audience. Their impact in this show highlights just how much these essential parts of our lives are generally hidden from sight in our popular culture and society.
We see the performers demonstrating as much – or as little – as they are currently able on the static trapeze, rope, slackline and straps, the physical movement sometimes a counterpoint to someone else’s story, sometimes speaking for itself. A striking comparison is made between the relative ease of circus work, which society views as ‘superhuman’, and the much more challenging process of becoming a mother, both physically and mentally.
After the multi-media of the installation, the low-tech performance of acappella song, and speech that moves confidently away from the single microphone, is refreshingly natural. As natural as the realities of this under-discussed subject. In future incarnations, the roles onstage will be taken be other teams and the personal material explored anew, but this first showing proves a format that is engaging and warm, whilst paying public homage to an important chunk of our human existence.