Without Walls TALKS: Taking Risks when making outdoor work, by Charmaine Childs
9 December 2021
Charmaine Childs is the circus strong lady behind Strong Lady Productions. Her new work STRONG ENOUGH, an outdoor show that celebrates finding strength in unexpected places, is part of the Without Walls 2021 Programme.
In this blog, Charmaine reflects on her experience of taking risks in making new work for the outdoors and offers insights for artists considering new directions.
For 20 years I have toured outdoor arts festivals around the world with various shows as a circus strong lady. This year I toured a new work STRONG ENOUGH, a significant evolution in my creative practice.
In a time that was already soaked with uncertainty, I took a risk in creating something very different in style from what I have done before. I went from a presentational style and big, loud, invincible shows, to a circus storytelling show that had audiences crying in the street, from ‘here’s my next trick’ to ‘let me tell you a story’, from ‘look how strong I am’ to stories about the inner strength people find when they are wobbling at their edge. I wasn’t sure if it would work – but it did!
I’m not saying that my change in style is to something better – it is just something different. A ‘busking style show’ is an equally valuable part of the outdoor arts landscape as an ‘arts festival style show’- and both are needed. There were powerful feminist and body positive messages underpinning the tricks in my previous work, with a focus on connecting and uplifting the widest possible range of people.
Where I once centred the tricks, STRONG ENOUGH centres the stories. I wondered if I could use the physical strength and struggle of circus skills to reveal the inner strength and struggle of stories about real life. I made a rule in creating STRONG ENOUGH that I couldn’t decide on what tricks were going in the show and then build the show around them. I had to start with what the stories in the show would be, then discover the circus skills that would illustrate those stories best. As a larger woman over 40 I was learning handstands, acrobatic flow choreography, object manipulation and how to balance a heavy plank on my face. This felt like a risk.
"Outdoor arts is where my heart is. The diversity of people you can reach in outdoor spaces is so much greater. I love the game of turning a patch of concrete into a stage, and passers-by into an audience."
I asked a wide range of people to tell me about a time when they were strong, beyond lifting heavy things. Sometimes their stories were about an epic moment of triumph or change, but mostly they were stories of everyday persistence, determination, and resilience. I collected audio recordings of their stories, which formed the heart of the show.
When I told people about this idea, overwhelmingly the feedback was that this was an idea for a theatre show – that it wouldn’t work outdoors. So initially I did make a theatre show – POWER – but I was still determined to also make an outdoor show. Outdoor arts is where my heart is. The diversity of people you can reach in outdoor spaces is so much greater. I love the game of turning a patch of concrete into a stage, and passers-by into an audience.
For STRONG ENOUGH I simplified the multiple threads of POWER down to a single line of thought – without reducing the complexity or vulnerability in any of the stories I told. I worked to find creative ways to keep opening the door wider to allow more people into the journey of the show. I amplified the physicality of the show, ensuring that there was always a strong visual element to every story. As people can arrive throughout the show, I added moments to clarify what was going on, which also supported younger audiences to stay engaged.
It continues to be strange for me not to have a big, loud, invincible show – but the impact that STRONG ENOUGH has had on people fuels me onwards. Many people came up to me after shows, to tell stories of how strong they are in their lives – and I hope they have carried on telling them since.
I pride myself on being independent: I am a self producing freelance artist, a solo performer, a woman who travels the world on her own. I could not, however, have succeeded in what I was trying to do here without support.
"There were times where I was genuinely not sure if what I was trying to do would work"
Creating POWER and STRONG ENOUGH I worked with funding for the first time. STRONG ENOUGH was supported by the Without Walls Consortium, with key partners Hat Fair and Just So. POWER was a commission of The Lowry with the Lawrence Batley Theatre and supported by Arts Council England (ACE). The initial research for the two shows was part of an Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice funded project. Various venues and partners supported each phase of this work by providing creation space, and I had invaluable mentoring from Outdoor Arts UK, Ockham’s Razor and Turtle Key Arts.
There were times where I was genuinely not sure if what I was trying to do would work, but this funding gave me the safety net to take bigger risks. More importantly, funding meant that I was able to employ a creative team. Their collaboration is what enabled me to figure out how to make it work – to evolve.
I was attempting to expand my physical vocabulary and develop a new creative process for these shows, funding allowed me to work with collaborators and coaches including: Charlotte Mooney from Ockham’s Razor (the director for STRONG ENOUGH), Emma Bernard (the director for POWER), Complicite, Spy Monkey, Matt Eaton (composer for both shows) and various circus coaches.
As 2021 draws to a close, I look back on the rollercoaster of the last few years and I am proud of what I have been able to achieve – but mostly I am hugely grateful for all the ways I have been supported by people and organisations. Wonderfully I have recently begun working as a mentor and collaborator in other people’s work… and so the wheel keeps turning.
I am looking forward to the quiet and stillness of the winter to recover from this big journey and dream up what is next. I hope you all have exciting ideas to play with, and all the support you need to make them happen.
About the Author
With a playful combination of astounding strength, surprising elegance & skilful comedy Strong Lady Productions creates work that brings people together to celebrate how different we all are. Originally from Australia and now based in the UK, Charmaine has toured to outdoor arts festivals, events, variety shows and theatres in 22 countries, performing in 6 languages since 2002.
As ‘Betty Brawn’ in her solo show STRONG LADY she has toured internationally for a decade now. She is a skilful comedienne and circus performer, with a warm and respectful style of audience participation. As an acrobatic base Charmaine has collaborated on various projects: LEAP (2014-16), Mimbre’s ‘Falling Up’ (2012), ‘Barcelona’ with Mario Queen of the Circus (2007-continuing) and Tutti Frutti.