Steam Punk Circus

Australia’s unique Circus Oz has gone Steam Punk for their new production, Steampowered. Costume Designer Laurel Frank and Set Designer Daryl Cordell spoke to Neil Litchfield.I asked Laurel Frank, what exactly is Steam Punk?

It’s a clothing style that’s been around for about 10 years, which began as a combination of Victorian fashion, and the way the Victorians might imagine the future. So it has a lot of scientific, futuristic imaginings incorporating a lot of clockwork parts, and sections of brass astronomy instruments, made into jewellery.

It’s a very eclectic style, which draws elements from when the industrial age was bursting onto the scene, and re-imagines them into the punk era.

Where did the idea come for the production to take this style?

Daryl Cordell, our set designer, brought it up, and it just seemed to fit Circus Oz. This is our second season drawing on those elements.

There are little branches of it everywhere – there’s Steam Punk Belly Dance, Steam Punk Circus, Steam Punk Gangster and more. Now we’re trying to turn it into something of our own, combining it with that special Aussie larrikin thing, and injecting our own unique commentary on Australian culture as well – a bit of bogan and barbecue into the Victorian and punk.

How has that changed the nature of the Circus Oz production?

Once people put on that style of costuming, it leads to a lot of improvisation and mucking around with forms and characters. It has influenced the show quite a bit. One example would be the opening teeter board and acrobatic routine, which is now done in jodhpurs, riding boot style gaiters, high-waisted pants and braces and Top Hats. That act might have been done in a much looser, knockabout style before, but now they’re adopting a much more upright, mock pompous, Victorian gentleman physical stance.

How did you approach the new Steam Punk look?

Steam Punk has a lot of very elaborate and quite heavy accessories, like big boots and brass armpieces with watch parts welded into them. We simply can’t use that more obvious style of accessorising when people are turning somersaults, balancing on each other’s shoulders and rubbing up against each other on trapezes. There has to be a lot of adaptation of the more obvious features into something that’s practical and workable for circus performers.

Has that led you to abandon any of those features, or find a way to create them out of suitable materials?

It’s more exploring the materials. Where a Steam Punk might have oversized cogs and machine parts from watches and mechanical devices turned into jewellery, we would try to make a soft leather and strategically studded version of those accessories, so that there is movement and stretch in places where you need it. It (still) needs to have that sort of chunkiness to be authentic. It can’t all be flat stretch Lycra.

Quite a lot of my process is discussion with performers about the technical needs of their act. I’ll discuss the kind of things which are workable, then I’ll mock something up so that they get onto the trapeze, or the teeter board, or the sway pole, and just figure out, ‘When I’m upside down, is that thing going to be heavy and fall down and get in my way?’

Can you tell me about any particular costumes that involved that sort of negotiation?

Mason (West) is our Rolla Bolla person. Rolla Bolla is a balance act on a stack of rolling cylinders and boards that are all stacked one by one. He builds up to a certain height, and then does a handstand on a series of moving cylinders and platforms. We had a lot of negotiation about his footwear – something that allowed him to feel the boards and the movement, and yet have a dimension that made him look like he was a World War One flying ace in flying boots.

He also had a lot of leather belting, and pouches with accessories in them that he would pull out at the moment of balance, like pull out cymbals and bang them together, or bash a hammer onto a steel plate to make a sound. There was quite a bit of mucking around to create those belt accessories, where he could whip the things out very easily, but they would be secure enough to hold the weight, and not fall back on him when he was upside down, or in the process of going upside down.

Flip (Kammerer) does a Straps act, which is two straps which hang from the rigging. She winds herself up in them and does spectacular tumble-downs and catches herself just at the moment before losing her connection with the strapping. So, there was also quite a bit of negotiation about the fabric not getting wrapped up in the straps, and which bits of her had to be bare to feel that apparatus, and which needed to be covered to protect her from the apparatus.

Paul (O’Keeffe) does a balancing act on a bicycle, which comes apart. He also does a lot of handstands, so the boots have been the main challenge, because again it’s that chunky classic Steam Punk look of the high studded boots, and he’s balancing on the handlebars, and jumping down, then turning the bicycle into a unicycle. He really has to feel the pedals, and balance, and wrap his feet around the handlebars to balance on them, so the footwear was critical.

As Laurel mentioned, Set Designer Daryl Cordell who joined Circus Oz in 2010, introduced the Steam Punk concept. I asked Daryl about the challenges of designing for circus, and the reasons for introducing Steam Punk.

Circus is rather tricky to design for because of all of the acrobatic and bar work. There needs to be quite a lot of clear space on the stage, so it was about finding a way of dressing which I felt suited the circus. It’s primarily around the band, because you can’t go out onto the main stage area.

My first impression was that there didn’t seem to be a visual narrative going through the whole design as it was, so that started me on the search of finding a visual narrative for the group.

I’ve been familiar with Steam Punk for some time but investigating it closer, it seemed to be a perfect fit for a, circus, and b, Circus Oz.

What led you feel that way?

Circus performers are kind of on the edge of society. They are different to other people, and they seem to be coming from a different place. I just felt that it fitted the eccentric world of the Steam Punk look. Primarily circus is a fairly ancient type of craft, and nothing much has changed, so it comes out of past eras. The people who work here at Circus Oz are very self-sufficient, self-inventing people, who have always created their own inventions and props. The thing about Steam Punk is its inventiveness and celebration of a world of self-invention.

So the design has carried across into their props.

Yes it has, though again, that’s rather limited because these are important pieces of equipment which have to function clearly and they need to have good line of vision, but where we can, we’ve embellished things, or dressed them with brass or lookalike brass.

With a circus we think of Big Top and that is the essential look of the show.

The main ring is basically untouchable, because it has to be a clear working area, as is the case with the height, because they need clear sight-lines all around.

But the look is quite big this year, because I’ve got some large pieces of eccentric steam technology, or make believe steam technology, which are placed within the set.

What have been the joys of realising the concept?

The thing about this mob here is that they’re very innovative. It’s a very collaborative process, and they’re very good at making their own props, so it’s fun. All of the people involved in the workshop bring their own ideas to it as well.

What I found fascinating in the first show was that the performers really responded to the whole sense of Victorian manners and costumes, adopting an oldy-worldy sense of performance. That was a pleasure to watch. Generally the whole concept has been well received, and everyone has commented that this look suits the circus, and particularly Circus Oz.

The thing about creating this world, and these objects is that there’s no rules. It’s like Science Fiction stuff, so it’s a lot of fun creating that look.

The whole Steam Punk movement is huge, and quite diverse and varied. There’s elements that deal with gentle Victorian manners and being upright, then there’s cyber-punk versions, and sci-fi versions, and there’s bondage.

Google Steam Punk and you’ll see iPads and laptops that have been dressed to look like steam machinery, and have brass fittings and things like that. It comes out of the world of Jules Verne and HG Wells, and that whole play on Victorian technology, but being able to fly to the moon and stuff.

Steampoweredplays from 4 – 29 January, 2012 under the air-conditioned Big Top, Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour, Sydney.

Originally published in the July / August 2011 print edition of Stage Whispers

Individual performer images: Paul O'Keefe, Flip Kammerer and Mason West. (Photographer: Rob Blackburn)