Circus @ Summerhall

Amniotic Sacs, Debaucherous Convicts, and Jess Love & Sarah Bebe Holmes on the Storytelling Power of Circus.

By David Pollock

As contemporary circus continues to innovate and take inspiration from other art forms, Summerhall has developed its capacity to accommodate new forms of boundary pushing aerial work and circus performance. Below, the creators of Egg and Notorious Strumpet & Dangerous Girl tell us about their shows; first, Sarah Bebe Holmes of Paper Doll Militia, who has created in Egg a powerful evocation of maternal surrogacy:

“Ten years ago I gave my friends my egg to have a child. After he was born I would tell the story and people would say, ‘wow, that’s really amazing!’, and I realised the situation was quite unique. So I’ve thought about adapting it to a theatre production since then, but never been entirely sure how I would tell it – it’s very personal and so specific about fertility, that it’s hard to get flight in there (I work with aerial apparatus onstage). But I was inspired by the fact that such an organic experience can become so clinically based, and how exposing that process is, where your privacy is stripped away from you. These concepts provided the visual motif, and when I started working with clear plastic vinyl as the visual medium to do acrobatics on, that’s where it really started.”

What is it specifically about your story which lends itself to aerial theatre?

“The physical intensity that hormones put your body under can be described well with the physical intensity of doing aerial. I’ve found that I can really explore with movement in the air what my experience was like with the hormone treatment, and another scene I do is when I was under general anaesthetic for the egg retrieval – I think there’s a strong ability to demonstrate with the aerial the sort of dreamy lack of control that you experience in this situation.”

How did you make such a huge part of your life fit into a sixty-minute performance?

“It was really hard to whittle the story down, because my friendship with (my friend) Carol now spans two decades, and the child is ten. The experience of going through the process far exceeds what I’m able to capture in those sixty minutes, so what I had to do was be a really strong self-critic, and any part of the story that was in any way tangential had to be cut. There’s loads of backstory and surrounding experiences that I wasn’t able to include, but I think succinctness really helps the piece.”

You work onstage with multi-instrumentalist Balazs Hermann, please tell us more about that relationship.

“I love how he likes to have an organic form to his music, because a lot of musicians who work with dancers will watch the performance and then go and compose something exactly timed to what they saw. Whereas we have definite structures, but there’s lots of play room within that, so there’s an opportunity for either of us to go off into improvisational riffs and that’s okay. It keeps the piece alive, especially as it’s a true story, and during a Fringe run of around twenty-five performances, keeping us connected onstage will be really important.”

What do you hope audiences take from the piece?

“I hope they learn something about the female body and the reproductive system, and that it gives them insight into what happens with women who are experiencing fertility issues. Also, I hope they consider the idea of welcoming into the world new, modern family structures which, on the surface, we as a society think we do well, but – having gone through the process – I can see there’s still a lot of progress to be made. I’ve had really excellent feedback from people who are suffering from infertility, parents, people considering being parents, people that have parents – it has a broader reach than I ever thought it would. It’s been an amazing process, really.”

Premiered at the Melbourne Fringe in 2016, and an award-winner at that festival and at the Adelaide Fringe in 2017, Notorious Strumpet & Dangerous Girl is a piece by Australian circus performer Jess Love, which takes a family secret and turns it into a deeply personal and revealing performance:

“The show is autobiographical. It’s about a lot of different stories which are interwoven together using the skills I have; I’m a circus performer by trade – I went to circus school in Melbourne – as well as a theatremaker and actor. It has its roots in a story a relative told me, that I had some convict ancestry, so I became really fascinated with researching my ancestors, and I found out that one of them, Julia Mullins, was quite… a one, basically! That she caused a lot of drama, and there were a lot of arrests after she was transported to Australia for her original crimes.”

How does her story feed into yours?

“As I was discovering all of this about my family, I was also dealing with a lot of problems with addiction and alcoholism, and coming from quite a staunch Christian background, as far as I could tell I had no addicts or alcoholics in my immediate family. I’d always felt like the black sheep, in other words, so making this discovery about Julia oddly made me feel connected in some way, it gave me a sense of belonging. The show is about my journey through addiction, and making this discovery and feeling this connection, and how important it is for humans to have those kinds of relationships within a family context.”

What can you tell us about the show?

“It takes the form of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I’m serving tea and coffee at the start, and it’s not very clear what’s happening until the opening line: ‘my name’s Jess and I’m an alcoholic.’ Within an AA meeting there’s always somebody who talks about their life and their history, and within the format I use that concept to tell the story through interactive circus pieces… it’s difficult to explain, there’s a lot to it and it’s quite complex, but also it’s very funny and sometimes very sad, and it takes you on an intense journey through the good times and the bad; the parties and the disasters and the debauchery and the mayhem of my life as it has been so far. But it leaves you feeling quite uplifted. Often people at the end of the show will come up and just hug me.”

What do you want the audience to take away?

“I really just want people to have a great time, and to go away with a sense of awareness about people that struggle with these kinds of things. That you don’t have to live with a label for the rest of your life, there is no taboo, there shouldn’t be any stigma around people who suffer with alcoholism and addiction. There is a future and a hope for people who’ve been through the things I have. We have our problems and our struggles, but we’re all just humans and we’re all living this journey together. There’s hope for everybody, that’s the message.”