From an early encounter with a circus camp as a child, Emily Hughes delved into the world of theatre and circus, fusing both worlds in her performances and creations. As an introverted artist with an electrifying presence on stage, Emily tells us about her upcoming solo performance, Goodbye Esther, a production that brilliantly captures complex emotions associated with mortality. We get close and personal, exploring the roots of this enchanting play and how Emily has navigated the exhilarating yet daunting world of solo performance.
Emily’s story is not just about her. It’s about the compelling fusion of circus and theatre, and how this marriage of disciplines has culminated in her solo show. This episode is an exciting journey through the world of multidisciplinary art, where reality seems to merge with magic, embracing the weird and the unique. We also discuss the liberating world of clowning and its transformative impact, offering an escape into a realm filled with laughter and freedom.
As we move deeper into the world of theatre, we discuss the challenging balance between production and performance, particularly as artists age. Emily, a circus performer on the verge of turning 40, shares her insight on this matter, defying ageist norms and emphasizing the importance of diversity and opportunities for all artists, regardless of age. Additionally, we shed light on the creative process of crafting a theatrical production. We dive into how audience feedback shapes a show, and the delicate balance between artist intention and viewer interpretation. Join us as we uncover the power of empathy in art and its ability to create a powerful, visceral experience for the audience.
Emily Hughes is a multidisciplinary artist/creator using circus as a physical language to communicate through theatre, film, dance and installation. She is a classically trained actor, Pochinko clown, baby hand balancer, and has been performing as a professional aerialist for over 20 years. Parallel and intersecting with her solo work, she is also the co-Artistic Director of Hercinia Arts Collective, a non-profit performance company dedicated to collaboratively created circus through a multidisciplinary lens.
Goodbye, Esther: https://www.emilyhughes.ca/projects/goodbye-esther
Transcript auto generated.
0:00:04 – Phil Rickaby
I’m Phil Rickaby and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years, but I’ve realized that I don’t really know as much as I should about the theatre scene outside of my particular Toronto bubble. Now I’m on a quest to learn as much as I can about the theatre scene across Canada. So join me as I talk with mainstream theatre creators you may have heard of and indie artists you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be Stageworthy. If you value the work that I do on Stageworthy, please consider leaving a donation, either as a one-time thing or on a recurring monthly basis. Stageworthy is created entirely by me and I give it to you free of charge, with no advertising or other sponsored messages. Your continuing support helps me to cover the cost of producing and distributing the show. Just four people donating $5 a month would help me cover the cost of podcast hosting alone. Help me continue to bring you this podcast. You can find a link to donate in the show notes, which you can find in your podcast app or at the website at Stageworthy.ca. Now onto the show.
Emily Hughes is a multidisciplinary circus theatre artist and creator. She joined me to talk about her show Goodbye Esther, which premieres in Toronto from November 23rd to 26th. In this conversation we talk about the origins of Goodbye Esther, how she feels dipping her toes into solo performing for the first time, how turning 40 during the run of her show has made her consider the youth-focused nature of circus performing, and much more. Here’s our conversation. Let’s start with talking about Goodbye Esther. Give me the elevator pitch. What is Goodbye Esther about?
0:02:19 – Emily Hughes
So the tagline that I have is a circus theatre story about the end and, to flesh that out a little bit more, it’s about a woman who’s at the end of her life and is navigating all the complex emotions that go with that and in particular it kind of delves into her mind and what’s going on in that mind, and so it’s a totally imaginary take, a fantastical take on what I think might be a possibility of what we think about as we’re facing the end of our lives.
0:02:57 – Phil Rickaby
How did this come about? As a topic for you, as an idea?
0:03:02 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, it’s very layered.
So on one hand it sort of came from this character that I established quite a long time ago and I kind of work very intuitively through a sort of clown and character and sometimes they just give you ideas, and so that was part of it.
And then the other part of it is I’ve had to deal with quite a lot of loss in my life. I lost my dad when I was quite young, I lost all of my grandparents, which is quite normal, and then I’ve also lost aunts and uncles and dealt with them dying, and during that time I’ve thought a lot about mortality and what happens when we die and whether or not we have some choice in that, which feels like a really big, big question and something that we can’t really ever know. But there’s a part of me that, even since my dad died when I was 10 years old, was always curious about this. He had a disease and obviously he couldn’t help it, but there’s some part of me that was questioning when it comes to the end, what is that last moment when you finally let go, and do we have some choice in that? And what does that look like?
0:04:27 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I mean, that’s such a huge topic the whole idea not just of the end of life but grief as a topic is somebody who is passing may grieve their lives or grieve for the people who will be left behind, that sort of thing, and then the people who are left behind have to contend with the fact that that person is no longer there and all of the conflicting and many layers of emotion that go along with that. What is it that? So? This is something to be fascinated about, but what made you want this to be like a solo circus theatre show?
0:05:05 – Emily Hughes
Yes, good question. So I’ve never made a solo show before and, to be quite honest, I don’t love working by myself. I much prefer to work in collaboration. I like to be part of a collective. I don’t like to be the center of attention like I like to be on stage and share stories, but I like to work as part of an ensemble.
So it’s very strange for me to be making a solo show, and the impetus for that really came from the fact that I just always want to be making something and doing something and I found through my career that often I was waiting for other people.
