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Life Is A Circus screened on BBC Four on Sun 19 May and is now available on BBC iPlayer.
On 12 February 2019 we premiered Life Is A Circus by Jo Elliot at the Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford. The film is about our Hidden Spire project and the 2017 production Sawdust.
Hidden Spire brings together professional theatre makers and homeless people at the Old Fire Station to create a theatre production from scratch. The process takes two years.
This is a transcript of the Q&A session with participants of the project (actors, writers, directors, Crisis clients) who feature in Jo’s documentary. It was chaired by Jeremy Spafford, Director of Arts at the OFS, with questions from the audience. On the panel was Jo Elliot, writer Rowan Padmore, and actors AJ, Doug and Martin.
JEREMY: If you have been to the Old Fire Station, you may have seen the tower that’s in the middle of the building, that is really hard to see from the outside and really beautiful from the inside. We call that tower The Hidden Spire, and it is that phrase that has become the title of a project that we have run over several years. In fact, the first time we did it was just a year after we opened in this current iteration, which was back in 2012, December. The Hidden Spire project was bringing people who were having a really hard time, experiencing homelessness, clients of the charity Crisis, together with a professional team of theatre makers to make a show, and that show was directed by Lizzy McBain, who’s up at the front here now. Lizzy then went on and directed another three Hidden Spires, each one we didn’t know what it was going to be but we ended up with an amazing show. The last of those, the fourth, is the piece of work you have just seen that the documentary was made about. So, Lizzy is joining us on the panel here, we also have Rowan – who you saw in the film as the lead writer for the project, we also have Martin, AJ, and Doug (all of whom you have met already).
And of course, who we also have on the panel is Jo Elliot who made that film, and what a great film it was. Jo, you joined us a year before that went up on stage and you brought a whole load of skills and experience to that project, I’m just interested in what you learnt?
JO: I learnt a lot. When I was first asked to make the film, Jeremy told me about it and didn’t want a promotional film, but wanted something that captured the magic of the project, and he was very enthusiastic about it – infectiously so. I was looking forward to starting but I had no idea… I think I had a different image in my head to what a group of homeless people putting on a play would be. That first day that I turned up to film, I was thinking, this is really interesting, this is special. Our original thinking was that we would make a film that was ten or twenty minutes long, but I got a little bit obsessed and ended up spending way more time than I was meant to and ended up making that. So, I think I learnt quite a lot along the way.
QUESTION: What is the legacy of this play? What has followed on?
ROWAN: It was my first ever commission. So since then, I have carried on teaching as part of my role at the Old Fire Station, for Crisis I deliver classes and manage all the arts work that happens with homeless people. But alongside that as a writer I have been really fortunate to just recently get a commission with a theatre company in Birmingham, working with the theatre education company Big Brum, to produce a new play which actually is based in a location around Grenfell Tower. And, alongside that I am developing my own one woman play and have various other projects as well. So, I’m keeping busy, it would be fair to say, after this project. It has been very good to me.
MARTIN: I think it’s brought a light on Oxford as a whole, as a legacy. Not just the colleges but the ordinary people of Oxford who have shown them their potential. There is a potential now for some kind of community theatre, at the moment there is just commercial theatre on George Street. The Playhouse is community, but there is an opportunity for some kind of community theatre of the ordinary city, as opposed to the University. There is a long tradition of theatre in the universities. So, the town – as supposed to the gown – has a sense of community.
LIZZY: I suppose I am just following on from what Martin was saying. I have been working on the project since 2012. I think through its four iterations, it has helped me discover the art I want to make, and I think typically as a professional theatre maker you either make work with professionals or with schools or young people. This is quite unique – it’s working with professional theatre makers but alongside artists from the community. It’s quite unusual, but it is really special. I feel as Martin does, that there is room for more of it, it is just harder to make it happen. I suppose it has helped me discover what my voice was.
QUESTION: Thank you for the film. Thank you for the project, it is absolutely wonderful and inspiring. I’m just thinking of the news, and there was an article in the Guardian this week about Oxford and homelessness and I wondered what’s the potential for this film being shown more widely, because there is lots of stuff about Oxford and the tragedy that is the homelessness here. This is so joyful, at the same time as being real, so I was wondering what the possibility was for it being shown more widely as a film?
