I taught for a few years at Circus Space (which then become NCCA - the National Centre for Circus Arts). For the school's annual graduation show there was a tradition that the first year students were led by a director to provide the 'links' - short ensemble acts to cover for and accomplishing the rig and de-rig necessary for the different disciplines of the various acts: Chinese Pole, Slack- or Tight-wire, Arial Hoop, Straps ... and so on. This is akin to the role of the Clowns in traditional touring circus where they would come on to discharge the tension created by the more dangerous acts. I also think of the Rodeo Clowns who come on to keep the show action going and the crowd engaged when things have gone dangerously awry.
'What is the world we are creating?' is a question to be considered in any performed production.
The opening scene had low light and later, bleak, blue-green tinged ilumination. The sound score contributed with a desolate-sounding drip and an occasional electrical fizz - we are in a large unfriendly space with, perhaps, puddles and exposed electrical wiring, occasionally some flickering due to power surges - due to punishment happening somewhere off, unseen.
All the clowns were dressed in white - unified, but with variation in detail. Disposable decorators' overalls suggested both institutional garb and chem-haz gear. Their hats were in fact disposable shoe covers. The designer for the Slave Clown 'links' was circus design specialist Andie Scott.
A tall and small clown pair (the small one riding a child's tricycle) do a sad circuit bearing a sign to announce the show title. We hear a squeaking of the tricycle wheels.
Next came a single clown, pushed out on to the stage from stage left. Then a white rope is flung and flops to the floor. The lone clown looks at the rope, the audience - all with dread. She picks up and shoulders the rope, taking lunging Volga bargemen steps. The rope extends and tautens. Next comes a shuffling bunch of humanity - terrified slave clowns lassoed inside the rope, making their way across the stage. One at the back starts to collapse, but they must, must keep on going, like Jane Fonda carrying her dead dance partner in They Shoot Horses Don't They? The whole process is made more difficult, but them manage to exit, with him being dragged behind, their anxious faces to us, hoping we don't notice too much.
This was followed by a circus parade - traditionally this would be circular, inside the space of the circus ring. In this staging it was a linear procession (evoking the regimenting of prisoners rather than a festive celebration - even though, originally, there was the deathly circle of the coliseum). Each prisoner had small costume details or props - one dressed as a lion, others juggling, one repeatedly pulling a dead rabbit from a hat.
First act: Chinese Pole was followed by two clowns pushed out. One has a buzzer and is being forced to inflict electric shocks on her partner. Clowns hurry on behind, dragging the inert body of the clown who collapsed earlier - one of the team steal the buzzer to shock him back to life as they cannot do it without that extra man. The revived slave clown manages his part of the de-rig, then takes another bad turn and must be dragged off - there is an image of this moment in the slide show here. Meanwhile pillow-case-headed slave clowns (you can see the pillow heads in the slide-show mentioned earlier) drag on a body in a sheet - opened to reveal a twisted body - a loop is placed round the ankle of the body which is winched up - this is the next performer (the wonderful Lydia Harper, now touring with Cirque du Soleil), who performs her cloud swing act, which ends in a poignant neck spin.
This shows a dramaturgical opportunity dilemma. The purpose of the evening is a show-case for graduating students so it was not possible or appropriate to inflect the actual acts. We certainly established that there was a hierarchy where the performers of the featured acts were of a different order to the slaves. If this had been a production where the remit was for all the content of the piece - one choice could have been to make the acts even more glamorous and elaborate in their visuals e.g. bejewelled and feathered costumes. Another choice could have been to make each act a life-or death trial in some way (such as Lydia's entry and finish allowed for). Also there would have been an opportunity here - what might have been a good game for the implication of the audience? Might a slave clown have been sent out with a kind of geiger counter to measure he applause after the featured acts, and then looked at a dial and reacted in a number of ways - e.g. at first, just a general agitation to set up how important it was to get an accurate recording (or risk punishment), on another occasion - a head shake and a concerned look at the way the performer had exited; another time measuring clown might appear late and only catch the tail end of the audience reaction and look with appealing eyes to the audience who might only partially clap - reacting to what ever the audience did with desperate hope and ultimately their expression would read culpability as well as anxiety - they might well leave with a sob ... etc.
While the cloud swing was being de-rigged, the Pillow heads make a return. A height-adjustable black screen is quickly erected and when the slave clowns step aside we see Little Man - he so sweet natured and happy, the expressions of the slave clowns is a nice Contrast. As with a doctor about to deliver a bad diagnosis, the pillow-heads cannot participate in his optimism. One slave clown advances with a barber-striped stick tipped with red feathers and tickling begins, resulting in suffering and eventually the existential, unanswerable cry of 'why? why? why?' (In Ancient Japan, this was a genuine method of torture - kusuguri-zeme: 'merciless tickling').
