A teenage encounter with Footsbarn sparks a series of adventures in physical and visual theatre for Baubo Theatre’s Liza Cox
It was one of those endless summer evenings, with warm air that caressed bare legs. I remember the feeling of that breeze on knees and shoulders as I walked alongside the River Liffey to Dublin’s floating dock at the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC), and I remember the unusual buzz in the air the closer we got. It was 2005, I was 15 years old, and Dublin was in full Celtic Tiger Swing. At that time the docklands were undergoing a full redevelopment. This part of the city, previously full of derelict houses and old shipping docks, was fast becoming the hub of the city’s newly developing tech centre, with multinationals setting up their EU headquarters in the area, and luxury apartment buildings and glossy yuppie sandwich shops and coffee chains springing up to meet the needs of the well-heeled new workforce.
This evening, though, something quite different was in the air. Footsbarn’s travelling big-top tent – complete with a whole cohort of caravans in which the actors travelled, lived, raised families – had rolled into town, and in the hazy summer evening the Dublin audience milled around drinking warm white wine out of plastic cups. There was electricity in the air. Walking into the tent, the smell and underfoot crunch of sawdust brought me viscerally back to childhood trips to the circus. A performer came tumbling out, and the show roared to life. I actually remember few specificities of the staging: my memories are all sensory. The physicality of the performers; the use of masks, and shadows; the whirl of brightly coloured costume; the electric energy of the thing. The play was Perchance to Dream, a sort of medley of four Shakespearean tragedies (Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth), mashed up and woven together in a physical, circus-infused style that was viscerally in opposition both to the Shakespeare I’d studied in school, and to all the glossy corporate surroundings of the Dublin docklands. The whole thing felt anachronistic, almost medieval, and totally alive. I was completely transfixed, and I remember feeling, ‘yes, this is it – this is what I want to do’.
I didn’t have a clue how to get there, though. Unsurprisingly, the careers counsellor didn’t really have much to offer in terms of guidance on running away with a theatre troupe and their circus tent. This archaic, anarchic gang of travelling troubadours seemed to have come from another universe, and vanished back into it as suddenly as they had appeared, and I melted back into the mundanity of my Dublin convent secondary school: the taste of the rubbery gum-guard I wore for hockey matches, the proliferation of statues of the Virgin who gazed down glassy-eyed at bored teenaged girls, the smell of cabbage and bacon which permeated the corridors.
Eight years later, I found myself thinking again about that Footsbarn performance. I was in Catalunya, where I lived at the time, doing a residential bouffon training course in the Actors Space with Maria Codinachs, Marian Masoliver and Simon Edwards. We were in a beautiful old stone farmhouse in the countryside. It was another balmy summer evening and a huge red moon had risen over the hills. We were eating dinner outside and the group of performers, tipsy on local wine and having spent the previous few days immersed in the extraordinarily intense universe of the bouffon, began a percussive beat using the cutlery from the meal and whatever other objects people could find lying around. This beat grew, increasing in rhythm and intensity, until we all spilled into a procession out of the farmhouse’s courtyard, down into the field below, dancing and spiralling and singing, beating pots and pans and howling at the moon.
At the time I was performing regularly as a diable in a Catalan event known as a correfoc, or fire-run. A troupe of performers dressed as devils roam the streets, holding flamethrowers aloft on sticks. The noise is tremendous; the fireworks whizz and howl and explode with enormous bangs; the processions are accompanied by large troupes of drummers. Smoke fills the narrow streets of the old town in Barcelona, and all that’s visible is the sparks of the pyrotechnics, and the horned devil performers looming out of the haze. Everything smells of sulphur, and gunpowder, and adrenaline.
I remember reflecting that without seeing Footsbarn, I would never have found myself either doing bouffon or correfocs, and may never have left Dublin. I remember feeling profoundly glad that I had discovered these little pockets of anarchic physical theatre, as far from Dublin’s glossy docklands and corporate tech offices as I thought it was possible to be.
Fast forward another two years, and I found myself further away still. I was living in Lima, Peru, and we had travelled to a tiny and very remote Andean village called Paucartambo, renowned for a festival which takes place every July featuring masked dancers who parade the street for three days and two nights. Each troupe of dancers (17 troupes in total) wears a mask specific to their troupe, and tells a particular story through their dance, rooted in local history, folklore, or religion. The Chucchu dancers, for example, tell the story of labourers from Paucartambo who went to work in the rubber plantations in Q’usñipata in the early 19th century, and contracted malaria and yellow fever. The masks worn by this troupe are yellow, and show signs of plague and decay: traditionally, these masks are associated with illness in general. Dancers from this particular troupe are mischievous, interacting with the public by thumping unsuspecting onlookers with bags of flour, or burning chilli which sets aflame the eyes and throat of anybody unfortunate enough to be standing nearby. There is no end to the festivities for the three days and three nights that the festival lasts. We camped on the edge of the town, grabbing a few hours of sleep here and there. Each night, we ate dinner with a different troupe of dancers in their ‘house’; a hall which they commanded, performing whirling dances, and where they dictated the rules. Masked monsters in elaborate beaded suits and ferocious and colourful masks and wigs lined the rooftops day and night – they were there to steal a statue of the Virgin Mary (yes, her again). On the last day of the festival, these masked monsters performed a race around the town square in carts with wheels set on fire, careening within eyebrow-singeing range of the watching crowds.