JO: I can answer that one. After it was made, as I said in the beginning we had no idea what it would be, but after I finished editing I realised we had an hour-long film! I didn’t know quite what to do with it, we talked about sending it off to film festivals and various things and then on a complete off chance we sent it to the BBC to say are you interested in this. I really thought it was unlikely they would want to show it, as it didn’t fit into any of their slots, but we had a positive outcome! They have said they would like to show it on BBC Four, and we don’t yet have a broadcast date but it is confirmed that they want it so that’s great. (NB: the film aired on BBC Four on 19 May 2019 – click here to watch it on iPlayer).
QUESTION: I am just very interested, especially with seeing you all talking to each other around that table, how you actually got a single coherent story out of it all?
ROWAN: Well, did I? Yes, I’m interested in that as well and I think it is a mixture of lots of hard work and lots of late nights on the laptop hoping that you can fit this jigsaw together and it is also the quality of the work and writing that was produced. So, for the raw material, people may not have had much experience writing, in fact some people struggled to write at all, some people came and drew and barely wrote a word. We had to try and find a way of incorporating all the beautiful, brilliant ideas that were there – my job was really just to piece that together, finding the links between the different people and different voices. I didn’t have to write many words at all, because most of the words were there, I just had to edit and piece it together. So, it was quite a privileged position to be in, for a writer. By spending quite a long time with people in a room that work starts to kind of shape itself. And then going away and having a really hard think, and a bit of a cry, until your kind of put something together and hope that maybe that makes sense to other people as well. Then try and refine that, and then put it into rehearsal and relying on the director and musical director, choreographer, set designer, technical support and all the other people that were involved to also try and envision that (coherently at times and incoherently at others) and then try and make that work, and make it into one thing. This sounds a bit arty-farty, but it is about the love that is in the project and trying to let that work, I think that produces a kind of logic.
LIZZY: I think as well in addition to all of that, I think it was the connection that everyone felt with the story and the fact that everyone went on a journey together. And so, it wasn’t just one writers script, it was everyone’s ideas. I think because people felt that it was relevant to their lives, everyone was immersed in creating the story together, and that becomes and easier task to piece it together.
QUESTION: As it is a project that we are hoping to run again, what advice would you give to somebody who wants to take part in it?
AJ: It’s tricky one because I am one of those people, I enjoy my comfort zone. So being taken out of my comfort zone is not pleasurable at all. But, in saying that, I got a massive amount of confidence from it, and I didn’t think I could do it, I found it very, very, difficult, I can’t even tell you how much. It’s all consuming, learning damn dialogue. It’s in your head 24/7, word, words, words, words, words. And I love reading, but I don’t want to read dialogue ever again. But, I did it, and I didn’t think I could do it, and it really gave me a huge sense of achievement. So, I would just say go for it, never mind what I said about dialogue and stuff, just give it a go and you will get a lot from it. The team were fantastic, the supporting atmosphere and working with… not just kind, but very talented supportive people. I got a lot from it. I would never do it again! But I did get an awful lot from it and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
JEREMY: You say you are never going to do it again, but you are actually going back on stage on Thursday night!
AJ: That’s different!
ROWAN: Performing at the Old Fire Station, in the same theatre.
AJ: It’s very different!
ROWAN: I wanted to say something very short that goes alongside that which is to trust. I’m not a very trusting person, in my own ability or anyone else’s. So, I get a bit stressed and I think what I really got out of this project is that everybody has to, finally, trust. And also, having a camera crew there you really trust because later on you can watch a film and see it was all alright. I was very worried about everyone else, I was very worried about myself, I was worried about everything. And so, I think, have a really good camera person and film crew there who can make a beautiful film and you can look back and watch it through that lens, rather than perhaps the stressed lens you experienced it through.
