Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Chapter 109: Grandma's Hands - Maddie McGowan at VOLT: Women In Circus

“Grandma’s hands used to ache sometimes, and swell”

Gregory Porter, "Grandma's Hands" from the album Liquid Spirit

Photo: Paul Blakemore - Ausform
The platinum band caught half-way. “Your fingers are slim, but your knuckles are enlarged,” he declared, "It’s the early onset of arthritis.” In that instant, the jeweller resizing my wedding ring delivered both a sentence and a memory. I looked down and saw the ghost of my grandmother’s hands. Even with the onset of rheumatism, hers were more elegant, of course. Mine are small, creased with lines and marked with sunspots, the tips blistered by harp-strings, the palms calloused from trapeze. My hands tell a story of who I am, where I’m from and what I love. There’s a connection there. So it resonated to see Maddie McGowan’s sharing of her work in progress Grandma’s Hands at VOLT: Women In Circus in Bristol. Grandma’s Hands is one of those pieces that is tender, funny, and sparks of all sorts of personal recollections engaging with Maddie's exploration of the legacy of both her grandmothers through the use of aerial rope, physical movement and text. This clearly locates her performance in a theatrical context, working with the direction of Flick Ferdinando (see Women In Circus - click here). I had seen Maddie in action once before, as part of a work in progress from Mish Weaver exploring environmental damage for "Transmission" at Jacksons Lane last year. It contained a video of Maddie, telling through words and actions on aerial rope, how her house, on a cliff suffering erosion, was slipping away. We all need solid foundations, and that is where grandparents step in. We have them for such a short time, relatively speaking, yet knowing them somehow fixes us in the world. They are living histories, and herstories; a bridge to the past, a DNA signpost to the future, and a formative presence.  

Photo: Paul Blakemore - Ausform
As an aerialist, Maddie is entirely dependent on her hands to hold her up in life, and they carry incredible strength, reminding her of the "big, strong potato-peeling hands" of her paternal grandmother, Mary Teresa McGowan. We see the ease with which Maddie climbs up the rope, twisting, turning and catching her way down, with only the sound of her breath bearing testimony to how much work is actually required. As Maddie brings us into the world of her incredibly warm and wonderful, Seamus Heaney-reciting, sherry-swigging, straight-talking Irish Catholic grandmother, Maddie physical inhabits her space, slipping her arms into the sleeves of a dress, that has artfully risen from a suitcase and is suspended in the air on an invisible puppet string. Her hands feel for the potato peeler and as she talks, inhabiting her grandmother's space, she peels away her story as well as the potatoes. We meet Maddie's maternal grandmother as well, Ursula Margaret Coventry, who started life as a debutante coming out, but had no truck with that whole whirl and ended up more socialist than socialite. 

As well as her own stories, Maddie also weaves in the verbatim testimony of other grandmothers, and we see photos of them, in their prime, in the lid of the suitcase. Through the arm-chair, the record player (that Maddie sets to work) and other props, sounds of nostalgia and ghosts from the past are conjured up into the present. I never knew one of my grandmothers, but she very much came to life in my mother's anecdotes, and Maddie's gift as a storyteller reminds me of that. As Maddie explores intergenerational relationships we see in her the legacy of two remarkable women. It is so tempting to say, as I have done about my own grandmothers, that "they don't make them like that anymore". But then you see Maddie in action and you realise, actually, they do. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Chapter 108: He Ain't Heavy - Grania Pickard at VOLT: Women In Circus

He Ain't Heavy - Grania Pickard - Photo: Peter Blakemore and Ausform

Autism in the family, that must be a burden to carry. He Ain't Heavy comes the response of Grania Pickard, using a combination of trapeze and puppetry to portray life with her autistic younger brother Sean. It was the first in a double-bill of performances of works in progress at VOLT: Women In Circus (see previous post) that locate circus in a theatrical context, as discussed by panellist Flick Ferdinando earlier in the evening. I was interested to learn as well that Grania has been working with Lyn Routledge, who had just received a mention in the nominations as an inspirational role model in the world of circus. 

Grania's project that caught my attention a couple of months ago. I don't know anyone who has been officially diagnosed with autism, but I have met many people over the years who function on some part of the spectrum, and have lived in a community of adults with severe learning difficulties. Even so, I was unprepared for this incredibly poignant and intimate portrayal of sibling love through puppetry and an aerial swing.

