The Invisible Circus - From Squatting to Circus and beyond,
The founders of the Invisibles Doug Francis and Wim Penhaul first met in Portugal in 1996 when they were both street performers.
Doug had a lucrative street theatre statue show and Wim was a highly talented juggler who struggled to make money.
They hung out in the Algarve, performing in the street together and staging parties where they met a Fire performer called Jen Kaos from New Zealand, who then invited them over. Doug went on an initial mission in early 97 and met an agent who helped to set up some gigs for the following winter season. Wihtout realizing it they had become an international Circus Troupe. This resulted in several years of working out there seasonally doing all kinds of events, from arts festivals and interventions in an italianite chapel to Womad Festival and commercial events for huge telecom companies.
It was a hugely creative time for everyone involved as their kind of street theatre wasnt much of a thing when they first started to work out there. Wim and Doug met, worked with and inspired local performers who have since carried on the tradition with some of them even following them home, such as Kino McDonald, now a Lord of Lightning with Arcadia! They also learnt new skills themselves - Doug even tried to teach Wim to stilt walk but neglected to tell him in time how to fall over - Wim toppled face first and broke both his arm.
They were living in a converted toilet of an Arts College, busking on the street during the day indoor gigs by night, even putting on suits and hustling $10,000 corporate gigs on occasion, which was handy as they had no tickets home. They learnt about the art of saying yes to everything, and then working out how to do it later on.
They realised that in the UK at the time street performers were seen as beggars, in Europe as buskers but in New Zealand they were an international circus!
For the next few years they worked in various ways all over the world. Wim spent a stretch working as a performer in a Wild West theme park in Spain then doing circus gigs at night. Doug went back to a wet, cold noisy hovel in Vauxhaul. This was not living the dream! Both of them still wanted to form a circus. Back in the early 90’s free festival and party scene everyone was going to start a circus, in many ways that whole scene was a reincarnation of a much older tradition and form of mass entertainment, but quite often the show never quite came together, the party took over, Doug still wanted a real one.
Why a whole circus? Because of the potential and excitement of collaboration, They were working with a whole range of people anyway and they were passionate about inspiring people, about shared creativity and about giving a space to people with talent but nowhere to share it. The street had been their ring, the cast an ever changing line up of international hobo freaks, changing city by city, festival to festival, this was one of the reasons for the name, it appeared and disappeared as if by magic in streets and plazas, the circus of life ion the theatre of freedom!
In 2002 They became involved with Lost Vagueness. They were offered a Juice bar with two stilt walkers by Vagueness founder Roy Gurvitz , and after showing him a photo of long time collaborator Petra Koehler’s truck they convinced him that they had a stage and full show all ready to roll, more or less. Roy was probably more taken with the Truck than the circus and gave them the nod. They then had to make this a reality, pillaging scaffolding from squats and working with a random tribe of squatters, circus freaks as well as Mutoid maestro Joe Rush to create a stage and show. And so The First Renegade Fabulon Travelling Sideshow Stage was born.
They had planned a theatrical mime Circus show played out to soundtracks but left the CD’s behind, so once at Glasto ended up running a crazed cabaret stage where Doug compered for the first time. Highlights included Andy the Sex Droid angle grinding his penis off and the guys who would eventually become Flame Oz (they didnt angle grind anything off) as well as a cast randomly dragged out of the audience or friends who they had known from their travels who saw the sign and got involved. Packing down one night after a crazy show Doug inadvertantly tried to throw his hero Joe Strummer off the stage as he caught him trying to walk through the backstage unaware of his identity.
After this they worked within Lost Vagueness for several years, in 2005 after a deranged season of back to back Uk festivals, top and tailed by a huge Tsunami relief mission and Hurricane Katrina benefit tour post Burning Man they crash landed back in London and having met some good Bristol crew over summer decided to give it a shot, turning up with a few battered suitcases, costumes and a broken guitar. Within this period Wim and Doug met their respective partners Shelly and Sarah who also work within the company.
Bristol was easier because there was a lot of empty space and a huge creative community, as well as it would turn out more support from the council to open and use disused public spaces. A member of the council arts team Ruth Essex came to one of the earliest events and decided to support what she perceived to be good work. At the time thanks to Ruth and the Capacity project there was also a greater level of discretionary rates relief available to arts and artists, something which has unfortunately now been rolled back in the face of austerity. This helped the Invisibles legitimise themselves and started an ongoing relationship with the local council property services.
