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Interview with Luke Hallgarten, artistic director of the Revel Puck Circus

We’re talking to Luke Hallgarten, artistic director of the Revel Puck Circus and the director of their latest show, the Wing Scuffle Spectacular.

Ben: Tell me about the company.

Luke Hallgarten
Luke Hallgarten

Luke: The Revel Puck Circus formed a few years ago. We have a great passion for tented, outdoor touring and are trying to reposition circus’s public image more into 21st Century culture. The public’s perception is more of a classical circus. They often think of animals and red-nosed clowns and ringmaster’s with frilled lapels. No one from our company comes from that background but we have a great love for the ethos and lifestyle of it and what it can bring to people in local communities. We’re trying to bring the best part of classical circus into the 21st Century.

Ben: So how do you create a show?
Luke: We come up with the themes and think about what we want to be outputting to the public and contributing to the industry, plus think about what the public will enjoy. There’s a year researching and thinking about ideas, then discussing with collaborators over a coffee where we explore everything. Then deeper dramaturgical questions come in. I talk to a lot of theatre practitioners, and they find it hard not to put a linear narrative onto a show or piece of work. I’m still learning about how to create work without that linear narrative, so talking to people so used to working in that way helps explore this.

The Wing Scuffle Spectacular is the middle show of a triptych about Risk. The first show (The Big Bagaga Show) was about Failure. This one is about Fear. The third is about Trust. And celebrating trust and how key trust is and also how essential it is for us to learn and grow and move forward.

The arc of the three shows is about embracing the public’s perceptions of circus. Not in a way where we’re attacking them or punching down on them, but in a way that we can laugh about these together. In the first show, we had big daredevil stunts that weren’t daredevil at all but were easy. We had a pantomime horse, because of the expectation of animals. In this one, we have a clown who’s scared of everything, who wants to be funny but can’t work out how to be funny. We can’t afford and don’t want to have animals in our show, so we’ll gaffer tape a lion to a remote control car, and maybe that will do for an audience and be what they want to see!

Ben: The show is billed as an exploration of Fear
Luke: This show we’re really exploring thrill and the fun of fear. We’re exploring the idea of safety fear. So when an audience watching something feels safe but enjoys the emotion and endorphins that come from being scared. Watching a horror movie is a good example of that. So you build these dramaturgical weird little bits and pieces that have a flavour of something.

So we might find an element of the human condition we’d like to explore, or an element of circus we’d like to explore. And then we look at how they relate to circus as an art form as it currently stands, or circus as it might develop in future.

Ben: Things can go wrong in circus. So there’s fear from that…?
Luke: We want to polish away those rough edges as little as possible. There’s room in the industry for everything, but we’re trying to connect with people on a human level. So whenever something can go wrong I’m so up for it. I’m really interested in exploring what is the audience’s limit in watching someone not quite get it.

I love it personally. For a lot of circuses, that’s not where people want to go. That’s one of the reasons we embrace getting things wrong. There’s been a lot of perfection and well-polished circus in the last decade. It’s great, and people like it, but for us, it isn’t what we’re trying to do – always presenting the best side of ourselves.

We try to be not afraid of things going wrong, and us not pulling it off. And us having to try it again. And embracing that as well. It’s honest. If we want to be a mirror for people to look at themselves and find their own value, to always succeed would not be very honest.

Ben: There’s a moment in the show where you say ‘This is my bit, I’ve tried really hard, I hope you like it.’ What’s going on there?
Luke: Again, it’s just brutal honesty. It is my bit.
We were exploring the idea of stage fright. Classic nerves of stage fright. But also being worried what people will think of you. Throughout that piece my arc is to watch this person tell you they want to do something, they’ve practiced hard, then got worried about doing it. Then slowly you see them realise they do love doing this and it doesn’t really matter that they’re scared, because the audience is on their side. So in the end, the person doing the technique can embrace the idea they don’t need to have the tricks for people to enjoy what they’re doing on stage.

Ben: Is it fair to claim that the show is a reaction to the pandemic?
Luke: Bizarrely, the show started being written in November 2019. It was about how fear as an idea, and as something to be celebrated is inherent in circus, and the show is also a bit of a study of the human condition. Then the pandemic hit, and that did help the writing process. It definitely helped to look at fear in a way that I hadn’t necessarily really done before. People were talking about fear a lot more and discussing what they were scared of, and the pandemic brought out a wide range of fears in a wide range of people, some of which were alien to me. It definitely impacted a lot, but I tried to focus on the positives that were coming out of the fear.

I was away from my family in France for a lot of the pandemic, and I’ve never really connected with my family like I did then. My dad’s uncle got put on a ship to visit his grandad in Ireland at the start of the Second World War and didn’t come back for four years! For a lot of my family that was quite relevant in this question of when are we going to see each other again? That fear bred real love and joy for us. Without having that fear, would we have reconnected in the way that we did?

Fear in the pandemic for me really showed us how strong we are together as a society and how we value people who contribute to society. And how community really is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Ben: Circus needs a particular sort of in-person, physically proximate rehearsal to get off the ground. How did you decide now was the right time?
Luke: It was a balance of risk I guess. Working out how we could mitigate things as far as possible. We had plans in place for what we would do if the pandemic got worse.

One fantastic thing about the creative process was that we were all living together on site, all essentially living together in a bubble. Every artist lives in a caravan on-site, so for the three weeks we were making the show together before we opened, we essentially bubbled. No one leaves the weird circus bubble! Which sent us a bit crazy at times, but also led to some really fun times.

A beautiful thing that makes tented circus resilient against airborne viruses is we can take the side walling off. It’s 3.5 metres high, so our contingency plan was to take all the side walls up and create a covered outdoor space.

Ben: How do the performers and their techniques fit into the show?
Luke: In the current vogue of circus professional development, artists are encouraged to find their own individual way of doing things, their own sequences or tricks, so you really have to bear that in mind. If you have an idea of how you want someone to portray their role, it’s a conversation with them about how they want to embody the theme.

We’re not reinventing the wheel with how we structure our piece. For every piece within a circus show the justification always comes down to the technique. So the skills and the tricks. And the person doing the technique. Everything stems from them. It sounds very basic and simple, but the simplest designs are always the most difficult to get right. But when they do they are beautiful. So the flow often stems from an individual’s personal quality.

Ben: You mentioned the ethos and culture of circus…
Luke: Part of our work is to try to look at what dramaturgy means in a circus. What does it mean when you create a piece with a non-linear narrative? What does it mean when you’re working with people who aren’t acting or playing characters, but are just themselves? Or an extension of themselves on stage?

Also dramaturgy in the context of a space, we aren’t just putting on the show, we also have our venue and the site, and our artistic universe begins when they step through our gate, or even before that when they step into the park and see our world, until the moment they leave the site.

We also try to embrace the punk DIY ethic, which is sort of inherent in the culture of circus. The venue and creating and working together: you have to do it yourselves and so it comes down to cooking for ourselves, building the tent together, taking it down. The artist is on stage one minute and cleaning the toilet the next. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, but it is a fun one.

*****

The Revel Puck Circus – the fresh face of British circus – is in East London to present their brand new show The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – a celebration of fear. After selling out their first production The Big Bagaga Show, the company are back with an even bigger and a fresh show that celebrates fear in all its absurdity.

The Revel Puck Circus
Leyton Jubilee Park, Seymour Road, London E10 7BL
Thursday 29th July – Sunday 8th August 2021
https://revelpuckcircus.com/
Instagram @revelpucks

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