Sean is a life-sized puppet, an inspiration of a creation, made by Jo Munton for Vagabondi puppets ( - click here). He is fashioned but not painted, very much a blank canvas; he is Grania's younger brother, but also everyman with special needs. The absence of a range of facial expressions underscores this notion that autism is a condition where it is difficult to express emotions through subtle social cues, but Sean has his own unique way of communicating. His body is expertly manipulated by Nathan Keates, in the guise of his carer "they're all called Linda", but Grania also uses the audience to bring Sean to life and get behind his language. You have to see Grania in action: she is a highly skilled circus performer, storyteller and connector, lighting up the entire stage. Grania takes us through how Seany signals things that are important to him: the tv is "the presser" ('cos that's what you do with the remote), "the pa-a-r-k", "the swiiing", Grania is "Yaya" - we repeat the intonations as well as Sean's unique lexicon, we adopt his speech, and when you do that, you enter his thought patterns too. Suddenly it becomes apparent that life is so simple for Sean, his needs are direct and his love is unconditional. 

A couple of seats next to me have been left clear. I assume it is because they are in the line of action for the trapeze opposite and it's a safety measure, but it turns out they also serve as the park bench where Sean sits while his sister does all sorts of tricks on the swing to get his attention. It reminds me of being a parent in the early days, all the faces you pull, the cooing and all manner of peep-bo games just to catch a gaze, and that glow of unconditional love as the baby or toddler responds. Children, I hear, lose that innocence at some point, but those with severe learning difficulties never do, and it is a wonder. Georgie, a member of the audience on the other side of the empty space, is invited to look after Sean ("don't let him go off to sleep!") and does so as though she were made for that role. I loved that implicit trust in the audience to join in the narrative, an investment that reaps dividends. As Sean watches the steady repetition of the swing, the swoop of joy that almost skims him as he cranes his neck to see, you could spend hours there beside him in amiable companionship, hypnotised by the rhythm as well. And when Grania takes Sean up with her on the swing, cradling him in her lap, there is a protective tenderness and care that goes beyond words, and you wonder for a minute who is carrying who. 

A television set is brought into play and we see home movies of Grania and Sean, so very familiar. The technology gets stuck, frames freeze, that itself working as a meta-narrative and deftly handled by Grania, who weaves it into the story where communications can be jarred, and the comedy that can arise from such situations. "If you want to know how to treat a child with autisim, look to their sibling" so the saying goes. He Ain't Heavy is a case in point. Grania's work in development is already a full-bodied, eloquent meditation on life with autism that raises awareness, builds bridges with a mainstream audience, and connects us to the beauty of accepting life as it is and loving unreservedly.

Check out Grania Pickard's own blog charting the genesis of "He Ain't Heavy" at (click here).

All support welcome to develop this project further. See the video below:

Friday, 16 October 2015

Chapter 107: Women In Circus and Nominations

"As women we are complex. I am a creatrix. I am a woman, a writer, a poet, a mother, a friend and daughter. I am the sum of many things, but I am more than circus tricks."

The Good Girl Confessional, blog by Charlotte Lea
@GoodGirlTalk (Twitter)

How I would love to lay claim to being a bag of circus tricks at the moment, but this term I have yet to tumble on trapeze, thread my needle through a hoop or wrap my legs round a pole, such is the life of a Mum in the new school year, trying to find her feet. So yesterday, after yet another school coffee morning, heading to Lakeland Plastics in my knitted cardi and feeling decidedly mumsy, I found myself in the Ann Summers shop next door instead. I hadn't set foot inside one for over a decade, and feeling both grey, and blue, was gratified by the riot of colour that greeted me, the teases of teal and screaming fuschia satin sets interspersed with 50 shades of latex, vibrating lipsticks and naughty knickers. The last time I had seen any sex toys on display was at Ai Wei Wei's exhibition at the Royal Academy, where a set of jade handcuffs were a both a reference to his 81 days of solitary confinement and a cheeky nod to the jade anal pearl sticks in the cabinet next door. Sex, censorship and the unspeakable, it seems, are all intimately intertwined in the arresting development of the voice.