So I would have people that I loved to work with, but other things would come up in their life or they’d have other projects or just all kinds of different reasons that I didn’t always have something to work on.
And I was like, if I make a solo show, then I can just work on it whenever I want and then I always have something. So that was really the impetus to begin to create a solo show at all and, as I said earlier, it came a little bit from this other character. So I had established the character of Esther through another show, through a street theatre production that I did with my company Hercenia Arts Collective, and so she already existed and I kind of was thinking about her and how much I enjoyed being that character and embodying that character, delving into her psyche and sort of those two things married together. And then I went down the pathway of what her story is and, yes, it’s a very strange thing for me to be making a solo show as someone who really actually doesn’t love to be the center of attention inside of a story.
0:06:56 – Phil Rickaby
Interesting. A lot of the reasons that you listed there for the reasons why somebody might do a solo show are completely valid reasons. They’re exactly the kind of reasons why a lot of fringe features a lot of solo shows, especially on tour. It is certainly a great way to just get shit done. Yes, whether you do want to delve in as somebody who doesn’t like to be the center of attention.
0:07:24 – Emily Hughes
0:07:25 – Phil Rickaby
Now I know that you’re an introvert. Yes, so am I, but I do not mind being the center of attention. I quite enjoy it. So everybody and, of course, I have another podcast about being an introvert called the Introvert’s Guide to my Coast, and we often talk about different flavors of introverts. As an introvert who doesn’t like to be the center of attention, how do you feel about this? Performing a solo show and being the center of attention and having no choice but to be so?
0:07:59 – Emily Hughes
Yes, it’s very weird. It’s very weird and very vulnerable. I think normally I like the attention of being part of an ensemble and I shouldn’t say I don’t like to be the center of attention, because in some ways I do when I’m performing a solo aerial piece. I’m a circus artist. We do sometimes corporate gigs where you do a five minute act and you just wow, bang out with the spectacle and I really love that. I feel good about that.
But something like this that is an hour long and much more vulnerable, it feels like quite a lot and it feels very weird to me to have all the focus on me, and it’s something that I am struggling with through the process, to be like do I deserve all this attention? Am I good enough? Why am I doing this? All of that and in this latest incarnation of the show. So I’ve been working on it for just over three years and this will be the public premiere, but I did a workshop showing of it last year, which was really just me, and in this latest version I’ve sort of started to incorporate my tech team as minor characters in the show, partially for the reason because I was like I don’t really want to be alone up here. Let’s just incorporate some other people in for some moment, so that I don’t feel like I’m always alone, which then, in some ways, is even weirder, because now I feel like I’m the tilted star of the show, which I also never intended. Yeah, so I am. I’m really just navigating all of that, and it’s tricky, it’s very tricky.
0:09:49 – Phil Rickaby
You know, the first time that I performed, I was getting ready to do a solo show and it took me eight years to write that show until finally somebody said you should just like apply to a fringe festival and maybe, you know, if you get in you’ll finally finish the show. So when we started working on it, my director was like well, of course, you know, you’ll be making eye contact with the audience. And I was like I’m gonna be what now? Because that it hadn’t occurred to me that my scene partner was the audience and that I would be making eye contact. And that terrified me at first and then I really kind of just like soaked in it. You know, it was like really, really great to have. But yeah, it was first terrifying.
I remember the first time I was gonna perform that show at the Hamilton Fringe, I was like I’m gonna see three shows before I do my show and I’m gonna have a nice dinner before I go to do the show and everything fine. And then I woke up that day and it was like I am gonna vomit and nothing that I wanted to do because it was just like the show. So, but after that and I didn’t expect this, I didn’t expect that. After I had performed the show a few times, I was like this is something that I really like. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would become a thing that I really wanted to continue doing, have you? I mean, you did the workshop. You did that in front of, I imagine, invited audience.
0:11:21 – Emily Hughes
0:11:22 – Phil Rickaby
Did you get a sense of performing it and what that might be like and how you might feel when it’s like a full production?
0:11:31 – Emily Hughes
Yes, I did, and yeah, I got a variety of like we did three different shows workshop performances. It was last year and it was still like very COVID-y and so everybody was in masks and I found that quite difficult. So, I mean, I do have some history of performing clown and also generally in circus we tend to break the fourth wall. So I’m quite used to making eye contact with people and connecting in that way and I do actually quite enjoy that. But I found it really difficult with everybody in masks to be able to read them in the same way. So yeah, that was quite tricky.
But yeah, I had sort of like a roller coaster of different performances during that run. I had one that was an absolute disaster, like everything that could possibly go wrong before the show went wrong, and then I just sort of stumbled through it and got through it and it was quite hard, but I think it went okay and I did get a rush from doing the show and obviously I’m doing it again, so I didn’t hate it. I feel like I really do wanna tell this story and I want to learn what I’m gonna learn from doing this solo project and I have a lot of like ideas and visions that I want to put out into the world and see what I get back. So I’m excited about it from that sense.
0:13:00 – Phil Rickaby
Now, with all of that, you know you’re creating this solo show that is theatre and circus and all of this sort of stuff Do you have a sort of a an inspiration as far as solo performing goes, somebody who’s like that’s the kind of solo show that I want to do? Is there’s somebody that stands out like that for you?
