How To Make Your First Act
We get asked a lot ‘How do I make an act?’. Which is a very loaded question. The simple answer is: just make it. It might be awful, it might be great. But just the simple act of making it, of making something, can be such a strong catalyst towards answering your own question.
But, if you feel you need that extra little push we’re here for you. I’m going to try an answer some of the questions within the question.
Please, please understand that this is not gospel. This is by no means the only way to do this. If you were asking yourself the question of ‘how do I make an act?’ and you read this and think ‘I don’t want to do it that way’ that is totally, 100% fine and maybe even encouraged. Just by figuring out you don’t want to do it this way, you’re closer to figuring out how you want to do it.
I’m going to try and outline a simplified, three step approach to go from ‘I have zero ideas and don’t know what I’m doing’ to ‘I have some ideas but still don’t know what I’m doing, but lets try it anyway’.
This blog is an attempt on my part to codify a process that should in no way be codified. It is sacrilege. But at least we’re being sacrilegious together.
One thing that can be really difficult to do is shift your mindset from the binary, black and white world of technique to the open-ended, much greyer world of creativity. When you’re working technique, a lot of the time, there is a right and a wrong, a success and a fail. Did we catch the trick? No. Then the trick didn’t work.
Creation and creativity should be the opposite of this. It’s an environment and opportunity to take wild risks (not in terms of safety, but in terms of opportunity), and is a place where you cannot do anything wrong.
You cannot fail at being creative. Did you create something? Yes. Was it good? Doesn’t matter. You created it. Good job. You’re creative. You have to really open yourself to doing things you think might not work or trying things you’d never think to try in order to create something new.
Step 1 – Music
We always start with music first. The songs can come from anywhere. The song for our graduation act from circus school we heard while babysitting our coaches’ daughter and watching Shrek 3.
Inspiration can strike at anytime.
Your first step is to find five songs you like. That’s the only criteria. Have your partner do the same. Put them all in a Spotify playlist. Then let Spotify work it’s magic and listen to some of the songs it recommends based on the songs already in the playlist.
Add another five songs from the recommendations each until you have a playlist of twenty songs, ten each. Then make a new shortlist of four of those songs, two each. Then between you, pick the song you want to work with.
As a preface to this next section I’d like to acknowledge I have zero knowledge of musical theory and may butcher many, many terms. Forgive me Mozart.
My advice would be to pick music that has ups and downs, peaks and crescendos. It makes it easier to structure your material if the song has an obvious structure to follow. It saves you from having to form a structure yourself. If it’s the same the whole way through it can be more difficult to create to as the song is giving you less ‘feedback’ as to what content or ‘flavor’ would be appropriate in that moment. By picking a song with a more obvious structure it becomes easier for you to identify moments for your choreography, material and tricks.
There is, in my mind, nothing more satisfying than when someone ‘hits’ an accent. By that I mean performing a trick or piece of choreography on an appropriate beat or note in a song. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do if your song actually has ‘accents’.
So much so that it can really easily happen by complete accident. Sometimes you don’t even have to try, but if your song has enough accents you’re likely to hit at some of them in a way that’s satisfying. If it doesn’t have accents, you have to be much, much smarter to find them and choreograph to them in a satisfying way for your audience.
This would be an example of a song that has an obvious structure, and obvious accents to hit. There are clear moments where the music peaks, and where it drops out. Those are your big structural moments you can place things on. As the drum and the rhythm of that song is so instantly noticeable, it will be very easy to hit the accents. Accidently or purposefully. This is, in my mind, an ‘easy’ song to work to.
Whereas this is an example of a song with a less obvious structure, and much more subtle accents. The structure and accents are there, but you’ll have to work much harder to find them and have an audience recognize them. This, in my mind, would be a much more difficult song to work to if you’re starting out. Not impossible by any means, but harder.
Step 2 – Narrative
There’s this theory about movies that what the audience is able to imagine with a hint is going to be way, way more vivid and powerful than whatever you were able to explicitly show them. Take this scene in ‘Resevoir Dogs’ as an example.
What’s more powerful? Tarantino showing us a convincing-but-not-quite-convincing-enough special effect where we see the guy get his ear cut off? Or panning the camera away and leaving it to us to fill in the blanks?
Your audience’s mind is a powerful thing. No matter how much you want them to follow your story, and how much effort you put into trying to convey the intricate details of your story they are more likely to just get the broad strokes and ‘fill in’ the rest for themselves.
This is obviously not true all the time, and we’ve been a part of numerous shows with complex narratives where the audience are able to ascertain the details and follow along. But those are fully length shows, and crafted by some of the most experienced story tellers and directors in the business. You and I are not those people. So, let’s start small and go from there.
If you are making your first act/s, don’t worry about being cliché or treading old ground. It’s cliché and frequently treaded for a reason; it’s easy, popular and satisfying. You’re trying to create something for the first time, you don’t need to stress yourself thinking it has to be game changing or complicated.