But is there a difference between the male and the female artistic voice? Bumping into Flora Herberich on the train up to Bristol we chatted about the difference in narratives, men very often making a commercial success out of taking on the big topics of life, the universe and everything, while women more easily located in a caring, domestic sphere. Does it matter? Well, for me, no, because I am the author of "Lucy Loves Circus", after all, a blog that to some may appear a sirupy, chirrupy cheerleader of all things circus. Which it is, on a good day. But I have off-days too, where my confidence crumbles. So it was this week I found myself, on Monday, pulling over by the side of the road, overwhelmed with exhaustion and a sense of utter pointlessness, "Is anyone out there listening?" I cried out. "Because right now, I could really use a hand." The universe had fun with that one. The waves subsided, and I was on way again, because that's what you do. Later, cutting through the Common on the way to the supermarket, I bumped into a very chatty guy balancing on a line strung between a couple of trees, time literally suspended in the sunshine.  So it was that I found an unlikely helping hand in Peter, giving me my first ever impromptu class in slacklining and restoring my inner equilibrium.

Still, I had another wobble on my way to Bristol at the thought of my husband having to cover the childcare, again. Was it strictly necessary that I go to the VOLTWomen In Circus event? Another circus writer, Kate Kavanagh, would be up there after all, whose critical reviews are highly valued by the circus community, as testified in supporting The Circus Diaries at Then I realised I was falling into the classic, dare I say phallocentric, trap of assuming there need only be a single authoritative voice, when what circus needs right now is, as Lyn Gardner once said, "a critical mass" - a multiplicity of voices covering as many angles as possible. All my life I have championed writing from the margins, whether as a feminist discourse in literature, or in post-grad research on Latin American theatre, and it was time now to own my position as newcomer on the fringes, and not be embarrassed by my belief that I too have a right to speak up.

The stage is set for the panel discussion
The VOLT scratch night is a biannual collaboration between the independent circus producing company Ausform and Bristol's circus school Circomedia, creating a space for circus artists to present works in progress and get feedback. This evening was a little different as it was drawn into the space of the Biennial Bristol Circus City Festival, with a view to examining the role of women in contemporary circus. Before the performances, which I shall explore in the following posts, there was a panel discussion hosted by Lina Frank of Ausform, in conversation with Umut Gunduz, director of the series of shorts "Circus Girls" (see post - click here), and director and performer Flick Ferdinando.

Umut described the organic evolution in the selection of Circus Girls, looking to encompass a broad range of circus skills and how inspiring he found their determination and commitment to their art form. He was struck by how vastly different each performer was on stage to in reality, describing in awe "these gentle, sensitive souls that exploded into colour", and how he sought to represent all of that in three minutes, of which one minute is entirely focussed on the performance itself.

Flick Ferdinando was asked to speak on her role in contemporary circus in the UK, and talked about her route into circus through training in classical theatre and dance. Instrumental in developing the theatre course module at Circus Space (as it was then, now the National Centre for Circus Arts), Flick talked about how she locates circus in a theatrical context, branching away from corporate fixtures that simply require a series of spectacular tricks, to construct shows that engage in a narrative. 

There are so many women making circus in the UK: the touchstone in the discussion being the acrobatic theatre of all-female Mimbre, weaving together individual physiques of women to create a strong, positively-gendered body of work, and the social storytelling of Vicki Amedume's aerial-focussed company Upswing, moving on to mention of tightwire trio Dizzy O'Dare and recent National Circus graduates, TwelveFeetTall and the Alula Cyr (wheel) girls. With all that however, there was a need identified for women to be more forthright into stepping up to shout out about their own work. I guess it was with this in mind that Ausform and Circomedia had been encouraging people in the world of circus and beyond to write in and nominate inspirational women in circus. And nominations are still open - click here to add your voice.

It was fantastic to hear that over 70 women had been nominated, and to give a feel for the range Lina selected a few, reading out the nominations and leaving the audience to guess who they were. 

Co-founder of Circomedia in Bristol, Helen Crocker was an easy guess for this crowd, as was Upswing's Vicki Amedume, Ali Williams and Lyn Routledge of NoFit State Circus. Less obvious initially was Ilona Jäntti until you realised "the clue was in the tree" (see post on "Circus Al Fresco"). Most surprising of all for the audience, including yours truly belting out the wrong name from the front row, was the shout-out for the work of Lucy Loves Circus. I was utterly stunned, and then came a huge rush of gratitude at the welcome extended to the newbie and outsider into this community of remarkable women. I don't know who wrote my nomination, and, as much as I am dying to know and thank you in person for that vote of confidence, it is rather wonderful to believe it could be any number of people. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how karma works: when you are at rock bottom, just keep plugging away, because someone is listening and you never know what is round the corner...  