0:13:25 – Emily Hughes
You know, not really. In particular, I hadn’t seen a ton of solo shows before I started making this, especially not in the sort of like circus theatre realm. I’ve seen some like solo clown shows that have been quite great, but they don’t have the same level of spectacle that I have in mind. That being said, since the pandemic started, quite a few more people have started making these things, and I do have some amazing colleagues who have also made solo shows that I really admire and I think they’re great shows, and so I have so much respect for them and what they’re doing.
But I think that, also, what I’m doing is very different from what they’re doing too. So I wouldn’t say that I’m aspiring to create a show that’s like theirs, although I would aspire to do it as well as they do. But yeah, so a couple of people just off the top of my head Holly Trennik, who is a femme de fa in Welland, ontario and Angola, murdock of Lookup theatre are both incredible artists who have their own solo shows, and Deanna Lopez Soto is making a solo show which I haven’t seen yet but who I’m very excited to see. But I think that all three of them have really different styles than what I’m doing. So, yeah, not so much that I inspired to do a show like theirs, but my own version of that, I guess.
0:14:54 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, no, that makes total sense. That makes total sense. If you were to describe what your style is aside from like a circus theatre, how would you describe how your show feels?
0:15:13 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, that’s kind of a tricky thing. It’s weird. I would say that it’s definitely weird. It’s fantastical. I really like to establish a world. It’s like an emotional roller coaster, at least for me. I think probably for the audience as well. It’s funny and sad and touching and hopefully beautiful. There’s like a lot of layers going on in it, but I think that my weirdness and my quirkiness is maybe the biggest thing that’s different about the way that I storytell, that I really like to go in these imaginary directions and explore these fantastical worlds in both a narrative and an abstract sense at once if that makes any sense and sort of find this way of working and telling stories, that I think that in some ways it creates this really visceral way of storytelling because it does have a certain amount of narrative context to it, but then also the abstraction really allows you to put your own layers and meaning on it.
0:16:31 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, yeah, no, I get that. The weirdness factor, I think, is something that I think is often overlooked in Toronto theatre. There are a few points of weirdness that you can find, often at fringe, but sometimes there are other theatre companies that really sort of excel at a sprinkle of weird.
But I find that the audiences really like a bit of weird, I think a lot of times they’re like this is another kitchen set, a living room, whatever, like very serious stuff and weird just sort of feels like kind of something special for an audience. So I think it’s something to embrace, so the audience can embrace it. When you say weird, when you say your weirdness, what does that mean?
0:17:17 – Emily Hughes
I mean, I think I’m a bit quirky. The character definitely is. There’s like the things that come out in the clown for sure are kind of all over the place. I do think that like there’s definitely a fantastical, magical element of weirdness that I bring to it, like I’m really trying to, with this show, establish a world inside of her mind that has a very particular aesthetic. And I also think that like there’s like sort of weirdness like, for instance, one of the characters that Esther talks about in the show is her friend Gertrude, who’s an elephant and she’s in love with Gertrude and I don’t know. That’s like one example of like the weirdness. And then there’s this witch who comes and makes a potion. Just like sort of these like fairy tale doesn’t totally make sense in the real world, dream-like kind of you can kind of go in any direction kind of thing. I feel like that’s my weirdness and then also my quirks, I don’t know.
0:18:26 – Phil Rickaby
I think that anytime that in the theatre we can start to get close to that I don’t know the veil between the this world and the world of magic, of elves, of fairies, of that sort of stuff I think that there’s something about that that’s super exciting to like to get really close to that and that’s always, I think, again, the weirdness of it really sort of appreciates with the additional, you know, just like wild thing, like the witch and the elephant and all that sort of stuff.
0:19:00 – Emily Hughes
0:19:02 – Phil Rickaby
Now you’ve been doing circus since you were a kid. Yes, I wanna hear about how. So first off, how you started doing circus, but also where theatre came into circus for you. What does that story look like?
0:19:19 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, so I started doing circus as a kid. I went to Harper Front Circus Camp for the first time when I was eight years old and I just really loved it and so I kept going back. It was just like a summer camp that I did for a couple of weeks, but then, because I loved it so much, I started taking class just once a week, recreationally, for a really long time. So you know, the same way someone would take a dance class or whatever. And then in high school I started taking it much more seriously. I kind of just was like I love this, I’m addicted, I’m obsessed, and I started taking more and more classes and around the same time I started doing more theatre.
There’s sort of a more of a backstory to my relationship with theatre, but in high school, you know, drama class was something that really spoke to me too. So I was doing theatre and I was doing circus. And then, when I was thinking about university, I was like I have no idea what I wanna do. I know that I want to keep doing these things in some capacity if I can, but I also was, you know, a good academic student and I thought, you know, maybe I’ll do it general English degree, or maybe I’ll go into kinesiology, and I applied to what we now call Toronto Metropolitan University for the acting conservatory program and I got in, and so I was like you know what I’m gonna go for this.
So then, you know, I kind of went down that theatre pathway but still kept doing circus, and so for me it’s sort of always been both methods of storytelling have been very much a part of me, and then, on top of all of that, I feel like I’m very much a multidisciplinary artist Like.
