Telling Tales in Circus--A Storytelling Workshop That Kept Performers Connected

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Telling Tales in Circus–A Storytelling Workshop That Kept Performers Connected

Mid-September, Mid-Pandemic
I wish I could say we gathered in a dusky church basement or on a sprung floor of a circus studio. But we met where most people meet these days, on contactless Zoom. The Storytelling for Circus workshop organizer, Charlotte Mooney, co-artistic director of Ockham’s Razor, made the distance feel less vast by being warm and inviting. She had the perfect background to lead the group, having trained at the International School of Storytelling. Besides her circus performing and directing career, she still performs regularly as a storyteller and teaches storytelling in various settings from primary schools to universities. Charlotte also teaches devising and lectures on directing circus at Circomedia

The thing that I love about circus is how broad a church it is – how endlessly inventive and strange.

Charlotte was running five concurrent sessions of the workshop for free, some perhaps more diverse than our group, which was 11 white people. Mostly of us were women from circus, most from the UK, all from the arts, and we were meeting up for camaraderie and to alleviate the loneliness of quarantine while expanding our toolkit. Over the next five weeks, we would not just simply hone our professional and artistic selves by exploring the elements of narrative, but also find some connection and deeper understanding of the power of storytelling in our work.

Week 1: It’s Not Awkward At All

Ok, there was some awkwardness, but it was mainly in my mind. After introductions but before exercises, Charlotte announced that we would in fact not be discussing circus for the duration of the workshops. She didn’t quite say it, being English and understated, but I read something in there about everything not needing to be all about circus all of the time.

So I reached out to Charlotte after the workshops to ask her about her intentions, “The thing that I love about circus is how broad a church it is – how endlessly inventive and strange. I wanted to give people a few of the skills that I was given but then see what they would do with them …sure they would integrate it in their own way.” She also mentioned that circus being such a live/in person art form, working in storytelling techniques was not something that could be taught online. “In order to see what it does when worked with circus — I would want to be live in a room to do that, I think.” 

At the time, I made sense of it by thinking about storytelling in a broader way too. Understanding the elements of telling a compelling story can be applied to circus, theater, and even social gatherings. So maybe broadening the scope of this enterprise was the best for everyone, even if it meant I would now always be secretly applying everything we did to circus in the back of my head.

We had been assigned stories from various genres and would retell them to the group as a whole and in breakout rooms to discuss what we noticed. I noticed a lot of things. One member used her hands a lot and emoted, seemingly embodying the characters. Others spoke quietly or told the tale verbatim. Coming from a writing background, I stared blankly at the screen and told my version of the story in rushed, clipped news copy speak, adding only a few embellishments once I realized it was permissible and quite fun. But this exercise was not about performance chops, it was about trusting yourself to understand the structure of a story after a reading/hearing, and to recount it in your own words. Charlotte had faith in us. She said, “As humans, we were telling each other stories for thousands of years before writing them down. It’s in us.”  Then she gave us all homework.

Week 2: Visualizations & Sense of Place

We were asked how we did with our assignments, which involved telling others, or our favorite animals or inanimate objects, the story. Charlotte’s guidance this week moved us away from scripting and prepping for an audience and more towards connection, riffing, and finding intuition to guide us. Honestly, my level of concentration and communication has been so far away from intuition these days that her words felt like both a revelation and an impossible challenge. 

I understood what she asked, yet knew in my soul that giving from that place of myself which has been closed off to visitors lately, especially during trying times–that was a terrifying summons. Can insightful art be made at the height of a cultural trauma or would it just be a scream? Can we connect and heal with timeless tales even before we understand the depths of our collective wounds? 

Perhaps for the performers it was cathartic. I’ve experienced the catharsis of storytelling before from both sides, as teller and receiver. And I wanted to find that again. Courage, I reminded myself,“Theatre is the most perfect artistic form of coercion,” says Augusto Baol in Theatre of the Oppressed. Charlotte had an even more insightful view of creating during tough times, “… discovering what a story is through speaking it out loud and seeing what comes out of you…seeing a story unfold before your eyes as you are telling it. It is a process of allowing yourself to be open, to be surprised, to dream, to be vulnerable in front of people. I think that has deep value as a performer and a maker and a human even if you never chose to use it formally in a show.”

