Tag Archives: circus

Vesturport’s Woyzeck | A Case Study

Case Study: Vesturport’s Woyzeck

The challenge of re-imagining a classic work often lies in finding the right translation of ideas, concepts, and imagery for a modern context. Classic pieces of theatre carry many pieces of baggage to the production process: their history, the stories of their past incarnations, the lives of famous actors and actresses who performed in starring roles, the interpretation of their designers, and all the flotsam and jetsam that might be found with any single production of the piece in question. A classic work, therefore, is not just the text of the author but a historical thread that traces the line of the work from its origin to its current manifestation. The question that must be addressed in the remounting of a classic work is, why: why this classic work, why now, why does this play matter more than any other?

In 2008 Iceland’s Vesturport theatre company presented their re-imagining of Büchner’s Woyzeck, a work about class, status, and madness. Written between 1836 – 1837, Büchner’s play tells the story of Woyzeck, a lowly soldier stationed in a German town. He lives with Marie, with whom he has had a child. For extra pay Woyzeck performs odd jobs for the captain and is involved in medical experiments for the Doctor. Over the course of the play’s serialized vignettes Woyzeck’s grasp on the world begins to break apart as the result of his confrontation with an ugly world of betrayal and abuse. The end of the play is a jealous, psychologically crippled, and cuckolded Woyzeck who ruthlessly lures Marie to the pond in the woods where he kills her. There is some debate about the actual ending to Büchner’s play. While the version that is most frequently produced has a Woyzeck who is unpunished, there is some speculation that one version of the play ended with the lead character facing a trial for his crime. As a historical note, Büchner’s work is loosely based upon the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a wigmaker, who murdered the window with whom he lived. Tragically, Büchner’s died in 1837 from typhus and never saw Woyzeck performed. It wasn’t, in fact, performed until 1913. In this respect, Woyzeck has always been a play that is performed outside of its original time in history. It has always been a window backwards to a different time, while simultaneously being a means for the theatre to examine the time in which it is being produced.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in 2008 a play offering a commentary on the complex social conditions of class and status opens in a country standing at the edge of a financial crisis that would come to shape the next three years of its economic standing in the world. A play about the use and misuse of power in a world where a desperate Woyzeck tries to explain to a bourgeoisie captain that the poor are “flesh and blood… wretched in this world and the next…” (Büchner) rings as a warning about what that corner of the world was soon to face.

The Response to Vesturport’s Aesthetic

From the moment of its formation, Vesturport has been a company that often appropriates material and looks to add an additional element of spectacle – early in their formation as a troupe they mounted productions of Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus. This additional element of spectacle is specifically characterized by a gymnastic and aerial (contemporary circus) aesthetic. The company’s connection to a circus aesthetic is often credited to Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s, the company’s primary director, background as a gymnast (Vesturport). The use of circus as a mechanism for story telling is both compelling and engaging. Peta Tait captures this best as she talks about what circus represents:

Circus performance presents artistic and physical displays of skillful action by highly rehearsed bodies that also perform cultural ideas: of identity, spectacle, danger, transgression. Circus is performative, making and remaking itself as it happens. Its languages are imaginative, entertaining and inventive, like other art forms, but circus is dominated by bodies in action [that] can especially manipulate cultural beliefs about nature, physicality and freedom. (Tait 6)

The very nature of circus as a performance technique, therefore, brings a kind of translation to Vesturport’s work that is unlike the work of other theatre companies. They are also unique in their use of language, as their productions frequently feature translations that fit the dominant language of a given touring venue. More than a company that features the use of circus as a gimmick, Vesturport uses the body’s relationship to space as a translation of ideas into movement, just as their use of language itself is a constant flow of translation.

Vesturport’s production of Woyzeck invites the audience to play with them as “Gardarsson’s gleefully physical staging of Büchner’s masterpiece … is played out on an industrial set of gleaming pipes, green astroturf, and water-filled plexiglass tanks” (Vesturport). Melissa Wong, in writing for Theatre Journal sees a stage that “resembled a swimming pool and playground” that fills the stage with a “playful illusion.” The playful atmosphere of the production, however, is always in flux as a series of nightmarish moments of abuse are juxtaposed against scenes of slapstick comedy and aerial feats. Wong later sees a Woyzeck who “possessed a vulnerability that contrasted with the deliberately grotesque portrayals of the other characters.” Wong’s ultimate assessment of the contrasting moments of humor and spectacle is that they “served to emphasize the pathos of the play, especially at the end when the fun and frolicking faded away to reveal the broken man that Woyzeck had become.” Not all American critics, however, shared her enthusiasm for Vesturport’s production. Charles Isherwood in writing for the New York Times sees the use of circus as a distraction, writing that, “the circus is never in serious danger of being spoiled by that party-pooping Woyzeck…it’s hard to fathom what attracted these artists to Büchner’s deeply pessimistic play, since they so blithely disregard both its letter and its spirit.” Jason Best shares a similar frustration with the production, writing “by relegating Büchner’s words to second place, the production ends up more impressive as spectacle than effective as drama.” Ethan Stanislawski was frustrated by a lack of depth in Gardarsson’s production saying “this Woyzeck is as comical, manic, and intentionally reckless as it is intellectually shallow.”

