Backstage: Keeping Circus of Horrors on the road
Captain Dan, the Demon Dwarf, is no stranger to painful onstage antics, such as attaching a vacuum cleaner nozzle to his willy or having thousands of volts of electricity pumped through his body. But as the Circus of Horrors rolls into Kilmarnock, the diminutive performer has a sore head. The reason? Before last night’s show at the Strathpeffer Pavilion, he was sticking a white line to the edge of the stage to stop him falling off when… he fell off.
It wouldn’t happen in a big top, but the perennially successful Horrors is a pioneer of taking circus tricks into theatres. For 20 years, the playfully gruesome show has undertaken an annual 100-date theatre tour, playing consecutive one-nighters in venues ranging from the 350-seat Whitby Pavilion to the 2,000-capacity Sheffield City Hall, which means adapting the show to a different space each day.
“We have three different methods of rigging the aerial acts,” says founder John Haze, who stars in the show as singing ringmaster. “In one theatre, you can rig from a fly-bar. Another day we might have to go straight to the grid. A third option is to build goal-post trussing, which is free-standing.
“We go in and work it out when we get there – although we’ve been doing it so long now we know a lot of theatres and remember how we do it in each one.”
Back in the 1990s, the Horrors’ first theatre tour was a voyage of discovery. “In the 1940s and 1950s there were theatre circuses, but they all died out, so when we did it, it hadn’t been done,” says Haze, who inaugurated the show under canvas at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, before heading indoors to London’s big-top-like Roundhouse.
As the Horrors’ fame spread, the company was offered a theatre tour. “Six theatres with a week in each – which turned out to be too long, but we didn’t know that. We had to iron a lot of things out as we went along.”
In the very first theatre the Horrors played, Haze almost came a cropper through something as simple as the unfamiliarity of working on a raked stage. During a sawing-in-half illusion, no one saw the need to apply the cabinet’s brakes.
“They walked off and the half with my torso in it started rolling towards the orchestra pit. I was singing I Will Survive at the time,” Haze recalls. “Luckily someone spotted what was happening and caught me just in time. Otherwise our first show could have been our last.”
An early challenge was creating a show that worked equally well in theatres as in the big tops the Horrors also appear in.
“You can’t put a wheel of death on a proscenium arch stage, because you need a lot of height and if you’re running over the top you’d go out of view,” says Haze, who was born into a travelling circus before starting a rock band that became the Circus of Horrors. “Some acts that work in the round don’t work so well on a stage and vice versa. We’ve got to the point where we can do the same show in a tiny theatre tonight, a huge venue tomorrow and a 2,000-seat big top the night after – but it took a while to get to that.”
The Circus of Horrors travels in two minibuses and an articulated lorry, and employs four technical staff: a sound engineer, lighting engineer and assistant, and a truck driver who doubles as spotlight operator.
The get in – or ‘build-up’, as circus people call it – is handled by the 21 performers and musicians, rather than a road crew.
“It’s the same principle as a big-top show where everyone helps put up the tent,” Haze explains. “Theatres we haven’t been to before are surprised by how much everyone mucks in. The band put up the bandstand. The artists position the props. The girls do the backdrop and merchandise. It creates a sense of community and camaraderie.”
The multitasking extends to Haze juggling the roles of producer, director, performer and stage manager.
“A circus ringmaster is a bit like that anyway,” he says. “During the acts, the ringmaster is at the ring doors, making sure everything happens when it should. So although I’m acting and singing, I’m also watching the show as director. I still take notes every night.”
24 hours with the Circus of Horrors
11am The performers leave their graves and padded cells (or hotel).
12pm The cast arrives at the theatre and builds up the set.
2pm The performers take a break while the crew checks the lights.
5pm Artists set the props and focus the lighting.
5.30pm Staff meeting to discuss previous night’s show and adapting the show to the current venue.
6pm Soundcheck for the band.
7.30pm Show begins.
10pm Cast and crew take down the set.
11.45pm Drive to hotel in next town.
The Horrors’ current show is called The Never-Ending Nightmare. One of the biggest props is a large bed that features prominently in the storyline. At one point, a performer floats from the bed. At another, several hands reach out of the bed and pull a sleeping figure through the mattress.
The company also travels with seven multimedia screens.
“We project scenery on to the screens but also use them for close-ups,” says Haze. “When someone’s swallowing a sword, you want to see it clearly, even if you’re at the back.”
Health and safety is obviously a major concern in a show that includes a unique upside-down hair-hanging stunt. One performer hangs upside down by her feet, with a trapeze bar suspended from her hair, and a second performer does tricks on the trapeze bar.
“You want it to look as dangerous as possible from the audience’s perspective,” says Haze. “But you want it to be safe as far as the performers are concerned.”
Accidents are rare, but happen nonetheless, as when sword-swallower Hannibal Helmurto was hospitalised after ripping his oesophagus in 2011.
“He was swallowing a specially made neon tube but it had a crack in it,” Haze explains. “He sent it back and didn’t realise that in repairing the crack they made the tube wider. While practising, he thought it was a bit tight but put it down to his throat not being loose enough. Then in the show, when it wouldn’t go down, he gave it a bit of a push and ripped a hole in his oesophagus.”
Neither the audience nor cast were aware of the injury at the time. “It was a couple of hours later when he came to me and said he wasn’t feeling too well,” Haze says.
“Fire is the most dangerous thing in the show,” adds Haze, who is that rare thing: a fire-eater who is also a fire marshal. “When I’m in the middle of the stage eating fire, I know where the fire extinguisher is and how to use it.
“Some theatres that don’t know us get a bit panicky about the amount of fire and pyrotechnics we use, but it’s all done in a controlled way. We have very stringent risk assessments and method statements that we’ve worked out over the years. The theatres we keep going back to know we do everything by the book.”
With the Horrors having so successfully put circus into theatres for the past two decades, other companies have followed their lead and moved indoors for winter tours, including the Chinese State Circus and, most recently, Zippos’ spin-off Cirque Berserk!.
“Some have worked, some haven’t,” reflects the man who started the trend. “Let’s see if they’re still going in 21 years.”
Circus of Horrors’ The Never-Ending Nightmare is touring the UK and Europe until December 4