Step Right Up For The Invisible Circus

Step inside a world of mystery & imagination with The Invisible Circus

Spanning a breathtaking spectrum of themes, characters, performers, emotions, spectacles, stagecraft, storytelling threads and dreamscapes – The Invisible Circus comes to town.

Whenever I see that the circus has pitched up in a nearby park I always get excited – it’s a nostalgic feeling that brings back all the excitement and escapism that a trip to the big top would provide as a child. Undoubtedly the circus has a unique, timeless appeal and an almost exotic mystery that enchants both adults and children alike, and whilst many children (including myself) grow up dreaming of running away with the circus, Doug Francis actually did.

I got a bang on the head in a road accident when I was 8, started winning arts prizes and struggling with the rest of school. I was playing in bands from when I was 14 and it’s carried on ever since!” laughs Doug, Creative Director of circus theatre company The Invisible Circus.

The history of the circus goes back so far and it brought influences from different lands, before television and the internet it was the only time people saw beyond their immediate environment” he adds. “It also shows that humans are capable of seemingly impossible acts of skill and beauty. Also – story telling is fundamentally important and enjoyed by all.

The Invisible Circus have been telling incredible stories and preforming awe inspiring acts of ‘creative revolution’ for more than 20 years, spanning a breath-taking spectrum of deeply imaginative themes, unique and unusual characters, performers, emotions, mind boggling spectacles, stagecraft, storytelling threads and dreamscapes that audiences get completely lost in.

The concept was born in London 1992 - we were putting on warehouse parties and there was a plan to put on a big show and we found a huge warehouse in Camberwell, but the guys running the bar wouldn’t put any money into the show, so I wrote ‘The Invisible Circus’ in big letters on the floor in chalk and left in the dead of night, vowing to do it myself” explains Doug.

I then started travelling and street performing and in 1996 I met my Co-Director Wim Penhaul who was a juggler and clown. We would pull shows together where ever we travelled to and so the troupe would come together and disappear for each gig, like an Invisible Circus…”

But unlike the seemingly harmless comedy clown and the glamorous trapeze artists of days gone by, The Invisible Circus carries a deeper meaning…

The name plays on the idea that there is a show going on around us all the time, we just don’t quite see it” explains Doug, “that society itself is a spectacle of consumerism, and that we blindly fall into our roles as extras without realizing we are actually meant to be the stars of the show and save the day!”

Invisible Circus Red Chair

Today, The Invisible Circus troupe consists of incredibly talented artists, performers, actors, directors, dancers, filmmakers, choreographers, musicians, makers, technicians and more, and the company thrives on their collective, dynamic creative energy. 

People seem to attract others with similar ideas and mindsets – that’s how these kind of things evolve. Interesting spaces attract people as well” explains Doug.  “We have years of experience in festivals which have their own special magic for sure, and I think we really come into our own in site specific locations like strange old buildings, where people wouldn’t expect such things to appear….”

Just a quick click through this talented troupe’s website makes one feel mesmerised and deeply intrigued; their performance themes include ‘Vintage Circus’ – described as ‘dynamic acrobats and dare devil aerial performers, candyfloss, sawdust, greasepaint, clowns and side show freaks’ - a performance that embodies the thrilling glory days of live entertainment, before the big (and now little) screens came and stole the show. 

Story telling is what we do, we create worlds for audiences to imagine around and interact with – it’s an exchange” explains Doug.

Invisible Vintage Circus  

There’s also ”Pirates’ – a visual spectacular featuring mesmerising mermaids and scheming harbour masters, canny customs men, shipwrecks and more, and there is also the completely wonderful ‘Wonderland’ – which of course involves a unique trip down the rabbit hole before pulling up a surreal seat at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. As reality warps and bends, Alice and the White Rabbit perform gravity defying acrobatics whilst your host the Mad Hatter will confuse, bemuse and thoroughly amuse your guests.

Invisible Circus Pirates Bellow Deck

Pirates Invisible Circus

Pirates Ship Invisible Circus  

The concepts are taken from the collective imagination of whoever is working on that particular project, so we create contexts and then let the crew dream in the details” explains Doug.  “Collectively people are more interesting than anything that one person could make up and we all feed off each others ideas. Our process involves setting parameters or limitations and then getting our team to respond to a brief with their own interpretations and skill sets” he adds.

I don’t have a favourite theme really as I love to be challenged, maybe the next one is my favourite! But our original brief still floats my boat - creating visions of the future from the shadows of the past

Wonderland Invisible Circus

Invisible Circus Wonderland 

As well as magnificent trapeze artists, 1920s glamour and swashbuckling fun, there is also a slightly sinister edge to some of The Invisible Circus’ work. When in character, Doug’s make up is reminiscent of the recent clown horror remake IT, and Under the Dark Moon – their complete show with a live original score first performed at The Bristol Old Vic, has a definite eeriness to it.

