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Q&A: Chivaree Circus Creative Director Laurane Marchive on Becoming Shades

After winning the Origins Award for Outstanding new work, Chivaree Circus return to London’s biggest arts festival with their show Becoming Shades: dark, immersive circus that re-imagines a classic myth for a grown-up audience. Run Riot caught up with Creative Director Laurane Marchive to talk about the evolution of circus, feminist performance and inhabiting strange and far-away worlds.

Eli Goldstone: Becoming Shades sold out in its run last year, and now you're returning for the entirety of the 2018 Vault Festival. What do you think is the secret to its success?

Laurane Marchive: I think what people liked last year was the real mix of genres and influences within the show. We have classical operatic music as well as blues and electronic beats, we have circus as well as dance and mime, we have small intimate scenes as well big cinematic moments. So it’s a real multi-sensory experience for people who enjoy live performance and immersive worlds.

Also what we’re trying to do is create a circus piece which tells a story, and that doesn’t seem to be so common these days. Big companies like Cirque du Soleil do it but they are mostly aimed at families, whilst Becoming Shades is very much an adult show tackling adult themes like sexuality, death, femininity and memory. We take people to a different world and engulf them in it so they can watch the story unfold from inches away, through circus, lighting, decor and theatre.

Eli: For those who aren't familiar with the story, tell us a little about Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.

Laurane: Well, in the original myth Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of seasons. She gets abducted by Hades, king of the Underworld and whilst in his world she eats seeds of pomegranate which means she must forever alternate between the Earth and the world below. In Greek mythology this is what give birth to seasons, every time Persephone goes to the Underworld the earth dies and we have Autumn and Winter. And every time she goes back to the surface, the earth starts blooming again and we have Spring and Summer.

Eli: Is Becoming Shades a feminist re-telling of the myth?

Laurane: Absolutely, because we didn’t want to have a passive heroine who gets abducted and eats pomegranate seeds by accident. In our version, Persephone chooses to venture into the Underworld and to eat the pomegranate. That’s when she becomes truly herself - Queen of the Underworld - the person she was always meant to be. Empowered and formidable. We also wanted to put Persephone’s perspective at the centre of the experience so everything you’ll see in the show are actually her memories, cyclical fragments she keeps reliving with the passing of seasons, and moments that will keep repeating for ever.

From a technical standpoint, the show is also almost entirely female. The entire cast is female, our light designer, stage designer, director, assistant director, graphic designer, marketing and PR team are all women. What we wanted was to perform the story of a woman, told by women.

Eli: The show is immersive - what should audiences expect from the evening?

Laurane: We’re asking audience members to wear black when they come to the show and the moment they enter the space they become the various elements of the Underworld. They become the landscape, the river Styx, as well as the lost souls wandering through the world of the dead. They are in the middle of the set and are free to roam in the side worlds we have created, and they also take part in some of the scenes, getting close to hellhounds and gambling with Furies in shady pomegranate bars. We very much designed this to be a 360 degrees experience, though I will stop here, as I don’t want to give too much away!

Eli: This year marks the 250th anniversary of the first circus production. Can you tell us about the history of circus in London?

Laurane: Yeah 2018 is a big year in the calendar for our art-form. In 1768 Philip Astley (the grandfather of Modern Circus) came back to London from fighting in the British Army where he had been a celebrated horse trainer - he set up a school and performance space with a 42 foot diameter ring (still the international standard for big top tents) in which to show off acrobatic equestrian feats. As an essentially non-verbal art-form circus grew and developed quickly, spreading rapidly around the world.

There are celebrations happening particularly in Newcastle where he was born but very few people know his name. He was a mad figure who ended up owning 19 different circuses including one in Paris. After the revolution Napoleon took it over and used it as a barracks, so Astley went over to charge him rent - which Napoleon duly paid. Circus has come a long way with other countries - like Canada - leading the way in recent years, but there is a hugely creative scene in London and the UK.

Eli: How has circus performance evolved worldwide?

Laurane: I think at the moment circus is going through a bit of a transition. A renaissance if you will. In the past I think circus was often seen as less respected than, say, theatre or literature. It was considered entertainment, but not art, whether that was true or not. And to an extent it was a discipline that created its own language, it was less institutionalised, freer. But these things are evolving. In the UK for example there are more and more schools. Some of them offer BAs and MAs. You can see circus at the Barbican, it has become a cultural outing, it now speaks the language of ballet, of theatre, and is very much entering the realm of art. This is great because it means that it's becoming more versatile, but it can still be pure exhilarating entertainment where all that matters is for the audience to feel a thrill, and to have fun.

Eli: Chivaree are involved in another great project involving theatrical parties - can you tell us about Late Night Special Feature?

Laurane: Late Night Special Feature is our new project and it is VERY exciting. As with Becoming Shades, we want to take people through other worlds and make them feel like they are part of them. But with Late Night Special feature we are doing this through recreating cult movies. Bringing to life the film’s people loved as children, putting our twist on them and turning it into an awesome party. The action takes place through circus and performance, complete with decor and interactive characters, with some excellent live bands and DJ’s to get people up and dancing.

Sometimes it’s nice to create new worlds or to have pretty much carte blanche in terms of aesthetic for the shows we create, like for Becoming Shades. But with Late Night Special Feature it’s totally different because the source we’re working from is so important for some people, so it’s about creating this world people have been dreaming of for years whilst also doing something fun with it. The party coming up is based on the world of Labyrinth so it’s particularly special to work with music by David Bowie and that incredibly imaginative universe.

Eli: Finally, if you could immerse yourself in another world for one night only, where would you go?

Laurane: I think I would go to the Middle Earth or somewhere on the map in the Lord of the Rings. Just because hobbits always seem to have the most delicious cheese and also I’d like to get with an elf. I think if you were immortal you’d have time to become really good at sex and I’d like to sample that. So that’s definitely where I’d go!


Chivaree Circus: Becoming Shades

VAULT Festival

24 Jan - 18 March