So even as a kid, like I used to make films with our like video camera, and I always like to paint and draw, and so all of those elements also come into my work, and that’s part of why, with this solo show, it’s like more than just the performance part of it, there’s really this aesthetic that I’m creating, and this time around I’m creating a little installation that people are gonna move through before they come into the space, and so that sort of like visual art sensibility is still. I wouldn’t say that I’m a super skilled like painter or anything, but that sort of aesthetic quality and visual art sensibility is something that I think that I really bring to my work as well. Yeah, so it’s. I mean, it’s been a very multi-layered, long journey from both directions.
0:22:01 – Phil Rickaby
Now I’m gonna go back, because you kind of glossed over the whole theatre thing.
Now we all have the opportunity to take an acting or theatre arts in theatres sorry, in high school. I don’t know if it’s the same, because when I was in theatres when I was in high school, there were a bunch of people who were like really interested in theatre and a bunch of people who were like I think it’s an easy course, I’m gonna take it. But were you, did you have theatre stuff that you were doing before theatre arts in high school, or what was your introduction to theatre?
0:22:32 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, so a little bit. I mean, like I said, I did make home movies a lot as a kid. So I did a lot of like acting for my own camera with friends of mine and we would like write scripts and then make our little TV shows and films. And then I also, at some point in elementary school, I got this idea that I wanted to be in a show.
I think that they were like there was like some sort of audition happening for something I can’t quite remember, but I had to miss it for some reason and I was really upset about it and my mom was like, oh well, if that’s something that you wanna do like, why don’t we put you in acting classes? And so I started taking just like a once a week acting class for a little while and started exploring that and I really, I think, always enjoyed the character exploration. I think that’s always been a really big part of what I was interested in. So, yeah, so there was like a little bit of a trajectory there before I got to high school and then in high school it was just like one of the classes that I loved the most and I think for me it’s always been a bit about, like transformation and figuring out who I am through getting to play these different people.
0:23:52 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, yeah, and when you were going into theatre school before that, you just have a couple of things that you could have done, but there must have been something in the back of your head that was like maybe this theatre thing because you auditioned, at least you know so it was there. At what point in your theatre journey did it ever become a thing in the back of your mind that this is a thing that you could do and maybe you might want to?
0:24:19 – Emily Hughes
You know, I don’t know when that happened. And it’s interesting because in my theatre school audition I remember they asked me too. They were like when did you know you wanted to be an actor? And I was like I’m actually not sure if I do want to be an actor. I just really like the possibility of not having to decide what I want to be Like. I like that acting gives me the possibility of exploring different sides of myself, because I don’t actually know what I want to do.
And then when I found Clown and the first time I did Clown was in theatre school and then I’ve done more training recently I kind of discovered even more that actually that was the thing that I was looking for.
I was like, oh, a clown can really be and do anything in a way that, like you know, as an actor I feel like you know, sometimes we have to play within more of a box, but a clown is so truthful and so imaginative that you can really go anywhere and do anything. And I feel like that was the thing that I was like looking for the whole time. I think partially because I like never wanted to let go of childhood, like I’ve always loved to play, and I was really scared of becoming an adult. I was like I don’t want that thing. I don’t want to have to, like, sign the thing and be an adult or I’m going to lose my childhood, and so I feel like that possibility of being able to continue to play and imagine and be whoever is what really called me to it? I’m not sure if I totally answered your question, but yeah, I think it’s perfect.
0:26:03 – Phil Rickaby
The interesting thing is, like that idea of play is, I remember in theatre school we had teachers who would be like you know, they called actors, players back in the day, because we remember how to play and we’re going to play and let’s play and use the idea of play a lot, and then we get it to rehearsal and we didn’t do a whole lot of play, you know, and I have mostly appreciated the kinds of rehearsal processes where we did incorporate a lot of play instead of being so damn serious all the time.
0:26:32 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, for sure, for sure. I really appreciate that too, and it’s something that I try and do, like when I’m working collaboratively with people as well on circus projects. I really try and give us time to play together, because there’s so much we can discover in that. And if we are too set on, like, getting to the next point or the next, like making decisions about where we want to go, then we miss out on all these possibilities. That can be so incredible. And then the other layer of that too is there’s just something so real If you can create space within the structures that you eventually decide on to keep playing. There’s just something so real about that, so truthful and so tangible for an audience.
0:27:22 – Phil Rickaby
Well, as soon as an audience gets the sense that they’re being even if you just go back to like the idea of a solo show once an audience gets a sense that they’re actually being spoken to not act too, then suddenly I feel like an audience often comes alive because they’re like this person is actually talking to me, which, when you take it into clown, then you go further than just talking to you, like expecting you to talk back and that sort of thing, like there could be some fascinating stuff that happens once you allow that avenue of communication to open. That often doesn’t happen in a lot of theatre spaces outside of clown and outside of maybe some solo performances. Now, with yourself and clown, I know that you’ve studied Pachenko clown and I missed being taught by Pachenko by, like, I think, two years, cause I went to a George Fount Theatre School and he died about a year or two before I went into theatre school. But a number of the people that I was in school with they had been trained by him and they were still, to this day, I think, glowing and we really have.
I felt the ripple of that throughout when you first started exploring a clown. What was it? Because I think some people. I remember some people. When we first started doing clowns, some people put on that red nose and then immediately started to weep as soon as they got in front of an audience, because something about the nose makes you feel naked, no matter what you’re wearing. Right For you? What is it that you remember the most about your first experience with clown?
