Notes before reading:
This is part of a larger project to archive the show Nights at the Circus in pamphlet form, to be published in print and online in Autumn 2020 - let me know if you would like one!
An easy read version will also be available soon
*** Nights on the Fringe ***
* Welcome to our world *
* More real than reality *
* Where we write our own mythology *
* Where we question your authority *
This is a conversational and picture essay recording the experiences we had taking a show called Nights at the Circus to Edinburgh Fringe festival last year, produced and supported by Spare Tyre. This is a document and reflection of our time there.
This piece is co-authored by Ellie, Jasmine, David and Fauve with additional extracts from other people who were integral to the journey. Sometimes our experiences of making and understanding the piece are contradictory; we see things in different ways and value that in each other. We are a mixture of learning disabled*, neurodiverse/divergent and non-disabled artists. This informed both the way in which we created the show, and what we needed from the process of making, but also how it was received and perceived by the audience. We want to talk about professionalism, care and comfort, and time in the act of taking a performance to the fringe.
This is us, writing our own (sometimes contradictory) mythology.
* Neither Ellie or David like the term learning disabled, but are aware that is how they are perceived, and feeds into ideas on lack of autonomy. See https://www.sparetyre.org/about-us/st40/interviews/david-munns for further information.
(Ellie poking her head out from behind a tree gleefully)
Our show was made to explore the cracks, the gaps, the spaces between ourselves and our identities. Set in a circus after an apocalypse, characters emerge from the darkness to explore their desires and sexuality.
What is left in the rubble after everything has been burnt to the ground?
We embraced slowness, awkwardness. It was a show that was, if nothing else, steeped in a longing for something unknown.
Ellie: There were four characters; I was a siren, there was a hairy woman, and a person who was both the circus master and the fortune teller. Everyone had a different fantasy. But we came together on an island which was a bed.
David: For me it was more of a Greek tragedy. Finding the essence of the masculine and the feminine and bringing them together.
This ambiguity was difficult to market. How much of ourselves do we disclose in the marketing? This is a show about our experiences, but also it is a piece of theatre. Why should we put our identities in the marketing? Are we not allowed on stage otherwise?
Marketing sets up invisible expectations which are difficult to control.
Do the audience care?
Jasmine: When you swap flyers with another person promoting their show there’s a moment of understanding and maybe that's a kind of care, a temporary care that's contrasting with people ignoring you or just being polite about your advertising, a little hope. I noticed a familiar face in the audience through the mirror; I try to catch their gaze.
Some of our audience loved our piece, some of them hated it.
Sometimes being liked did not feel important. Other times it did.
Fauve: Maybe I don't want my audience to always like me.
Ellie: I want people to see it, I think they will like it.
Watching something new is often uncomfortable, but part of a journey. Watching a disabled person onstage being explicitly sexual is not comfortable if you have removed the idea of agency and autonomy in reference to that person's identity.
We were enthusiastically told a number of times that onstage we didn't seem disabled.
This is not a compliment.
Maybe onstage we were creating our own context.
Sometimes people laughed at the show, sometimes people were very very quiet and leaned in. Who are we to say what the right reaction is, who the right audience is?
(Production stills of Nights at the Circus from before Edinburgh)
(Jasmine backstage, minutes before going onstage, holding a giant egg and stroking a flower)
the competence or skill expected of a professional.
the practising of an activity, especially a sport, by professional rather than amateur players.
To leave your emotional life at home and concentrate on the work. To turn up on time. To work from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon. But sometimes none of these things were possible.
During rehearsals David's house burnt down. He made sure that he saved the costume and props for the show first. Its difficult to be professional when you're living in rubble.
Professionalism suggests a kind of distance. You can't be too personal, or know too much about someone. Its very unprofessional.
Fauve: To plan the trip to Edinburgh I had to find out all the personal and intimate details of the cast's lives. What they needed in order to feel looked after and safe. It sometimes felt quite uncomfortable.
We wonder if professionalism stops us knowing all the uncomfortable things about each others lives. Whether it stops the potential for transformation because we can keep each other at arms length.
The closest house we could find which could fit our gang of eight people which was wheelchair accessible was 40 minutes outside of Edinburgh city centre. It was a converted church, surrounded by a graveyard; we were living with ghosts.
Our show was set in a circus after the apocalypse, it felt right that we should be surrounded by ghosts, that didn't make us feel uncomfortable.