Circus as an Embodied Language

Facing such sharp criticism, why does this Icelandic company use circus as a method for interrogating text? Certainly one might consider the mystique of exploring new dimensions of theatricality, or notions of engaging the whole body in performance. While these are certainly appealing suggestions, there is more to the idea of circus as a physical manifestation of idea. Facing such sharp criticism, why does this Icelandic company use circus as a method for interrogating text? Certainly one might consider the mystique of exploring new dimensions of theatricality, or notions of engaging the whole body in performance. While these are certainly appealing suggestions, there is more to the idea of circus as a physical manifestation of idea. Tait writes “… aerial acts are created by trained, muscular, bodies. These deliver a unique aesthetic that blends athleticism and artistic expression. As circus bodies, they are indicative of highly developed cultural behavior. The ways in which spectators watch performers’ bodies – broadly, socially, physical and erotically – come to the fore with the wordless performance of an aerial act.” Spivak reminds us that:

Logic allows us to jump from word to word by means of clearly indicated connections. Rhetoric must work in the silence between and around words in order to see what works and how much. The jagged relationship between rhetoric and logic, condition and effect of knowing, is a relationship by which a world is made for the agent, so that the agent can act in an ethical way, a political way, a day-to-day way; so that the agent can be alive in a human way, in the world. (Spivak 181)

Woyzeck’s challenge is fundamentally about understanding how to live in this world. A world that is unjust, frequently characterized by subjugation, and exploitative. Gardarsson uses circus to depict a world that is both ugly and beautiful. He uses circus to call our attention to these problems as embodied manifestation. The critics miss what’s happening in the production, and this is especially evident when looking at what Tait has to say the role of new circus as a medium:

New circus assumes its audience is familiar with the format of traditional live circus, and then takes its artistic inspiration from a cultural idea of circus as identity transgression and grotesque abjection, most apparent in literature [and] in cinema. Early [new circus in the 1990’s] shows reflected a trend in new circus practice to include queer sexual identities and expand social ideas of freakish bodies. Artistic representation frequently exaggerates features of traditional circus…. (Tait 123)

What Isherwood misses is that the use of garish spectacle that makes light of an ugly world is, in fact, at the very heart of what Gardarsson is trying to express. The working-poor Woyzeck who questions, and thinks, and is criticized for thinking is ruining the Captain and the Doctor’s circus-filled party. Woyzeck’s tragedy lies in his fight to survive, to be human, in the inhuman world that surrounds him – what could be more “deeply pessimistic” (as Isherwood calls it) than a vision of the world where fighting to be human drives a man to destroy the only anchor to the world (Marie) that he ever had?


Melissa Wong best sums up the production in seeing the tragedy in a Woyzeck “who seemed in some ways to be the most humane character in the production…the one who failed to survive.” Her assessment of Gardarsson’s use of levity is that it points “to the complicity of individuals [the audience] who, as part of society, had watched Woyzeck’s life as entertainment without fully empathizing with the depth of his existential crisis” (Wong). She also rightly points out that the use of humor in the play “enabled us to access questions that in the bleakness of their full manifestation might have been too much to bear” (Wong). Tait also reminds us that the true transformative nature of circus as a medium is not what is happening with the performer, but how the experience of viewing the performer is manifest in the viewer.

Aerial motion and emotion produce sensory encounters; a spectator fleshes culturally identifiable motion, emotionally. The action of musical power creates buoyant and light motion, which corresponds with reversible body phenomenologies in the exaltation of transcendence with and of sensory experience. The aerial body mimics the sensory motion of and within lived bodies in performance of delight, joy, exhilaration, and elation. Aerial bodies in action seem ecstatic in their fleshed liveness. (Tait 152)

Here circus functions as a mechanism for translation and confrontation in a play whose thematic elements are difficult to grapple with. Vesturport’s method and execution look to find the spaces between words, and while not perfect, strive to push the audience into a fleshed and lived experience of Büchner’s play rather than a purely intellectual theatrical exercise.

Works Cited

Büchner, Georg. Woyzeck. Trans. Eric Bentley. New York: Samuel French, 1991.

Best, Jason.”Woyzeck | Review.” 14 October 2005. The Stage. The Stage Meida Company Limited. 3 October 2013 <www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/10047/woyzeck>.

Isherwood, Charles. Outfitting Woyzeck With a Pair of Rose-Colored Glasses. 17 October 2008. 2 October 2013 <theater.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/theater/reviews/17woyz.html>.