So we made story maps, and we retold with the new information we had gained about imagining and visualizing as we spoke. The exercises added a little more to our story-giving stores. Through the maps we entered one of my favorite elements of any story, place. 

Place, I think, is an undervalued element of much contemporary circus. Most live circus settings or places are conveyed as a sort of nowhere, a black backdrop with laser focus on the body and the action. Yet place is an element that happens in every performance, be it site-specific location, a blank stage in a particular town, or a decked out Spiegeltent. Whether or not circus makers have the budget for scenography, or just wish to travel light, the audience will still create the setting for each scene in their own minds. 

Charlotte explains, “There is a sense of time and place in storytelling that can be very down to earth or otherworldly. In circus scenography, we use time and space in extreme ways. With Ockham’s Razor our sets often function partly as kinetic sculptures. The heart of the shows is told as much through the movement of the bodies and equipment through space as by the performer’s interaction and the “story.” The ability of circus to be at once an exploration of time and space and resonate on a kinetic level alongside any narrative it might be telling means these two could intersect in fascinating ways.”

Through Charlotte’s exercises, we begin to chip away at what place is and how to access it, and I begin to understand how place itself can be conveyed with a body as easily as character can be.

Week 3: Perspective

Faces and names are familiar now. There is the ring mistress who lives in the countryside who loves her chickens—she always has great observations. The acting teacher can blow down the house with any assignment thanks to years of exercising her craft on stage. The younger circus artists’ minds are all so connected to their bodies that every word melds with their gestures. But Charlotte won’t let us rest on old tricks. She had a few new exercises which pushed our re-tellings into a more visceral realm. 

I was also aware that this was something often leveled at circus performers that “they cannot act.

She explained the four gazes (as discussed in The Storyteller’s Way by Ashley Ramsden.) We were to practice a gaze that is a combination of telling and doing, a proto-gaze that reminds me of the Neo-Futurists philosophy regarding non-illusory theater, specifically the poignant connection of a storyteller with an object. The object makes the story more real somehow. If you watch a woman recount being bullied in middle school while she slowly builds a house of cards on a table, you feel her pent up rage so much more clearly. This was similar, but an inverse relationship. Here the storyteller is transported into the story by their own internal visualizations and their movements and expressions reflect that. Voila! Pretending is acting, but more real somehow.

Watching it is refreshing and effortless, but doing it short-circuited my brain. In my own experience, I am either doing or thinking—flowing from one to the next requires a gear shift that throws me off of the plot arc and leaves me muttering. It is reassuring to discover from the others that I am not alone in that struggle. Even Charlotte had been in that place before she began studying storytelling–she says, “I had tried various acting classes and felt very out of my depth and unqualified to speak on stage. I was also aware that this was something often leveled at circus performers that ‘they cannot act.'” 

She notes an important distinction, that that storytelling seems to jibe more closely with circus than acting does, “the way the stories were told was not the same as “acting” – it was a style of performance where the storyteller may become characters / enter into a story but may also be themselves outside of it. It struck me as a really similar mode of performance that is going on in Circus. It’s not quite the same relationship that an actor has to the audience. I think often in circus there is a level of performance and character but also moments of presence when the performers are themselves – playing with the risk and reality of what they are doing.”

A map drawn on graph paper in a notebook depicting the location of places in a fairytale about a woodcutter who wanted to cheat death
My story map for staging a fairytale

My homework was to read a Greek myth and to map it out to show the bones of the story. I thought of my map as a stage and the scenography became important to me in these stories. Writing down the bones of a story is helpful. I don’t have any problem understanding what essential information is, but I felt the heavy loss of every word I didn’t write, as if those beautiful details would be lost to us forever. How was I going to remember to explain that Apollo’s hair hung in scented curls framing his face and his head was topped with laurel wreaths if I didn’t put it down on paper? 

Throughout the class, Charlotte notes our dutiful attempts to stay on script, but she lit up when she saw people’s own character emerging as they connected with their stories, “What I wanted to teach was a way to think of telling stories in performance in a live way that liberates you from being bound by a script…a way to bring both the performer and the story to life through it constantly being part improvised and visualised. How you might then use this in the devising/directing /creation of a circus show is as wide as your imagination.”