David: Edinburgh took me outside my comfort zone. I consider myself professional, the work comes first. Whatever I'm doing at the time, the work come first.
In a way we were sort of predicting the way things were going to be now. Our story was set after a major disaster. Perhaps we were rehearsing for now. We were saying things about the power dynamic between male and female. I wasn't doing it consciously but it was going in that direction.
Through fantasy we can predict the unpredictable and make sense of it. It is a preparation and an enacting of what's to come.
It felt important to put this show next to other shows seen as professional. Often throughout the process we were asked if this was professional theatre or community theatre. The more you pick that question apart, the more difficult it is to answer. It is both professional and community, but not in the way that either term is currently understood.
Ellie: It was exciting to meet new performers and be part of a big festival. I loved seeing pictures of myself on the flyer. I felt really glamorous, and it was important for me to do the show. People don't often think that people like me can be sexy.
We changed in the toilets as there was no space for a wheelchair to be in the dressing room. We had 7 and a half minutes to get the show ready. This is tough for anyone but felt particularly difficult for our team. We rehearsed this just as much as the show; the performance of getting ready.
(Left, David backstage in costume. Right, Ellie "backstage" in costume.)
Jasmine: When collaborating during the process of making a show I enjoy working quickly to short, set times so that I don’t hesitate, if I have 1 minute to improvise an idea I feel more active and raw where as sometimes when given hours it can get stressful. I also enjoy the lack of pressure when I draw some ideas down on a cereal box with a felt tip pen but once someone gives me a stretched canvas and some paint I feel like I might as well keep it clean so I don't RUIN IT. I think there’s value in both raw responses and DIY as well as taking time to create something very polished.
I like the feeling of playing a game together within a performance because it's a fun thing focusing on engaging with each other, the audience like to watch the game if you are enjoying it and are serious about it.
There was a 7.5-minute time limit to ‘get in’ and ‘get out’ so we knew how we had to be and go. We prepared so well in order to not impose on anyone else’s show. We were being professional yay!!!!!!!
In contrast, within the show for me it’s difficult to take time because I feel like the audience is waiting. I’m forever thinking: is it selfish to take time or is it rewarding for the audience to watch me take time? The longer something might take, the bigger the build up, the entrancement feeling, the feeling that people might think of as surreal. Even if it’s boring or we get anxious thinking oh is this getting a bit boring, it’s constantly surprising that only a few minutes have passed and it's worth it to hold the image.
A tableaux that is slowly moving, a slight shaking to reveal that we are breathing. It’s hard to take time but what if you NEED to take time? The physicality of moving can’t be rushed, you don't want to injure yourself or get stressed that you wont be able to turn or rise up. SKIP AHEAD.
(Jasmine in her hairy woman costume, sticking out her tongue from behind a tree shaped like a Y)
Care & Comfort
We had a really wonderful time, it was joyous. The show was hard work but it was also a pleasure to share. In the evenings we returned home tired, made a big meal together. Sometimes we would walk in the woods nearby, collecting raspberries and getting muddy feet. Other times we would sing karaoke and dance and speak to ghosts. It felt useful to have this bubble and sense of structure outside of the chaos of the fringe. It allowed us to breathe a bit more.
Vern (stage manager): The thought of staying a 30 mile drive away form the Edinburgh festival was a big and awkward pill to swallow, especially being that I was the designated driver. On the one hand, I knew it was my job and all that, but on the other; come on, it’s the Edinburgh festival, a 24hr fully immersive pissup. Van trips to and fro between our graveyard dwelling and our dark little show were the scene of surreal David based comedy and mind numbing hours of rush hour inaction interspersed with pleas from Ellie for me to please slow down.
(View from the van as we were driving home from Edinburgh)
The rises and dips give us motion sickness and windmills are a strange relief marking the way back home. The view is a cloudy screensaver.
Home comforts glitter the disrupted routine, bring everything and the kitchen sink. Cooking together. Instant mash smash lunch boxes ready for tomorrow and making an effort for each other by loosing the fear. The fear of flyering. It ok to be a Diva.
Take care of yourself,
Suzy (Ellie's mum and carer): The experience for me was very special
the fun evenings we all shared back at the Chapel were happy times and great memories shared with my Edinburgh Family.
Vern (stage manager): Maybe the greatest triumph of those two weeks was how so many truly disparate characters converged around an objective in time and without too much fuss, just made it happen. Sorry I can’t keep a straight face on that one, it was fuss fucking central, the mother of all fuss-bombs, fusspocalypes now. But it worked.
