As part of a series of spotlights on artists shortlisted for CircusNext, Sideshow talks to the Irish artist Darragh McLoughlin about his project Fragments of a Mind.
“A man moves between three rooms. We do not know who he is, or how he came there. The lone character journeys between them endlessly, cycle after cycle, reaching each ending only to begin again where he started. Not much seems to change in this place, except over time the man begins to change and with that so does his relationship to this place he finds himself in. Upon repeatedly confronting himself and his own sanity he falls deeper and deeper into darkness as he fights to find some sort of proof of his own existence.”
First of all, how did you come into circus? What's your artistic background?
When I grew up I didn't have a lot of artistic influences, at least in regards to performance. I came from a very music orientated town in West Cork, but never learned to play an instrument. My parents are both chefs and I got quite involved in that as I grew up. They taught me to love eating and cooking food. One thing that I notice more and more as having influenced my style was having no television, and reading a lot of fantasy/sci-fi books.
I started juggling when I was around fifteen, and I guess I found my thing. Before finishing school I already decided I would skip college and go to Berlin to enrol in a juggling school, the Jonglierkatakomben. When I arrived there I was surrounded by professionals with amazing skills and incredible bodies. So I kicked my own ass and began to work on more things than just juggling. I tried and failed to make a juggling number, and quickly realised I had no idea how to start creating a performance. People started to tell me I should join a circus school. To be honest until that point I didn't really associate juggling with circus. So I applied for the first school I heard of that I thought I might have a chance at: ACAPA (Academy of Circus and Performance Art) in the Netherlands, and got in. And so it began...
What was the initial impulse or idea that started your work on Fragments of a Mind?
When I was in ACAPA I was always searching for different ways to create, and I think Fragments of a Mind is a lot of different ideas and research coming together. I was sure that I wanted to really spend time working on one piece, to dive deep, to run in the dark and still come out the other end. I was tired of rushed creations, incomplete ideas, and most of all stories built for the sole purpose of being able to show off a bunch of difficult circus tricks. I remember having a big argument with my director because I put 'creator/performer' on my business card instead of 'circus artist'. I felt a need to open doors to other worlds, rather than to aim for the big top.
The title was one of the first things that came to me. It just fit. I had become at times quite frustrated with my own thoughts, how little control I had over them, and how distant they felt from Me. So I found the idea of creating a piece about a man who is trapped in his own head without realising it quite intriguing.
Another part of the piece that was very clear was that I would use was the song ‘Come Wander With Me’ by Bonnie Beecher. This song comes from the late 1950s TV series The Twilight Zone, and it's haunting melody is the sort that creeps into your head and won't leave. This will be the only piece of music in FOAM and I hope it will drive the audience almost as mad as it does the character.
One thing that I think is important to say is there was no moment where the 'idea' appeared to me. The concept was a long process that came together over time. I'm quite happy about this process, as if I’d decided on what it was about too early on it may have been forced. As it is, each element came quite naturally, and in its own time.
You applied to CircusNext with FOAM in 2012-13 and flunked right out, didn't even make the shortlist. What work did you do on the project in the following year and how did it change or evolve?
While I didn't get CircusNext the first time, I can't say I was really surprised. It was probably a good thing in retrospect as I feel much more ready this time round. I left ACAPA with grand ideas of making my first creation, but with little clue as to how I was going to achieve that. Writing a professional application like that made me really dig deep for answers to the questions they were asking. I think I came up with a lot of new ideas for the piece while writing the application. Even though I didn't get through, they saw me then and later invited me to their Lab programme. So it wasn't a complete flunk.
As much as I sometimes hate it, this world is a lot about networking. If nobody knows you exist, you’re not gonna get invited for anything. So I set out to work on just that. I started doing a lot of one-to-one sessions with friends, other artists, etcetera to just be able to explain my piece, which was growing more and more complex by the day. One thing that really helped me was meeting Elena Kreusch, who upon hearing my ideas started to act something like a manager and helped me by securing residencies and simply picking up the phone to get in touch with people. Since then I’ve been in around nine countries in Europe working on FOAM and a few other projects, plus teaching workshops. Since I left ACAPA I haven't had anywhere I call home, and haven't stayed in one city for more than a few weeks – I’ve been a penniless artist trying to get from one place to the next.
You've been working on this piece partly using storyboarding techniques. How has that worked in practical terms and why did you adopt this method?
One thing I started to ask myself was, What methods are other performing artists using to create with? I found very little inspiration in the circus world so started to look at methods from film, theatre, dance, literature, etcetera. Also FOAM consists of around 60 different scenes, so in order to keep track and make sense out of it all, storyboards seemed to be the way to go. It also allowed me to have a clear overview, and led me to start mucking around with the chronology of the piece.
