Bevis is a circus show about knowledge made for public libraries. Orbiting around a series of abstract objects – from the traditional juggling ring to a matrix of wooden cubes that seems capable of folding space – the performance takes its (often young) audiences on a relaxed tour through a collection of mysterious, arcane and sometimes absurd ideas. Here Jay Gilligan talks about the process of creating and designing the show.
Bevis was really born out of another project, Kanon, which I developed with Luke Wilson and toured with Luke and later Erik Åberg, and which we were commissioned to make by Vifira, a Swedish circus company that'd been invited to create a circus show for libraries in Sweden.
When you tell people you're going to make a show in a library and they know you're a juggler what's the first thing they say? 'Oh, you're gonna juggle with... books!?' And that was the first thing we decided: No, that's just stupid. That's the most banal interpretation of that task. And so with Kanon we had to sit down to define what it would mean to do any type of show in a library in order to define what it would mean to do a circus show in a library. And what we found was that the idea of books was irrelevant to us because libraries are not about books: in our definition libraries were about knowledge – communities and knowledge and sharing knowledge within a community.
So that first show Kanon was about knowledge that you couldn't normally find in a library, as well as the idea that circus has knowledge in it that cannot be stored in a book. We also used this theme of toys in the first show – so we had a remote control helicopter, a nerf gun, a toy dog that does somersaults, balloons, dartboards, stuff like that. It wasn't because we knew we'd be playing to kids a lot. It just came from the fact that over the years we'd collected all sorts of odds and ends of little tricks with these kinds of toys. You'd think of them like one a year: OK, what if I had some mousetraps and I used them to catch juggling balls? And then it would take another year to think of another idea that was as stupid as that. So over the years we kind of amassed this odd collection of little one-off tricks and somehow these felt really relevant to the idea of knowledge that you can't find in a book. They also fit the rhythm of the show we wanted to make, because Kanon was really just a bunch of images in a row: there were no real choreographed pieces and that was very much by conscious design. We thought that since we were doing a show for lots of different libraries it had to be flexible in spaces with different acoustics and layouts; it had to be a show that was very modular.
When Erik Åberg and I started to make Bevis we had the opportunity to try and incorporate all the lessons we'd learned touring Kanon. Of course there were positive things that we learned on that first tour, but the problem we had was we'd just made the show without any experience – we got the offer to make a performance for libraries and we did it, but we'd never tried that before and it just kind of turned out that we made a show that was successful. And then the difficulty of having a successful show that you didn't exactly make on purpose is that when you go to do the sequel you can't really fall back on the same process that you pursued the first time because the process the first time was completely random.
Also I think we faced the same problem every company has when they're making a sequel: how do you create a show that preserves the essence of the company and yet is not the same thing literally? How do you carry the brand or the feeling of the original show and yet still do something new and fresh and relevant and exciting for the market? On the other hand, we found that for once in our lives we were making a show for a predefined market where we had the potential to be really successful. We decided that for Bevis we wanted to carry forward the same themes and concepts as with Kanon, to again make a show about knowledge, but to create entirely new material and to design it very specifically from the ground up to to work with the venues and audiences it would tour to.
When we looked back on the tour of Kanon one of the big challenges of the library setting was that we never had the trappings of a traditional theatre. In a normal theatre all the seats are facing the same way, and the stage area is probably framed by black curtains, has stronger lighting on it, and so on – so visually it's very clean and there are all these unconscious cues that help us to focus our attention. In a library it's completely the opposite: it's visually very busy and geometrically the space is broken up by the shelves and the books and the actual floorplan, and so part of the question we had was how to create a visually focused space while staying true to where we were.
So for both shows the set design had to be devised in such a way that there were objects that didn't belong in the space, objects which would stand out as being special and would at least draw your eye to them, but that would in some sense let the environment reflect upon them and not change the basic fact that the performance was happening in a library. For Bevis we gave it this nice wooden look; the wood has some kind of quality of warmth and respect and craftsmanship and human touch, but it also gives us a visual aesthetic where it's all one specific colour or material. That's one thing we learned from the first show – because Kanon was this toy show with lots of plastic and all these different colours, and visually it turns out a library is already full of a lot of different colours because of the spines of the books on the shelves. In a library the Bevis set has a bit of a refined feeling to it and yet a lot of the structures are also literally transparent: they have holes in them; you can see through them and see what's behind them.