(David leaning against a tree and thinking about his next magic trick)
All of this takes time, time to get to know each other, time to care, to take risks, to feel safe, to make something of value which you want to perform outside of the borders of being a professional.
Edinburgh felt difficult. We're not sad that its cancelled this year, there are more important things to think about. But we cherished the time that we were able to spend together in the church, building our own community. Like many people, we hope the enforced slowness of lockdown is a reckoning for many parts of theatre, and Edinburgh in particular. A challenge to rethink how we can escape the model of consumer and consumed. Burn it down. We walk in the rubble already, come and join us.
Sarah (producer): One of my major takeaways is the realisation of just how inaccessible a Fringe/theatre in general/any festival is in so many ways to probably most people but especially those with physical impairments or learning disabled people.
There are so many unspoken expectations like all travelling around in a cramped van, sleeping on floors, staying up late watching shows, networking in bars, etc. It’s a known fact that everyone finds Fringe extremely stressful and exhausting, the webinars in the run up hosted by the Fringe Society on tips of how to avoid burn.
I felt we managed to shape Fringe to what we needed it to be for us but obviously there are still barriers we couldn’t get around.
Our rhythm was slower than the fringe required. But it is our rhythm, and we honour it.
Fauve: I felt I failed on a number of accounts as a director and making the show accessible. I don't think the audio description worked well enough. I wanted it to work but I don't think I have enough experience doing it or had enough time to fully think it through. I wanted a way for it to be fully embedded. We created a texture book to go along with the story so that visually impaired people could follow through textures, I liked that a lot. But I think the actual audio description itself failed... I didn't know how to capture ambiguity. I didn't want people to know exactly what was happening, what to make explicit through audio description and what was only implied. This was difficult to capture. I tried to turn it into poetry as a special secret for those who were going to listen.
(Fauve hiding behind long grass, looking at the camera)
In five years time, we dream that we will all gather together again and have a party. Maybe we are more like our characters and have absorbed more fully into our blood streams, or maybe we have already shaken of those shackles and moved beyond those ideas. This is all very much a journey.
Jasmine: I was thinking for ages what to wear and even considered turning up in my costume but it's a bit hot.
I’m just quiet, waiting if anyone will ask me something and panicking that I’m too quiet and wondering if I should ask questions or say something. ‘How are you?’ ‘How have you been?’ or something people usually say but its too boring or what if I sound too formal, maybe no one cares so much but I’ve rehearsed it and ready to go now but am simultaneously hiding. Last night I yet again got into a rabbit hole of youtube videos on reading body language and studying accents. I thought I might have changed a bit by now but that's just me. I worry more about socialising than performing. Sometimes I think I get a bit more comfortable when I’m tired, like my awareness means more energy to be anxious.
This time 5 years ago we were walking around Edinburgh looking for a new pack of playing cards.
This time 5 years ago we were thinking about what to have for dinner.
This time 5 years ago we watched ‘The history of horror’ presented by Mark Gatiss.
This time 5 years ago we felt a bit carsick.
This time 5 years ago we were away from home.
Ellie is being filmed for her reality show and so the pressure is on to dress up. She’s got a deal with a luxury beauty brand and got us loads of freebies, It had got a bit intense putting on fake nails every day back in the day but I’m properly enjoying looking at the girly haul together. David wears the stylish fedora hat that he got in Edinburgh. He shuffles some playing cards and asks me to think of a card. I think of the 3 of diamonds and he dramatically throws the cards in the air and catches the 3 of diamonds but on closer inspection the 3 of diamonds card contains 3 real diamond rings embedded into it. We put them on and they start squirting out what water that makes a waterfall wall in front of us that looks like a portal.
(A hand on a giant egg, and in the next picture the egg is cracked and bleeding)
We slowly dance around, the music plays. We sing karaoke together. David pretends to be Rudolph Nureyev. Suzy wants to listen to thrash metal. Sarah is cooking a meal and planning operations. Louise is talking about how much she fancies Harry Styles. Vern is sitting on the sofa, softly shaking his head. The moon rises, and then hangs suspended. We look round us and the house has turned to rubble. Time stands still.
This is us writing our own mythologies.
(The whole team in the courtyard of the theatre)
Black and white photos: Jasmine Lee
Other photos: Jasmine Lee, Fauve Alice, Ellie Mason and Suzy Mason