After opening and operating out of a range of spaces over several years (including a car showroom, a a derelict cathedral, two police stations and eventually the iconic Island space in the center of town) The Invisibles hosted Carny ville, their most famous set of shows to date, a huge fully immersive extravaganza spread across a police station, fire station and courts building. - A total spectacle involving hundreds of performers, riggers, technicians and artists. The first Carny ville was funded off Wim’s credit card (as with much of the Circus’s initial escapades and adventures), one fairly good credit history being able to spawn a hugely ambitious show and company. They had met so many people in their travels around the globe as well as Bristol being such a melting pot of artists that it was easy to find incredible performers.
Carny ville was a real high point in Bristol culture, triggering off a batch of artists and an aesthetic that can be seen widely across the festival circuit today.
It also had a big impact on the wider Bristol community, as Doug says: “Carny ville was a way for people who would never otherwise see it to experience the best of squat culture” This an integral part of what The Invisibles as a culture try to perpetuate. “We want to open up a free space where creative Anarchy can still reign.” Doug states : “In my life, everything exciting and inspiring, everything non-commercial, bit by bit has been stamped on and shut down or at best commercialized by profit driven entities. From the free festivals to the rave scene in the 90’s through the Criminal justice bill and criminalizing of Squatting, every time some fresh cultural movement starts up, its beaten down. So we decided that the best form of defense was attack, to jump through all the hoops, to fulfil the paperwork, to make it safe, so we could create a space where the people have the power, where we could give that space for people to gather in free association, the right to free assembly that has actually been taken away from us along with so many other of our civil liberties.”
Its been a massive learning curve though. The reality of living and working out of the Island was tough. With huge heating bills, endless meetings to try and find concensus as to how to run the space and often a lack of volunteers to carry out the decisions collectively agreed, not enough hands on deck for the unpleasant and yet very necessary tasks required, it had a lot of drawbacks, it was too big, too many people, to ambitious but it had to be done, it was also to amazing, to beautiful, to inspiring not to make it happen. They found that the time in the Island taught them an incredible amount about production values and processes but it also taught them the importance of creating a company culture and ethos, and the core values of community behind running a company.
So where to now for The Invisibles? They are currently based out of Unit 15 a legally rented warehouse space that offers a stable base for them to work from.
A lot of their current work is supporting other companies and as such goes under the radar. The unit 15 creation space has hosted a huge range of circus companies from Pirates of the Carabina to Arcadia to Circ Bijou to name but a few. The Invisibles offer a massive amount of knowledge, cut price kit hire and discounted rehearsal space for companies that otherwise would not be able to afford to keep running and creating shows. This has established a thriving creative hub in Bristol where people can go to train, build and participate in a range of creative conversations and explorations.
Its central to The Invisibles squat anarcho ethos to share what resources they have.
They also have a 5 year Lease on the Loco Club under Bristol Temple Meads, which is already gaining a reputation for its unusual and excellent nights out.
As to their own work, sometimes Wim admits the scale and legitmacy of the company can be artistically quite stifling. “It can be disempowering to try and fit into the boxes that funding providers are asking for.”
The Invisibles try not to rely on Arts Council or any other core funding, (although some individual shows have been supported by ACE) feeling that it can be like asking permission to build a show, that its better just to make work. They are not sure if that’s innovative or just blindly optimistic.
They have worked on a range of corporate shows and external bookings recently but are currently looking to focus more on their own work as it offers them a more exciting chance to exercise their own creative production values and that the artistic and technical process is better.
The Invisibles stress the importance of naivety when it comes to taking on massive shows like Carny ville, and that sometimes its just worth saying yes to something and then working out how to do it later. As Gerry Cottle the grandee of Uk circus once said “if we had really thought this through and written it all down, we never would have don’t it!”
At the center of their ethos is this ability to create and maintain a creative community, something which is almost taken for granted but is the absolute backbone of a whole range of artistic endevours. The crazier the suggestion the more likely the Invisibles are to support it, the company motto once stating – if its not impossible, we’re not interested! A lasting message that was handed to Doug by the first street performer he ever met also still stands, “we share what we have brother, we share what we have!”
I think the lasting legacy of the company will be this culture of mutual support that has come straight from the squatting and street theatre scene. In these increasing less enlightened times I feel we need this more than ever.