Friday, 4 August 2017

Chapter 209: Behind the scenes... Shhh!

Photo: Liam Croucher

“Girls, I’ve had this crazy idea, you may not be up for it…”

Three years ago, I had a crazy idea. I wanted a go on a flying trapeze, and I persuaded a few friends (a dirty dozen, in fact) to come along for the ride  at the National Circus on one of their experience afternoons. Then I fell for circus big (top) time and started training in aerial and equilibristic skills, keeping this circus diary blog as a record. One day a photographer introduced me to Jacksons Lane. where one of her models was performing in a circus cabaret. I wrote about it, of course. Adrian Berry, the Artistic Director, was very supportive of my writing, and invited me to see some works in progress that summer, and so began a love affair with a circus space where I have seen so many amazing performances since that have broadened or changed my perspective. 

“Luce, I’ve had this crazy idea, you may not be up for it…”

Last year, Adrian invited me to put on a circus cabaret at Jacksons Lane. To say I was gobsmacked was an understatement, and yet there was a certain feeling of the wheel coming full circle. Years ago, when researching a PhD in Cuban theatre, the Royal Court employed me as interpreter for playwrights over for a season of Cuba Real. I found myself in rehearsals with a director Josie Rourke, now Artistic Director at the Donmar, who had been in the year below me at college. I looked at Josie at work in creation and thought:  Jeez, that looks fun, shame I missed my chance at university to get involved. I experienced a sharp pang of regret at taking the wrong road, a sense of being too old to turn back now (I was 26 at the time!).  I carried on with my academic research, until an observation by playwright, Gerardo Fulleda, in a downtown bar in Havana, challenged me and touched a raw nerve: “Querida, darling, por Dios, what an earth are you doing translating and writing about other people’s work? Go make your own!”  Life then got in the way with three young children to juggle, and I was wondering if I would ever have a chance to explore that creative side. It is therefore really something to have this opportunity to curate an evening that reflects my own passion and interest.

“Sean, I’ve had this crazy idea, you may not be up for it…”

I had only met Sean Kempton once before, at Canvas, a circus marketplace for programmers and performers nearly a year before. I didn't know then, when Sean MC'd the day's events at Jacksons Lane or when his wife, Michaela O'Connor presented her triples trapeze show Hattie at The Albany, that they were clowns as such, I just knew that they really made me laugh and that there was something special about them. They are the type of people that make the room light up the moment they walk in. I had been gutted to miss their show Dirty Mimes at Postcards Festival that year, and, having stayed in touch, when Ade asked me to curate the show I knew that I wanted these guys at the heads of the table in what was the circus cabaret equivalent of a fantasy dinner party.

Sean and I met up when he was back for a couple of days in London between Cirque de Soleil tours abroad, and we spent a good three hours walking up and down the Southbank talking non-stop. He didn't want to be the type of MC that just introduces acts, which was fine by me because I wanted him as a performer, not as a compere. Thinking of a traditional Big Top where clowns are the transitions between acts, I wanted Sean, and Michaela, to do the equivalent in a contemporary setting through their own inimitable brand of physical comedy, mime, and skill in engaging the audience.  They did, and with a great team on board, the cabaret was a sell-out success as a result. 

Photo: Liam Croucher
I learned so much that year about the process of putting a show together, and all the hard work involved in making the show a hit. As far as I was concerned, it was my responsibility to the artists who agreed to be involved to ensure there was a full house. I experienced first hand how hard it is to get anyone to review a new show, how wonderful it is when a voice speaks up in support and how much an acknowledgement means.  For that reason I am so grateful we have had, for the second year running, a talented photographer (this year National Circus graduate Liam Croucher) to take a photo-record that captures the performance and speaks volumes. 

Guys, we have this crazy cabaret, are you up for it...?

The name Shhh! was my own cheeky nod to the feminist erotic emporium Sh!, round the corner from the National Circus, where a man may only enter if accompanied by a woman. It was also a nod to "Shhh! I have a secret to tell", and the "hush" of an audience, either silenced in wonder or by a stern uSHer! I wanted an upbeat, kooky, humorous, playfully risqué show, and to work with people on the same wavelength who got that.

This selection of this year's cast reflected that concept and happened again (!) organically; I'm still pinching myself that all the acts said yes and were able to come on board. After Betty Bedlam put me through my paces in the Boxing B*tch night (see post - click here), I wanted to see her on stage premiering her new boxing burlesque routine. We met up at the British Film Institute cafe for coffee with Sean, and there was an instant recognition of a fellow clown that made it obvious there would be loads of mileage out of knock-out banter between them on stage. Sean then showed us a video of Michael Standen doing a wicked handbalance routine. I loved it immediately - it had that kooky, risqué play about it that ticked all my boxes - but I completely missed the point of reference. We were working out the order of acts at the time, and I was writing them down  "Chandelier? Who? What? How do you spell the artist? S-E-E-R?" They both fell about laughing. "Luce, its Sia, spelled S-I-A, I'm doing my best here to drag you into the 21st century..." he teased. Thanks Sean! 

 Soulnia, Jair Ramirez, Will Davis
Sophie Page Hall, Sam Goodburn, Michaela O'Connor
Betty Bedlam, Sean Kempton, Michael Standen
Having seen Jair Ramirez in his solo show Sugarman (see post - click here) at The Place, which also came to Postcards Festival, and in a cabaret on the Southbank last summer, I wanted to see Jair let rip on aerial straps. I also wanted to see him in partnership with his wife, Jessica Ramirez, who was a professional dancer originally, as well as being an accomplished aerialist now and movement choreographer. The addition of Jessica could only be confirmed at the eleventh hour (see post - click here), but she was part of the whole concept from the start. Soulnia I know through Freedom2FlyDA (see post - click here) as well. I know she is a superb dancer and a smooth operator, and just wanted to see a lady magician perform on stage. Sean then sent me a video of a a routine that interested him (click here for video), not knowing the artist, and I recognised Sam Goodburn who I had beheld unicycle across a tightwire once at a NoFit State open house and seen first-hand the awesome skill had led to him winning the audience award at Circus Maximus the same year that Jair had won the judge's award. Finally, I was dying to see more of Michaela on trapeze, especially a show-stopping triples. Her Beyonce act looked awesome, and this time round her fellow Single Ladies were Sophie Page Hall and Will Davis, who have been partners for a couple of years now duetting on aerial rope.

Jessica Ramirez
That the show came together the way it did is testimony to the talent of all involved under the direction of Sean and Michaela, and the dynamic between them all, on and off stage. Aside from a coffee at the BFI, phone-calls and emails going backwards and forward, there was one afternoon of creation the day before with Jair, Lily (aka Betty Bedlam), Sean and Michaela, and tech rehearsal on the day itself, running through sound and lighting cues. 

This time round Shhh! was on the last night of Postcards Festival, which had been expanded to three weeks this year. No pressure! But then with Sean and Michaela at the helm again, and a cracking line-up, it was guaranteed to be a top night...

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