Pareles, Jon. “Shaking Up ‘Woyzeck’ With early Rock and Flying Trapeze.” 13 October 2008. The New York Times. <www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/arts/music/14cave.html?_r=2&scp=1&sq=woyzeck&st=cse&oref=slogin&>.

Richarsdon, Stan. Woyzec nytheatre.com review. 15 October 2008. The new York Theatre Experience. 2 October 2013 <www.nytheatre.com/Review/stan-richardson-2008-10-15-woyzeck>.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Stanislawski, Ethan. Theatre Review (NYC): Woyzeck by George Buchner at UNDER St. Marks and BAM. 21 October 2008. 4 October 2013 <blogcritics.org/theater-review-nyc-woyzeck-by-georg/>.

Tait, Peta. Circus Bodies: Cultural Idenity in Aerial Performance. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Thielman, Sam. Review: “Woyzeck”. 16 October 2008. 5 October 2013 <http://variety.com/2008/legit/reviews/woyzeck-3-1200471537/>.

Vesturport. Woyzeck by Georg Buchner | A Vesturport and Reykavik City Theatre production. 15 Janruary 2000. 7 October 2013 <http://vesturport.com/theater/woyzeck-georg-buchner/>.

Wong, Melisa Wansin. “Woyzeck (review).” Theatre Journal 61.4 (2009): 638-640.

Woyzeck. Dir. Gisli Örn Gardarsson. Vesturport. Vesturport and Reykjavik City Threatre. Vesturport, 2009.

Lessons from the Road

You need a tech rider.

Better yet, you need a tech rider with diagrams, specific dimensions, and clear expectations.

In early June I was traveling with my partner, Lauren Breunig, to an aerial acrobatics festival in Denver, Colorado. Lauren is an incredibly beautiful and talented aerialist. One of the apparatuses that she performs on is what she calls “sliding trapeze.” This is essentially a trapeze bar with fabric loops instead of ropes.

Earlier this year Lauren was invited to perform at the Aerial Acrobatics Arts Festival of Denver as a performer in their “innovative” category. As an aerialist Lauren has already in many venues across the country, both on her invented apparatus as well as on more traditional circus equipment. In all of these cases she’s had to submit information about her apparatus, clearance requirements, and possible safety concerns.

So when it came time to answer some questions about rigging for the festival it seemed like old hat. One of the many things that Lauren had to submit was her height requirements for her bar provided that a truss was being suspended somewhere between 27 and 29 feet from the floor of the stage. In her case the height of the truss less critical than the height for her bar. In her case, the minimum distance from the floor to the rigging points is 15.5 feet. At this height her apparatus is high enough off of the ground that she can safely perform all of her choreography. This is also the lower limit of a height where she can jump to her bar unaided. Where this gets tricky is how one makes up the difference between the required rigging points and the height of the truss. The festival initially indicated that they would drop steel cable to make up the differences between required heights and the height of the truss, making it seems as though the performers only needed to worry about bringing their apparatus.

When we dropped off Lauren’s equipment we discovered that the realities of the rigging were slightly different than what the email correspondence had indicated would be the case. The truss had been set at a height of 27 feet, but the festival was no longer planning on dropping any cables for performers. Additionally they told us that they only had limited access to span sets and other equipment for making up the height difference. Luckily Lauren had packed some additional span sets, and had thought through some solutions that used some webbing (easily available from REI) to make up any discrepancies that might come up. This also, unfortunately, made her second guess the specs she had sent to the festival originally, and left her wondering if she had accurately determined the correct heights for her apparatus.

Memory Measurements

Having rigged and re-rigged this apparatus in numerous venues, Lauren had a strong sense of how her equipment worked with ceilings less than 20 feet. This also meant that she had didn’t have any fixed heights, and had instead lots of numbers bouncing around her head – one venue was rigged at 15.5 feet, but the ceiling was really at 17 feet; another the beams were at 22 or 23 feet, and the apparatus had been rigged at heights between 15.5 and 17 feet; and so on and so on. Additionally she typically rigs her own equipment, and has is therefore able to make specific adjustments based on what she’s seeing and feeling in a given space. For the festival, this wasn’t a possibility. So, after the miscommunication about the rigging situation and suddenly feeling insecure about the measurements she sent ahead we suddenly found ourselves talking through memories of other venues and trying to determine what height she actually needed.

Reverse engineering heights

We started by first talking through previous rigged situations – how high were the beams, how long is the apparatus, how far off the ground was she. Part of the challenge here was that this particular apparatus hangs at two different lengths because the fabric ropes stretch. This means that without a load it’s at a different distance from the floor than with a load. While this isn’t a huge difference, it’s enough to prevent her from being able to jump to her bar if it’s rigged too high or to put her in potential danger of smashing her feet if it’s rigged too low. While there were several things we knew, it was difficult to arrive at a hard and fast number with so many variables that were unknown or a range.

