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Hidden Spire 2017: Sawdust

Hidden Spire 2017 was Sawdust, a show which imagined life backstage in a circus. It was performed 11 – 14 October 2017.

“I live and breathe the circus, got sawdust running through my veins…”

Viva Vintage Circus is falling on hard times. The performers – from Lena the acrobat to Samson the lion tamer and the incredible, impossible Insect Girl – have become their own kind of family, determined to see the bad times out.

What do you do when your way of life is crumbling, and you don’t have enough money to pay the lions?


To create Sawdust, 51 Crisis clients worked with 21 professional artists as an ensemble to devise, write, design, build, rehearse and perform the show.


In 2017 we were delighted to include Crisis clients as trainees in design, costume making, lighting, movement, direction and stage management.


"On top of being an absolute credit to the charities and individuals who have brought it to life, it is a piece that brings all the laughter and tears one expects when paying admission, with a splash of razzle-dazzle showmanship and plenty of truth to sink your teeth into." - Daily Info review


We started with workshops bringing together artists from internationally acclaimed theatre company Complicite, Crisis clients and members of the public. Our starting point for this work was the phrase ‘A Beautiful Mess’.


The writing group then explored this and came up with the circus world of Sawdust, with characters and storylines tied together in the final script by the lead writer. The music group composed the songs, the design group created the set, and the devising group worked on the movement and characters.

Photography by Josh Tomalin and Cat Prior-Holt.

Being a trainee

Ali is the Assistant Costume Designer for Sawdust. She tells us what it’s been like:

I’m the costume trainee. I first got involved when I attended the Hidden Spire design sessions in the Crisis Art Room at the Old Fire Station over the summer. I already had an interest in fashion and design, and after being interviewed and offered the role I was a mixture of excited and nervous.

Since the rehearsal period began, I’ve been working with Suzie Burlton, the costume designer, to realise her designs which she developed with input from Crisis clients including me. Suzie has been amazing to work with as she’s both kind and helpful.

During the production I’ve taken some of the responsibility for the lions, doing research and feeding in ideas before Suzie and Lizzy McBain, the director, made the final decision. The lions have been complicated. How human are they? How and when do their lion traits come out? How much are they individuals and how much are they a pack? From a design perspective we went into rehearsals to see the work the three actors and the direction team were doing to help us nail down the final designs. We’ve tried to create costumes to show humans dressed as lions who have been in Viva Vintage Circus for so long, and been so disempowered within the circus hierarchy, that they’re slowly becoming more feral. Alongside their individual fashion choices, they also each have manes, ears and tails of the animal they’re pretending to be.


I’ve learnt a lot during my involvement with Hidden Spire – how to do measurements, fittings and make alterations. As well as a lot of adding glitz and glam to each of the costumes before breaking them down again to give them a more lived-in, downtrodden feel in keeping with the rest of the show.

For me, the overall look of the costumes is fading glamour. If it was in good condition it would be bright and worthy of being on any stage in the world but after we’ve taken cheese-graters, spray-paint and generally broken them down they’re perfect for their home in the Sawdust world.

The project has meant that I have had an opportunity to gain experience in something I’d otherwise have little chance of getting into. This type of project is important as it’s a different thing to be a part of. A lot of homeless charities solely focus on your current difficulties and the everyday struggles rather than nurturing what someone has the potential to become.


Composing the music

Musical director Jon Ouin explains the process of composing the music for Sawdust:

When we think of the sound of the circus, a whole range of colourful musical instruments and noises instantly spring to mind.

All the music you hear in Sawdust is based on the creative ideas and input of Crisis clients over a series of musical workshops. Any ideas for vocal hooks or instrumental melodies, percussive rhythms - or even just a general sense of how the music should feel in terms of style and atmosphere - were captured as we went along and thrown into a large melting pot of musical ideas using laptops, phones and scraps of paper.

One of our first tasks was to settle on the kind of musical instruments which we could use which were practical (as in, not a full-sized calliope organ, for example) but which could still create the right musical atmosphere.

Nearly all the characters in the play had a song - or a ‘suggestion’ of a song - written into the script at one point or another. At these points, it’s a real opportunity for the audience to enter the headspace of, say, Pierrot or Lena, to scratch beneath the surface and encounter their ‘inner voice’, perhaps a bit of their backstory and their aspirations for the future.

So we started by reading through these short pieces of text, maybe chopping them up and playing around with the emphases. We quickly discovered that thanks to the way the words were written, they had a kind of inbuilt, poetic rhythm which lent themselves to certain musical styles or sounds. Another approach was to record noises which we might associate with that character (the sound of bottles or metallic clunks, for example) which could then be used as samples to be triggered by the performers.

Over the course of the music workshops, we worked hard to represent each character’s traits and quirks, and give them a kind of musical identity, all within the framework of the specific, wonky world of the Viva Vintage circus contained in the script.

