By Emily Fulton
I get it, act creation can be hard. If you’ve ever struggled while creating an act, or you’re just looking for some fresh inspiration, read on! Over the many years I have spent creating acts as a youth circus performer, I have found a few ways to take that “ouch” out of act creation. Here is a list of ten of my favorite tips to make your act creation process seamless and your act look as natural as the breath that fills your lungs. Believe me, the extra work that you put in now as you create your act will pay off tenfold in the “oohs” and “ahhs” of your audience. Now let’s get started!
1. Find Where (and How) You Create Best
Some people thrive in busy studio environments, and others prefer calm, quiet spaces, but either way, find where you create best and work there. If you work best while listening to music, then listen away, my friend. If you fancy creating with a notebook and pencil, do that. If you feed off of the creative energy of your circus studio, try creating there. It doesn’t matter so much where you work, but it matters way more that you find a place where your creative juices flow freely.
I invented this trick while experimenting with my lyra, in my living room!
2. Choose the right music early on in the creation process
This is where I usually slip up– I wait until the last possible minute to choose my music. Like seriously, the day before the show, I will still be debating between two or three songs. Don’t make my mistake! Take time early on in the creation process to choose a song that fits your theme. It’s important that you like the music you pick, but equally important that it fits the mood and story of your act. I know this is going to be a huge surprise, but a high-paced act is not going to be a huge hit if slow jazz music is playing. Another thing you will want to consider is whether there are any lyrics in your music, and what the lyrics say. Lyrics can make or break your performance, so make sure any lyrics in the song fit into the story in your act. It’s also totally fine to completely stay away from lyrics and stick to instrumentals instead (that’s what I usually do), so you don’t have to worry about them fitting into your theme. Lastly, be sure to follow any guidelines (such as you may only use copyright-free music with clean language) put forth by your studio or venue when choosing music
3. Go Internet Spelunking
For me, this is the most fun! Head on over to your buddy Google or my friend Insta and see what inspiration they have for you. New tricks, fun sequences you’ve never thought to try, lighting ideas, story prompts you couldn’t imagine, costume inspiration; it’s all fair game for you to explore. I even watch dancers to see how they time their movements perfectly to the music, and gymnasts, in awe of their beautifully crafted, clean skills, with a whole lot of grace sprinkled in between. You, of course, want to be careful that you don’t copycat a whole act you saw online and call it your own, but you can definitely have some fun trying new sequences and experimenting with other inspiration you found online.
This is a trick that I learned from the internet that I added into my lyra act!
4. Use the Notecard Creation System
For me, this system is tried and true. It was taught to me many years ago by Jackie Davis, my first circus coach, and I choreographed my first solo act using it. I still use variations of this system all the time in my advanced performance troupe. It’s very simple, but very useful. Start off by writing each trick you think you would like to put in your act on a COLORFUL notecard. Be sure to put each type of trick on a different color notecard; so if I was making a contortion act I could put splits on blue, standing tricks on yellow, and back folds on green. Then lay all of your cards out on a table or on the floor in an order that you like. The order is completely up to you, but I find my acts look the best if I break up similar tricks, so I try to never have more than two tricks of the same “color” in a row. Next, try your act out in the order you have laid out. See how it goes, and then move the cards around to switch the order. Keep repeating this process (reorder cards, try running new trick order) over and over and over again until you have an act that you are happy with, and remember that you can always go back and rearrange the cards later.
5. Get Inspired with Prompts
I just LOVE to get my creative juices flowing by creating short pieces based on prompts. You can do this in a few different ways, so there are really endless possibilities to how you can utilize this strategy. To start, you need your prompts. You can either brainstorm them on your own or with friends, or you can use a premade list. I often use writing prompts (crazy, right?). You should be able to find about a thousand lists if you just ask your BFF Google, but I have this one you might like. Then I like to use this approach; pull a prompt randomly out of a hat, spend five minutes “drafting”, another five minutes to polish and add transitions, and then perform! I find this is the most fun if you do this exercise with a group of good-natured circus friends who won’t take your act too seriously. You can each make an act and perform it after the ten minutes is up. Remember, the goal of this exercise is simply to utilize the prompt, your creativity, and your circus skill set as best as you can with only ten minutes to prepare, but if you find a prompt that really inspires you, feel free to run with it and create a fully performable piece!
