Who would have thought that the world would be so enamored by a claymation sheep?
Shaun has definitely evolved from a side character in the Aardman Animations Wallace and Gromit franchise into a world of his own. Kids and adults alike have delighted in watching him and his flock of pals getting up to all sorts of mischief in the numerous Shaun The Sheep films and TV series. The intelligent sheep and his penchant for mischief and mayhem has now spawned Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show, created by the Brisbane based Circa Contemporary Circus.
Circa Contemporary Circus is one of the world’s leading performance companies, having toured the world and performing in 40 countries to over a million people since its 2004 inception. Circa’s works have been greeted with standing ovations, rave reviews and sold-out houses across six continents. They are at the forefront of the new wave of contemporary Australian circus, pioneering how extreme physicality can create powerful and moving performances. And what could possibly be more of a thrilling challenge than mashing a beloved children’s show with contemporary circus?
Benjamin Knapton is the Resident Director for Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show. He has been the Associate Director of Circa since 2010 and was the Associate Artistic Director from 2014-2016. With Circa, Ben has produced, directed and co-directed new circus works and large-scale events that have toured extensively to major international festivals and venues.
With Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show opening in Melbourne this week, we had a chat with Ben about his time working on this unbaa-lievable new project.
Can you tell me a bit about how you put the show together?
Ben: The biggest question early on was how will this transform into a live stage show that kind of uses acrobats. And I think one thing that we knew really early on, the director of the show said “this will not be a circus show, we’re not going to put on big suits and and and just kind of reenact the episodes on stage.” We needed to combine it with the with the things we do, which is contemporary circus, which is acrobats on stage, very present, doing extraordinary things and communicating with the audience through their bodies. So really, the challenge was taking taking the Aardman world of Shaun The Sheep and combining it with our acrobats. Yaron [Lifschitz, the Director] quite early came up with a story structure that would be able to kind of hold the whole show, and we took that in the writers room and kind of worked with the material, and came out the other end with a script, constantly testing it with acrobats in the room. Then the real risky bit where it kind of lives or dies happened – we took it into the rehearsal room and started playing with it, with the acrobats, getting this into their bodies and starting to tell the story.
Is the plot of the show based on an episode of Shaun The Sheep, or does it showcase a new story?
Ben: Look, it certainly references certain episodes. We went through a process of watching every single episode and put them into an Excel document: the bits that we liked and that could work, tricks that they did, scenarios that they did. This is certainly influenced by it, but it’s a new hour of Shaun and friends causing disasters and near misses and things like this.
What has been the most challenging part of the process?
Ben: I guess the most challenging is the basic premise of the whole thing, which is to transfer the Shaun The Sheep claymation world into a live version of it with acrobats. That really has been the main challenge and has been mildly terrifying for everybody involved [laughs]. We’re over the hurdle of having audiences in front of it so I can I can speak to it with a little bit more clarity, but certainly that was the core challenge. It was a huge risk, I guess, in many ways. We’ve done a number of circus children’s circus shows over the years, so we kind of understand a bit about putting an ensemble and our acrobats into shows for young people and children. But this was a completely different proposition with characters, and wanting to respect and honor the kind of work of Aardman Animation put into their episodes and movies. So the stakes were pretty high.
And the most exciting?
Ben: I guess in the challenge also lies the excitement. I think there’s no project that doesn’t combine a massive challenge and excitement at the same time. And if it doesn’t combine those things, it’s probably not a project we should be doing.
I can imagine that costuming the show was quite difficult, as you would need to balance the magic of Aardman’s animation with practicality for the acrobats.
Ben: Libby McDonnell, who is the costume designer on Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show, has done a number of designs for Circa over the years. And she is extraordinary. One of her real skills is working closely with acrobats to balance design needs and acrobat needs, and to push both of those things into an exciting, interesting place. So she’s very familiar with the process of working with acrobats. I think there’s definitely costumes in the show that have pushed acrobats to kind of move in different ways, in a good way. The costumes are one certainly one element of the show that is just incredible. And the way they work on the acrobatic bodies is extraordinary.
As a director, what would you say is the biggest difference between working on children’s Circus and regular ‘ageless’ Circus?
Ben: That’s a really good question. I mean, Shaun The Sheep was made for children, but it is also definitely a show for families. So some of the biggest reactions out of the audience comes from adults, I think that they are enjoying it as much as their children. In some ways, I think there’s no difference. You’re trying to put on the stage something that communicates well with its audience when it when it came to Shaun The Sheep, I think we needed to use our theatre storytelling and acting muscles a bit more than we normally do. We’ve had to do that as well in the other children shows that we’ve made. I think that that might be one of the differences. But also, we’ve had children come to some of our shows that are kind of more ageless and abstract, and that seems to really communicate to a wide range of children as well. So, I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think, no matter who we’re making shows for, it needs to be compelling in some way.
If you had to convince someone to come and see Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show in one sentence, what would you tell them?
Ben: It’s got super high skilled acrobatics showing Shaun the Sheep in a very new way, live in front of your eyes which is risky and exciting – so if you wanted a risky, exciting, fun night in the theatre, come along.
Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show opens in Melbourne this week, playing until April 18th. It then tours to Wollongong in May.
For tickets and more information, visit shaunthesheepcircus.com.au