Design trainee: Tony

In week 2 of rehearsals, Tony told us what he had been up to:

"I have made the steps and the platform for the section over the door. I was screwing it all together – checking the screws are at the right angles, filling in the screw holes. 156 screws -we have 416 to put in!


I am getting really excited now all the time. I’m really looking forward to painting the set. These steps will be red and yellow maybe with a star in the middle. The platform will be all black with bare wood on the side.

I am really looking forward to explaining to people what I did. I’ll be there at the Q& A after the show on Thursday.


Yesterday I went to the shop and I bought a bird box and table – I can use my new found carpentry skills to make it for my garden."

Set design

Nomi Everall has been working with clients of the national homeless charity Crisis to design Sawdust. She tells us more about the process.

I joined the Hidden Spire team just in time to attend the first read-through of the draft script and I was immediately excited by the world in which the play is set – backstage in a run-down circus that, although fraying at the seams, retains the faded remnants of its former splendour.

What captured my imagination most was the opening stage-direction which asks for the circus world to be formed live on stage by the performers, in front of the watching theatre audience, from the blank canvas of a “bare stage”. Transformation is a wonderful design challenge and from the outset I was keen that the audience would not arrive into an empty theatre space, but into a completely opposite sort of world to the circus – more ordinary, more everyday – out of which the circus could, hopefully surprisingly, be constructed.

Working with Crisis clients over five weeks of design sessions we began by thinking about the shapes, structures, colours and textures that epitomise ‘circus’ – what was essential in the visual picture for our audience to get a real sense of being backstage in a Big Top? We researched vintage and modern circuses and identified those iconic elements which most immediately place us in that world – the shape of the circular big top tent and its supporting tent poles; the prominent, curtained doorway to the circus ring; plinths and rostra emblazoned with stars and stripes; the ladders and high wires of the aerial acts; elaborate signs edged with lights; bunting and, of course, sawdust.

From there we began to work backwards – how could these circus elements emerge from a different type of place? And where or what would that different place be? We thought carefully about the opening scene, where we see characters swaddled and invisible upside down inside sleeping bags performing a surreal, almost dream-like, dance number. Where did that suggest we are when the play starts? Suggestions included a military encampment, a campsite in a field, a city street/wasteland, a shanty town. We thought practically too about how we could design and build structures that could be moved or changed by performers from one thing into another – one world hidden inside another, ready to pop-up, unfold, unfurl or be revealed. Some ingenious ideas emerged which were captured in drawings, story-boards and 3D 1:50 scale-models by the Crisis clients involved.

Inspired by their ideas, I then developed a final design in which we start from a world which is part make-shift encampment, part junk yard – a dumping ground in which our sleeping-bagged figures have made themselves tent-like homes from scrap wood and canvas. But amongst all the chaos, the elements of our Circus are there already, waiting to be hoisted up, thrown open, lit up or simply seen from a different perspective; in a different context. We hope you find the transformation as fascinating and surprising as we’ve imagined it to be and it fills you with a little bit of the wonder we all associate with going to the Circus.

Crisis clients will be involved in the building, painting, set-dressing and stage-management of this set as well as in the design process. Their imaginative ideas and hand-on hard work have been instrumental in the final set design as you will see it in the show.

Writing the 2017 script

The script has been written by Crisis clients working alongside playwright Rowan Padmore. We asked Rowan to tell us a bit more about the process.

In April 2016 I was invited to become the writer for Hidden Spire 2017. To say I was pleased would be an understatement. I was absolutely delighted, excited and maybe - just maybe - a tiny bit scared. The previous Hidden Spire shows have been very successful, and I knew they were a hard act to follow.

We came up with a starting point to begin to explore ideas: the concept of A Beautiful Mess. We began at the end of the summer, with physical theatre workshops bringing together artists from theatre company Complicite, Crisis clients and members of the public. We then worked with Crisis clients for a fortnight offering physical workshops with Emma Webb the movement director, and writing workshops with me.

From September to March I taught a weekly play-writing class for Crisis clients where we read extracts from scripts, discussed ideas and wrote stuff. At some point in late Autumn I settled on the play being set in a circus. We looked at photos of circus acts and old posters, and began to create our own characters. We imagined the characters both onstage and off, and gave them a history and a future. We wrote dialogue and developed the relationships between them. We talked.

I then had to take the vast amount of work we had produced in class, put it together and give it shape. Some ideas receded and others jumped to the fore. I wanted to create a piece of theatre that would be entertaining and exciting and a bit weird, just like the process had been. I worried. A lot.

Eventually I came up with a script that I hope contains much of the beautiful mess of the last months. It’s set backstage in a circus big top. It’s called Sawdust. Come and see it in October.

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