The Big Interview: Tom Rack, NoFit State Circus

LexiconPhoto Credit: The Other Richard

How do contemporary performers make circus more current whilst paying homage to its history? Circus director Tom Rack talks about how NoFit State have been juggling (excuse the pun) cutting edge rigging and creative storytelling alongside a challenging life on the road, finds Selina Oakes…

In the year of Circus250 – a nationwide celebration of circus arts – the internationally renowned company NoFit State premieres an immersive big-top show in Newcastle-under-Lyme: the hometown of Philip Astley, founding father of the modern circus. In tribute, the company delivers its first in-the-round performance, Lexicon, which juxtaposes an illusive misfit style with a nostalgia for the traditional Victorian circus.

Fire jugglers, slack-rope-walkers, jesters and a unicyclist are amongst the nomadic troupe who guide their spectators through a long-forgotten era of extraordinary physical and psychological feats. With the aid of innovative rigging and new lighting technologies, NoFit State produces a show that melds history, wonder and mischief into the fabric of the 21st century.

I caught up with Artistic Director, Tom Rack, to hear about the company’s reimagining of circus arts for a modern-day audience and its commitment to engaging with new generations of performers. 

The Double Negative: Lexicon is NoFit State’s first show for a seated audience in-the-round. What has prompted the move from promenade shows, such as Bianco, ImMortal and Tabù, to a more traditional big-top production?

Tom Rack: We have been doing the promenade shows for over 20 years. Everywhere we go, people tell us how different, new and invigorating our performances feel. Although it’s a huge body of work that we are extremely proud of, it is time for us to move into a new direction. We want our work to stay fresh and in order to achieve this, we need to feel inspired and excited by it and always re-invent ourselves to continue to grow.

With the promenade style, our performances were perhaps more of an aerial spectacular. Everything had to be above the audience and we were very limited to what we could do on the ground. The seated audience and a flat stage allows us to use more ground-based skills and brings a whole new set of tools of vocabulary to the toy box.

“I believe our style comes from the people that we are: a bunch of misfits”

As Artistic Director, how do you maintain NoFit State’s creative and contemporary performance style?

We have asked ourselves this question a lot. Our style and aesthetics have become a bit of a signature-style and it is important that this remains present in the new format. Firenza Guidi, who directed the last three shows for the tent, will continue to write and direct this new piece, alongside an artistic team which remains largely the same, from the costume design to the rigging engineering. However, we have also brought in new creative collaborators to develop specific techniques with us that will add new layers and textures to the work we have done before, a better focus and more detailed theatrical images and hopefully one or two surprises too.

I also believe our style comes from the people that we are: a bunch of misfits living, working and travelling together and with a shared passion for circus. And I can’t see this changing any time soon.

How else has the company evolved since its founding in 1986? Is it still motivated by politically-charged topics, and if so, why does it remain essential to use this art form as a communicator of certain values?

Back in 1986, I wouldn’t say we were bad circus artists, but we were delivering nowhere near the quality of circus skills and techniques that the guys who join us today have. The whole sector has evolved: there are now very high-quality circus schools all over the world and the artists performing in our shows have spent years mastering a craft and a technique. Our work has evolved technically and artistically, but the direction of the company is still very much informed by the political and social context around us. We have grown up a bit since the early years, so we respond to our environment in a very different way now, but our intentions, our ethos and our beliefs in the world are still the same.

Today, we focus on investing in the next generation of circus performers and giving access to workshops and play to communities of low engagement. The shows we make today offer a space where wonder, lightness, joy and delighted can exist, a place where it is possible to forget about the outside world and lose oneself into the sheer pleasure of being at the circus.

NoFitState: Lexicon. Photo Credit: The Other Richard

How did the idea for Lexicon come about – where does it draw its inspiration from – and what can audiences look forward to in this new production?

