When I first heard of Shelter Me, an immersive circus performance where the company communicate with their audience not only through acrobatics, but through mass texting, it’s fair to say I was intrigued. Circumference, a group of close friends with a collective interest in creating circus-theatre with a social conscience, have devised Shelter Me, their first full length production, with the help of Theatre Delicatessen. This week I chatted to Aislinn Mulligan, performer and one fourth of Circumference, all about the journey from the initial seed of thought to opening night.
Shelter Me is stamped as a joyful, captivating piece of circus-theatre, addressing issues of the digital world within the twentieth first century, and how technology affects relationships and communication. The first question that struck me was their motivation for focusing on these topics through circus arts, as the two do not exactly go hand-in-hand. “As circus artists we are not often called upon to share our personal experiences,” Mulligan explained, “the spectacle usually takes the front seat. Our company is international, we spend a lot of our lives on the road, so the ability to stay connected with friends and family is really important. Simultaneously, we feel the digital world of today can sometimes leave you with feelings of disconnection and insufficiency.”
Instead of shutting out all things digital from the performance space, like the traditional theatrical environment, Circumference actually encourage the use of mobile phones throughout the performance, adding another dimension to the topics they aim to address. The company enable audience to navigate the space and performance in both a physical and digital journey, and even sends mass SMS messages throughout. “By sending information to our audience via text they receive it in a personal way, with their own ring tone and device,” Mulligan told me, “we hope this familiarity combined with the experience of receiving private information about strangers will get people thinking about the information deluge and the way they choose to share it.”
If receiving text messages from the circus performers wasn’t bizarre but wonderful enough, audiences also connect with each other throughout the performance via instant messaging. “People are really responding to it”, Mulligan laughed, “we are getting lots of people hanging out with their buddies in the bar afterwards and showing us their text conversations from throughout the show! We are excited to keep developing this system throughout the run of the show because we have found that, as with any of the social tools we are commenting on, the more you engage the more you get out of them. That’s the intimate part of using these tools, but there’s also an element of alienation.”
Circumference have been lucky enough to work with Theatre Delicatessen, a company devoted to working with both theatre companies and property developers to produce creative spaces for cutting edge theatre practitioners. Shelter Me is performed in Farringdon Road, London, in what is actually the old Guardian offices. “The space is amazing!” Mulligan exclaimed, “there are so many nooks in the building each with their own feeling. Adapting the space for Shelter Me has been a huge logistical challenge, but with those challenges came huge opportunities.” Mulligan then went on to discuss the process of choreographing and devising performance according to the characteristics of the building. “There are pieces that rely wholly on the existing architecture, for example, were it not for a small alcove existing within the space it would be impossible to pin yourself to the ceiling, and the existing balconies provide enormous opportunity for exploration. The advantages and limitations of the space have forced us to choreograph in a new way.”
Intending to explore social narratives through circus arts, as well as devising performance to fit into a particular space or environment must be no easy feat for Circumference, and their rehearsal process sounds like an extremely collective, progressive experience. “We work collaboratively and the creative process, often slow and difficult, continues through the previews and performance.” Mulligan reasoned, “An exciting thing for us is the opportunity to do a long run. The show changed a huge amount during previews and we are continuing to develop throughout the run of the show, so if you saw the first preview and then came to closing night you’d have two very different experiences!”
And my last question: what do they want audiences to take away from their physical and digital journey through circus art? “A sense of community and adventure, and a thought about the way they connect. Our desire to connect is hugely aspirational. We seek intimate connections as well as a desire for a larger community. The ability to take flight creates the same sense of aspiration to do something larger than ourselves, and by sharing the physical trust of circus work with our audience intimately; we can break down the barriers between us. Then, when we take flight, that flight can be the audience’s as much as ours.”
Shelter Me is on at Theatre Delicatessen until July 5. For more information click here.