Walking the tightrope – Theatre Programming through COVID and the Joy of Circus

My name is Steve Cowton and I’m head of Theatre Operations at The Lowry. This means I oversee our Theatre programme – scheduling productions across all three of our performance spaces and working with my colleagues in the Programming Department to create a high quality, innovative, and financially viable programme.

Steve Cowton – Head of Theatre Operations, The Lowry

Our last public performance took place in the Quays Theatre on March 16th 2020 – and as we approach the first anniversary of our closure it’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve missed. I’ve been watching shows online – but like lots of people I think I’ve missed the experience of visiting the theatre and being part of a live audience more than the actual productions. Theatre is fundamentally a shared experience – and without an audience to enjoy it – or the direct interaction between performer and spectator – it is inevitably diminished.

I’ve lost track of how many Lowry performances have been affected – I think we’ve cancelled something like 800 shows and rescheduled many hundreds more. Some performances have been rescheduled more than five times – and the ongoing uncertainty about when we’ll be able to re-open with full audiences means that this is very much an ongoing process. The good news however – is that when we are able to reopen – our Theatres are fully programmed with some brilliant productions that I know will delight and inspire our audiences. Live Theatre WILL return – and when it does it will be more precious to us than it ever was before. I also wanted to take a few moments however to talk in more depth about an area of our Programme which has always been my particular speciality – my colleagues would probably call it an obsession! I had no interest whatsoever in Circus growing up – but in the early 1990’s I happened to stumble across an anarchic ensemble called Ra Ra Zoo and I discovered the beginnings of a whole new form of theatre – demonstrated here by Circa in their unforgettable Opus.

Since then I’ve seen a lot of Circus shows – or Contemporary Circus shows as some people prefer to call them – and I’ve got to know a lot of Circus people. It’s been amazing – and inspiring – to see how the circus sector has responded to the Pandemic – working collaboratively to support each other in a way that you wouldn’t always see in other art-forms.

Lockdown had a huge impact on Circus artists and companies – removing the Open Air Festival circuit, theatre venues and the Corporate Sector upon which many rely for a living. Less obviously, many of the training centres and rehearsal spaces were forced to close – it’s very hard for an aerialist to practise their skills or maintain their fitness when they can’t leave home!

The Circus community has been creative and resourceful to keep working and support each other throughout this crisis – Lost In Translation were among the first to offer public performances in their socially distanced Tent last Summer in Norwich. Many circus companies are hoping to perform in the Open Air this year – just as soon as the restrictions allow it – while other performers such as Nikki Rummer and Tamzen Moulding have used their skills to create brilliant films.

We’ve co-commissioned a new film from Tamzen which we’ll be premiering in April – while we very much hope to be open again in September so that we can welcome Nikki to our Studio with her new solo show. For those that haven’t seen it – Nikki and JD’s production KNOT is one of the best circus shows of recent times – an intimate and acrobatic exploration of their relationship which we presented in our Studio to celebrate Valentine’s Day a few years ago. Its probably the perfect marriage of Theatre, Circus and Contemporary dance.

The Lowry has played a leading role in supporting and commissioning new circus shows in recent years. We have supported the creation of new work from Ockham’s Razor – including Tipping Point and This Time – and in January of this year we should have been presenting the premiere of a new show from Mimbre – both companies are redefining what we mean by Circus – incorporating high levels of design, concept and choreography within their work with a clear narrative thread. Mimbre became unexpected stars of Lockdown with their specially commissioned film about how circus performers remained fit while unable to leave their sofas.

Circus has featured heavily in our Artist Development programme over the years – offering financial and practical support – alongside mentoring which allows artists space and time to really develop their ideas and create new shows. German Handstand artist Natalie Reckert was a previous Developed With Artist – and recently we’ve been working with Fran Hyde as she develops her new show Tank and Me.

Circus has also become a major part of our WEEK 53 Festivals. In 2018 we commissioned Everything I See I Swallow – a challenging look at generational attitudes to sex and sexuality from two aerialists Tamsin Shasha and Maisy Taylor which has since toured nationally and internationally – and won a coveted Fringe First Award at Edinburgh Festival in 2019. Sadly we were unable to present WEEK 53 in 2020 – our new commissions would have included a site specific aerial show from Scarabeus called Powerflex – featuring students from our CAT Programme performing on the outside of our iconic building – and a new solo show from amazing Strong Lady and street performer Charmaine Childs called Power. We very much hope to work with Scarabeus on an exciting new project in the future – and Power will be seen either on our stage, in the open air outside our building – or as an online sharing just as soon as we’re able to do so.

Another long-standing partner in our work is Skylight Circus from Rochdale. Their truly inspirational work uses circus skills creatively – as a vehicle for personal, physical and social development – and general well-being. They work with all age groups and all sections of their community – and in 2020 we introduced them to integrated circus company Extraordinary Bodies to work on a joint production for WEEK 53. Extraordinary Bodies create bold, radical and breath-taking performances – with deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers working equally together on and off stage. We hope to present the company in the Quays this Autumn – as part of a long term programme to work with the company over the next four years.

The Lowry has always sought to present International Circus artists whenever we can – and this has included some unforgettable highlights over the years. Circa are based in Australia but tour all over the World and have really redefined what Circus can achieve – and they presented Opus in The Lyric a few years ago. Other Lowry highlights have included South American Circolombia’s Acelere with their hypnotic live soundtrack, perennial favourites Slava’s Snow Show from Russia – who fill our theatre with paper snow (to the consternation of our cleaners) and last year’s Groupe Acrobatique de Tangier with their brilliant Halka.

This strand of programming will continue in the future – the complications of Brexit and Covid notwithstanding – and in coming years we hope to present The Overhead Project from Germany and the extraordinary Machine de Cirque from Canada.

If you’ve read this far you will have realised that I’ve given lots of examples of great performances – without attempting to explain why circus means so much to me. I think this is because Circus is so diverse and varied – which is its strength and occasionally it’s weakness. As Theatre programmers we have a clear idea of our audience – we talk about our “opera” audience or our “dance” audience because we can clearly identify them as a recognisable group – whereas virtually every Circus show is different and has to work hard to try and create or identify its own audience. Circus is a genre that includes everything from intimate clowning shows for children, to high concept abstract art pieces and huge epic open-air spectaculars. Circus isn’t one “thing”. It’s multi-faceted, extraordinary and unique. Like the people who make it.

In 2019 we worked with our partners at Quays Culture to present funambulist Chris Bullzini who walked on a Tightrope from The Lowry to the top of the BBC Building on the other side of the Quay. Chris patiently spent many days completing risk assessments before being allowed to begin his walk – but it was always clear that he alone understood the risks he was taking and was prepared to accept them. His feat was watched by thousands – and it was fascinating to see the range of reactions – from the mildly curious to those like me that were reduced almost to tears by the pointless beauty of what Chris achieved that day.

Chris Bullzini

The Lowry presents the largest circus programme in the UK – outside of London – and will continue to do so as long as these remarkable performers continue to push boundaries – and themselves – to create new and extraordinary work.