Luke Hallgarten is making experimental, immersive circus shows
The artistic director of The Revel Puck Circus on his company's ambition to redefine its artform, and new show The Wing Scuffle Spectacular.
Hello, and welcome to another issue of The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This promo issue features Luke Hallgarten, founder, artistic director and chief juggler of The Revel Puck Circus, the London-based company that is redefining the boundaries of circus. Its stunning second show, The Wing Scuffle Spectacular, arrives at Beckenham Place Park on December 15 as part of Lewisham London Borough of Culture 2022.
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More from me at the bottom, but first: Luke Hallgarten of The Revel Puck Circus!
In 2018, in a caravan parked somewhere in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, The Revel Puck Circus was born. Its big dream: to tour exciting, experimental, and immersive circus shows in classic, big-top tradition.
“I’ve always been attracted to big tops, to the feeling and the atmosphere of them,” says The Revel Puck Circus’ founder, artistic director and juggler Luke Hallgarten. “I love the way big top circuses travel around and pop up in a different town every week. There’s something so magical about that. But I am also passionate about challenging the preconceptions of what circus is as an artform.”
Hallgarten’s co-workers in that caravan in 2018, Joachim Aussibal and Cecilia Zuchetti, shared his enthusiasm for pushing the limits of circus while retaining the thrilling, nomadic culture of tented touring. Together, they started the Revel Puck Circus and created its first show, The Big Bagaga Show, in 2019. Aussibal and Zuchetti left the company during the pandemic, but Hallgarten continues to create work under its aegis – bold, boundary-breaking work, true to the company’s founding ideas.
“Having a deep, dramaturgical logic is central to our work,” Hallgarten explains. “We build these universes that audiences can enter, and live and breathe. They arrive at the site – a big-top surrounded by caravans, preferably on top of a hill – and they have a chance to explore the world that we have made and meet everyone involved before the performance begins. It is quite an immersive experience, as well as a great show.”
That logic permeates the production, too. Take the company’s second show, The Wing Scuffle Spectacular, which arrives at Beckenham Place Park on December 15. It is, Hallgarten explains, the second show in a triptych on the theme of risk and its three constituents: “failure, fear and trust.” The Big Bagaga Show was focussed on failure. A forthcoming third instalment in the trilogy will be themed on trust. The Wing Scuffle Spectacular, though, is a celebration of fear in all its forms.
“We wanted a subject that was deeply ingrained both within the human condition and within circus, and risk seemed like the obvious choice,” says Hallgarten. “Taking risks is what makes us human and what brings us together, and it is also what circus is all about. And facing our fears is one part of that.”
“We’ve got Fiona Thornhill, the best Cyr wheel artist in the country,” he continues. “We’ve got the only Teeterboard trio in the country, too. We’ve got Poppy Plowman who is amazing on the tightwire. We’ve got Imani Vital, who is brilliant on the aerial straps. And we’ve got a bit with a chainsaw swinging around and us all dodging it in different ways. It’s terrifying to be honest.”
“I love the way big top circuses travel around and pop up in a different town every week. There’s something so magical about that…”
Hallgarten was born in 1994 and grew up in London. He did not fit in at school, nor was he particularly academic, but he discovered a love of circus through weekend classes at the National Centre of Circus Arts. “There was all these different kids of different shapes and sizes from different backgrounds doing different things,” he remembers. “I just really gravitated towards juggling.”
Hallgarten joined the London Youth Circus, trained and performed with it for several years, then completed a BTEC in Circus through Hackney Community College, then moved to France for two years to study at the prestigious Esactolido school in Toulouse. He was already technically proficient – check out this video of him performing in 2015 – but relished the college’s focus on creativity.
“There are a million different ways to get into circus,” Hallgarten explains. “I went down the circus school route, just like actors go down the drama school route. Within that, though, some schools are really skills-based and make you hammer away at your technique for hours and hours and hours. Others, like Esactolido, are more conceptual and creative. That was the side that I really enjoyed.”
Hallgarten had tried to start several companies during his teenage years with varying degrees of success. It was not until after he had graduated from Esactolido in 2017 and started touring professionally with Cardiff-based company NoFit State Circus – in that caravan with Aussibal and Zuchetti – that he decided to give it another crack. Setting up a circus, though, is not straightforward.
“We had very, very little money, so we had to borrow lots of stuff at first” Hallgarten remembers. “We got a grant from Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019, and a grant from the Arts Council, and NoFit State lent us their super raggedy old blue tent. We contacted performers that we’d met through our training and previous work, and we made The Big Bagaga Show with them.”
Thankfully, it was a hit – circus critic Katherine Kavanagh called it “a witty, entertaining delight” – and although the pandemic held up The Revel Puck Circus’ subsequent development, the company returned – minus Aussibal and Zuchetti – with a new show, The Wing Scuffle Spectacular in 2021. It premiered in London last summer, then toured to Bristol and Derby. Now, Hallgarten is bringing it back to the capital this Christmas, as part of the Lewisham Borough of Culture 2022 celebrations.
“We’ve got a lot bigger since we started,” says Hallgarten, who now lives on a narrowboat in North London. “There are about 20 of us involved in the show itself, either as performers or in backstage roles. We have got our own big top tent being made, too. And we are starting to work with local emerging companies, as well, programming work that wouldn’t fit in a traditional performance space alongside our shows. We are giving them a leg-up, just like we were given a leg up by others.”
What do you want to do?
Our mission is to revolutionise the industry, and to redefine circus’ place in culture. We want audiences to re-engage with circus, and we want The Revel Puck Circus to be a melting pot at the heart of that.
What support do you need to get there?
We are trying to find a permanent home to make work, and to run as a space for other companies and young people as well. Any help on that front would be massively appreciated.
So far in our journey, the support we’ve had from collaborative relationships with Waltham Forest Council and Lewisham London Borough of Culture has been crucial to our success. We are always looking out for more partnership opportunities where local people are positioned at the heart of our creative delivery.
Ultimately, the only way an artform can progress is if it is allowed to experiment and allowed to fail in the attempt. We need the support to develop a good business model that will allow us to do that. Essentially, that means long-term investment.
How can people find out more about you?
They can come and see The Wing Scuffle Spectacular when it runs in Lewisham from December 15 until January 8. There’s going to be cosy fires, mulled wine, minced pies, local food, and a great show. They can check out our website and find us on social media, too.
That’s it for now. Next week’s issue will be the last issue before I take a bit of a break for Christmas and New Year. Look out for some news about The Crush Bar’s coverage of VAULT Festival 2023, plus some other bits and bobs.
One final reminder about the various ways you can support this newsletter: you can share it with anyone you think might be interested, you can become a paid subscriber using the button at the top, or you can get in touch with me about using it for promotional purposes.
That’s all. Thanks for reading. If you want to get in touch for any reason, just reply to this email or contact me via Twitter - I’m @FergusMorgan. See you in a week!