Friday, 9 October 2015

Circus Girls - A Profile: Missy Macabre

"You have to burn yourself to learn how to play with fire"
- Missy Macabre

As featured in the Channel 4 All 4 on-line series Circus Girls (click here)Missy Macabre is an alchemist of pain, a female fakir executing astonishing feats of endurance. Circus hurts, for sure, yet in her hands a naked flame is not an instrument of torture but an object of mesmeric beauty. In her ornate head-dress, Missy is a high-priestess of mastery over self, and exudes a serene confidence that has been hard earned over a decade performing a variety of lethal circus stunts: bathing in broken glass, driving nails up her nose (as a human blockhead), using her body as an ashtray or chopping block, working with whips, beds of nails, and, of course, fire.  Missy has an even longer awareness and history of circus in the blood. Missy Macabre's performance is a mix of fin-de-siecle decadent glamour with a twist of 21st century tattooed into it, and while often working internationally, and at Torture Garden, can also be found occasion in the Spiegel Tent on the Southbank, or the Café de Paris where the short was filmed. Here she is, in her own words:

The circus and the fairground has always been in my life. My family on my mother’s side were in travelling fairs, and circuses for nearly 200 years. My great-grandfather was a bare-knuckle boxer in the early 20th century, fighting his way through the fairs to being a professional, eventually becoming British and Heavyweight champion. He fought at the Royal Albert Hall, was in silent films, friends with Charlie Chaplin, along with other celebrities of that time, and, when he married my great-grandmother, they closed Brighton for them. He later toured the American show circuit as well. I always heard amazing stories as a child, and these really inspired me in multiple ways. 

I started performing when I was 17, with friends, and we started with cabaret, but I wanted to develop more professionally and went to do the course in clowning at Circus Space (now the National Centre for Circus Arts) at 18, while practicing walking on glass and eating fire in my spare time. This evolved, and soon enough - within about six months - I was having watermelon sawn in half on my stomach with a chain-saw, in the same show as a friend was doing a flesh suspension whilst we lit a lightbulb through his pierced cheeks. I then wanted to mix hard stunts like bed of nails or broken glass with a softer side of cabaret - fire-eating and luxuriant costumes - as sideshow was predominantly performed by men. That is how I evolved to where I am now.

Umut [Gundunz - the film-maker] contacted me through Jackie Le and I really enjoyed working with him. Actually it was quite rewarding to explain what I did to somebody who was so interested and respectful. We had several long phone conversations and if felt like I was talking to a friend. Umut is really approachable and open to ideas. He really wanted to get to know me and my history on a personal level prior to filming, which is unlike other film makers I have worked with! I enjoyed making the film - I'm used to filming so understood the process, appreciating the delays and the rewarding elements of it.  It was amusing squeezing everybody into my tiny flat for the background interview, and then relocating to the grandeur of Cafe de Paris to film my act. It's a fabulous venue, and I've worked there a lot over the years.

The act you see in the short is from my latest show with a new costume and it's great to have such a strong piece of footage recording it. When I made the act, I saw it as an evolution of everything that had gone before. I'm known for my big, gold headpieces and opulent fire acts, and I wanted to really push it this time. My inspirations come from Catholicism, fetish/medical fetish, Chinese opera, traditional circus/sideshow ballet russe, strong women etc etc... When I choreographed it, I also built on my past stunts used in other shows, and the new ones I can do. I like to mix it up! I like to improvise and see what happens. As long as I look good, and the music feels right, I'll do a good show.

I absolutely love the series Circus Girls. It's about time that somebody shone the spotlight on what we do, we're involved in such a rich a diverse community and there is a whole range here. I'm so inspired by the performers around me, and these films show why. When I first watched the series I felt nervous, of course, but again so proud of the girls and the crew, for really creating something magical! Being involved in something like this has made me look back over the past ten years at all the hard work as a professional performer channelling my passions, and this is a wonderful milestone to mark it. It also gave me an insight into who I am, because it's not often we get a chance to see ourselves through the eyes of others.

Where do I want to go from here? Well, I want to see where creating even more elaborate costumes will take me, especially when mixed with highly skilled performance and fetish. 

