The Importance of Balance: an interview with Acrojou

Reporter: Liz Allum

Dateline: 6th April, 2015

Physical performers, whether in circus, dance, or clowning, understand just how vital the connections and relationships between the performers can be.

This interdependence demands a high level of complicity that can only be achieved by thoroughly understanding one another’s physical and emotional language. A careful balancing act, both literally and metaphorically, requires complete trust and reliance on each performer. It is the ultimate test of how well performers know each other.

Jeni Barnard and Barney White met whilst studying at Circus Space in 2006 and formed Acrojou, a company whose work draws on strands of physical theatre, dance and contemporary circus. Studying together, working together and performing together mean that there is, inevitably, a detailed, nuanced shared language between them. Jeni describes it as a shorthand, a methodology, that defines the company and makes their work recognisably ‘Acrojou’.

Their highly successful piece The Wheel House has been touring for seven years, and as they begin to tour other works, such as Frantic, in parallel, they are finding that they need to expand their team. This also enables Jeni to focus on the myriad other jobs needed in a company, including researching and developing their new work Monsoon. A careful and somewhat painful process of recasting, handing over roles crafted in minute detail to someone new has been taking place at Space 101 in Newbury, where the company has been resident for aspects of several of their productions.

As they recast the shows, to enable the company to grow, and for the core team to focus on new work, Jeni describes the excitement of what new performers bring to the existing productions. Recasting opens up a whole palette of possibilities for a performance, a different language being brought into the rehearsal space. It offers a reshaping, recharacterising, adding layers of meaning and personality that are unique to the performer and new to the performance. But it’s a delicate process, to embrace newness without losing the chemistry and particular quality that the original cast brought. It needs time, and space, not just in the creation, but in the casting.

Finding the right people is critical, and so using workshops to meet potential new performers enables a greater depth of conversation and communication, far more than a traditional audition can offer.

“We wanted to get someone that had the right skills, sensitivity and character for the piece, who had the right look and worked with the other performer, but we also don’t want to be too prescriptive about it.”

During its upcoming residency at Artsdepot, the company is hosting a series of creative workshops to try to find performers for its new show Monsoon. It is a much more collaborative and informative way of auditioning than the traditional system.

In the making of any work of this nature, of devised theatre or complicit circus, each member of the team that comes together to create and shape work plays a vital role in the overall piece. Companies who are small in personnel, rather than in ambition, quality or scale, will have a core team and will bring in experts, performers, a musician, a director, a set maker perhaps, for each performance.

Each of these people contributes to the devising and creation of a piece of theatre, and they all have their own methods and languages. They won’t necessarily have spent months working with one another; they are unlikely to have trained at the same place, or even in the same field. It is the company’s job to bring the team together and find a new, shared language, every time they make work.

This is complex, not just for the reasons outlined, but also because the core company itself already has its own methods, its own shorthand. So each new process is a system of pushes and pulls, of compromises and of new discoveries, as they embrace new energies in the making space.

This complex and important process, common within, but not unique to, devised theatre and outdoor arts, is extremely difficult to achieve if a company does not have space big enough to bring each show’s team together to spend time forging the production’s new language.

Outdoor arts space 101, funded by New Greenham Arts and The Corn Exchange in Newbury, aims to provide exactly this kind of space, enabling the wider company to live and work together in the research or creation of its work with individual spaces for rehearsing, making of large scale set, props or equipment, a huge table to meet round and fully functioning, cosy kitchen.

These are the things that companies need to learn one another’s language, not just how a person moves or where the balance points are, but how they take their tea and what they think about the upcoming election.

The company has also taken the decision to focus, for now, on outdoor work, rather than spreading itself between outdoors and venue-based work. Jeni said, “it has provided us with a real clarity of focus, and where we’re focussing the small amount of time we do have on network building and other development. It is also an artistic decision, to allow us to really dig into what outdoor arts as a form can offer and what we can bring to it with what we do as a company.”

This really exemplifies just how many roles the members of a company this size will take on: creative roles and marketing, tour managing, set building, recruitment, networking, the list goes on and on. Choosing the right members of the team, having a physical space to work together, and focussing their energies into one area of the market are all things Acrojou have identified to help make those multi-roles more efficient and realistic.

The delicate balance, struck between performers, makers, directors; struck between people and the structures they work within; struck between makers and the work itself, is one that needs careful nurturing. Acrojou’s nuanced understanding of the intricacies of these intimate relationships, resonates through their work.

Balance, connection, fragility are all drawn out by this skilled and sincere company, even finding detail in a set as minimal as a single, large wheel, turning what could appear to be a piece of circus equipment into a home full of possessions, full of memories.

Catch Frantic on 18 April at Jacksons Lane´╗┐