6. Ask for Constructive Criticism
This part is a bit difficult for all of us, am I right? No one enjoys being reminded of their flaws, but when you’re making a performance piece is just when you need that comment on form. I hate to admit it, but sometimes my acts are just missing something. My coach’s comment of “smile more,” “point your toes,” or “work on your transitions” is often just what I need to hear to take my act to that next level. Find someone (a coach, a circus friend, a parent) who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth about what they honestly think about your act. I try to get multiple opinions from both “circus people” and “normal people” so I have a good read of how my act is on a technical level and how an audience member would perceive it. On top of the direct benefits (having an awesome act), accepting and seeking out constructive criticism shows that you are a mature, dedicated circus artist who is willing to do whatever it takes to make your performance the best that it can be. It shows that you know that you aren’t perfect but you are willing to do the work that it takes to improve.
7. Remember the transitions
Transitions may be my least favorite part of an act to consider, but I think they are definitely one of the most important pieces of the puzzle when you’re trying to create a truly mesmerizing act. Transitions can take an act from “just okay” (or even downright cringy) to dazzling with only a few minutes of work. I think the most important thing to think about with your transitions is that you need to do something. No, I don’t just mean tuck up onto the bar and go straight into your next trick. I mean add some pizzazz! Instead, you could try adding an improvised split on your way up. This will make your act WAY more interesting for your audience. You don’t always need to use big movements in your transitions either! A perfectly timed hair flick is often just as effective as a physical trick. Remember, most importantly, transitions are a time for you to connect with your audience. They’re the time for you to flash a beaming grin to the little girl in the front row, flow to the music you spent so much time choosing, or show off an extra skill. They are the piece of your act that tells your audience, “I spent time thinking about this, and my act is not just ordinary, it’s EXTRAORDINARY.”
This is a trick that I invented and used as a transition at the end of my act!
8. Practice, Practice, Practice
I know you’ve been told this a gazillion times, but I’m going to tell you again; you need to practice your act…a lot. Make a point of practicing it at every opportunity you have to use your apparatus, even when you’re a little bit tired, and especially when you think your routine is as good as it will ever get. Play around with all of the different variables at play in your performance; music, costume, lighting. Be sure to practice without these things too, because you never know when there will be a tech problem during your performance. Believe me, your act can always be polished and buffed up by a few extra minutes of training. With enough practice, performing your act will feel like second nature, so you can perform with confidence and poise. Even professional performers are constantly practicing and looking for ways to improve their acts, so you’re in good company 🙂
9. Don’t be afraid to add new tricks into your act as your skills and confidence increase
As you spend more time with your apparatus, you will surely learn new tricks that you will want to incorporate into your act. How awesome! Your hard work and practice are paying off and you now have an opportunity to make your act better than ever before. You might be wondering, however, how you would go about adding these awesome tricks into your act. Personally, I like to add any new tricks straight into my sequences. For example, if I am trying to incorporate a new split on the bottom bar of my lyra, I would add that into my already made bottom bar sequence. You can also look for moments in your act that are lacking a certain skill set and add your trick in there. When I see a section of my act has three different splits in a row, I often try to break them up by putting a new strength trick in between. This not only adds in your new trick, but it also makes your act more interesting for the audience!
This is one of the tricks that I am hoping to add into my lyra act soon!
10. Consider Your Ambiance
Lighting, sound, costume; these details create your ambiance. According to Oxford Languages, ambiance means “the character and atmosphere of a place,” so naturally, this is an essential concept for you to consider as a circus performer. The message that your appearance, props, and environment send to your audience is way more significant than you would imagine. Try to think about how your costume, sound effects, lighting, props, and other details can (and will) transport your audience into your character’s world. But remember, this is YOUTH circus! Don’t get too caught up in creating ambiance quite yet in your journey, but it is still a good idea to spend a few minutes considering the atmosphere that you would like to create for your audience.
I hope that finding the space where your creativity flows, choosing the right music at the right time, going internet spelunking, using notecards, getting inspo from prompts, seeking out constructive criticism, considering your transitions, practicing, adding new skills, and considering ambiance will take your act to the next level. If you only remember one thing from this article, I want you to remember to have fun. Yes, it can get stressful, especially when you are working with deadlines, but act creation should be an exciting process to develop a piece that you can truly be proud of. Give this process the time and respect that it deserves. You never know who your act will inspire.