Still feeling the heat from the visit to the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A (see post on "Alexander McQueen and the Circus Strongwoman" - click here), for me, Missy's words, like the raison d'être of her performance, incarnate Alexander McQueen's own vision: 

"I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things." 

And she does. 

See and watch her now as part of the Channel 4 All 4 online series  Circus Girls: Missy Macabre

Friday, 2 October 2015

Chapter 106: Self Censorship and The State of Mind

"A small act is worth a million thoughts."
Ai Weiwei

One of the things I took a way from the exhibition of Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy is that all of us have far more power than we realise to speak up and be heard. This in the week that I heard from a friend, over from Beijing, all about the precautions preparations for the military march in honour of the victory over Japan in WW2. A city in lock-down, policemen stationed inside residential apartments that might overlook the parade, internet black-outs for 48 hours, all tightly controlled. Not unfamiliar to me from time spent in Cuba. It would never happen in the UK, would it? And then I think to the time my husband walked into a pub in the City with a biker's helmet. A policeman clocked him, and had the street camera outside trained on the exit, and monitored, so as to notify him when my husband was leaving that pub. An hour or so later my husband got on his bike, was flagged down within 20 yards, and breathalysed. Prevention or entrapment? Luckily for my husband he is super-Swiss and safety conscious - he had only been on the orange juice, was not remotely defensive and that's how, chatting to the policeman, he got the full story. 

As our civil rights are being eroded, I have always believed that, short of going off the grid, the only recourse an individual has to privacy is through anonymity, being a person of no interest.  But if you do that, you silence your voice and are in danger of never speaking up. I look around and see many people have already found their voice, clearly comfortable with who they are and their right to speak.  For others, like me, it’s a work in progress. So it was providential this week when I received a message that a place had become available for a one-off improv workshop. I snapped it up immediately, albeit with some trepidation after my foray last year into the field of improv with Julia & Jorge, a couple of Argentine clowns (see post on The School of Hard Knocks - click here).

That afternoon, beforehand, I travelled up to Jacksons Lane to see the last of the sharing of work in progress as part of  “Transmission”.  Watching the superb skill of Michaela O’Connor, Victoria Mcmanus and Aurélie Bernard on trapeze, as well as enjoying the physical comedy and dynamic between them, was heart-warming. They were telling the story of Hattie, the girl who never goes out of her flat, and, in Walter Mitty style, fantasises about the life her neighbours lead, until one day she ventures out herself. Well, of course, for a stay at home mother of three running off to the circus, that was always going to strike a chord. But also, having this impending workshop at the back of my mind, I was watching the natural and spontaneous way the performers responded in the Q&A session afterwards. I was looking for tips. “Just have fun, don’t be scared and be yourself. Break the rules, oh, and did I say have fun!” came the advice from Sean Kempton over Twitter, performer, clown, comedian, director, and the voiceover in Hattie. And I took those words to heart. 

The workshop in the evening was led by Max and Sophie from Hoopla - see - a company that provides comedy courses, classes and shows, who facilitated the evening with spontaneous humour and practiced skill. As for the other participants I didn’t know a single person there and that didn’t matter remotely. Maybe it even helped. Basically, we spent the whole evening playing silly games, breaking our own rules of self-preservation and laughing, in a way that moved from being embarrassing to deeply relaxing,  rather like yoga but with baggier clothes. And, just as in yoga, it felt like a switch flicked and a whole surge of energy rushed through. It's true what they say, you can't feel fear when you are having fun, and the moment you stop censoring what you are going to say, your state of mind lifts its barriers. So I took the plunge today and asked to join a 3 day workshop in November with clown maestro Ira Seidenstein. But for now, I'm signing out to give Beverly Hills Cop my full attention. Detective Axel Foley is as funny and fresh as ever, and what he does with a banana, well, it's quite exhausting. 

Hoopla run six week beginner improv courses and I was delighted to learn they run it out of Theatre Delicatessen, where I last saw Circumference’s "Shelter Me" (click here for post) and ended up running after a white rabbitCuriouser, and ever curiouser ...

Thanks to Kate Kavanagh of The Circus Diaries for directing me to "No Boundaries" - the recent symposium on the role of arts and culture, particularly videos of international speakers (from Egypt, Turkey, Belarus) discussing freedom of expression and self-expression:
The whole site is worth checking out and is a superb resource, as is Kate's own Circus Diaries. Recognising the value of Kate's circus criticism, currently self-funded, you can also support her work at: (click here)