Wheels, work ethics, and striving for simplicity: The Mill at #68 artsdepot

A circus show about people’s relationship to work, aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor are coming to the end of their tour of The Mill. I spoke to Charlotte Mooney and Alex Harvey, two of the company’s three artistic directors, about audience responses and their own personal labours. Currently company in residence at North London’s artsdepot, Ockham’s Razor have toured The Mill throughout both Europe and the UK.

In devising The Mill, Ockham’s Razor was fuelled by a curiosity surrounding the modern synonym of ‘redundancy’ for ‘unemployment’. ‘That’s a new shift in terms of language’, Mooney explains. ‘A very culturally important shift because it means that when you lose your work you don’t have a role in society’. The equipment built for this show, a ‘human hamster wheel’, physically links the performers together and shows them actively working. ‘Once [the wheel] falls apart and when someone no longer has a function within that system, what happens to them?’

Ockham’s Razor design new equipment for every show they create – and they’re by no means work shy. When I ask about their interaction with a design team, Harvey wryly comments ‘There isn’t anyone else’. Aside from a costumer adviser, some artistic input from their co-performers Steve Ryan and Stefano Di Renzo, and an outside eye from Toby Sedgewick (director of movement for War Horse) they’re a completely autonomous machine. ‘The process you go through in making the work really influences the outcome’, says Harvey. ‘There was a lot of physical building, struggling with rigging the equipment, and sanding. There was a lot of hard work in the creation process, and I think that shows’. They’ve also performed outside, including in Paternoster Square, by the entrance to the London Stock Exchange.  ‘That was quite an incredible thing to perform,’ tells Mooney, ‘because there’s a bit at the end where you spin round and can just see the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral doing 360. Quite a lot of the bankers were coming out and passing by and wondering what it was about. Essentially it’s a piece about systems breaking down, and how the people working within them try to rebuild them if they can. It was very relevant, and quite a few of them came out in their lunch breaks to watch the show’.

Unlike other circus performers, Ockham’s Razor are not concerned with exhibiting the spectacular, or with hiding the difficulty of their work. ‘We wanted to show that it hurts, that it’s hard, that you sweat and it’s repetitive’, Mooney says bluntly. Not afraid of manual labour, the company manage frequent seven hour get in times, ‘lifting heavy truss, banging it together, and putting up wheels’. When I cast aspersions about the integrity of other circus-theatre that has been made recently, both are very generous about the work of other companies. ‘The confusion arises’, Harvey suggests, ‘when you establish a character in a situation or in a world and then that person does a circus routine. There is a pretence set up and then forgotten. That annoys a lot of people. I think it’s because it feels like it weakens both art forms’. Despite its complexity and intensity, neither Mooney nor Harvey is egotistical about the specialism of their work. ‘How people feel about their work and their role is universal to any job. It’s because we’re telling it in a physical way using movement that it’s best served by doing physical, laborious work. The metaphor should hold for any job, even if you’re just sitting at a desk thinking’.

Although there’s a strong story in the work they produce, they don’t limit the devising process to finding a way of telling one particular story. Their theatre is object-led, and they start from a piece of equipment:

CM: What we do is look at all the images we can make not being driven by a theme. We discovered that four people could sit on the wheel [in The Mill], and that it could become a Ferris wheel. Being able to let go of the intellectual side of things gives you fresh ground, and you come up with things that surprise you, with images that aren’t necessarily logical.

AH: In discovering our process, we’ve made loads of mistakes. We’ve made equipment that doesn’t promote movement. We’ve also tried to go against the natural tendencies of a piece of equipment and do things that it doesn’t necessarily want to have done on it, because we’re trying to pursue a story idea. We struggled to surrender to the natural linear progression of knowing that this is the equipment and this is the story it wants to tell.

Rather than seeing circus as obstructive to the telling of an accessible narrative, Ockham’s Razor believe the opposite. A large proportion of their following is made up of children, and often those with disabilities:

CM: The metaphors can be quite deep and quite nuanced, but there’s a clear narrative you can just understand, because it’s very bold and very straightforward.

A: A large element of our work depends on the reality of the situation: you’re actually up there hanging and the peril situation is obvious to anyone. It’s sort of universally accessible because it’s so honest.

In a co-project with Oily Cart, Ockham’s Razor produced a show for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. With the senses as a focal point, the company began to focus more on atmospheres, and learnt to stop over-thinking. ‘Because of the kind of company we are’, says Harvey, ‘we created a very complex story, which turned out to be completely irrelevant. It was really about the bouncing and the swinging’. This experience has fuelled the early stage development of a new show, which will look at the relationship of proximity and perspective to aerial. Although there are no firm, or at least verbally articulated plans for it as yet, there’s a sense of trust and mutual understanding about the direction in which they want to go.

AH: We haven’t started. We don’t know very much about [the new show] yet. We don’t know very much about it yet. We’re thinking that the performers will be amongst the audience, and vice versa.  It’s good to be that vague at the beginning of a research period. If you have a story in your head, it can be very very difficult…

CM:…to let that story go.

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