Week 4: Failing on Purpose

We were asked to slow down. To fail in order to understand how we can succeed. Charlotte introduced the idea of thresholds in a story, turning-point moments that can be emphasized like a slow-motion karate sequence in a movie just to make sure the viewer feels the impact of that kick. It’s astounding to watch when it succeeds. I know it must be one of the best tools any performer could have to move a viewer, and yet, no matter how many times Charlotte and my workshop mates explore it and discover for themselves how to do this magical thing, I cannot find the right moment in my own story to delineate any threshold. It’s not even clear who the protagonist is in my story. It’s a Greek myth, and no one is particularly likable, or planning to grow from their life-altering experiences. The tale is told from an omniscient but stripped down perspective, leaving me at a loss for locating the turning point moment.

Fortunately for me, I am not called on that week, but I still spend the whole class worrying about how I would pull off my threshold moment if I were called on, and this worry distracted me from seeing how others employed their news skill successfully. Failing (through taking a turn with my story) is not something I was willing to contemplate, but by not participating, I basically failed and learned something anyway by bumping up against my self-imposed limits. I resolved to study hard for the following week and to be ready with my threshold experience.

Week 5: Putting It All Together

It had been an intense few weeks around the world and yet this space had been a sacred zone to explore a part of our humanity through stories while connecting with our peers. Most of the participants were performers whose normal pathways of connecting with their peers had been blocked for over half the year already by a pandemic forbidding their art in public spaces. Their livelihoods had been on pause and would continue to be for the foreseeable future. It was the last week of our workshop and I was stunned that our group would be over after this session and we’d go back to our isolated non-performing lives indefinitely.

Of course, Charlotte made these sessions for this very reason, “Alongside the stress of…living through a pandemic we were aware that people lost access to training spaces so they couldn’t continue their practice and were losing skills. They also lost the places where they could explore/be creative.”

I arrived late to the meeting, and it was almost time to tell my version of the myth. I have not even had time to worry about it in advance! I was prepared, as I had vowed to be the previous week (if only by telling my dogs the story a few times that morning.) I had experimented with rhythm and intonation and perhaps more importantly, with making the myth reflect my character and expression. When I told my story, I am sure I did not nail the threshold moment–because I had no idea where it was–and that felt like a mystery I didn’t mind keeping intact. But I did make people laugh in a few spots, and to me, that is the highest compliment a wordsmith can hope for when talking to a bunch of performing artists. 

As for Charlotte, she herself connects these skills to her circus work every day, stating, “I have already started using these methods for storytelling and for devising street theatre and circus shows as I feel it is a brilliant approach to strip a story back and place yourself inside the physical context of the story and use your own natural rhythm and language to flesh it out and retell it.” She explained how Ockhams’ Razor had managed to perform an outside show recently,” in a part of the country that has been particularly hard hit by Covid. It was a piece that feature a performer trapped and isolated within a perspex tower/box and his eventual escape. It was incredibly moving to be able to perform that show and to witness audience reactions.”

I asked my workshop mate Sigrid Carbajal, circus artist out of Circomedia (aerial rope, clowning, trapeze, and hand balancing) what she thought would be transferable from the storytelling workshop to her practice of circus. She explained how with her work she wants to combine the traditional roots and newer circus styles to make provocative, political work that raises awareness about various issues including mental health and feminism. She said, “It was so interesting to be able to find the techniques that work (and have worked before– I just didn’t realize) for my storytelling. I’ve gained confidence and a lot of knowledge on how to make a story interesting and follow a tangible line without losing any of the fantasy…” And that would make it a circus story worth telling.

Kim Campbell
Writer -USA
Kim Campbell has written about circus for CircusTalk.News, Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. They are the former editor of CircusTalk.News, American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where they write about circus, theatre, arts and culture. Kim is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.
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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell has written about circus for CircusTalk.News, Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. They are the former editor of CircusTalk.News, American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where they write about circus, theatre, arts and culture. Kim is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.