Fear is a huge part of the human psyche and a control mechanism used against us by advertisers and the like” Dough explains. “We want to confront and conquer these issues and encourage others to do the same – the circus especially laughs at danger

Invisible Circus Characters In Costume

Circus Performers  

As Doug mentioned earlier, he and his troupe are renowned and celebrated for their site-specific spectacles, meaning that they are able to take any space and transform it into a living, breathing and quite frankly incredible interactive experience. They have produced shows everywhere from Regency theatres and circus big tops to old fire stations and industrial facilities; together they devise and develop ideas as a collective and have a wide-ranging portfolio of productions, from intimate theatrical experiences to full-scale circus extravaganzas.

Both sizes have their merits - large scale spectacles are exciting but intimate performances are also powerful. We can respond to any size or scale and everything carries the magic from a solo act to a 50 strong spectacular” explains Doug.

“We try to approach each space or project openly and respond to its stories - we use experience to determine what is possible and devise collectively to bring the space to life.” he adds.

“We do what we believe in and try to not be limited by technical specifications, then do what we can to achieve that vision within the parameters of the event. Technical limitations can also inspire interesting creative solutions that wouldn’t have otherwise been thought of”

From performances in Penzance, Luxembourg, France and more to creating magic at Glastonbury and Boomtown Festival, as well establishing The Loko ClubThe Invisible Circus’ very own underground arts and performance venue in Bristol in collaboration with Artspace Lifespace, I wonder what Doug’s highlights have been so far.

Only the last 25 years really!” he enthuses.  “Carny Ville at The Island (groundbreaking 1000+ capacity circus shows on the site of the ex-Central Police Station) was huge because it took over an authoritarian establishment and transformed it into a wonderland, giving it back to the people. Performing at Blackpool Winter Gardens also felt special, following in such big entertainment footsteps.”

Invisible Circus Show

Invisible Circus Ceiling Hoops

Invisible Circus Hoop

Brilliantly, all of The Invisible Circus’ performance themes are available to book as a whole full scale production or they can scale some elements down and provide individual themed acts or themed circus cabarets with live musical accompaniment. Most of their performance themes also have additional facets to further enhance the experience – such as an interactive tea party installation for Wonderland, interactive performers and more, and don’t panic when I say interactive performers – there’s no risk of anyone being made to feel uncomfortable. Well, sort of.

Our audiences never feel awkward - unless we want them too!” Doug grins. “It’s about creating curiosity in people, so that they want to explore more. Or you just leave them no option and they have to go for it!”

As well as their incredible productions, The Invisible Circus can also provide individual performers, technicians, riggers, prop makers, make-up artists and costume-makers as well as site and build crew for events and private bookings, ranging from intimate secret gigs to monumental spectacles, and they can also develop bespoke performances should the need arise. They also have a high-energy house band called the Carnyvillains, and a photobooth which, as you can imagine, is a performance piece in itself.

In its full manifestation the photo booth is another world to become a part of - it expands and contracts to suit the environment,” explains Doug. “We can design a show to a brief, or develop a concept around a theme, we employ the same process as we do on our own productions after extracting as much information as possible from the source”

 Photobooth Invisible Circus

Invisible Circus Photo Booth

Invisible Circus Photobooth

With Immersive and unusual experiences becoming more and more popular at events, and seemingly more extreme, and with crowds getting tougher to please in this digital age of augmented reality and so on – is there pressure to keep developing more and more amazing ideas?

It’s the job of any artist to challenge the norm and themselves with the work - we get bored quicker than our audiences so we are always looking for new ways and forms, new spaces and ideas. Don’t play to the crowd – play to the passion” enthuses Doug.

We are always inspired to meet new audiences and also to see what other people are creating and to be taken on journeys by other shows. As world events continue to slide towards oblivion the pressure is on to make things happen and inspire change, with characters like Trump, May and Putin in charge unfortunately inspiration is just too plentiful” 

Next on The Invisible Circus’ agenda is a very special Halloween Spook Show in Bristol this October taking place at The Loco Club, in its in historic and extremely atmospheric cavernous tunnels under Bristol Temple Meads Station. Live music, intoxicating cocktails, ghostly installations, a freaky photobooth and an unnatural circus awaits…

Not wanting to give to much away…but by its nature it’s got to be scary!” Doug explains. “We also want to weave in real stories from Bristol’s dark past, as there is often nothing more terrifying than the truth!”

The Invisible Circus has a work in progress show on 13 October and their Halloween Spook Show on 28 October, both in Bristol. Take a look at their profile in our Little Black Book for website and contact details on all of their upcoming performances. 

With thanks to Sarah Fielding, Associate Director, The Invisible Circus

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