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The challenges of designing for the floor and air in The Ramshackle House

We talk to the designer of Upswing's new circus production for families


The Ramshackle House is an invitation to find the balance between our needs and our dreams in a forever changing world. A small rickety space is enough for one, but what happens when it has to become a home for two and then three? It is a story about how we adapt and make space for other people, especially when the world seems like it's trying to unbalance you.

I was involved in the very early stages of creation. Our first R&D was with a group of children at Stratford Circus in East London. We played some games and asked them to draw the most important thing in a house, to think of objects and emotions and place them in different rooms. This process was invaluable in discovering what said 'home' – as opposed to house - to them. From very young children to much older ones, the families we spoke with came from all over the world, providing us with universal perspectives.

For the second development, the composer and lighting designer joined us and we studied the children's drawings with director Vicki Amedume. A recurring image in all the drawings was a roof and chimney. This became the starting point for the design.

I started putting the set model together at the third R&D back in Stratford. We played with steel deck to create a life-size mock-up and to test the gradients of the roof as a performance space for the acrobats. What was important at this stage was to create enough space not only on the floor but also in the air for the development of the storytelling. Two out of the three pieces of circus equipment needed space in the air for choreographic movement.

With no text in the show, the design has to accommodate the choreography and each element of the set including the bespoke aerial apparatus. It is really important to consider the placing of such elements to balance functionality and beauty at the same time. Circus is all about the relationship of bodies with objects and how they interact. Safety needs to work with aesthetics and support the narrative and the physicality of the performers. It was really interesting working with Vicki and lighting designer Daniella Beattie, watching them adjust light levels for the performers' individual and ensemble pieces whilst keeping the aesthetic of the overall vision. It's been a real collaborative creative journey.

I have now teamed up with Upswing on three productions. The first, Red Shoes was designed for outdoors. The second, Bedtime Stories, was also in the round but for indoor spaces. It is a really unique experience being involved at the conceptual stage of the creation of a new piece where the human body is so integral to the storytelling. The design needs to support the visual narrative, the choreography and the safety, not only of those who inhabit the stage but of those who come to watch the performance.

Both The Ramshackle House and Bedtimes Stories immerse the audience in a connected world that heightens the overall experience before the show starts. I have found some common themes in all three shows, they create a sense of the magical but remain relevant to the modern world and invite the audience to reflect on their own lives… Long may the magic continue!

The Ramshackle House runs at Stratford Circus until 24 December 2017.