2018 is the 250th anniversary of circus. Lexicon has come from our desire to create a piece that re-engages traditional techniques, explores the roots of the circus movements and pushes them into new directions. We like the idea of going back to the drawing board, starting again from the beginning, and decomposing the vocabularies and alphabets of the circus genre. So, the show begins there, in an old classroom, but a classroom inhabited by mischievous individuals who start doing extraordinary things.

We have wanted to make a show that celebrates everything we’ve inherited from years of circus tradition and at the same time pushed further at ultra-contemporary techniques and new technologies. What can you look forward to in this new production? Brilliant circus, a furious energy, but also some mesmerising visuals and a beautifully crafted soundtrack.

Has technology and its advancements impacted on the realisation of productions? How does new media converge with traditional circus practices in Lexicon?

Without revealing too much, I can say that we have looked into different innovative strands of technology with Lexicon. To push our rigging techniques, we have looked at the new sailing technology that has allowed us to manipulate large pieces of set and monumental objects in the space. It has also allowed us to go beyond the traditional cupola; to place rigging points further out from the centre and take the show off the stage and into the audience. We have also started working with mapping technology and video projection, not to tell a story but to add another layer of textures to create a projected landscape, to play with shadows and silhouettes and bring back what we call “the ghosts of the circus.”

“We have set up our circus village in the birthplace of Philip Astley to immerse ourselves in his legacy”

Lexicon will be touring across six locations as part of Circus250. What is important, both in terms of circus history and the company itself, about premiering the show in Newcastle-under-Lyme – a market town in the West Midlands?

In our desire to go back to the roots and origins of circus, we have chosen Newcastle-under-Lyme as the place to anchor our creation of the show. We have set up our circus village in the birthplace of Philip Astley to immerse ourselves in his legacy, and the feel of a classic, slightly nostalgic Britain. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, we are in the heart of traditional Britain and the work has also been inspired by the environment around us: the narrow streets, the arcades, the stripy market canopies, the butcher and the olde sweet shop, the bricks, the cast-iron and the cobbles. It is this old Britain that we have tried to capture in Lexicon, from the music to the costume and set design.

The NoFit State cast and crew live and work as a traditional circus troupe would. With the recent snow in-mind, what are the challenges and advantages of working with a touring production and place-of-work?

I definitely can’t say that it has been easy, but no one could have predicted this winter would turn so bad. In 10 years or so, I am, sure we will look back upon this time with fond memories. And if not, it will still be a brilliant story to tell the grand-children.

In the meantime, we have survived the ‘Beast from the East’ and I feel that it has created a very solid bond amongst the company and brought us all tight together (quite literally!). I am a firm believer in the circus collective and how the traditional format of circus, with the big top, the caravans, the communal kitchen and the collective life on the road gives the show a unique heart and soul. Plus, in working and living on site, you never get caught in traffic jams on your way to work in the morning!

LexiconPhoto Credit: The Other Richard

What else does 2018 have in-store for NoFit State?

As if the creation of Lexicon was not enough, we are touring our outdoor show, Block, this year. Following a two-week run in Australia to represent the UK at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games festival programme, Block is embarking on a 30-venue tour for a 2018 season of about 100 performances! And alongside the tours, we are running a buzzing programme of activities, including a circus convention and conference for and by circus makers in Newcastle-under-Lyme. We are also hosting artists and companies in residency throughout the year and supporting the development of emerging artists, and we are taking four British companies with us to the world’s most renowned arts festival in Avignon, France. Lastly, of course, our Cardiff hub, Four Elms, will continue to house hundreds of workshops, classes and activities throughout the year.

Selina Oakes

See Lexicon until Saturday 21 April 2018 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and then from 26 May-9 June 2018 in Cardiff Bay

Lexicon is commissioned by New Vic Theatre, funded by Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Wales, and co-produced in association with Tombées de la Nuit, Rennes, Marseille Biennale International des Arts du Cirque, and Cirque Jules Verne, Le Pôle National Cirque et Arts de la Rue, Amiens

Image credits: The Other Richard

Posted on 11/04/2018 by thedoublenegative