With their mix of aerial skills, storytelling and a visual style similar to that of Tim Burton, The Paper Doll Militia have been described as being “where theatre meets the circus”.
This year, they are making their Edinburgh Fringe debut with This Twisted Tale, a modern-day fairytale featuring a unique look at the devil; and of the power of storytelling.
We caught up with Sarah and Rain, the peformers and creative force behind the show to find out more.
Please tell us a little about the This Twisted Tale.
I guess you could say the roots of This Twisted Tale comes from a general disinterest in being a traditional circus performer. Rain and I started with circus, started with “the tricks” and eventually the tricks were no longer enough. We were always left asking ourselves, “And what does it mean?” So we started writing.
We wrote the first draft of our script over the course of three months in the dressing room of the show we were touring with. At the time we were touring as professional aerialists with the London based company 360 entertainment’s Peter Pan. In between stage entrances and pre-show coffee Rain and I wrote a story about good and evil, about growing up – of course we were influenced by the voice of Peter while we were in our trailer.
One of the things we’re really interested in is the idea in general of Evil, our portrayal of the Devil is crass, it’s true, Luce smokes, swears, grabs her crotch, is slightly verbally abusive to children, but other than that the only thing that she represents is a catalyst towards change. Rain and I are both interested in eastern philosophy and our Devil might be more like Shiva than Christianity’s Lucifer – she might be Shiva meets Tom Waits.
Being the writers has made the process really fluid, over the last year of working on this piece with molding our choreography and working with the incredible direction of Ben Harrison, if something didn’t work we cut it, if something was needed we wrote it. The script changed up until hours before our debut performance in Santa Fe.
In the end we produced, what we like to think, is truly aerial theatre. We started with the story, the thing that matters, then we weaved in the tricks and the stunts. It’s a high energy show, but throughout we were ruthless about taking out the tricks that didn’t serve the story.
What would I like audience to walk away with? I want them to leave the theatre with the impetus to DO something, anything. Write a haiku, climb a street lamp, visit a playground at 3 in the morning for the hell of it, take the ugly tea cup your that your aunt gave you and never liked and smash it on the floor and laugh.
There are a lot of influences for our story, as well as for the choices we made in terms of medium. You’ll see a lot of allusions to classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Also, some more obscure references like the 90’s American cult classic “Drop Dead Fred.” The visual aesthetic of the piece has a lot of Tim Burton and dark faery tale elements.
We also took a lot from our own lives, much of the script is extremely relevant to our own personal journeys, having to do with taking risks, not being being afraid to embrace our internal misfit, and how much we value imagination and play.
As far as theatrical devices, we take a lot from other performers and artists we respect. Our characters have many influences, ranging from people in our personal lives to characters in movies (Johnny Depp characters have shown up a lot in the development of Luce).
We hope this piece effects people on a very emotional and personal level. We’re driven by storytelling and relevance, rather than the spectacle and entertainment that most people expect when they go to the circus. Our story is about a woman who lost touch with who she was as a child, her dreams, and her desire to jump into the unknown.
Our story offers options to everyone in the audience who may be relating to this woman, hopefully sparking new inspiration to connect with their childhood imagination and moxie.
How did the Paper Doll Militia come together? How long have you been performing; and what are the particular challenges – and the things you enjoy most – about aerial work?
Well, we mentioned earlier that there are a lot of Tim Burton references in our work. Actually, The origin of our company sprouted from the inspiration of one of TIm Burton’s little known poetry books called “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.” This is a book of narrative rhymes, all describing little kids who have some tragic flaw which makes them impossible to love or be loved. We were so intrigued by this idea, being that most people, at one point or another, have experienced feeling like those little kids. We wanted to do a performance about four such characters, and how they come to find community and play. This was The Paper Doll Militia’s first project, a full – length aerial theatre production called Rara Avis.
We started the group, four of us, and performed Rara Avis in Santa Fe, NM in 2007. This show was the beginnings of our development of the genre of Aerial Theatre. We had a narrator, but the characters didn’t have dialogue. We had relationships, but it still felt a bit like “circus acts” strung together by a poetic narration. This is why we dove head first into the classic theatre structure of scripted lines and a clear setting when we started devising “This Twisted Tale.” We needed to break away even more from the structure of circus.