I use this technique in a lot of different projects now. Another piece which I am performing, and still creating, is The Whistle. In this piece I enter with a whistle and make a rule where the audience open and close their eyes every time I blow on it. I then have them jumping between around five different 'stories' (with the same character), each time they open their eyes either continuing an old story or starting a new one. My next plan for this project is to involve a few extra performers who play characters that belong to a particular story, only to end up lost and in the wrong scene at the wrong time. Techniques like storyboarding are great for muddling up scenes, and being able to visualise the piece as a whole.
Fragments of a Mind asks the audience to piece together a narrative / fill in the gaps / rearrange a timeline. What have been the challenges of building a narrative in this way for the stage? Also: why do this in the first place? And then: what's any of this got to do with juggling?
FOAM is about a character whose existence involves going round and round through three rooms. Apart from being a normal intelligent being, with a fairly usual range of language and emotion, everything he knows and understands is what's in his rooms. He knows nothing of the outside. The rooms contain very little apart from a few pieces of furniture, a music box and some balls. In his isolation the balls are a way he can ask questions like: 'Why do you fall, and I don't? I'm going to fall with you.' 'Why do you look nicer when organized in lines?' 'What sort of lines can I make?' These questions turn into obsessions which often last for hundreds of cycles, and fill that gap, that need, which is human curiosity.
I'm glad you asked what any of this has to do with juggling, as that's a question I continually wrecked my teachers heads with when I was still in school. I think the answer has to be: very little. I'm taking a quite painful yet, I think, ultimately rewarding path by not making FOAM about juggling. It's meant that I've had to kill a lot of my darlings. Anything in my juggling repertoire that doesn't fit is out. I think the moment the audience see a juggler doing difficult tricks I have failed. They need to accept my juggling as purposeful actions rather than tricks. So I have based my research on a lot of things like: gesture, searching, obsessive tendencies, falling. By jumping in cycles I can also skip periods where the character develops ideas, but still let the audience know that all that stuff happened in-between. By playing with accelerations in time, quick flashes of cycles, I can tell a lot of different things in a short space of time.
One idea I had early on in my process was something I called 'active audience participation', which is not bringing the people on stage, looking at them, or even acknowledging their existence, but rather creating the piece in a way that will engage them on many different levels. In this case it is giving them a sort of detective-like role where, using the order of the scenes and the fragments of information they are given, they can piece together the story for themselves. I would like my audience to have more than Oohs and Aahs; I would like them to also have Ah-has and Mmms. Of course these techniques have been widely used in film (one good example is Memento), and are relatively simple to do so long as the plot supports the idea. On a live stage, however, it's a bit trickier. One aspect of FOAM that helped is its repetitive nature. The character goes round and round through a few rooms in (almost) endless cycles. In one room he is recording his thoughts, and there he gives references to time. In another room there is a hanging switch he has to pull in order to move on which gets a fraction higher each time he pulls it. So by giving these signposts the audience will be able (hopefully) to figure out where in time the piece is. Now I don't necessarily think this is a better, and for sure not an easier, way to tell the story. However, this is a performance and I am searching for reactions from the public. I think when I can make them react to many different layers of the piece besides skill, movement, character development, etcetera, I will have made a better performance.
If you're selected by the jury in April what work will you do on the project? Are there things left to research or are you at the stage of putting existing material together?
Right now I am at around the halfway mark in my creation. There is still a lot of work to do! For the presentation in April I will present a twenty-minute version of the piece. I will not show a short form of the piece, but rather present something like FOAM - Part 1 of 3. I will not worry too much (!) about trying to show off big tricks but rather rely on the strength of the piece's dramaturgy to get me through. After that I’ll go back to the studio to continue my research. I didn't really build this piece in the normal stages a creation goes through, as I lacked any funding until now, so it made sense to just work on everything at the same time, slowly bringing each element forward until the moment I have the means to really kickstart the process. I will also have to work a lot on the text I am writing, but I have a friend (a somewhat eccentric English poet, Andrew Cartwright) to help with that. One of the biggest difficulties I am currently faced with is the stage design. Who would have thought making rooms of light could be such an aggravating task? After my last attempt I am pretty sure I will have to find a good set designer to help me out with that. Another thing I need is to find more co-producers (with or without CircusNext) to help fund the creation of the piece. Most of the people who have been working with me so far did it for free or for very little. I hope to be able to pay these people properly, and maybe, one day, myself.
Darragh McLoughlin / Square Head Productions' Fragments of a Mind is one of fifteen projects to have been shortlisted for CircusNext 2013-14. An extract of the work will be presented to the CircusNext jury in Neerpelt 21-26 April 2014.