A cue point within the 'Little Man' scene set other slave clowns in traction setting up a table for the next act - juggling. One slave clown was given a tiny bellboy hat to wear to assist the performer by delivering her prop suitcases and collecting her coat. This act leaves some mess and an operational vacuum cleaner inside the headdress of a costume made to look like a small elephant comes on to clear.
A rope act follows, ending in a heel hang. The next link featured a clown with goggles and a whip and the entry of a tragic-looking unicorn (pantomime horse). In this reality, even a magical beast is degraded. The whip cracks force the unicorn to raise on hind legs and then to endure the humiliation of a nervous slave clown throwing juggling hoops onto his horn. In Dark Clown all options are painful - the fails cause fear of punishment and the successful throws hurt the soul of the slave clown (and the unicorn).
The set-up for the following act is accomplished in the background. (A delightfully upbeat act by Tom Ball who plays a boy scout - the act starts in a tent, he climbs a ladder like some kind of scout task up to a high trapeze - beautiful).
The unicorn dolefully returns to support an acrobatic interlude in solving tutu-ed slave clowns.
The stage is set with hoops for a hula hoop act to follow (the consummate Helen Orford).
The long-suffering unicorn is tempted on with an apple ... he is reluctant but allows himself to put his faith in humanity once more. Once more, humiliation as the hula hoops left on the floor are slung around his neck. As he exited, one slave clowns sang an 'orphan' song accompanied but another on a ukulele while a third clown came on quietly up stage and yo-yoed.
At the end of the song, the interval play out music - Tom Waits 'Satisfied' (an upbeat song about death).
To welcome the audience back there was a scene of three terrified (yet highly skilled) slave clowns performing acrobatics to totalitarian music. Unless you were there, you'll never know. It was hilarious.
Tightrope act. Then three slave clowns dance/contort in three isolated spotlights (one is dressed as a skeleton) to cover de-rig of tightrope and rig for straps. Also, the collapsing clown is dragged across the stage, clutching a juggling club (my notes don't carry all the detail of this running motif - which built to a lowkey payoff).
The slave clowns nervously build acrobatic tableaux - they quiver with the strain of holding their positions while one hapless slave clown must make a painstaking squeaky tricycle journey across the wide length of the stage (meaningless activity is a spirit-breaking exercise in political camps) to deliver a juggling club at the furthest end as the final detail.
A rope act, which ended with silver PVS film dropping from the ceiling. Nelly vac makes another entrance to help hoover that up. The littlest tuttu-ed clown crosses with a brush also followed by the unicorn wrangler and her whip. Bag Heads dance, not no good reason (I love working with ensembles - once can generate a lot of material - I always ask people what skill they bring and it's wonderful to try to honour everyone's contributions). The Nellyvac, having cleaned, does a tinselly poo onstage (ah the pointless-ness of life). The 'elephant' wrangler takes out a plastic bag of course to clear up the elephant's mess.
The wonderful Matt Green does a juggling act - it is reminiscent of Beckett's Act Without Words - his hoody is on back-to-front so he is working blind some of the time. He loses clubs, throws away clubs, reaches for clubs that don't arrive and then clubs thrown on him (as if an assault by fate).
At the end of the act clowns come on singly to clear the clubs strewn about. Here the slave clowns came together in couples and slow-danced. Two central clowns take focus and move apart as if pulled by external forces (other clowns subtly place a crash mat), ready for Ben Browns lovely aerial hoop act, with an atmosphere of pining.
Andie Scott had used a scrim at the back. In a dramatic change of mood, with an impressive soundscape chord, we see a through the scrim where a kind of 'Wailing Wall' is revealed - a vertical vision of hell. Against the bare brick wall we hung white hoops and ropes - all the slave clowns were writhing there in agony and despair. My intention was to evoke something like Hans Memling's The Last Judgement.
Suddenly in tutus and balaclavas come the clowns dressed like Pussy Riot. Their very can-can kicking liberates and enlivens the clowns who descend on to the stage area and raise up the Pussy Riot dancers and leave, triumphant.
Fizz, drip, desolate lighting - two clowns enter, enthusiastically pumping placards ... their pace, energy, mood slows and drops as they see they are too late for the revolution .. and they sadly set the scene for the next act.
They place a chair for the harpist who will play live to accompany a stunning and moving acrobatic balance duo about love and interdependence.
To finish the evening on a high - there is a triumphant celebratory juggling arcade with exuberant acro - the slave clowns are free after all.
You can now see segments of Strange Forces on the Peta Lily Company YouTube Channel.