Circus arenas show theatres how to diversify audiences and offer socially distanced performances, says ringmaster Dea Birkett
Big tops are being built up across the UK. With sidewalls raised and seats spaced out, tented circuses are resuming summer tours. Heavy theatre doors, meanwhile, remain shut. But there’s a simple solution to opening up with socially distanced productions. Theatres should take to tents.
One has already had the imagination to move out. Norwich Theatre has teamed up with Norwich-based Lost in Translation circus to move its productions under canvas. Theatre and circus are sharing the programming. For six weeks over the summer, Lost in Translation’s Marybelle tent won’t only stage juggling, acrobatics and world-class Korean cradle, but also drama designed for the Norwich Playhouse stage.
If only more theatres looked beyond their buildings, they’d find the post-Covid-19 world a lot less worrying. Yet every day we read about a new proposed seating plan or air-filtering system being trialled in an Edwardian playhouse to enable safe, socially distanced theatre in a building designed for the opposite.
A big top is far more spacious. In the vast circle of the tent floor, hundreds can be accommodated with plenty of ground in between. Marybelle comfortably holds a socially-distanced audience of 300 – the same as the Playhouse at full capacity. Zippos Circus, which opens its show Rebound on August 4 on Southsea Common, seats 450 at 40% capacity.
The advantages of acting under a big top go beyond simply complying with Covid-19 guidelines. If diversifying audiences is in a theatre’s future plan (as it will and should be), then classical circuses have a lot of lessons to share. Of all live performance forms, except perhaps panto, they undoubtedly draw the widest audiences. There’s no intimidating entrance to breach nor an imposing curved staircase to climb. With tented circus, shows are taken to the audiences, rather than audiences being expected to seek them out.
The big top arrives on your local park, so you may well be able to walk there, thereby avoiding the masked traumas of public transport. There’s also unlimited parking outside on the green if you need it. Even the snacks – candyfloss and popcorn – are more consumer-friendly than the overpriced mini bowls of olives and almonds usually served up at the bar with your Beckett.
And wheelchair access? A big top can accommodate as many wheelchairs as are likely to turn up – 50 would be no problem. So if widening access is one of your aims, then becoming a tented show will make that happen more quickly and effectively than any well-funded, well-meaning outreach programme.
Theatres need to stop worrying about how they can reopen in a reduced form, and look out for other models of production in different spaces and to different audiences. Classical circus holds the clues. Perhaps if Cirque du Soleil had kept to its tented roots, and hadn’t over-expanded into the Royal Albert Hall and other brick-built venues, it would still be hula hooping today.
So roll up, roll up and book a ringside seat to see your Shakespeare, Pinter or Caryl Churchill. Theatre under canvas is the future of live performance.
Dea Birkett is ringmaster at Circus250: circus250.org