DOUG: I was thrust into theatre 40 odd years ago, and I decided it was what I was going to do and I had done it very happily and quite successfully at times until the last few years when the homelessness hit and I came into Crisis and the Hidden Spire project expecting nothing, and I came out with so much that I could be here all night. If we carry on speaking, we will be here all night. It was everything everybody said it was – it was a wonderful communion of very different aptitudes, and attitudes as well, and we all came together. There was a point where all my professional caveats were broken down, and I thought ‘hang on a minute, this isn’t going to work for me or for anybody else if I don’t give myself to it totally’. And that’s what I did and most of all, as the man who taught AJ how to learn lines – I’d like to take the credit for that! – it meant a lot of things, very many things, but the most important thing, strictly personally, was I got my mojo back. And that meant a lot.
QUESTION: What was your favourite part of the whole project?
ROWAN: One of my favourite parts has been being here tonight, and looking out from this side and seeing all these people who are interested in the work we are doing. A lot of the work that we do in the building is not seen by the public, quite rightly – it is confidential or it’s private – and to see all of you today enjoying learning a bit about what we do, or what we have done, is very pleasing.
LIZZY: Well, there are too many to mention. Definitely performance nights, they are incredible, you can’t describe the emotion you feel. But it is almost equally matched by those moments… there was a moment in the film tonight where suddenly I got shivers – I don’t know if you remember Cody singing that song for the first time in rehearsals, and none of us knew she had that voice, and I think we even cried because it was so special. So I think seeing people do things that you had no idea that they were able to do, and being overcome emotionally by it, is just so brilliant. People’s talents.
ROWAN: Yeah, seeing people’s talents was amazing. Oh, and the set! Seeing the set for the first time, I was just in bits, it was like Nomi had got inside my head. And in quite a spooky way, created exactly what was in there that I wouldn’t have even able to even begin to do that.
MARTIN: Five minutes before the opening curtain, that was the best part. You can see that anticipation of performance, seeing the darkened expanse of the audience before you. There all on the edge of their seats. The sense that something is about to happen, that is the best part.
JO: I have to say I found the best part was the feeling of positivity and support everyone gave each other. It felt very special, even though I wasn’t involved in the production it felt very… I felt high as a result on that sense of support and family I suppose. It’s very special.
QUESTION: I love the emphasis on community and that sense of being together, but I also know about that after the last night the emptiness can come crashing down. How is that sense of community going to continue? How is the project continuing? And are there going to be more opportunities?
JEREMY: OK, for me I think this is really, really, important. One of the things that makes the organisation different I think is that it is not a one-off project, we are not going away, we are staying there. And it actually doesn’t matter if you are still homeless or not, you don’t have to carry on being homeless in order to come and do stuff at the Old Fire Station.
Crisis deliver an amazing service to people who are having a really hard time, and they need to concentrate on the people having a really hard time. So, when people move on, often they lose the opportunity to carry on with their support, because other people need it. But actually, the building is still sitting there and there are still things people can do there. So, our intention is to keep, over time, enabling people – whether they are currently in the middle of a really big crisis and being supported by Crisis, or indeed have moved away from that and are now in a different place – who still want to stay involved and continue with the opportunity, whether it is just to see shows or to volunteer, or to be part of the creative process.
I also think the reason why it came together was because we gave it time, and too often you are in a position where either due to funding or something else, other things we have to do, you have to rush things and get them finished because you have to go on to the next thing. We spend a lot of time doing that. But actually, to be able to create a space where people could actually get serious about doing something of high quality, where they are listened to, where they can make mistakes and relook and rethink until it is right.
So, I think that’s what makes it a little bit different, and I’m really hoping that all these guys and indeed lots of other people in the room tonight will want to keep involved in one way or another. In terms of Hidden Spire itself, we want to do that again, we think it is a really exciting creative contribution to the culture life of the city apart from anything else, so we intend to do it again and aiming to have another production which will be in 2020. It takes well over a year to make that work, it takes another six months on top of that to raise the money to be able to do it.
So, we have started that journey and we have started trying to raise money for the next project and it is our firm intention to do that. It is giving the time, and you need a lot of trust to be able to give that much time to something when you have no idea what it is. So it is a great credit to all these guys that they stuck through it all the way through and made something brilliant.
This transcript has been edited and abridged.
Hidden Spire costs almost £100,000 to do. We think it’s worth every penny. To donate today to make the next Hidden Spire a reality, click here.