Libby McDonnell on Circa’s Peepshow and designing costumes for storytelling

What happens when Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and Circa, the internationally renowned Brisbane-based circus company, join forces and plan for 2020? They transform the Cremorne Theatre into sparkle mode and present Circa’s captivating Peepshow (a circus show just for grown-ups) out of QPAC for the first time.

Ela Bartilomo, Lachlan Sukroo and Billie Wilson-Coffey in Peepshow. Photo by Darren Thomas

Following a world premiere in Australia in 2018, Peepshow, became the talk of Berlin with a sell-out six-month season at The Chamäeleon Theatre. Circa’s Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz shared that the company had enjoyed success internationally with Peepshow and is excited to bring this acclaimed production to Brisbane this summer where audiences can expect teetering towers of balanced bodies, extreme bending and devilishly precarious aerials. “Peepshow combines some of the finest acrobatic talent on the planet to create a playfully exhilarating ride into the beautifully bizarre recesses of your mind,” he said.

QPAC Chief Executive, John Kotzas said the Centre’s longstanding relationship with Circa has ensured Queensland audiences are connected in new ways to the powerful contemporary circus artform. “Circa is recognised for delivering extraordinary arts experiences and showcasing the best of Australian contemporary circus. In the past 12 months, Circa has performed in some of the world’s premier theatres including the Barbican, Philharmonie de Paris, Palau de la Música, Barcelona and the Lincoln Center and we are honoured to welcome unique works to QPAC and Circa’s home city of Brisbane,” said Mr Kotzas.

Prior to the Brisbane opening of Circa’s Peepshow, I spoke with Libby McDonnell who juggles the roles of Associate Director and Costume Designer for Circa. Libby has been touring with the show since 2018, after first designing the costumes when it was created back in 2017. We chatted about presenting Peepshow to her hometown of Brisbane, the joy she still experiences from costume design and her upcoming milestone of 10 years of costume designing with Circa.

I discovered that McDonnell’s path to costume design was not straightforward, and did not even begin as a clear goal for her, as many of us in the arts will relate. She studied various forms of design including architecture and fashion, together with performance, but it was not until a chance opportunity presented itself that she discovered her passion for costume design. McDonnell found she had a vessel for telling stories, which had been her desire all along. In this form of design she found the connection she had been searching for.

Libby McDonnell, Associate Director and Costume Designer, Circa

McDonnell mentioned to me the happy coincidence of her first-ever costume design for Circa being for a family show at QPAC, and now here she is again. The ten years of experience with the company doesn’t prevent the teetering between terror and excitement of presenting Peepshow to her hometown she is currently experiencing. I ask her to talk more about this, and she describes it as an opportunity to share her achievements, including the journey to costume designing and the career that has followed with her hometown community. This includes the friend who gave her the wise counsel to try costume design in the first place. McDonnell expresses the level of emotion she is feeling is more than she carried for the huge-scale production The Part, that Circa created in London. 

Circa aims to engage with the humanity of their audience while challenging their perspectives.  This is no small feat. One of the ways they achieve this is with their storylines. Peepshow in particular examines the act of seeing and being seen. McDonnell explains that the show is built around two acts, with a clear pivot in act two. Watching is something we readily do as an audience, but Circa’s Peepshow extrapolates this, inviting the audience to consider the people you are watching, who happen to be fiercely honed performers executing a sexy, dynamic cabaret featuring solo and aerial acts set to amazing music. 

I’m interested to know more about how McDonnell approaches telling stories through costumes. I discover that there are different layers to this. Initially her involvement in the development of the show informs her, and her portfolio of constant creating has transformed a cognitive making process into one of intuition and trust. She knows that the performers body will simultaneously tell the story, and challenge is to accentuate this. Her experience as a performer gives her insider knowledge about how bodies work and what is required from a costume. Hearing her describe her favourite moment provides me with insight into her process. It’s a moment that happens when a performer puts on their costume for the first time. With the costume on the performers body McDonnell can see that the costume meets the artistic vision and that it unites the performer with their idea of what they need to look like in the show. 

She plays a great deal with the relationship between body and costume, considering themes beyond the characters’ stories, such as time and the psychology of the body. Cabaret costumes don’t give her much material to play with; often its a pair of tiny shorts, but this is ok. A recent reviewer commented that the Circa performers were wearing very little. McDonnell acknowledges this, and goes on to share that she is currently exploring the skill of absence, allowing the body space to perform. It’s part of her ongoing interrogation into what can be achieved through costume design.

Jessica Connell and Lachlan Sukroo in Peepshow. Photo by Darren Thomas

The costumes in Peepshow are a playful combination of circus and burlesque. There are fabrics of fetish, fashion and fun that change from playfully framing the body for its performance to humbly stepping aside. Libby achieves a smooth transition in paring these back and then dressing them up again. The removal of clothes achieves an initial sensation of shock and sexiness, but when this passes, it allows us to truly see the bodies – fiercely powerful bodies that are here to tell us their stories.

Peepshow will perform its 300th show while at QPAC. The costumes have toured with the show since day one, which means that these costumes will have been worn 300 times. That’s a lot of durability. I’m curious to know what happens to them after, are they treasured keepsakes tucked away like baby clothes, or threadbare rags. McDonnell happily reports that at the end of a season the costumes typically have served their purpose. “The reality is that the pair of very tiny, very sweaty (but equally very washed) shorts have fulfilled a need and can be retired.” I am thrilled to hear that Circa does have a costume archive which holds some of the treasured pieces from the Circa history. 

Come and see the tiny, shiny shorts and the layered stories of Circa’s Peepshow showing at QPAC from 14 to 25 January 2020. Bookings via or 136 246. More information about Peepshow and Circa can be found here.


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