Devising Circus Theater

by guest blogger Jane George  In conjunction with her upcoming collaborative production, Cabaret METAMORPHOSES, Dr. Kathryn Syssoyeva (PhD Stanford, Theater and Interdiscipinary Studies in Humanities) offered a four-day master class intensive on Devising Circus Theater at Circus Center this March. For the past 18 years, Kathryn has explored the new places and directions circus can go as a theatrical form. More Fellini than Ringling, her focus lies at the border of circus and theater. The structure of circus theater derives from storytelling, action, and emotion, not from the more expected I step in the ring, do my act, and leave type of format. Circus theater goes beyond the incredible skill level required of circus performers and adds physical vocabulary to build a narrative that tells a story to the audience. Indeed, at times, physical limitations and lack of skill can be more interesting to the audience from an aesthetic point of view, a creative opportunity from which to build dramatic tension between performers. What does it mean to devise? A lot of devised theater arises out of improvisational play between performers, which then gets shaped by the director. Dr. Syssoyeva explained that devising breaks down divisions between form, skill sets, and methods of training and allows things to flow one into another in a way that works as a whole.  Elements of effective devising are:

  • Eye contact, keep a constant connection with your performance partner. How does one performer affect the other’s movement?
  • Mirror each other more intuitively, do not think about it – turn, spin, pull, and maintain the eye contact to make the action dramatic and watchable.
  • Make your partner move without touching them.
  • Each movement must live truthfully. Where does it go next?
  • It is the gesture that is compelling, not the trick.

When combining the spoken word with circus performance, think of how physical action becomes an extension of words and vice versa. Which is the overlay? Actors sometimes hold back their emotions, afraid of overwhelming their partner, but you must give them enough to work off of, provide a challenge. Circus theater connects the extraordinary skill level of circus gesture, connecting internal impulse to an external, compelling, watchable skill set. The future viability of circus tradition could well lie within the combined realms of circus and theater, providing an exciting and moving audience experience. Examples of circus theater recommended by Dr. Syssoyeva:

  • Circo El Grito
  • James Thiérrée
  • Choreographer Austin McCormick


Tales of Divinity, Desire, Violence and Transformation

a collaboratively devised evening of mythical-aerial Circus–Theatre–Cabaret

Directed by Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva

Rehearsal and development: May 9-July 18

Produced by Circus Center

Production: July 19-20

To get involved, e-mail Kathryn at syssoyeva [AT] gmail [DOT] com.