“Discovering trapeze was like finding a part of me that had been missing, it was my soul mate. The combination of making art and having found the physical freedom with which to express it was perfection for me. It gave my life meaning, structure, freedom, space, air, light and confidence.” — An excerpt from the book Aerialist. 2018 Rebecca Truman.
To be an Aerialist is all-consuming. Training and performing soon become the driving force of our lives. We often develop an addiction to both the physical and mental effects of aerial work and we structure our life around it. So lockdown can be an aerialist’s hell.
“Lockdown for many of us has been a double sentence – not only are we housebound, but we are also grounded,” said aerialist Will Davis on his lockdown experience.
If you are an aerialist, I know that you will all be doing your pull-ups and conditioning exercises in your living rooms and on door frames. I also know that it will not feel like enough and you will be enormously frustrated.
“With aerial work, it’s brutal how quickly strength is lost and it can be so disheartening to experience that,” said aerialist Sophie Page Hall. However, there are ways that you can spend this time usefully, by developing your skills and growing your performance style.
As an aging aerialist with 35 years of experience, I understand and have looked back over my career to put together some ideas to help you both stay sane and use lockdown to your advantage.
Plan Your Performance
With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see the areas that I could have spent more time on in order to have a higher quality performance. As aerial work has become very popular, aerialists have become ten a penny to hire. It is not enough anymore just to have a great routine–you need to work on your performance from all angles, otherwise, it is a gymnastic display. Look at your routine through outside eyes, are we spending too much time looking at your bottom or the back of your head? Is it well-paced? Do your facial expression and body language engage with the audience?
Think About Your Act
There is a difference between a routine and an act. An act must have context and a character as well as the physical skills. Does your act have an element of surprise within it? Does the atmosphere or character change or grow at some point? For example, you could arrive on stage as truly superhuman; on a motorbike, a spaceship or bearing fire…then develop the narrative of that throughout. Or, from the opposite perspective, you could arrive in the ring looking like an audience member, unleashing some comical mishaps so that the audience really relates to you…then unravel unexpected superhuman feats.
Know Your Audience
Depending on where, how and why you are working, the audience changes and you should adapt. I found that I changed my performance character depending on the occasion: upbeat and smiley for variety shows, dramatic and exaggerated for the circus, dark and brooding for theatre and festivals. Think about who is coming to your performance, and the area of the circus industry that you are working in, then think about what type of experience that group of people would want from an evening out.
You might assume that your cleverest trick pleases them, but this is not necessarily true. My award-winning company Skinning the Cat was considered groundbreaking in its time. This was not only because we were the first contemporary aerial group but because we crossed boundaries between the diverse worlds of the circus industry. Whilst our creative style remained constant, we developed a flexible range of performances to fit the occasion. This portfolio came about by receiving diverse booking inquiries and finding that to survive financially it was not enough to offer just one way of working.
Some ways Skinning the Cat adapted to different circus settings include;
Our doubles trapeze act Warrior Princesses for the tented circus, with these superhero style characters, we would arrive in the ring carrying fire and doing pseudo martial arts to appeal to young people and family audiences with character types they would recognize.
My solo act Firebird for variety theatre- we made use of a feathery, glamorous and showbiz-style presentation for the adult variety loving connoisseur.
We did Rubicon narrative shows for festivals where each performer was a highly visual caricature to enact a simple narrative using multiple aerial props, because for this audience everything must be larger than life.
Research Your Industry
The circus industry is a multi-faceted and much-tangled web. It is so often who you know that gets you the work. In the early days of Skinning the Cat I was so busy touring that I was completely unaware of the advantages of professional networking. I learned it’s importance when I attended an Informal European Theatre Meeting in Bulgaria. It was heaving with artists, promoters, directors and funders. I came away with a new French agent and some interesting producers for site-specific shows.
Lockdown is a virtual networking opportunity for us all. Join circus forums, aerial networks, and Facebook groups. Ask questions, get to understand who is doing what, find ways to engage with other professionals and get your name about.
Respect Circus History
Circus is only what it is now because of what has come before it. There is no better way to understand and evolve your own work than by looking at what has come before or what is currently showing;
‘I saw Cirque Imaginaire, Victoria Chaplin’s show. It was so gentle. The skills were not presented like tricks, with drum rolls and clapping, but combined the quiet quality of mime characters, props and costumes. I had found my art form.’ — An excerpt from the book Aerialist.
Circus history will help you see if you are reinventing the wheel and whether you are doing it well or need to up your game. I got most of my circus history from second-hand bookshops. It may be worth searching online as historical experiences will feed your passion for this fantastic industry. Some useful online resources are: The National Fairground and Circus Archive (includes a Skinning the Cat archive), The Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre Archive (includes a Skinning the Cat costume), Douglas Mcpherson’s blog CircusMania (has book reviews, articles and enormous amount of current and historical information) and Circopedia.
Use Creative Rigging
Always keep an eye out that you are a unique performer in your field. One simple way to do this is to think about the equipment that you are working on. Historical research will show you that aerial acts often come in many variations through changes in rigging. This can be through the use of extra loops, swivels or winches or the incorporation of a prop; a giant birdcage which silks drop out of, web rope off a chandelier, spinning on loops in and out of a tank of water, or performing as an aerial clown on a lamppost prop. Don’t just be like every other silks or rope artist!
Some examples of the way that we used innovative rigging props in Skinning the Cat;
With Chameleon we had creatures appear out of a magic shopping trolley (there was a trapdoor in the stage and a hole in the bottom of the shopping trolley!) At the culmination of the show it was winched up into the air with wings. It flashed lights and aerial routines were performed off of it. The heroine jumped off and down a chute at the end!
With Enchantress, the rig was the main prop, a silver tree on which narrative and aerial routines took place.
With Rubicon trapeze was performed underneath the bicycle on the tight rope as the heroine rode off into the sunset.
With Clare de Lune, we designed a little rig when commissioned to provide an aerial show with no staking points. It is short and squat and sits on a stage on wheels which was pushed around during the performance.
Have a Concept
Skinning the Cat’s trademark was our extremely visual costumes and unusual props. Consider lockdown your dream time during which you can imagine what you want to be as a performer and how you want your audience to see you. Learn a new skill, teach yourself to sew costumes, or develop your makeup skills.
In one Skinning the Cat show, we wore prosthetic ears, teeth and noses and one performer had an extended toe, all incorporated into a trapeze routine! Let your imagination run riot, never think that you cannot wear something on a trapeze, adjust your routine to suit the character.
‘The costumes and the performance characters were central to the uniqueness of Skinning the Cat. Because I was both a trapeze artiste and costumier, I was in a good position to experiment with pushing the boundaries of the average trapeze costume…To make the spikes three-dimensional, I sewed Lycra onto wadding. They had to be Lycra because the spikes frequently got caught on the ropes, trapezes or other parts of the costume. Hence, they had to be flexible and durable enough to survive lots of tugging.’ — An excerpt from the book Aerialist.
One of the problems of running your own aerial company or being a self-employed aerialist is you end up wearing so many hats; administrator, designer, booking agent, driver, performer, rigger…the list is endless! It is also the joy of it, because you control your own destiny and you get to learn so many useful and interesting skills. In this age of social media where you have no sooner put your new move on Instagram than everyone else can learn it too, use this lockdown time to your advantage to get yourself ahead with your own image, style and uniqueness. I look forward to seeing the results.
All photos provided courtesy of Rebecca Truman. Feature photo performers Lou Sumray and Victoria Amedume. Skinning the Cat show Claire de Lune. Photo credit: Harvey Dwight