0:29:06 – Emily Hughes
So my first experience, the first time I put on the nose, I could not stop laughing actually, and I really remember that because it was like it was just hilarious to me. I was laughing and then the people were laughing and then it was funny that they were laughing and like it, just like it was just so joyful. Which is not to say that I’m always like a laughing happy clown. I’m actually often quite sad, like now that I’ve done more with it and I’m exploring all these parts of myself. But yeah, there was like so much, like just joy there. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, right and you just like suddenly bubbling up with all this like life and magic, and I think that maybe in that moment especially because that was in our third year of theatre school and I had been in class with these people for quite a while, and suddenly you’re just seeing everybody in this new light and connecting in a different way and it just it felt very free to me.
0:30:06 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I think that is. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of people have like really emotional reactions. First of all, it’s the smallest mask and something about that both frees you but also terrifies, this strange thing that happens. But also I can see that laughter of just like being that free, of like wearing the mask, this nose, and like just being free and feeling all of this stuff from it. There’s that moment of like when you laugh and the audience laughs, so you laugh and so they laugh, and it starts to go into this, the secular thing, where you’re just like. This is what it should be right. This is like all of us breathing together and laughing together and who knows where it will end. Maybe we’ll all explode of laughter, but what a way to go, you know.
0:30:52 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, yeah, totally yeah. It was super, just magical. And I think, like for the first time, I was like, oh, I can just be here and like whatever happens is fine, and I don’t have to like try to do anything in particular. It’s just like, just in all my weirdness and quirkiness, like that’s what I am on stage in this context. And then when I started doing the Pachinko work which I did like much more recently not till 2018, did I go and do my baby clown. That was like a whole other experience.
So, like you know, the imaginative world that that opened up for me was just so incredible and I feel like it’s such a tool for me now, like, even if I’m creating something that’s not a clown show in any way, but that it gives me all of these different facets of my creativity to explore, and that, to me, has just been so magical, like I just like was like oh, I have all these ideas and I can go into this sort of dream space and pick out all these interesting ideas and and not say no to them. I think that that’s the other thing. It really gives you permission to be like yes, yes and all of these things.
0:32:17 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I think that is the most valuable thing about it is the yes.
You know the like, the being able to just say yes to everything. I know that the idea of just being that you mentioned like not having to do something, just just be is a pretty powerful one, and when you can do it, when you can just be, it’s quite. I think it’s quite fascinating to watch as an audience member and it’s really fascinating to sort of sit in it and just like watch someone existing and not putting on a whole bunch of things, and like just just being and reacting to things in a really instinctual and honest way. I think that’s why sometimes, when an animal is on stage, the audience goes there’s an animal or, if there’s a cat on, especially a cat, because, yeah, a cat just sits there and a cat watches what it’s going to watch and occasionally its tail will move and the audience will just be like that cat is the most real thing, like that cat is just being a cat and just the being is what becomes fascinating, and it’s so I think, outside of clown it can be such a hard thing to find.
0:33:26 – Emily Hughes
Well, even inside of cloud it can be a hard thing to find right, like that’s what we’re aiming for, that’s what we’re hoping for, and and like whether or not we are successful, you know, it depends on the day and the relationship with the audience. And yeah, I wouldn’t say that I’m always successful at it, but it’s what I’m, what I’m going for and hopefully I can just get out of my own way and and be there and and do that like that’s. Yeah, I mean that’s that’s a big part of what I’m definitely exploring in this show is to, you know, I’ve created sort of the structure and the story and this character, but then within that, seeing, seeing what comes and you know it’s been a really interesting rehearsal process to be like, oh, today she’s really sad, or like today, this, this relationship with the audience, is particularly interesting, or I’m getting this thing, and how does that affect the whole show? So, yeah, I feel like there’s there’s so much learning for me to do in that that’s very exciting.
0:34:31 – Phil Rickaby
What does the rehearsal process for a show like this look like?
0:34:35 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, good question. So it’s it’s been quite long. So for this particular incarnation I’ve been rehearsing essentially since August and it’s because it’s like multi layered right, because there is, you know, circus acts in the show. So I do aerial silks, this sort of aerial fabric, invented apparatus that I do a trepiz, handstand, juggling, and all of those physical elements.
I’ve had to start rehearsing months ago to get them into my body, to build the endurance so that I can get them in the show all in a row and be able to layer all of the story and emotion and character on top of that. So I’ve been doing that sort of on my own for for many months and then in the last few weeks I had a choreographer, choreographic outside. I come in and, you know, help, help, work through the choreography. And then in the past two weeks I just started working with my director, calvin Peterson, to sort of like get into the whole show. So yeah, it’s like a really multi layered process where it’s like I have to train not just like an actor or performer but also like an athlete at the same time, which is really a lot. It’s really quite a lot, it’s exhausting.
0:36:13 – Phil Rickaby
I can certainly see why the rehearsal process would have to be quite a bit longer just to put all those things together. It’s like when people who are doing some Shakespeare and suddenly somebody’s like All right, here’s some swords, Now we’re going to do the fighting. It’s suddenly these people who are not like athletic are spending lots of periods of time trying to figure out how to out of fight, which can be very exhausting, and so the but this is like even more so because it’s like the silks and aerials they take, like the entire body and to make it look effortless, which is always that.