Drawing it out

Ultimately what helped the most was sitting down and drawing out some of the distances and heights. While this was far from perfect, it did finally give us some reference points to point to rather than just broadly talk through. A diagram goes a long way to providing a concrete representation of what you’re talking about, and it’s worth remembering the real value in this process. It meant that were were suddenly able to talk about things that we knew, only remembered, or guessed. This processes, however, still didn’t solve all of the problems Lauren was facing. We still had some questions about the wiggle room in our half-remembered figures, and making sure that she would be rigged at a height that was both safe and visually impressive. Finally, after an hour of drawing, talking, and drawing again we got to a place where we were reasonably confident about how she might proceed the next day. In thinking about this process, I realized that we could have made our lives a lot easier if we had done a little more homework before coming to the festival.

What she really needed

A Diagram

A complete drawing of the distances, apparatus, performer, rigging range, and artist-provided equipment would have made a lot of this easier. While the rigging process went without a hitch once she was in the theater, being able to send a drawing of what her apparatus looked like and how it needed to be rigged would have but as at ease and ensured that all parties were on the same page. A picture codifies concepts that might otherwise be difficult to communicate, and in our case this would have been a huge help.

A Fuller tech rider

While Lauren did send a Tech Rider with her submission, it occurred to us that a fuller tech rider would- have helped the festival, and it would have helped us. When dealing with an apparatus that she had to jump to reach, it would have been helpful for us to know exactly how high she could jump. There’s also a sweet spot that’s not too high for this apparatus, but where Lauren still needs a boost to reach the bar; this would have been another helpful range to have already known. While we have a reasonable amount of rigging materials, there’s also some equipment that we don’t have. Specifying what we plan to provide, or can provide with adequate notice would have been helpful inclusions in the conversation she was having with the festival. In hindsight, some of the statements that should have been added to her rider include:

  • the artist can jump for heights of
  • the artist needs assistance for heights
  • the artist will provide rigging for
  • the artist requires confirmation by

What does this have to do with projectors?

Let’s face it, tech riders are not the most exciting part of the production world. That said, by failing to specify what you need and what you are planning on providing it’s easy to suddenly be in a compromising position. While the consequences are different for an aerialist vs. a projectionist, the resulting slow-down in the tech process, or the need to reconfigure some portion of performance are very real concerns. The closer you are to a process or installation, the more difficult it becomes to really see all of the moving parts. Our exposure to any complicated process creates blind spots in the areas that we’ve automated, set-up once, or take for granted simply because they seem factual and straightforward. These are the privileges, and pitfalls, of working with the same equipment or apparatus for extended periods of time – we become blind to our assumptions about our process. Truly, this is the only way to work with a complicated system. At some point, some portion of the process becomes automated in our minds or in our practice in order to facilitate higher order problem solving. Once my projectors are hung and focused, I don’t think about the lensing when I’m trying to solve a programming problem.

While this may well be the case when you’re on your home turf, it’s another thing entirely to think about setting up shop somewhere new. When thinking about a new venue, it becomes imperative to look at your process with eyes divorced from your regular practice, and to instead think about how someone with unfamiliar eyes might look at your work. That isn’t to say that those eyes don’t have any experience, just that they’re fresh to your system / apparatus. In this way it might be useful to think of the tech rider as a kind of pre-flight checklist. Pilots have long known that there are simply too many things to remember when looking over a plane before take-off. Instead, they rely on check-lists to ensure that everything gets examined. Even experienced pilots rely on these checklists, and even obvious items get added to the list.

Knowing your equipment

Similarly, it’s not enough to just “know” your equipment. While intuition can be very useful, it’s also desperately important to have documentation of your actual specifications – what are the actual components of your machine, what are your software version numbers, how much power do you need, etc. There are always invisible parts of our equipment that are easy to take for granted, and it’s these elements that are truly important to think about when you’re setting up in a new venue. Total certainty may well be a pipe-dream, but it isn’t impractical to take a few additional steps to ensure that you’re ready to tackle any problems that may arise.

Packing your Bags

The real magic of this comes down to packing your bags. A solid rider, and an inventory of your system will cover most of your bases but good packing is going to save you. Finding room for that extra roll of gaff tape, or that extra power strip, or that USB mouse may mean that it takes you longer or that you travel one bag heavier but it will also mean a saved trip once you’re at the theatre. Including an inventory in your bags may seem like a pain, but it also means that you have a quick reference to know what you brought with you. It also means that when you’re in the heat of strike you know exactly what goes where. Diagrams and lists may not be the sexiest part of the work we do, but they do mean saved time and fewer headaches. At the end of the day, a few saved hours may mean a few more precious hours of sleep, or better yet a chance to grab a drink after a long day.