How to Build a Circus
Having grown up with a fascination with street theatre in India, with men on stilts and women balancing eight pots on their heads at one time, the circus was an aspect of performance I was itching to explore. My initial research for Elephant’s Graveyard quickly taught me that the magic of the circus is not just in the disappearing acts, unimaginable stunts and precision of performance but in the community that devises these acts. An extended family— a group of people that travels and lives together for months on end, sleeping next to their art (as the trainer does with Big Mary in the play) all for the mere love of performance. I decided to create a similar community in the rehearsal process for this show, which helped me understand the collaborative nature of my directing style generally.
What does the circus mean to me today? And how can I build that community without actually building a circus? I related it to Prithvi theatre in Mumbai, India- where artists sit with chai, snacks and devise theatre. I decided I wanted a more professional version of that. Thus, we had snacks at rehearsal and an opening “check-in” circle. Sharing a part of ourselves or our days helped bring us closer. Additionally, I found the feeling of community within international student spaces and spaces for people of color on campus. Thus, I had made the decision to reach out to those communities along with the regular theatre and dance mailing list. As a result, the cast was comprised of some very talented students of color who did not have the confidence or did not feel welcome to audition for plays on campus otherwise.
Creating a collaborate environment with these actors, many of which were new to theatre at Grinnell was what was most compelling about the process of directing Elephant’s Graveyard. The cast served as more than just bodies on stage— their ideas were some of the most important reasons behind the play’s success. Collectively making the cast and crew care about the production was what drove it forward. Keeping in line with the idea of the circus, when auditioning actors, I looked for people with different skillsets further than just acting. One of the actors led the an acappella group on campus, so casting him meant that he was able to help with devising the singing parts of the show— which was not my strongest suit.
In addition to building a circus my placing varying skillsets together, I began to discover my directorial style. Having worked with several student and faculty directors in my four years at Grinnell, I found that my aesthetic was a combination of all of them and nothing like any of them simultaneously. For example, the collaborative rehearsal process was created through a series of ensemble building workshops and exercises inspired by my time spent in dance ensemble and a summer MAP with Celeste Miller, classes with Craig Quintero and theatre companies that have inspired me such as Frantic Assembly, Olivier Tarpaga and Mary Zimmerman. However, the exercises we did turned the versions I had studied into exercises that directly applied to me as a director and were best for the show. Thus, my own exercises began to develop out of them. For example, Celeste did an exercise revolving around the habits and movement patterns of dancers. I created my own version of that exercise— which was text based, and had actors find their vocal and physical habits when they performed. Having actors talk through their over-shifting or their tendency to drop the last word helped them find a more central place for their characters.
Other ensemble building work included viewpoint exercises I had learned at Grinnell and my time at the London Dramatic Academy, but with my own approach. We began our first rehearsal by dancing to our favorite middle school music— opening ourselves up to being free and unafraid with one another— to be clowns. Getting used to the idea that we have our individual identities that we are bringing into this process and they are not just bodies on stage. The dancing slowly moved into stranger and more calm music that transitioned the actors into viewpoints, helping the actors get physically comfortable with their characters, as well as each other on stage. This built a very strong ensemble that had individual identities but knew how to move like one body when it had to. Other exercises that helped build the ensemble included giving gifts to each other in character. Describing the importance of an object to their character, helped actors ground their acting in reality.
Additionally, being honest about my shortcomings as a director helped the production thrive in this collaborative environment. Having no skill in the circus arts, I organized a workshop with Charlotte Richardson, a student whose biggest extra-curricular activity as a child was circus training. The workshop helped the actors gain confidence in lifts, rolls and tumbles that we were able to use frequently in the show. Working with Charlotte helped form a circus movement vocabulary for the actors, which only became stronger through the devising process.
In my experience performing at Grinnell, I had heard the phrase “vocabulary for movement” very often and never completely understood it. The idea was that the movement done on stage was taken out of some sort of pre-distinct movement patterns we already had. Keeping that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to help actors expand their knowledge and “vocabulary” for movement, and movement specifically for the circus. Workshops like these helped give actors a base to provide ideas and solutions for the play that it would be ridiculous for me to expect from them without any help. For example, the circus workshop taught the actors three types of lifts and several other movement techniques. Only one of those types of lifts were used in the show, but they gave the actors the confidence and technique to create their own lifts which were much more compelling than the basic ones.
Ensemble building and choreographing made Elephant’s Graveyard have a commitment to one vision. Exercises like “100 ways to use a newspaper” helped actors generate their own movement, stretch their creativity and helped us build an ensemble scene that was varied without being distracting. In an actor’s words, ensemble work helped them care about the show rather than their personal stake in it. Similarly, asking assistant stage managers to document our rehearsals helped involve them in the process. One ASM began creating short videos of our process that helped her create her filmmaking portfolio as well as give her confidence to take on the task of doing cinematography for a web series with other Grinnell students.
In conclusion, following the analogy of building a circus helped create a hardworking, passionate and creative ensemble that collectively worked towards a better show rather than just their part within it. Giving students of color the opportunity to perform in such a play, additionally brought different communities on campus closer together. The varying skillsets students from these communities brought with them led to better performances and filled up the loopholes in my knowledge. Directing Elephant’s Graveyard helped me find my voice and style as a theatre-maker, and helped me inspire other people involved in the process to do the same. I find that this circus analogy works for my directing strategy in general, and will be something I use in the future for the plays I devise.