I made all the music for Bevis and it was guided by the same aesthetic – it's a bit mysterious at the beginning, it's small and detailed, and it's kind of clean. The soundtrack is very literally a soundtrack, because the music, like the set design, has to allow the space to be itself and yet still have its own identity. We needed to keep the ambience of the space if we were going to have a real honest connection with the audience – because we're not pretending we're in a theatre, we're not pretending that the balls floating on the hairdryers are characters, we're not pretending that we're different people. The show's actually very clear cut: this is where we are, and this is who we are, and this is what is really happening. So the soundtrack had to give an ambience to the show but it had to allow the ambience of the space to be there too. We also had to allow the kids to talk over it and the music needed to not be too loud and in your face or the main focus; it needed to be a bit more in the background.
At the same time I think that's why these more abrasive sounds, like the hairdryers and the vacuum cleaner from this rehearsal extract, really pop out from the ambience of the room. These days it's not so much that you can't make any noise in a library; it's more like it's a big open public space and a room like that is quite loud compared to a theatre. So to have some sort of sound moment in the show when the sound is in focus that sound has to be acoustically quite cutting. Sounds that are a bit more abrasive work for that, and so when you have scenes with hairdryers and vacuums in them there's no point in the soundtrack trying to compete – it has to be mellow and chilled out enough that you don't care when you can't hear it. I'm really, really into Brian Eno, and he has this wonderful quote about ambient music, which is that ambient music has to be equally forgettable as it is interesting. I think that's a really good place for the soundtrack of this show to be.
We developed a lot of new material for Bevis, but I'd done a couple of things with hairdryers in the past. The trick that closes this scene, with the vacuum cleaner sucking the ping pong balls off the hairdryers, is from a Shoebox Tour I did in the US in 2010 – it was just some stupid image about one thing blowing and one thing sucking, and what if they met, but it worked as an opening to that show and I always wanted to kind of develop it.
People have been doing this hairdryer stuff forever – this American comedy juggler Dan Bennett does it, so does a guy called Tyler Linkin. Philippe Ménard, who's Phia Ménard now, when she was Philippe she had a show where she floated balls on hairdryers... But the thing is nothing ever happens! People put the ball on the hairdryer and float it there and they're just like: ta-da! I saw one person when I was young, Steve Mills, who used to take a leafblower and use it to float a beach ball, then he'd balance the leafblower on his head and juggle three clubs, and at least that was a nice image...
So one day I was talking to Erik about Bevis and we were just thinking about what ideas we should try out and I said maybe we should work on this hairdryer ping pong ball stuff. In my head the idea of the cascade with the two ping pong paddles came and I figured we had to try that at least. The day that we tested it out we came up with a million different things to do; we really in our lives need to make the one-hour long hairdryer show. The week we rehearsed it we had so much fun; we were just laughing the entire day every day because we would do all these little tricks. When we discovered we could do the trick where the ring rotates around the ball we spent the whole day working on stuff like that.
But then we realised that with Kanon the rhythm was that it would give three or four images and then move on. For Bevis we came up with a million things in rehearsal, but in the show it's three or four ping pong ball tricks and then we go to the next thing. It was kind of a challenge to cut things down like that, but it was a nice problem to have. In Kanon we really felt we were taking a risk with the material – it was a collection of all these odds and ends that we'd never felt strong enough to put into a collection before, and we'd never built a show with that kind of rhythm and pacing. Kanon was an experiment and so we were pretty surprised when it turned out a success.
Going into Bevis we had this different feeling – like we were going to be OK no matter what. We had more confidence and that's reflected in that we dared to do some more abstract things; we were able to take more risks with it somehow. Bevis closes with Erik's wooden ghostcubes. Really they're just abstract sculptures, and the way we end the show is we build up this tower with them and we put the balls on it. I mean it's very... it's just some art with no technique and no obvious pay off, but still we believed that the audience could handle it. We wanted to be brave enough to just go further into the territory from the first show.
The extracted scene is from a rehearsal performance of Bevis conducted at Studio 16 in the dance building of DOCH on 2 November 2013.
John Ellingsworth interviewed Jay Gilligan over Skype on 6 March 2014. He saw a performance of Bevis given at Punkshangaren on 12 February 2014 as part of Subcase.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England and Subtopia.