Circus Oz, Model Citizens

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It’s been 40 years since the humble beginning of Circus Oz. since then, the company has seen many evolutions, tours, shows, unbelievable tricks – not to mention the Costumes! FOCUS chatted with founding member, Laurel Frank …

Hi Laurel. Give us some background into your history as a founding member of Circus Oz?

I’ve been with the company for 40 years. I’ve done other work, as I’m a freelance costume designer, but the core of my work have always been Circus Oz – and that started in 1977, when I was working at a theatre company and we created a circus project. This seemed to develop its own life – we joined with a small circus company from South Australia, and Circus Oz was born.

Tell us about the first ever Circus Oz performance …

The first proper public show in the tent that we built in the basement of the theatre company where I was working, was Moomba. That was in Melbourne, and we went on to the Adelaide Festival – so they were the first two shows. 

Before this we had done a lot of street theatre and a lot of smaller events, but I always think of that first tent as really being the launching pad for us as a touring circus company.

How does it feel being in the industry for 40 years? What have been some of your greatest achievements or fulfilling moments?

It’s a surprise that I’ve been doing this for 40 years – or even longer really, because my work started slightly earlier in a theatre company in Melbourne. I learnt all sorts of things that have really helped me; I was a lighting designer and rigger for a while, and studied under a senior lighting person. I was a stage manager, I did a whole variety of jobs, and I was always costume making on the side.

I think learning all those other skills and a bit of acting actually gave me a great understanding of all types of performance – and especially circus. I had a bit of a go at acrobatics (I was terrible) but I had a go, so I feel like I do have that knowledge of what it takes for performer to successfully get on stage and do what they have to do and communicate with an audience.

Have you had a go on the high trapeze or any other daring tricks?

Daring is probably going too far! I was a clown, and ran around doing that, and as mentioned a little bit of acrobatics. I was part of the group acrobatics, but in the early days it was as much about what we were talking about in the show – the message that was as important as the skill level. So no, I didn’t do anything daring! I did plenty of training climbing up web ropes and sat on trapezes, but I never seriously trained for any of those acts.

And what do you love most about being a part of the Circus Oz family?

Theatre productions always have that family feel. Circus Oz has such a long history, and we have a special structure in our company where performers, technicians and people in admin can become company members once they’ve been with the company for a certain number of years, so we now have a big pool of people who are distributed all over the world – as well as all around Australia – who at one time or another have been part of the company and have worked with us. 

They’re now family – it’s like you have lots of wise uncles, aunts, cousins who can be drawn on to help on whatever the company is doing at the present moment. It’s a pretty special thing, the Circus Oz family.

How do you ensure costumes are high visual impact, yet still able to be moved/ and protect and support the performer?

We are really happy with the stage picture we’ve created with Model Citizens; it was a result of a lot of meetings between the set and prop designer, Baxter and our Artistic Director Rob Tannion, so we threw around a lot of ideas and landed on this idea of the model kit world and the model citizens who might inhabit that world. It was a really rich spring board; it’s a long journey from those initial ideas to further research to clarify the ideas and costume and set design. 

For me, there is a huge input with whoever it is that’s going to be in the cast, because I have to modify all of those broad notions into something that is going to work for a particular person who has a particular character who works with particular circus gear – whether it’s trapeze, or hand balancing, or whatever it is. I always have to work technically for that person, and it’s a long road, because there is a lot of interaction with gear in different acts. You have to make sure the costume won’t get caught up on anything or is going slide in the right way or not. It’s particular to each act, so that’s a journey I go on with each performer, to isolate their needs.

Congratulations on 40 years, Laurel – and thanks.

Model Citizens seamlessly blends the risk and beauty of breathtaking physical improbability with theatricality, choreography and Circus Oz’s distinct brand of Australian humour. Stunningly lit and driven by a sensational live music soundtrack, Model Citizens unfolds within a cleverly designed model-kit world that challenges perspective, scale and concepts of normality. In Model Citizens, over-sized, everyday objects are used as unexpected circus equipment that create an intriguing new playground for the all-human ensemble. Acrobats will back-flip off a giant vertical clothes peg, become tangled in an oversized cotton reel, balance on a house of oversized collapsing cards and fly high in an enormous pair of aerial undies! 

Exposing circus skills in unconventional ways, Model Citizens presents stunning group acrobatics with a twist. Model Citizens is a visually and emotionally charged journey by the multi-talented Circus Oz ensemble, which explores what it really means to be a model citizen in today’s “model kit” society.

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