0:36:50 – Emily Hughes
That or to make it not look effortless, like there’s a, there’s a, there’s a part in the show that’s like a slapsticky thing and like to make that work I have to be extra good at it. It’s like I have to be able to fail in a safe way to make it believable it’s, it’s, it’s, I feel like even harder than making it look easy. But the endurance is really the the big thing, because you know, within each of the acts I’m used to doing a five minute piece and none of the skills on their own that I’m doing are like super, super hard. But when you put it all together, it’s like you know an hour long show with four different circus acts and very physical clowning in between it and it’s just like I did. I did the first run through last week and I was like I thought I just like lying on the floor, just like I’m just gonna stay here for a little while. So, yeah, I hope that as I run it more and more, that it gets a little easier.
0:37:56 – Phil Rickaby
One of the funny things that happens in that sort of thing when you’re doing a solo show that you’ve created and you end up in a position like that. You sort of end up in this spot like who came up with this? Whose?
0:38:07 – Emily Hughes
idea was this yes, yes, this is terrible.
0:38:10 – Phil Rickaby
And then you realize you’re the one to blame. You did it to yourself and you have to sort of just sort of yell at yourself privately for doing yes.
0:38:20 – Emily Hughes
I am very much in that place right now, like not even in terms of the like performance of the show, but also that like, oh, I’m doing a solo show and for some reason I also, you know, I’m self producing it and I decided that I’m going to build the show in this warehouse. So we basically have to make a whole theatre and I’m going to add this installation Like, why, why am I doing this? This is so much work. And then I feel like you know, I mean, the self producing thing is it’s by necessity, you know, sometimes, in order for you to realize the thing, you just have to. And I know that and I also know, like from producing enough things, that when you’re doing it ahead of time, it’s always like why am I doing this, why do I do this to myself? And then afterwards you’re like oh, that was great, let’s do it again.
0:39:11 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, absolutely. Now, as, as self producing, you know you’ve produced. I don’t know how much you’ve been in the producer role through your collective, but when you’re producing something on your own, that’s a steep learning curve.
0:39:29 – Emily Hughes
0:39:30 – Phil Rickaby
How have you navigated that particular learning curve?
0:39:34 – Emily Hughes
Yeah. So I mean I have done quite a lot of producing as part of the collective, either on my own or with other people, and so I do have like a fairly good level of experience with like scheduling and budgeting and all of that business. But one of the things that I learned early on when I started doing that, is that I don’t like to produce and perform at the same time, because it’s hard and you need two different sides of your brains to be working Like. I know right now that the best thing that I could do as a performer is to let go of expectation and just be like I surrender to the process. But as a producer, I want to play with myself and just be honest to myself and Marissa Employ.
I need to think 10 steps ahead, think about everything that can go wrong, be thinking about like all the promotion that needs to be done, thinking about like all the things I have to check off my list and that is the total opposite side of my brain.
And so it’s tricky, really tricky, to balance those things and I feel like even though I know that that’s not the best best thing to do those things at the same time, I have to, and so I’ve what I’ve tried to do to make it somewhat manageable for myself and it still feels like I’m carrying quite a lot but is to start way in advance.
First of all, like I tried to like schedule as much as I could a long time ago and like check those things off my list so that I didn’t have to think about them, and then, you know, hire some people to help me as much as possible, and that has lightened the load a little bit. But I will say that you know, even when you hire people, ultimately the responsibility comes back to you. So it still feels like you’re carrying everything. Yeah, so I don’t know that there’s like that I that the learning curve has been steep, like I think I knew all this stuff already, but I’m in the thick of it even more than I ever have been before and I’m just sort of managing all of that weight and all the emotions that come with that and taking one step at a time and trying to breathe and, you know, being like it’s going to be fine.
0:41:55 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, no, absolutely when I would self. You know, do doing solo stuff for like fringe. Often you are in the same situation. You’re your own producer. I would always front load as much as I can. Yeah, before a rehearsal start, before anything starts, for sure, get those promo pictures. Plan out like what you’re, what you’re. Your social media promotion might look like Everything you could do beforehand. Do it so that when, so that at some point you can just be a performer when the produce and have the producer dip in a little bit now and then, but mostly just be a performer, yeah.
0:42:30 – Emily Hughes
It’s so hard and like the more even as much as you plan right, there’s always something that comes up, always something unpredictable that happens, and so I mean that’s part of why you plan, so that at least you’ve taken care of all of those things and so you can deal with this, whatever other thing that came up. But yeah, it’s really. It’s very, very tricky to be able to manage all of that at once, and you know, I hope that someday I will have the luxury of having someone else produce something so that I can focus more on the performance. But until then, you do what you can.
We all dream of such a thing, yeah, yeah.
0:43:15 – Phil Rickaby
Now, during the run of your show, you’re turning 40. I am how does that feel as an inevitable part of life happening as a circus performer Well performing a solo show.