Pick a vague theme that matches your music, or music to match your theme, and just go from there. Wear a costume that helps to give people the ‘jist’ of who or what you’re trying to be. Be aware that your physicality and what you look like as people will affect what gaps the audience fill in, and how they fill them.
It would be difficult for me and Isis to play ‘brother and sister’. We’d have to work much harder to set that up than if we wanted to play ‘lovers’.
Except in Alabama where those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Buuuuurn.
It’s just what people see and expect when they see us together on stage. This is not a good or a bad thing, it’s just a thing.
Music, costumes, movement quality and who you are as people, what you look like and the demographic of the audience will affect where the audience’s minds want to go and what understanding they will create. Try and make all those aspects as cohesive as possible to funnel them towards where you want them to end up.
Mine and Isis’ first act we ever created back in 2009 for a cabaret club in London. The beginning of our music has a voiceover of a girl describing the ‘boy of her dreams’. Lo and behold, a boy (me) arrives. Wow. It’s the boy of her dreams. Acrobatics ensue. Bish. Bash. Bosh.
Compare that to an act we created for a show in 2017. We’re two wealthy aristocrats looking to buy a hotel, except Isis has previously had a lesbian affair with the maid at the hotel. I, her husband, do not want her to go off with the maid and am overly possessive of her.
Slightly more complex than ‘boy of my dreams’.
This was set up throughout this show, but for me 90% of it is done via our song choice. We use a slightly-creepy, electronic cover version of ‘You’re the One That I Want’. The audience hear our song, recognize the original, and think ‘I know this as a song about love and wanting someone. Ooooh but it’s creepy-sounding’.
They then put that understanding onto what they see us doing. Bish. Bash. Bosh. Creepy possessive lover.
In both instances all we did was set up a ‘broad strokes’ idea and then do our thing. We guided the audience towards where we wanted them to go. If they get there: great. If they don’t quite get there but they got somewhere close: still good.
You don’t want your audience to be sat there frustrated & confused, thinking ‘I don’t get this.’ (Or maybe you do. And that’s fine too). I’d personally much rather they were sat there thinking ‘I get this.’ Even if what they got wasn’t exactly what we were going for.
For now, it’s better to have one very clear broad stroke that people can understand than 50 unclear intricate details that no one gets. As you get better and better at creating, and have more and more experience under your belt you can try bigger, bolder and more complicated things.
Step 3 – Making Material
Here comes the tricky bit, the meat and bones part of creating an act.
You have your music, you have your idea, now you need ‘stuff’.
Let’s start with what we already have. You probably have some tricks you want to put in. First step is to figure out where exactly on the music you want to put the tricks. If you picked a song with big crescendos and peaks, that’s probably where you want to put the tricks. Yes it’s cliché, but right now that’s fine. Clichés wouldn’t be clichés if they weren’t popular.
Once you’ve decided which trick goes where, figure out how you’re going to enter and exit each trick. Think about:
- Where do you need to be to start it?
- How could I get to that position?
- How do we finish?
- Where could we go from there?
That will hopefully give you a jumping point to start making material.
The next step is if you have existing ‘vocabulary’; little sequences or choreography you already know or have learnt. Things you already have in your repertoire. Maybe something you learnt at a convention one time. See if they could be re-purposed to fit your new song and your new theme. It’s easier to adapt existing things than it is to create new ones.
ProTip; our numbers contain some identical choreography to older numbers just in a different order or with different movement quality. Recycling is not just good for the planet, it’s also good for your sanity.
Ok. You’ve planned your tricks and exhausted your existing material. Now comes the time where you’ve just gotta strap down, be creative and make something new.
This point is where you’re on your own. Play around. Experiment. Try weird shit. Do something you already do wildly differently. Try and do something you’d never think of doing. Have an idea, try it, and then do the opposite. Do things backwards. Suggest something impossible. Get funky. Get freaky. Get creative.
You cannot make mistakes in this part. Yeah, sure, somethings might not be amazing and game changing but if it didn’t exist before you did it: you created something. And that is the whole point. To go from zero to one. From nothing to something.
Right now we don’t need that something to be good, we just need it to ‘be’. You can always improve it later. Or scrap it completely and start a-new. There’s no rules. Creation is a lawless-mad-max-style-wasteland. Don’t be afraid to kill an idea if it’s not working.
Don’t be afraid to place breaks to breathe or engage with the audience. One of my favorite things about circus and acrobatics is seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I, as an audience member, want to be reminded I’m seeing a person (or people) on stage. It connects me with you and is a reminder that you’re a person just like me, with a life outside this show and outside this building who’s taken time out of that life to create this for me. It humanizes you, and that’s a powerful thing. Take the time to engage, look at, connect with your audience. That alone can transform a good act into a great one.
Go forth. Be free. Go into your training space, be it a park or a living room or a gym and create something. I can’t wait to see it. If you get stuck and need help, send us a message. If you want us to watch something and give feedback, send us a message. But trust in your ability to be creative, and don’t be too hard on yourself.
If you’re able to go from zero to one, from nothing to something, you’ve already succeeded.