I joined the Hidden Spire team just in time to attend the first read-through of the draft script and I was immediately excited by the world in which the play is set – backstage in a run-down circus that, although fraying at the seams, retains the faded remnants of its former splendour.
What captured my imagination most was the opening stage-direction which asks for the circus world to be formed live on stage by the performers, in front of the watching theatre audience, from the blank canvas of a “bare stage”. Transformation is a wonderful design challenge and from the outset I was keen that the audience would not arrive into an empty theatre space, but into a completely opposite sort of world to the circus – more ordinary, more everyday – out of which the circus could, hopefully surprisingly, be constructed.
Working with Crisis clients over five weeks of design sessions we began by thinking about the shapes, structures, colours and textures that epitomise ‘circus’ – what was essential in the visual picture for our audience to get a real sense of being backstage in a Big Top? We researched vintage and modern circuses and identified those iconic elements which most immediately place us in that world – the shape of the circular big top tent and its supporting tent poles; the prominent, curtained doorway to the circus ring; plinths and rostra emblazoned with stars and stripes; the ladders and high wires of the aerial acts; elaborate signs edged with lights; bunting and, of course, sawdust.
From there we began to work backwards – how could these circus elements emerge from a different type of place? And where or what would that different place be? We thought carefully about the opening scene, where we see characters swaddled and invisible upside down inside sleeping bags performing a surreal, almost dream-like, dance number. Where did that suggest we are when the play starts? Suggestions included a military encampment, a campsite in a field, a city street/wasteland, a shanty town. We thought practically too about how we could design and build structures that could be moved or changed by performers from one thing into another – one world hidden inside another, ready to pop-up, unfold, unfurl or be revealed. Some ingenious ideas emerged which were captured in drawings, story-boards and 3D 1:50 scale-models by the Crisis clients involved.
Inspired by their ideas, I then developed a final design in which we start from a world which is part make-shift encampment, part junk yard – a dumping ground in which our sleeping-bagged figures have made themselves tent-like homes from scrap wood and canvas. But amongst all the chaos, the elements of our Circus are there already, waiting to be hoisted up, thrown open, lit up or simply seen from a different perspective; in a different context. We hope you find the transformation as fascinating and surprising as we’ve imagined it to be and it fills you with a little bit of the wonder we all associate with going to the Circus.
Crisis clients will be involved in the building, painting, set-dressing and stage-management of this set as well as in the design process. Their imaginative ideas and hand-on hard work have been instrumental in the final set design as you will see it in the show.
Sawdust runs 11 – 14 October, 7.30pm. Tickets are £12/£10. Click here or ring 01865 263990.