It seems that around Christmas time, the only shows that are going on are ones starring Christopher Biggins and a pop star from the noughties. However, this year a circus performance like no other is coming to our very own Brighton Dome. Flown is an award-winning, critically-acclaimed performance from contemporary circus company Pirates of the Caribina. We spoke to Shaena Brandel, a co-creator, co-producer and performer in the show, and asked her about Flown and her path into circus performance.
Tell me about yourself
I’ve been performing as a circus artist for twenty years, and I originally trained at Circomedia in Bristol and I toured with various companies including Giffords. I specialise in aerial, but specifically hoop, I work on a big hoop that is two metres across and a standard one which is a meter. I’ve been working with my partner since 2005 so for ten years. Our speciality is counter-weighted duets, so he works on a king pole and I work on the hoop and then I kind of spin off the floor and he launches himself off the pole which launches me into the air. We’re attached to each other by a length of static line which is clipped onto his harness so when he goes down I go up and vice versa. Within Flown, we all do a bit of everything so I sing and play the cello, I play a little bit of bass guitar, it’s quite an involved show.
You’ve been heavily involved with Flown from the very beginning.
Originally it was a conversation between my partner and our director Jade who runs the circus big top at Glastonbury and she commissions shows to play in big tops. She was looking for a show and we put something together, we started with an outline concept and pin-pointed some performers they wanted to work with and we fed it into that. So we ended up with eight people as the original cast, and a ninth who was Jade’s dad a saxophonist who just arrived for the technical rehearsal so we actually had nine for the first show. It’s gone from strength to strength really, we thought it would be a one off commission for Glastonbury and we got such a good reaction from the audiences that we realised we had to do it again. We did a circus showcase at the end of 2011 and then worked with Crying Out Loud who are a producing outfit based in London. We toured with them for 2013 and 2014 and toured all over the UK. We performed in lots of theatres and travelled over to France. That really raised the profile of the company really and now we produce the show as well as perform it.
Have you been surprised by how positive the response has been?
Definitely it’s been amazing. It’s just really proved to me that if you focus your attention on something then amazing things can happen. I had no idea that I would be touring my own show with lots of other big shows. It’s been amazing. The audiences really love it; we’ve been all over the place. We’ve done a mini welsh tour, we won the total theatre award in Edinburgh in 2013, we’ve been to all sorts of places, there are too many to list!! We were on the Southbank in London, we’ve been all over the place and the thing that people seem to love is that there’s something for everybody. It’s not specifically an adult show nor a kids show, we really tried to make something that’s suitable for everybody and it seems to have worked. There are moments of comedy and the music is live and there are all sorts of circus skills. We have moments of monologues with the audience and they change and develop depending on the season, so we’ve changed some for Christmas and we’ve got new cast members. It’s really a show about a bunch of individuals who are trying to put on a show and everything is against them, thing’s go slightly wrong!
How long does it take to prepare for each run of shows?
It depends, we did rehearsals in April and May this year, and then we toured late May and July and then we took the show to Australia in September. We’ve just done some re-rehearsals for Christmas, generally we wouldn’t really rehearse before each stand but we’ve got new cast members and it is also Christmas so we’ve put more festive action in. We do need about two days in the venue though, because it’s a predominantly aerial show, everything flies and we have a complicated set so we need a fair amount of time in each venue. In some ways it’s not a particularly easy show to tour in terms of practicality.
Do you change cast members very often?
No, that’s been quite an organic process. We started with nine and we have four of the original cast members for Christmas and we’re eleven on stage now. The show has been going on for five years now so it’s been an organic process. It’s nice because it brings new skills and fresh energy and from the point of view of the circus, people raise the game by bringing in new skills and it makes others develop their own performance.
What would you say to people who had never been to a circus performance and want to see Flown?
Come and take a chance! People will enjoy it. Our director was being interviewed by a local Brighton radio station and they were asking where they could find links to videos that we can share with our audience and he said ‘No don’t watch anything on YouTube! Come and let it be a surprise!’ I think the show will go down really well and I don’t think people will be disappointed.
How does it differ to other circus performances?
That’s a tricky question. Every company has a different approach to what they present. It’s very multi-layered so we’re all on stage all the way through the show, nobody ever leaves the stage during the show. You get the main action, such as a pole duet, and then everyone else is in the background so there’s always something to watch. The technical stuff is all exposed so the counter-weights are visible so it’s all laid bare. We also have live music and lots of comedy. The layering of all the different things really make it unique.
What are the plans for the future of Flown?
We’ve got plans to continue the show next year, we’re doing a show in Manchester and Worthing in July, and we hope to do more international touring with Flown, we’re hoping to do a tour of Australia in 2017. We’re also hoping to develop a new show for the company so that’s in development but that will be a while before we’re ready to present that.
Where’s been your favourite place to perform?
There’s been quite a few moments in Flown where I’ve thought ‘wow I never imagined we would be able to perform here with our own show. Australia was incredible, to travel so far to perform to an audience, and huge audiences as well. We had 1700 people for the opening night, so that was one of those moments. Edinburgh Festival was also amazing, just to be on that international platform. One of my favourite places was Cork in Ireland because I’m originally from there and my 98-year-old God-mother was able to see the show so that was one of those moments that I never imagined would happen. That was with another show with a different company before I joined Pirates of the Carribena so I would love to take Flown to Ireland.
How did you get into the circus?
I did a bit of gymnastics and drama and lots of music at school, I knew I wanted to perform but I wanted to sing. I wanted to do vocals for dance music, and then I was doing a performing arts school in Bristol when I was seventeen and it just wasn’t for me. Everyone wanted to be on Broadway and do musical theatre and that wasn’t my bag at all. I left the course and I was at Glastonbury Festival and I saw a company doing a rehearsal on an outside aerial rig just as the sun was setting and I was completely grabbed by the image by these women who were really strong and able to support their own body weight and hang upside down and do all these amazing things. I instantly knew that’s what I wanted to do. I discovered that there was a circus school in Bristol and then went there the following Autumn.
How long does it take be a fully trained performer?
I think its an ongoing process. It depends what your background is, I think people who have a background in gymnastics or dancing take to circus performance really quickly because there’s lots of crossovers. To start with it’s really about developing your body strength, your upper body strength particularly for aerial. It took me ages initially because I’m quite tall and I was quite lanky at that point so it was a good couple of years before I started doing small local performances. Then it’s an ongoing thing you have to keep training to keep it fresh and to keep developing your skills and your act. It’s like being a dancer you have to keep training to maintain that ability.