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Circus 2.0. Edward Gosling and Laurane Marchive witness the evolution of a scene

'Becoming Shades' by Chivaree Circus. Photo credit: Maximilian Webster

Edward Gosling and Laurane Marchive are the creative partnership behind Chivaree – an award winning circus production company based in London. Running for 6 years now Chivaree is about to embark on its most ambitious project to date: an 8 week run of their immersive theatrical circus show Becoming Shades as part of VAULT Festival in the Vaults Waterloo. They are also launching a new party, Late Night Special Feature, in March 2018. Here Edward and Laurane witness the evolution of circus.

In 2018 the modern form of circus will celebrate its 250th birthday. Its father, Philip Astley, had served during the seven years war as a particularly gifted master horse trainer. As a civilian he brought his talents into the public sphere, creating a central circular arena for his feats to be performed. Acrobats, jugglers and dancers soon followed to add variety. This exciting mix of strength, agility and showmanship quickly became a great success, crossing borders and spreading around the world in a very short space of time. As an essentially non-verbal form it had no language or cultural barriers to overcome so was easily exportable; lacking the baggage of convention it created for itself it's own codes, practices and symbols.

How to imagine the excitement such a show would have created for an audience who had never witnessed the special effects of modern films, who had never seen some of the exotic animals outside of drawings, or the strange band of characters and performers who would accompany it?

These have become powerful sensory ideas for people, embodying the spirit of childhood wonder. The smell of popcorn. The bright red jacket of the ringmaster (reminiscent of its military origins) the spectacle, the shared experience of a community coming together. An experience so vibrant that, real or imaginary, it has become a cultural memory within our psyche. If I say circus, you think of an elephant on a small, striped podium, clowns throwing custard pies, a girl on a tightrope with an umbrella, horses with colourful feathers on their heads, showgirls, acrobats on a flying trapeze. Even if you have never been to see one of those circuses, if you went to see one for the first time it would be familiar somehow, such is it rooted in our collective consciousness. Films like Water for Elephants or the music video for Britney Spears' Circus draw from this classic aesthetic and colour pallet and take it for granted that you know what the circus is, or was.


But what was once a bold new form, over time became a stale and stagnant formula. The advent of cinemas and television and their ability to enter people’s lives and entertain saw the slow decline of circus and the great travelling shows that toured across America and Europe fell one by one. On the 21st of May this year, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's The Greatest Show on Earth had its final performance – they were the last of this long tradition. Owners were forced to remove animals after a string of legal challenges, but audiences lost interest when they removed them. This was the final nail in the coffin, but failure to evolve was it’s downfall.

In order to survive and reach out to new audiences, circus became more fragmented, more specialised, and contemporary circus was born out of a paradigm shift and a burst of newfound energy.

Cirque du Soleil have added narrative and a fantastical flourish. Fuerza Bruta have allowed the audience to be at the heart of the show, able to experience it up close in a 360 degree spectacle. La Soiree and Briefs are cheeky, sexy intimate circus intertwined with cabaret. In London, Jackson's Lane Theatre has led the way programming and producing stripped down Avant-garde circus drawing from performance art.


For our work we want to take it in a further direction. In a world dominated by social media where we can all curate our own content and where there never seem to be one simple truth, where we have access to video games and where virtual reality is increasingly entering people's lives – audience members want to be at the centre of the story. And they want that story, or at least aspects of it, to be specific to them - unique. Audiences want to be on a journey that is individual, where they have agency and the opportunity to find something hidden or special. Immersive theatre offers this more personalised experience - it is a sign of the time that we want fiction to be as individualised as life is.

Punchdrunk famously eschew the term “immersive theatre” but nevertheless are pioneers of the form that most people associate with this kind of environment where each individual is free to roam the space and discover the action for themselves, where audience members are no longer passive but always active. In Faust, their 2006 production, the climax saw the naked protagonist strapped to a chair and beaten by Mephistopheles. The devil then swung a single hanging light back and forward illuminating first one half of the surrounding audience and then the other – till they appeared like devils all around the lone man. In Alice’s Adventures Underground audience members were split into groups to uncover a traitor to the Queen and become active witnesses in the final trial. In Secret Cinema Star Wars audience members had to find some “spice” to access to the next level of the experience. The audience have become characters in the story, they have become the very landscape of its fabric.


'Becoming Shades' by Chivaree Circus: Photo credit: Rob Voodoo
Of course there is a challenge there. How do you combine the big impact-jaw dropping aspects of circus with an intimate personalised experience? In that regard circus and immersive theatre exist in complete opposition. In a video game or VR experience you can film or create content that users can use or watch on repeat. But with circus the feats are real and the performers can only produce them a limited number of times. They cannot perform for 3 hours straight as actors do because they would get exhausted and the sheer physicality involved in circus can only be sustained for so long. Trying to marry the desire for theatre goers to take part in personalised interaction and the need to ensure everybody witnesses the big moments is at the core of the dilemma. And so is putting on circus acts so close you feel you could touch them, whilst making sure they remains safe for both performers and audience members when there is, always with circus, an element of danger and of pushing physical limits.

In traditional circus, the audience is in a circular space with performers at the centre. In immersive theatre the audience is in the centre and the action all around them. But if this is to become a fully tangible immersive and interactive experience, then the action must happen closer, and on a smaller scale. Within reach. These are the tensions we have to work with.

Incorporating the big mind blowing acts and the small personalised interactions, in shows where there are as many stories as there are audience members, and as many truths and perspectives as there would be in real life. It’s a work in progress, always, but it is the future of theatre. A reflection of life and its complexities, with the shared joys of big fireworks experienced up-close and the quiet moments of respite that can only be enjoyed on a personal level. With both circus and immersive theatre there are no shortcuts, no excuses, no safety nets. It’s as real and raw as it gets.

For details about Chivaree’s production Becoming Shades at VAULT festival 2018, and their new party, Late Night Special Feature (March 2018) - sign-up to their mailing list: chivaree.co.uk


'Becoming Shades' by Chivaree Circus. Photo credit: Maximilian Webster

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