Bim Mason is co-founder and Artistic and Education Director of Circomedia. He has been a professional performer since 1978 and is also a triple award-winning director of circus and physical theatre productions. He has worked with numerous pioneering circus-theatre groups as well as his own companies including Mummer&dada, Dark Horse and Bigheads. Bim’s writing work includes Street Theatre and Other Outdoor Performance (1992), Popular Theatre: A Contradiction in Terms (1994), ‘The Well of Possibilities’ in Jacques Lecoq and the British Theatre (2002), Towards a Healthy Circus Ecology (2007), Provocation in Popular Culture (2015) and ‘Bouffons and the Grotesque’ in The Routledge Companion to Jacques Lecoq (2016).
Picture info: Figure 9.1 Bighead at Juste Pour Rire Festival, Montreal 2005 (photo © Bim Mason)
Unless there is a particular reason to remain invisible, the initial proposition of a walkabout act must have strong visual impact (which could be through exceptional behaviours), because there is likely to be a cacophony of surrounding noise in outdoor performance situations. If the image is really strong (such as the giant mechanical elephant of Royal de Luxe, 2005–6 ) it may be that it is sufficient for spectators to simply stand and stare, as they would watch any procession, but walkabout comes alive when there is interaction. It is a different experience to observing visual art in a gallery because it demands an active response – there is ‘something going on’. The initial visual impact needs to set up open questions – What is it? What is going on? What is it for? How does it work? The greater the hook of curiosity, the better is the proposition. The unpredictability creates an element of the risk and thus, as I have suggested, has popular appeal. So, in the initial stages of devising, the big question is, what can create curiosity? However, there also needs to be some cultural connection with the public, a slight familiarity. As is well known, much contemporary visual art is not ‘popular’ and one reason for this is because it may be difficult to connect to without an education in the subject. Familiarity reassures and unpredictability creates excitement; one is about community and structure, the other about chaos. The third element is the shifting balance between the two; walkabout performers need to be adept at knowing when to emphasize one over the other and be able to adapt rapidly to changing situations in the moment of performance.
In the case of the Bigheads, I spent many months considering the nature of the initial visual image and researching suitable materials and construction techniques, before committing myself to the considerable investment of time required in making them. The image originally derived from a photograph of a medieval ‘reredos’ carving of a chimera and was thus linked to the grotesque tradition of gargoyles and the carnivalesque. I also had in mind the aesthetic of ghost train advertisements, football mascot costumes, high street promotion figures, Disneyesque dwarves and manga fantasy creatures. Although large heads are often used to caricature political figures in demonstrations, it was important to avoid easy definition in order to keep the questioning open. Similarly the gender of many of them was indeterminate and worn by both men and women. The huge, extending tongues could be seen as being simply cheeky or used more lasciviously, particularly as they emerged from the position of the performer’s pelvis area suggestively. Changing the emphasis between cheekiness and lasciviousness according to the nature of the spectators was easy. Similarly, the heads could crouch down, hiding the legs, using hand gestures through the arm slits to wave and mirror reactions. This unthreatening position could draw in very small children.
Once any mask has been created it must be ‘auditioned’ to see what kind of movements ‘fit’ with it. From these we worked out some simple choreography to establish methods of travelling, arrival and departure and a cueing system (using walkie-talkies, connecting to an outside ‘controller’) because of the limited visibility. The training in choral work to cohere the group through minimal observation proved extremely useful. These movement routines provided default material that could give some security if the situation did not offer much to play with. However, the appropriateness of these routines could only be tested by taking them out into a real street situation. As with much walkabout performance, practical experimentation is the only way to discover the potential of the initial appearance. With such unpredictability, if too much is overdetermined, the performers may find themselves imposing a relationship on the spectators, closing down the scope of the playing. By keeping fairly neutral and observing first reactions – for example, whether the image attracts or repels – an attitude to the public and physical surroundings can begin to be established. During the first outing of the Bigheads (for a photo shoot), some spectators kept their distance, but families with small children were induced to come close and interact gently. However situations can be so different that one must be wary of making too many fixed conclusions. On the second outing teenagers screamed excitedly and playfully ran a few steps away, so the Heads began to develop this game with brief rapid advances. Over many outings some of our initial ‘clever’ ideas were discarded and others were discovered in moments of ‘take off ’, when spectator reactions encourage a particular new stratagem. For example, bottles of water were carried within the Heads for the performer to drink and also to pour onto the tongues to make them look wet. One day it was discovered that this water could be flicked off the tongue and this would not only increase excitement but would also prevent spectators crowding around so tightly that others could not see. The fact that the water could create this reaction despite not being real saliva is a phenomenon that began to fascinate us, so we experimented with sneezing and spitting. This is a good example of the ‘not-real’ having a real effect; most theatre is already signalled ‘This is play’, but provocative work confuses that easy definition. It is ‘a more complex form of play; the game which is constructed not upon the premise “This is play” but rather round the question “Is this play?” And this type of interaction also has its ritual forms, for example, in the hazing of initiation’ (Bateson 1972: 155). A spectator can watch a theatrical play passively but a spectator watching a street fight, for example, will wonder if they need to take action or, if threatened, to recoil. A spectator watching a ‘real’ stunt will be engaged with the question: ‘Will it be alright?’ So, spectators watching the Bigheads question ‘Is it safe?’ and have an automatic response to the suggestion of sensuality or disgust of saliva, even though they know it is not real.
Gradually we built up a ‘Users Manual’ for the Bigheads that became a repository for what had been learned by different performers in a wide variety of situations and countries over several years. This covered questions of preparations, communication systems, how to travel between locations, how to create dramatic tension, how and who to excite with provocation, how to calm a situation down and how to escape. It took into account the different levels of received experience by various audiences: babies accepted the Heads as ‘real’ and had no fear (on one occasion a baby allowed itself to be swallowed), slightly older toddlers (and dogs) could become terrified. Older children would know they were not real but could still be strongly affected by the illusion, either by ‘adopting’ a head like a pet or, more commonly, hitting it without an awareness of the performer inside. Teenagers would be partially aware of the performer but would enjoy entering into the game with pubescent hilarity. Youth and some adults might feel confident to ‘perform’ to their friends in response to provocation. For example, at an international rugby cup final (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff , 2003), the Heads withdrew to the side of a passing tide of raucous spectators and, despite using only minimal movements, the visual impact provoked very lewd public behaviour – ‘sexy’ dancing and offering themselves to be licked back and front, in front of hundreds of people. This was an example of ‘lift off ’, where the event takes on a life of its own and the performer’s role becomes one of sustaining the energy, only intervening where necessary. In other situations, older adults might be more detached, empathizing with the performers, appreciating the aesthetics and what was being implied in all the various levels of play.
Popular Performance, edited by Adam Ainsworth, Oliver Double and Louise Peacock, is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, and available here at 10% off R.R.P.