I was one of two Europeans at this festival: the other a tall Dutchman who I kept seeing from a distance and was introduced to a number of times by my Peruvian friends, as he stood out as much as I did. The vast majority of the ten thousand attendees were Peruvian, some from Lima, mostly from the surrounding area. On arriving in Lima months before, I had sought out a master mask-maker from Paucartambo named Victor Salcedo, who had taught me to make the traditional masks used in the festival. An inverse paper maché mask is taken from a plaster mould after initially sculpting with clay, and then, once dry, the entire mask is coated in a mixture of plaster and flour glue. This mixture is also used to sculpt fine detailing, as it forms a clay-like paste, before drying, sanding, painting and varnishing. The full-face masks come in different styles: the most elaborate of these are grotesque, monsters and hybrid animals, often with details like snakes or lizards coming out of the eye sockets or nostrils. I spent some weeks working in Lima with this mask-maker: this led me to the Sacred Valley for Paucartambo’s festival; it also led me to develop a practice as a mask- and puppet-maker which informs my practice as a theatre-maker to this day.
At this time, it didn’t feel like there was a very clear trajectory in my life. I was often on the move; I lived all over, usually hand-to-mouth. I did a number of unsatisfying and exploitative jobs. On bad days I felt lost, and worried about the future (on bad days, I still do). But looking back, it is clear to me that I was constantly seeking out those pockets in the world where the air crackled with something strange and electric, and everything came alive for the length of a show: masked performers, fire, puppets, visual spectacle, and a very certain type of physical energy and enchantment. I still associate that with my very first taste of it, with Footsbarn’s travelling theatre.
I went on to train in the Lecoq methodology in Barcelona, at the Escuela Internacional de Teatro de Berty Tovias. For two years I worked a teaching job for six or eight hours a day, trained another four hours, and rehearsed another two. We created clown work, masks, melodrama, bouffon; we trained in dynamics of movement, acrobatics; we performed in squats, in tiny theatres, on the street. When I formed my company, Baubo, with performer/designer Alex Herring, we discovered that we shared a very particular sensibility. We chose the name Baubo, as she is the Greek goddess of bawdy laughter, who coaxes the goddess Demeter out of her depression through movement, laughter, and exposing her ‘secret parts’. She is typically represented as a woman with her face in her belly, with her vulva forming her chin; similar to the Sheela-na-gig (a female figure, found carved in stone in medieval churches around Ireland and Europe, exposing her enlarged genitalia).
The work we make is design-led and highly visual, and rooted in the grotesque. Alex’s background is in costume and set design; she then moved into performing as a clown, training with Slava and Jango Edwards. I have a performance background: since my physical theatre training, I’ve been moving more into design through my work as a maker. I am currently doing an MA in Performance Design at the University of Leeds, with a focus on design-led creation and expanded scenography. We typically start a creation process simultaneously through visual design, movement work and concept.
The first piece of work that we made together, The Conqueror Worm, was a piece of bouffon, puppet and shadow puppet theatre that we created in Barcelona on a shoestring budget and performed in a cabaret in a small theatre down near the port. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name, it features two vulturesque bouffon creatures who manipulate the fragile, shadowy human world, wreaking havoc and revelling in misfortune. The show culminates in the shadow puppets being decimated by a huge and ominous puppet – the eponymous conqueror worm, harbinger of death. When asked, one audience member said, ‘it felt very anachronistic, almost medieval… and very alive’. The next piece we created was entitled Grotesque Bodies, and it was an exuberant investigation into themes around the medieval carnival, the feast of fools, and the subversive potential of the grotesque.
When the pandemic hit, neither Alex nor myself had much interest in creating work online. By this point, we were both living in the UK, and decided to go back to making outdoor work as soon as restrictions allowed, as that experience of liveness is central to the work we create. With support from Without Walls and ACE we started creating walkabout acts – one in which we were a flock of giant pigeons, another a troupe of medieval bouffon troubadours – and with support from the Arts Council of Ireland and Spraoi Festival we created a full street show, The Cabinet of Curatrocities, in the summer of 2021. The 30-minute show centres around two characters, the vainglorious Baron von Munchcracker and the happy-go-lucky sidekick Spud, who have been travelling the world for centuries with their travelling sideshow of grotesque curios. Through puppetry, dance and song, they share this hair-raising collection with their hapless audiences: the broken hearts of valiant heroes who have died for love, a mirror that talks back, and the charred wings of Icarus are just some of the treats they have in store. We have performed these shows in different cities in Ireland and the UK, and have received very positive responses from audiences on the street. In my artistic practice, and in my life, I’m still seeking out those pockets of electricity and energy, which feel like a time out of time away from the real world, and trying to create those experiences for audiences.
