Actor Abbie Purvis is sitting in what looks like the outline of a harp, suspended by a rope from the ceiling, as she’s lifted a couple of metres into the air.
“I’m holding on for dear life,” she jokes, though a fall would certainly result in a nasty injury. Yet she looks completely comfortable, rehearsing a scene with fellow performer Dominic Owen, before twirling around in the harp once she’s lowered down. Next, she’s walking on a tightrope, raised about a foot above the ground. Did I mention she’s singing at the same time?
Rewind 10 months, and Purvis couldn’t do any of this. Although already a confident musical theatre performer with a few pantomimes to her name, she had never performed circus before. Still, after being cast in a leading role in the upcoming production Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror, she was quickly put through her paces with a number of circus tricks, aerial harp and tightrope included. “It’s been eventful, for sure,” says a smiling Purvis when we sit down afterwards. “I had no circus skills whatsoever, so I’ve just been chucked in at the deep end!” She wasn’t the only one: Purvis’s co-star Owen had to train up for his part, with a wire set up in his garden.
“It was very much a thing where I said yes, and then figured it out afterwards,” he says.
I meet Purvis and Owen in early February at the Bristol Old Vic, where this show – which combines musical theatre and circus – opens before going on tour. What can we expect? The co-director Billy Alwen – who is also an artistic director at the inclusive circus troupe Extraordinary Bodies, one of the show’s producers – promises that the show will “be vibrant, will be exciting, but also telling elements of a really dark story”. That much is clear from the synopsis: set in 1933 Nazi Germany, the show follows the lives of Waldo (Garry Robson) and his eclectic circus troupe of deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers, which is being reflected in the real-life cast.
As the outside world gets ever darker, a romance blossoms between Krista (Purvis), the star of the circus, and Gerhard (Owen), a member of the Nazi party. While the circus troupe itself is fictional, the show takes an unflinching look at the Nazis’ persecution of disabled people, with the play set in the same year as a law was passed by the party legalising their forced sterilisation. In total, an estimated 250,000 disabled people were murdered under the Nazi regime.
It was a few years ago when playwright Hattie Naylor began working on the script, after watching Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, about a fictional American circus troupe that included disabled performers. The film, she says, was “really pivotal and seminal, in that the disabled people in that show are portrayed as heroes”. Naylor initially planned to write a play based on Freaks, but was unable to secure the rights. Instead, she decided to research traveling circuses in Nazi Germany, inspired by the stories she came across. She found, for example, that some disabled performers were smuggled to safety out of the country via circus networks.
This historical research informed her script, with Extraordinary Bodies’ Jamie Beddard brought on as a co-writer a couple of weeks in, incorporating his own perspectives as a disabled person. “In Waldo’s Circus, the skills rather than physicality or appearance of our performers are highlighted,” says Beddard. “The differing perceptions of ‘freaks’, whether othering or reclaiming, is inevitably part of Waldo’s Circus and inherent to the experience of disability. However, this is peripheral rather than central to our story.” The show, he says, is a “warning of what can happen, really easily”. With the play set during the Holocaust, a Jewish advisory group has been consulted throughout the process and helped to develop the script.
The production also features an original score by the composer Charles Hazlewood, artistic director of Paraorchestra, an orchestra of professional disabled and non-disabled musicians. “It brings elements of punk, it brings elements of funk, it brings elements of disco,” says Alwen of the score. “So it is very eclectic.” Drummer Jonny Leitch adds: “We’re gonna have a lot of synths and chaos!”
Leitch, an accomplished aerialist, also stars as trapeze artist Renée, who is disabled and queer. For disabled performers such as Leitch and Purvis, the production is of personal significance. “Me and Abbie [Purvis] have talked in the past of [how] we both had exactly the same experience of half a sentence in history class in school being our disabled history,” he says. “That’s it. And it was a very throwaway, kind of weird line.” Waldo’s Circus, he says, presents “the opportunity to tell that, and give weight to these characters, but honestly there is so much inspiration from – there has to be so much inspiration – from real life”.
For that reason, it has been difficult, too. “Just doing research, and going through some of the scenes, it’s hard – we really want an audience to get that,” Leitch continues. It is, he says, “my history, not from the 1930s, this is my history in parts from way later, even now”.
When it comes to disabled history, Purvis says, “no one ever speaks about it”. There was also a personal connection to her character. “What drove me to the project was the relationship between Krista and Gerhard,” she says. “Because I come from a mum who was small, and a dad who was average height. And, it’s like, that story has never been told.” Purvis hopes that audiences seeing diverse relationships on stage will mean “it’s gonna become normal if you see it, so it’s fun to be part of that”. Owen, meanwhile, hopes “it challenges audiences to think differently, and get rid of any stigma that they might have, and just strip everything back because it’s a human story, and it’s passionate and beautiful”.
The experiences of disabled and non-disabled performers have also informed the production. For the co-director Claire Hodgson, also co-founder of Extraordinary Bodies, this collaboration is key to ensuring “that multitude of experience” which, she says, is needed to “really make sure that what we’re saying is authentic and true. People aren’t there only as performers, they’re there as people with lived experience of the identities that we’re portraying. So that people can say: ‘This doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t feel true.’ There are Jewish artists, there are disabled artists, there are deaf artists.”
This awareness extends to the set itself: for example, Purvis’s aerial harp and Leitch’s trapeze were made bespoke to suit the performers’ needs. All performances will be “chilled”, so audience members can leave for breaks or the toilet, along with being BSL interpreted, captioned and audio described. “If you want your audience to reflect the diversity on stage, you have to reflect that back to your audience,” adds Alwen. “If we want to change who accesses these buildings, who sees this work, you also have to make those changes on stage or else people won’t see the work as being relevant.”
What does Purvis want people to take away from the show? “For the audience to witness something that isn’t necessarily ever told,” she says.
For his part, writer Beddard wants to highlight the skills of disabled people and what they can bring to the stage. “I’ve always been keen on shining light into the shadows – and disabled people, their talents and stories are often confined to the shadows,” he says. “Art should be about exploring new perspectives, so those previously marginalised are in the box seat to deliver.” In the end, he hopes it will be an enthralling evening that prompts the audience to reflect: “I am keen the audience are entertained and provoked. Provoked to think afresh about the themes of the shows, the talents before them and, ultimately, the world we all coexist in.”
Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror is at Bristol Old Vic, 11 March to 1 April; touring to 7 June.