Updated closure information

12 June, 2020

 

Laurel Frank has been designing and making costumes for Circus Oz since it was founded in 1978.

While her costumes are often bold, fun and cheeky, they have to stand up to serious punishment when performers leap, slide, climb and tumble. I spoke to her to find out what it’s like working for Circus Oz, and how she helps the performers look so spectacular.

Did you always want to be involved in the performing arts?

It wasn't really a career option on offer when I was at school. But I had always been drawn to it, and it's only in the last few years I've really put together how much of my family has had some involvement in showbiz – my father was involved on the fringes of the New Theatre in the 1940s. And so the groundwork was there.

I worked on a play and then that was it. The Australian Performing Group was the first collective ragtag company in Melbourne that focused on making new work, with Australian voices. Because it was a collective I was able to do a whole range of things – I had little parts in plays, then I did stage management work, as well as lighting design and rigging. I was the tech on shows, and then we created the initial circus company, which was Soapbox Circus.

It was very political, and they were consciously very open [to all kinds of people and ideas]. So a huge range of people got to walk in the door, and be accepted. The Feminist Collective, of which I was a part, demanded and created opportunities. It was an extraordinary, open time, therefore very volatile and full of huge arguments. I feel like I've grown up with that sort of really feisty dialogue as part of the work. So I don't get hugely fazed. I feel like I can see those things for what they are, that the tension of creating work can lead to people reacting… all those amazing egos all competing.

 

Members of Matchbox Circus and Soapbox Circus, c.1976

 

Members of Matchbox Circus and Soapbox Circus, c.1976. Gift of Circus Oz, 1986
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

What technical challenges are there in creating costumes that can stand up to circus performance?

With acrobats and aerialists, bending and stretching every which way, it's very hard on costume fabrics. Trying to use lighter fabrics is often doomed, they just really don't last. In something like the Chinese Pole act, people slide up and down and that creates a lot of friction – which is heat. And you can burn the fabric and burn the person if you've used the wrong thing.

Something I've experienced a lot over the years is, I'll ask people, “What are you doing [in your act]?” and they'll say, “Oh, no, I probably won't do X, Y and Z”. And then two weeks later, they are trying to nail X, Y and Z. Three weeks later, they'll be doing it. So I've had to try and think ahead, because the acrobats are really ambitious, and as soon as they've mastered something, they're pushing it in another direction. And that can really have costume implications. So I disbelieve them in the nicest possible way… and do what I think is right.

 

Chinese Pole costume designed by Laurel Frank, c. 1990

 

Chinese Pole costume designed by Laurel Frank, c. 1990. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Was costume influenced by Circus Oz’s social and political commentary?

Both consciously and not consciously. It went back to how individual performers wanted to be seen. It might be a man wanting to wear a tutu or a dress, or a woman wanting to be in a suit and do an acrobatic act. Because of the politics of the time, some of the choices were conscious: we wanted to challenge gender stereotypes. But a lot of it was just “that's what they want to do”.

 

Robin Laurie wears Laurel Frank’s costume for her character Lance Corporal Joanie Spagoni

 

Robin Laurie wears Laurel Frank’s costume for her character Lance Corporal Joanie Spagoni, with a circus ‘elephant’, c.1985
Photograph by Michel Lawrence. Gift of Michel Lawrence, Cultural Gifts Program, 2005. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

How is circus different to other performing arts?

The focus is on that effort that an individual performer makes to conquer a skill and find a theatrical form for it and present it to an audience. Acts are created around particular people and their unique style and look and intention, and their particular skill. And what audiences really love is just seeing that effort. Seeing somebody conquering doing that exceptional, weird, life-threatening thing for one second, two seconds, three seconds.

What circus does is provide the context for that presentation. The costume, the music, the lighting all put focus on that little conquest that the performer has made.

 

Laurel Frank’s original design for a ‘Gladiator’ costume for Michael Ling, 1993

 

Laurel Frank’s original design for a ‘Gladiator’ costume for Michael Ling, 1993. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Are there performers you have particularly valued working with?

There are so many. People like Sarah Ward, a cabaret performer, who come along fully formed and they just go, “This is me, and this is what I want to do. And this is what I want to wear”.

The opposite experience is working with a young performer who doesn't know [what they want], who's a little bit shy and their whole focus is on mastering a skill, or just conquering nerves to be able to get out there in the ring. So you're working with those people over the years and watching a confident personality emerge on stage. That's really fantastic.

 

Laurel Frank’s ‘Gladiator’ costume for Lu Guang Rong, 1993

 

Laurel Frank’s ‘Gladiator’ costume for Lu Guang Rong, 1993. Gift of Laurel Frank.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

Do you have any favourite costumes?

It's a bit hard when there are so many, and considering the speed with which I've had to work a lot of the time. So much of the work is in service of a show that's going out quickly, or something that's got to be durable. Or where someone's going to rub up against someone else, so you can't have any beading on it. It's often about something that really successfully nails all of those restrictions, yet still looks gorgeous. There have been aerial costumes where they have just looked really stylish and beautiful. And completely right for the people.

 

Strawberry suit designed by Laurel Frank, 1979

 

Strawberry suit designed by Laurel Frank, 1979. Gift of Robin Laurie. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

 

The Australian Performing Arts Collection has a collection of over 40 costumes from the first two decades of Circus Oz. We are currently working with Laurel Frank and Circus Oz to collect from recent performances by this important Australian company.

 

Ian Jackson
Assistant Curator, Theatre and Popular Entertainment
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

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