Earlier this month I was invited to visit a rehearsal of NoFit State Circus‘ ‘Open House’ project in Birmingham. I’ve always been intrigued to understand how a circus show is devised from existing skilled acts into a cohesive themed ensemble production, and this was an opportunity to watch artistic director Orit Azaz move between the different performers as they developed their own set pieces, adding theatrical motivations and layering meaning onto the physical feats.
NoFit State are a multi-faceted organisation with their own training space in Cardiff, internationally touring contemporary big-top shows, explorations into circus for theatre-spaces and – crucial to their community ethos – public performances which draw on local talent to develop expanding networks and showcase new talent.
‘Open House’ is one such project, co-ordinating a variety of physical performers from the city of Birmingham area to discover ‘new ways to create unbelievable experiences for audiences’. Azaz explains that the NoFit methodology of harnessing a tiered company – some professional performers, some apprentices, some work-experience volunteers – allows for an expanding ‘virtuous circle’ of influence where those involved encounter new skills, new people, new performance opportunities, and routes into the professional circus world. Additionally, it enables the company to create the large scale productions for which they’re renowned.
In 2009, Without Walls (a consortium of British festivals) commissioned NFS to explore the potential for immediacy in large-scale outdoor circus performance. The artistic research inquiry became ‘Parklife‘, which toured the UK over two years, incorporating public participants as an integral part of the spectacle, rather than mere onlookers. In 2010, the European Zone of Artistic Projects (ZEPA) commissioned ‘Barricade’ from this research-in-practise, and now ‘Open House’ is part of the development towards NFS’ next evolution of public open-air performance.
The local participants were co-ordinated by Kim Charnock of circus-theatre company RoguePlay. The call to cheerleaders, belly-dancers, b-boys, parkour and capoeira artists – as well as local circus performers – was sometimes met with confusion, and often necessitated a conversation about how their acts could fit within a circus. After clarifying that the NFS definition for the project is simply ‘anything physical you can do on the streets’, Charnock received an overwhelmingly positive response, and the local performers were on board.
But how to create a show?
During an initial weekend of street-performance and participatory public circus play as part of the Hippodrome theatre’s ‘Summer In Southside‘ event, the core NFS company who had devised the framework for this show met with the local participants and began sharing skills and ideas. Then followed a four-day rehearsal period in the run-up to the major event as part of the ‘4-Square Weekender‘ celebrations, that marked the opening of the new Library of Birmingham. During the day, the core company worked together, tightening the structure and themes of the performance, developing their set-piece acts, and collaborating with the band to create a musical score; in the evening, the community performers would arrive to choreograph ensemble sequences and create their acts incorporating the core team.
I joined the group on Thursday afternoon, and was struck by how calm everything was. The open warehouse space beside the canal had distinct working areas marked out by the aerial rigging, and the two performing caravans. The artists seemed relaxed, but focused, working on their own acts and skills with discipline and muted conversations. NFS has a large extended family of performers who they call on for different projects, and this group includes competitive trampolinists, dancers, actors, musicians and those who have been practising aerial circus disciplines for all their working lives.
The loose story of the show is ‘a circus, training and learning new stunts’, which – as well as tying in with the theme of ‘discovery’ in honour of the library’s opening – accurately mirrors the reality of the troupe. Azaz explains that, when directing circus performance, she always begins with the truth and then finds ways to develop that truth performatively, acknowledging that circus performers are very different to actors. The two brothers on the trampoline are just that, and it’s easier to build a story around their own unique qualities than to ask them to pretend to be something they’re not; nevertheless, her simple acting advice works wonders: ‘Make eye-contact with each other. Make eye-contact with the audience. Let us see your decision to do something bigger and better than your brother, rather than just following the routine.’
The musicians check in with performers to establish themes and timings, then return to their kit to blast out bursts of developing sounds. The compere is given some script advice – ‘just let us watch for a bit; all the information’s there, you don’t have to bombard us with it. You don’t need to explain things we can discern for ourselves.’ A passing strongman wonders whether he could pull the nearby flatbed trailer with the entire company sat on it, and as an aerialist hangs from the trapeze he’s handed a book and asked to read from it.
One of the major points for today’s exploration is to incorporate books into already established acts to make them relevant to the library celebrations. Additionally, they are being used as a tool to allow the public participants to become part of the show, rather than simply experiencing skills workshops. Joe Fearn, who is performing with the company, and also runs local circus training organisation CircusMASH, comments, ‘The book idea is so simple, but it changes everything.’ As does the phrase ‘libraerialist’, coined earlier in the day by ex-gymnast Paul Evans, who now works as a performer, instructor and director for NFS, as well as his own company Crashmat Collective.
Other challenges faced over rehearsals include a necessary contingency for the expected wet weather, meaning the team are rehearsing a Plan A and a Plan B version of the show. The ground performers also have to be aware of sightlines for working in a public square, and the adagio duo are encouraged to add more lifts into their breakdance infused number.
After the excellently catered dinner break, the local performance teams start to arrive, and the energy shifts to a new vibrant and excited level. From 8-year old Finlay Hamnett of Revolution Gymnastics to the experienced belly-dancers of Pedralta, everyone is keen to see where the evening will take them, as Azaz tells the assembled company, ‘You are now the circus of the Midlands.!’
A quick house-keeping chat, and a reminder of the safety codes lead into a group warm up, before the groups are split to work on various elements of the show with the members of the core team. The aim of the rehearsal is to establish exactly what everyone will be doing at the weekend, who with, in what costume, and to what music. It’s amazing that so much can be achieved in such a short space of time with so many participants, but the professional dedication of even the youngest performers means the focus stays on the task in hand. Evans choreographs cheerleaders and gymnasts into an opening sequence of lifts and acrobatics; Fearn develops a multi-discipine skit with his CircusMASH crew involving silks, trapeze, globe walking, roller-skates and acrobalance; the belly-dancers get their swords out, and a line of crashmats are set down for acrobatics. The repeated phrase from the directors is ‘Happy, Confident and Safe’ – no-one has to do anything they feel uncomfortable with.
Even I am roped into a walkabout experiment in street-clowning, after being kitted out in a long black coat and goggled head-gear. This is indicative of the NFS spirit of playful innovation and, as I am invited back to perform at the weekend (unfortunately impossible due to a friend’s wedding), the company lives up to its promise of being the circus anyone can join!
Matt Jones, head coach at UTX (UrbanTrix Academy) is performing with a circus for the first time, and says he has ‘developed a passion for it without even realising’, because the tricking and parkour artists he admires now seem to find work in circus environments. Juggler Tom Derrick, who has been performing for 13 years, also thinks the tide is shifting for circus work: ‘It’s always been crap in Birmingham as far as I was aware, but things are finally starting to change.’
Part of the NFS methodology is to support grass-roots circus initiatives and create a legacy of performance possibilities, and the impact this project has had amongst the physical performers of the region has certainly opened up new collaborative opportunities, and inspired circus aspirations amongst the participants. 18 year old Jodie Southall is one such, and sums up how much her training has affected her life: ‘I want to make it my job. I was always the shy little kid, but circus did so much more with me, I can’t imagine doing anything else!’