by: Jay Gilligan
Bonjour! I wanted to take this opportunity to speak about process and community. I realized recently that I have no idea how some of my best circus artist friends create their work. I have the chance and fortune to personally know many of my favorite performers and yet I know very little about their work except for what I see on stage. Process and creation are very interesting phases as they cannot be practiced in a concrete manner the way circus skills and technique can. Games and patterns can be developed and followed, to be used as templates for the creation period, but at some point there usually comes moments of rapid inspiration and dragging confusion. Inspecting each other’s creative process inside the circus community may help out in those moments of being stuck with no idea of how to go on.
It may be hard to share thoughts about creativity since the topic is very subjective to talk about using language. Usually there is a reason an art form exists autonomously, outside the limiting literal meanings of words. Trying to describe physical actions on paper is usually difficult enough without trying to explain abstract ideas. Another reason for the lack of discussion may be the egos and plagiarism involved with sharing ideas. Perhaps artists may feel silly in being so open and personal to their peers. Revealing the motivations behind the work takes away the ability to tell the audience, “You just don’t get it because you don’t know how I got to this point.” I feel that maybe it is better to have these discussions out in the open and to be supportive of each other inside the artistic community. This way the specific ideas an artist has may be more respected and offer more genuine inspiration through methodology and observation practices. Sharing a specific trick usually results in that trick only being copied instead of studied to see the underlying principle or idea. Sharing an idea, concept, or process at least allows for the immediate possibility of personal and original interpretation on behalf of the listener.
I thought I would share some of the general themes that keep popping up when I am in the process of creating a new show. Every project and show is very different, but usually there are a few common elements that happen each time even if they are not by conscious decision. Long before the actual physical composition phase starts, I write down notes and keep certain thoughts in my head every time I play around in rehearsal. This part of the plan can last for months, although usually only two or three go by before I feel I have enough to start to organize it all into something cohesive.
Once the physical material is shaping up in its loosest form, I will try to plan out the logistics of what I want the end product to be, usually starting with the most utilitarian topics such as what venue or market to sell the show or how many cast members to use. My productions tend to vary to the extreme from the most recently completed one. If the last show had a cast of 8 performers with big props and intricate costumes, the next show is likely to turn out a solo show with one ball and no costume. This seems to keep the flow of ideas fresh and coming from different places all the time.
The development of the theme and physical technique run in parallel. I will draw up a list of these two components and see what choices match up or make the most sense together. Hopefully a few of the techniques will lend themselves to expressing the concepts in a relatively easy manner. If nothing pairs up right away I may have to go back and change the original idea or decide to research new techniques to carry out my plan. Compromises are always made and prove that even with the most careful thought each show is a continuously evolving process. I try to use these methods of creating as a mere starting point, and I repeat these steps throughout the whole rehearsal period. The show sometimes ends up being what it was supposed to be, but overall the show gets clearer and more focused over time no matter where it started from.
When it is time to compose sections of technique the start is the most crucial part. I feel if I can just get the opening bit of movement the rest can flow from there like a connect-the-dots picture. Since most of the juggling tricks can be worked out by seeing what has happened before and what needs to happen next, the first move is always a struggle. Where do the props I’m using come from? How does it relate to the staging- the lights, sound, character work? I eventually find answers and make 3 or 4 different starts. After some time one of the starts makes more sense. Then a funny thing happens. Once I have the start and I have continued on into the piece I usually always realize that what I thought was the start should actually be the middle of the piece! Then I simply work backwards and forwards from my starting point to fill out the piece until it encompasses its needs.
The smaller parts that are composed keep getting added up and rearranged based upon the starting point principle until the show is mapped out. Once the specific details have been worked on I look at the over-arching structure to make sure everything is in line with the themes and concepts. The focus is continually shifted between larger picture and fine details. Notebook lists are made and modified endlessly. Some people may prefer to view video of the work in progress but I have found that seeing a video ruins anything I have accomplished so far because I will immediately see all the flaws and want to throw it all away for a fresh start. I use video extensively after the first performance to document the work for possible future reconstruction. After one project is complete and the next one is started, my old notes become basically meaningless as they tend to lose their relationship to concrete thoughts and the archival videotape replaces all the long and useless lists in the notebook.
Ideas and inspiration for the theme and content of a show can come from anywhere. Lots of times teaching can provide new ways of looking at old things, since in the process of explaining a technique to the student, a very close examination is given to the technique to see what is actually happening. In addition, students can spark a new idea by unintentionally misunderstanding the original instructions and creating something new out of the mistakes. Practicing with other artists or seeing shows using the same principle techniques can also be a legitimate place to gain new insights. Instead of directly copying what I see on stage, I try to think what it is specifically that I like about the moment. Technique can express so many different things in so many different ways that it’s usually the root idea or observation that is most interesting. Taking and developing specific techniques can also be fun if handled properly. Using one special catch or throw (or step, or trapeze position, etc.) and taking that idea one step beyond the original presentation can be very effective. This method reminds me of the current trend in hip-hop music of sampling hit artists and using their hook as a base for a new song. The melody and hook of Missy Elliot’s song, Get Ur Freak On, has been sampled and duplicated in numerous other popular songs that build and modify the original beat.
This is an open call to all artists to start discussions about their work. Supporting each other strengthens and enhances the overall culture and public understanding. If an artist is ripping off someone else’s ideas, having discussions will at least alert everyone to the problem so that it can sooner be taken care of and the offending artist might actually understand why it is wrong in the end. So much material gets created in a social vacuum that its perhaps hard to then fit it into the global environment. Company 111 from France claims to have been the first and only jugglers who invented making music with juggling. A quick look at any circus history book will reveal several examples to the contrary, least of all the great American juggler, Bobby May, who bounced 5 balls off a drum to the beat of Yankee Doodle Dandy- all while standing on his head! Jerome Thomas claims to have invented improvisational juggling, along the lines of a jazz musician, in his own words. The Flying Karamozov Brothers, an American juggling troupe, developed and performed a piece they titled “Jazz” which was based on improvising juggling throws to a set “beat”. They toured this piece all over the world- a good 20 years before Jerome took to the stage with his show. Both Company 111 and Jerome Thomas may indeed have created their respective claims, but a more outward looking attitude would reveal to them the truth of their surroundings. I would love to hear about the creative process around the world- feel free to email me thoughts for discussion at firstname.lastname@example.org.