At the time of writing (March 2022), Alex and I are currently preparing to go over to Footsbarn’s space in La Chaussée in France to work on a new production with them. We met the new artistic director of the company, Sadie Jemmett, in 2021, and she has invited us to collaborate in a new touring adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. It’s the story of a little boy who gets shards of a broken enchanted mirror lodged in his eye and in his heart, and of the little girl who goes to rescue him from the Snow Queen’s ice palace. This will be a co-production between Footsbarn and Baubo, incorporating music (Sadie is a singer-songwriter and composer), visual design and physical theatre. Along with two other performers, we’ll spend a period of five weeks devising and rehearsing the piece, and another three weeks designing and creating the set and costumes alongside Fredericka Hayter, the company’s longtime designer. We’ll then open it at the Footsbarn en Fête festival in Footsbarn’s big top tent in July 2022. We’ll begin touring in France with The Snow Queen in the autumn, and in September, we’ll be back in La Chaussée to start workshopping a production of Twelfth Night, which will tour alongside The Snow Queen in 2023. The productions will be both in English and in French, and a UK tour is also in the works, projected for 2023.
If you had told my 15-year-old self that this is what I would be doing, I suspect I would be overjoyed, and not a little incredulous. If I’m completely honest, it’s how I feel as an adult; there’s something about embarking on this project with this company who have inspired me so much that feels like coming full circle.
Featured image (top): Baubo Theatre: Grotesque Bodies. Photo: Dmitry Vinokurov.
Liza Cox is a theatre maker, director and puppeteer. She is co-artistic director of Baubo, a physical/street theatre company rooted in visual design and traditions of clown and bouffon. As a performer-maker, her process is rooted in materiality and play. She trained in the Lecoq methodology and is currently undertaking an MA in Performance Design at Leeds University.
Liza Cox took part in the Total Theatre Artists as Writers programme 2021-2022. http://lizacox.com/
Baubo Theatre was founded in 2018 by Liza Cox and Alex Herring, and has received funding from the Arts Councils of Ireland and England. Baubo were the recipients of the 2021 N.E.S.T (New Emerging Street Talent) residency with Waterford’s Spraoi Festival. Baubo’s work has also been programmed at Pitch’d Circus Festival, Galway Theatre Festival, Liverpool Without Walls, the House of Suarez Vogue Ball, and Scene & Heard festival in Dublin. See https://baubotheatre.com
Footsbarn Travelling Theatre
Footsbarn Travelling Theatre was born (in 1971) out of a dream to create a form of theatre that was popular, generous and accessible to all; to take theatre out of the limits of traditional performance environments, and bring it to a local population, by visiting farms, beaches, streets and village squares, with their unique brand of innovative and vibrant productions.
In 1984, the company left Britain to tour the world, and eventually landed in central France where a farm, La Chaussée, was purchased. This remains Footsbarn’s base, providing a home over the last 25 years for the company and their two big tents, vehicles and caravans, as well as a fully equipped production centre complete with workshops, rehearsal space, office and studios.
Footsbarn also holds its annual festival, Footsbarn en Fete, every summer at La Chausee, inviting other companies, musicians and performers to showcase their work. See https://www.footsbarn.com/
Spraoi Festival Waterford
Spraoi is a festival of international street theatre and world music which takes place for three days each August in the Irish city of Waterford. The festival takes its name from the Gaelic word spraoi, or play. The Waterford Spraoi has taken place each summer since 1992 and is now the largest festival event in Waterford.
Spraoi festival attracts audiences of over 80,000 to see events in music, art installations, storytelling, circus, street theatre, and much more.
Spraoi International Street Arts Festival returns on Bank Holiday weekend of 29, 30 & 31 July 2022. This will be the 30th Spraoi Festival.
The Actors Space, Catalunya
The Actors Space is a renowned international centre of theatre and film, located in a place of outstanding natural beauty, only one hour from Barcelona. They provide high quality training for actors, directors, writers, teachers and students of dramatic art.
The Creative Actor (Residential) 19-27 July 2022
Dramatic Writing (Online Workshop) 21 April to 12 May 2022 (every Thursday 18:30 to 21:30)
The Art of Comedy (Residential) 2-10 August 2022
Directing Performance (Residential) 16-24 August 2022