0:43:31 – Emily Hughes
Yeah. So it’s a big thing for me. Like I think in the circus sector sort of at large and not necessarily in Toronto like there are people who are older than me who are still doing circus and are amazing, but generally it’s a very youth centered world and sort of there’s like a feeling that after 35, you either leave altogether or you kind of go into more managerial or choreographic roles. You’re not really performing anymore, and so it’s like it is a big thing for me to be like I’m still here, I can still do this. I’m figuring out what that means and what that looks like, and this show is like part of my answer to that.
It’s like, okay, I’m still going to do all the spectacular stuff that I did, but I’m going to put it into a more theatrical form, I’m going to combine it with my clowning, I’m going to navigate what the possibilities are of being an older circus performer and also show people that it’s still possible, like we don’t have to give up performing just because we’re over 35.
Because I think some of the reason for that too is like because it’s like a spectacle based art form and because so much of it is about you know what you can do and the tricks, and younger people just have agile bodies that can do big things, but as you get older, you have so much more life experience to bring to that, and so the layers just become so much richer. And I feel like, you know, when I hit 35, I was just starting to get my career cooking and so why would I stop then, like now I have. So I have so much more to say and I have so much more to bring to my performance. It seems very silly to be like, oh, I should stop doing this now.
0:45:38 – Phil Rickaby
Is there? Is there from from anywhere in the circus world, like a pressure to be like you’ve done enough, you can stop, like there? Is there a pressure to stop as you get older? Or is it just like that’s what just people do?
0:45:49 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, I don’t know if there is like a particular pressure. I do feel like you know, in Toronto a lot of the work, the regular work, is sort of in the corporate sector and there’s definitely or like nightclubs and there’s definitely like a youth oriented space there. So, like you know, as you get older you’re like well, I just don’t look like that anymore, so maybe I’m not going to get hired. So nobody’s saying you have to stop, but you’re not necessarily going to get hired for those things as much. Or, you know, you have to like mold yourself to try and fit into that aesthetic and I think, like we are just sort of starting to get the like artistic side the more theatrical, the more producing our own work, cooking in Toronto, and so, you know, I think it’s great for us to be able to push that and say we don’t have to like that’s not just for young people, like we don’t have to stop. We can. We can tell all kinds of stories and with all kinds of bodies.
0:46:59 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely, you mentioned that you’ve done. You’ve done a workshop performance of Goodluck Mr Last year, last year, yes, last year.
0:47:10 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, it was in March and April 2022. I March and April because I got COVID in the middle of the workshop presentation and we had to take a two week pause and reschedule the last show. So that was. It was quite an experience, but, yes, yeah, so last year Now, from the workshop.
0:47:33 – Phil Rickaby
now when we do a workshop so that we can learn about a show, so that an audience can tell us, either through their reactions or through in the talk back, their opinions and what works for them and things like that, so we can learn how to make, how to make the show better. All of that went into this particular, this new incarnation, this new, the final version of the show. Final, I mean, is theatre ever final? Yeah, what did you learn from the audience in that, in those workshop performances?
0:48:05 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, I learned. I learned the things like the moments that really resonated for them. I learned the like, the metaphors that were clear and the metaphors that weren’t clear. I learned the moments that were funny and like where to like put more of that energy and like whether they were with me, for the story especially cause a lot of it is a bit weird and is a bit abstract to be like. Are you following this story?
And it was interesting because I did a combination of things. Obviously, I felt people’s energy and then we offered people to like give written feedback and then also I sent out a survey so people could answer particular questions that I had, and one of the things I asked was like well, one of the things people said to me was that, like, some of them were like ah, I wasn’t really quite sure what was happening, and but one of my questions would be you know what was the story in your eyes and they would nail it. So I was like oh, so you do know what’s happening. It’s just a bit weird, or then you anticipate it, so you don’t know if you’re right, but I was like but you’re totally getting it.
So that was interesting for me too, to like take all of that and navigate that and be like, okay, I want it to be weird, I want to lean into that. But then sometimes people are like, oh, I’m not quite sure if I’m getting it or not, and so like trying to find what the balance is. For that is definitely part of the mission of this last incarnation and I think that part of what’s gonna help that is this installation that we’re creating. So we’re really gonna start in our world, whatever that means, in the physical real world, and you’re gonna travel through this hallway of memories and then end up inside of this sort of expanded, imaginary, fantastical world, and I think that’s gonna really help establish where we are and why these sort of dream escape world things can exist.
0:50:25 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s fascinating. Years ago I worked with a company called Keystone theatre and we did plays in the style of silent film, and the way that audiences would relate when they didn’t have backstory or they didn’t have like dialogue in particular, I always found it fascinating to hear people describe what happened in the show Like them.
I remember when we started our tour we would correct people if they didn’t get all of the things right and then eventually we like stepped back, was like no, no, no, it’s fascinating what they’ve filled in, because they got all of them, they got the story. They just didn’t get some of the specifics and their brain filled it in. And it was always fascinating to like let them have like their version of the story, which was different from ours, and like there’s a certain release that came from that which was just amazing to have and to give them.
0:51:18 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, I would say like, for me, that’s part of the magic of art, right, it’s like I can have an idea and an intention of what I’m trying to tell you, but because I’m telling it in this sort of abstract, fantastical way, there’s space for you to meet me from your perspective, to bring your life experience, to bring whatever lens you have, and to see something that’s different and have a cathartic experience because of that, and I feel like that’s really how we build empathy, right, like I have this experience and you have this experience and we’re meeting somewhere that’s seeing each other through this, and like I really do believe that that is like part of the magic of art and also why, like I don’t want to tell people what it’s about or what to think about it too much, right, I think letting them experience it is part of it.
