Jay Ruby, founder of The Carpetbag Brigade, recently wrote a blog post on HowlRound as the first part of a series were he will address the “basic tenants of spectacle-based drama” through the lens of his theatre company. This first blog of the series lays out the basics: What differentiates spectacle from drama? How do the two function together? These are questions I find myself asking as I delve deeper into my newfound love for aerial dance and circus arts, and the desire to eventually incorporate these practices into my work as a theatre artist.
So, what even is spectacle-based drama? According to Ruby, spectacle based drama increases the visibility of the human body, while simultaneously putting it at perceivable risk. It is often a crossroads where multiple forms meet: a combination of circus, dance, theatre, or pyrotechnical theatre and aerial dance for example. With these combinations comes a heightened theatricality where the body is the focus.
Jay’s company, The Carpetbag Brigade, is a physical theatre company who specializes in outdoor, cite specific, spectacle based drama, cross-cultural exchange, and most famously, for doing it all on stilts. Prior to Carpetbag, Jay was an actor who did not value stilt walking as an effective form, and thought of it as a cheap trick, merely spectacle. However, his opinions on the matter drastically changed after seeing a dynamic and theatrical acrobatic stilt performance by David Clarkson of Australia’s Stalker Theatre perform at a festival The Carpetbag Brigade was hosting in Prescott, AZ. From then on, acrobatic stilts became the primary focus and training method for his company, and they have since become globally known for it.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to witness a performance of Carpetbag Brigade’s Callings at the Ko Festival in Amherst, MA. In his blog post, Ruby says, “Our understanding of spectacle-based drama was discovered through the practice of creating a theatrical environment where none existed before.” When I saw Callings, it was a clear summer day, and I sat in the audience, outside on the ground, not knowing exactly what to expect. There was a large concrete area in front of us, surrounded by grass, as the stage. Suddenly, looming figures emerged from behind a nearby building and began approaching the empty area before us. With the appearance of the first performer on stilts moving with purpose, a theatrical environment was created. While watching, I was simultaneously hypnotized by the beautiful and impressive acrobatics, and physical storytelling done by the performers. This was like nothing I had seen before, and I loved it.
Spectacle may serve merely as entertainment on its own, but paired with drama and filled with intention, can significantly enhance a theatrical experience.
“Spectacle serves to open. Drama exists to reveal.”
If Ruby’s right that spectacle-based drama, “brings us closer to eternal questions and our subconscious desire to know their answers,” then that’s the type of theatre I’m interested in.