Since Rara Avis The Paper Doll Militia has taken many forms. We’ve produced cabarets in New York City and San Francisco, been a part of a site-specific art instillation festival on an island off the coast of Maine, done Aerial Consulting work for other theatrical companies, taught aerial arts all over the world, and continue to devise new and exciting ways to utilize our aerial and theatrical skills.
Rain addressed how we came together, yes just a bunch of misfit artists coming together with a soft spot for Tim Burton and the need to tell a story while hanging in the air.
What’s hard about this work? It’s hard to say. I love it. Rain and I talk about how running this company realizes all of our interests in one place. We’re a team of two doing the work of 100 and it’s lovely! We write, we climb, we paint, we sew, we think of ways to throw trash cans across the stage so they don’t hit the audience, we go to hardware stores to shop for which industrial chains might be the most fun and least painful to climb on. We make shadow puppets and have late night rehearsals listening to Sigur Ros and Coco Rosie.
Sometimes we answer questions about our work and get to ramble about it like this. Sometimes we don’t sleep much, sometimes our suitcases are really heavy, sometimes we have some hard problem solving, sometimes (usually) our bank accounts are empty. But we do it all together and I can’t think of anything better to do.
Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe before? What are you expecting from it; what are you looking forward to most about being there?
I’ve never been to the Fringe. I’m expecting to see a lot of people with dark circles under their eyes from having poured their soul into their art, and simultaneously being fed on the outpourings of others.
I’ve never been to the Fringe. I went to a performing arts high school, and one year they took a show to the Fringe that I wasn’t in. I was very disappointed, but I knew I’d end up there one day. I’m just grateful to be there for a project that I feel so passionately about.
With the resurgence of interest in variety, cabaret and circus, so you see yourselves fitting into any particular scene or genre? Are your audiences now bigger as a result; or do you have to work just as hard?
Coming from San Francisco, it’s true there are quite a few variety shows and the need for the tidy 3-5 minute act. Rain and I both perform in shows like this on occasion, we have a duo fabric piece as well as a duo ladder act, we each have solos on fabric, rope and chain. But again, especially with aerial work, how much story can be told in 3-5 minutes? A mood, an emotion, a quality can all be told, but a story with depth is much harder to portray in the duration of one pre-recorded song.
Progressing the genre of Aerial Theatre has proven to be another kind of adventure. This Twisted Tale is ‘outside the act’ you might say.
I’ve been involved in the performing arts for 20 years, and circus arts for 8. Since becoming a professional aerial artist, I’ve been involved in many cabaret and variety type shows. But my true love goes back to theatre. You have to have an “act” to be a circus artist. And that’s fun, and satisfying… to a certain extent. But both Sarah and I have existential crisis if we’re only spending our time developing a “circus act.” We need both aspects to be fully present in order to be artistically fulfilled.
So, no, I wouldn’t say our show fits into the categories of variety, cabaret, or circus. The closest match out of those would be circus, because we heavily utilize circus equipment in our show. We don’t just dabble in the circus arts, we’ve trained extensively and use high-skilled aerial choreography in our show. But when it comes down to it, it is a theatre show. So we call it Aerial Theatre.
What do The Paper Doll Militia have planned next, after Edinburgh?
Really, we want to tour this show for as long as the road goes. We’re already going 6,000 miles from home, the world stands open for this Militia. We’d like to tour Europe and eventually bring the show back to the states. For the future, we’ve already started dreaming of our next show, we just can’t stop.
We’re also developing the other side to our company, which is Aerial Consulting for Theatrical Productions. We’re very invested in the development of Aerial Theatre as a genre. We love integrating story with circus and vice versa, and we offer directorial services to outside companies who need help integrating the two together. More information can be found at on our website.
This Twisted Tale runs from 3-29 Aug (not Mondays) at 16:00 at the Out Of The Blue Drill Hall, as part of Leith On The Fringe.