0:52:14 – Phil Rickaby
There’s definitely a certain amount of bravery. It’s a lot of people have a different idea than you of the thing that you made and just be like I’m gonna accept that your experience of this is right for you and this is good enough. We don’t have to agree on that, even though I made the thing and it’s really freeing.
0:52:33 – Emily Hughes
Yeah, and it’s also interesting navigating how people feel about that, Cause some people are like no, no, no, you have to tell me what it’s, what is it? I need to know, like the real thing. But yeah, I think it’s quite interesting too. I don’t know, with so many other art forms there’s so much space to interpret it in your own way, right Like we can have an artist statement, but then sometimes you don’t read that and you just look at a picture and you’re like what am I getting out of this? And I think there’s especially in circus, because it is spectacular and it is visceral and there is this abstraction. You’re gonna feel something, You’re gonna get something out of it, and I’m very interested in what that thing is and how I use that tool to meet you there.
0:53:24 – Phil Rickaby
My partner is an artist and she has found, you know, she’ll publish her artist statement, you know. But if the artist is there, everybody wants to know what the artist means by the art Right. Everybody wants to know what the artist means, which is like and I don’t know, I don’t particularly know that. I mean, maybe they’re just fascinated, but sometimes it’s like.
I think sometimes an artist wants to know what you think of it is more fascinating to me, and the viewer is like no, I want you to tell me what I should think of it, which I don’t quite know where that comes from no.
0:53:59 – Emily Hughes
yeah, it’s a tricky thing.
0:54:01 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, yeah, it’s fascinating.
0:54:02 – Emily Hughes
But it’s interesting. I think both are interesting. Yeah, you know, and I’m always super interested to hear about people’s creative process and how they came up with their ideas. I don’t necessarily need to know what their intention is, but I think maybe it’s connected to that. I think we’re excavating in this sort of way of being and thinking that makes us an artist, and I think that we’re all interested in that.
0:54:29 – Phil Rickaby
No, I think you’re right. I think, ultimately, what people maybe are more interested in is the process, rather than what does it mean? You know, it’s like if an actor is doing a show where there’s like a Shakespeare remember, like doing Shakespeare people are like how did you learn all those lines? You know that’s a process thing, right, how does this? How does the salad get made? Right, like, how does that happen? And I think that may be the thing that people really want to know, but the only way they know how to ask it sometimes is what does it mean?
0:54:59 – Emily Hughes
Yeah for sure, yeah, yeah. In circus we often are like, wow, how do you do that, like I could never do that, and the answer is always like, oh, I just practice. I just practice a lot like anything like playing an instrument, like learning your lines, like you practice and then you get there.
0:55:19 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, absolutely no, as this show you know it’s about to open, like next week.
0:55:28 – Emily Hughes
Yes, so November 23rd is the opening.
0:55:31 – Phil Rickaby
Yes, as you head towards that, you learn stuff from the workshop that’s gone into this. What are you most looking forward to in this performance and this presentation?
0:55:45 – Emily Hughes
Oh, that’s such a good question.
I’m just like so in the thick of everything right now that I’m not even really sure what it is that I’m looking forward to.
I mean, so today we just moved into the performance space and we started setting up the space, and there’s like a magic that comes into that. So I’m really excited to see how it all comes together, how, like this vision of this world that I’ve been developing over three years, all these like little details are starting to come together to create this magical world. I think I’m looking forward to seeing how people experience it, like, especially with this new installation and the integration of my crew, sort of as these like periphery characters. Like, yeah, I’m interested to see how people experience it and what kind of reactions I get and how it feels for me to get through all of it and if it’s something that I wanna do again. Yeah, I think that I have a lot of questions and curiosities and I’m on an emotional roller coaster, so it’s hard to say like right now, especially like in the thick of it, what I’m most looking forward to. But yeah, I think, just like going towards the fear and seeing what happens on the other side.
0:57:09 – Phil Rickaby
Isn’t that clown though.
0:57:11 – Emily Hughes
Yes, absolutely, 100% Go towards the fear.
0:57:17 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, as our plan teacher used to say, you got on stage, you sit in the shit. Yeah Well, Emily, thank you so much for joining me. I really love this conversation. It’s been a pleasure talking with you this evening.
0:57:29 – Emily Hughes
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been amazing.
0:57:37 – Phil Rickaby
This has been an episode of Stageworthy. Stageworthy is produced, hosted and edited by Phil Rickaby. That’s me. If you enjoyed this podcast and you listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating, and if you listen on Apple Podcasts, you can also leave a review. Those reviews and ratings help new people find the show. If you wanna keep up with what’s going on with Stageworthy and my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe. and remember. If you wanna leave a tip, you’ll find a link to the virtual tip jar in the show notes or on the website. You can find Stageworthy on Twitter and Instagram at StageworthyPod, and you can find the website with the complete archive of all episodes at Stageworthy.ca. If you wanna find me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at PhilRickaby and, as I mentioned, my website is philrickaby.com. See you next week for another episode of Stageworthy.