The Circus Of Liberty - April 1980

Submitted by root on Wed, 12/10/2014 - 17:20

Circus of Liberty - The Blackie's Easter playscheme for 1980 - took place between April 5th and April 13th in both the upper and lower dome areas at the front of The Blackie building.

The decision to hold the playscheme in the two dome areas was taken because at this time much of The Blackie building (apart from the dome areas) was occupied by a large scale re-building programme and was effectively a building site.

Preparations for the playscheme  began some 6 weeks before in late February with a team of Blackie staff and kids clearing the two dome areas of various items - bricks, timber, etc. This work made available a roomy, circular space at ground floor level with a high domed ceiling and at semi-basement level a circular but more enclosed space - the two spaces connected by a semi-spiral staircase.

The Idea

We decided early on that the playscheme should illustrate the simple but important idea that 'it is better to be kind than to be cruel' - and that this idea should be demonstrated in an accessible and playful way through a circus performance with a ringmaster and performing animals.

We also decided that the circus performance (to be held in the upper dome on the final day of the playscheme) should be the culmination to a series of workshops (to be held in the lower dome) which would run throughout the 10 day playscheme, creating and producing circus props (to help transform the upper dome into a big top) and various circus costumes (including, of course, animal costumes) for the circus performers.

As well as planning for the workshops and for the transformation of the upper dome into a big top environment, we also allocated time to produce a script/story for the culminating Circus of Liberty performance.

It is worth noting that nearly all activities undertaken by The Blackie are based on the exploration of a theme. The theme for the Circus of Liberty playscheme can be summed up by the words 'it is better to be kind than to be cruel'. But this was one of the very few occasions at The Blackie when a theme was explored through a story with characters. The creation of a story with characters can be an attractive proposition for both kids and adults. But on the 'negative' side a story with characters (in this case a ringmaster and some performing animals) used to explore a theme, can detract from the power and energy of the theme by introducing psychological drama - and even melodrama to the activities.

These possible drawbacks taken into account, members of Blackie staff and kids worked together to produce a story/script for the Circus of Liberty playscheme.

The Script

For those who wish to access the full story/script of the Circus of Liberty performance, please click here. What follows is a condensed version.

Once upon a time there was a small village where everyone wore a heart pinned to their chest. They also wore hats with long colourful plaits of hair hanging down. The village was called 'The village of Hearts and Plaits'. One day a circus came to the village. It was Jack O' Diamonds' circus. Jack O' Diamonds was the circus ring master. The villagers watched in disbelief as the ringmaster  conducted performing animals in a circus show. The ringmaster used a whip and sometimes a stick to punish the animals who did not perform properly.

The ringmaster with the pandaThe ring master with the monkeyThe ringmaster with the bearThe ring master working with the elephant

The villagers were amazed at the ringmaster's cruelty. They asked him why he couldn't be kinder?

Jasmine cabbage leading the villagers in protest After some protest the ringmaster threw open his jacket to reveal a diamond shaped stone where his heart should have been. No wonder he was so cruel to the animals.

Left Jasmine Cabbage leading the villagers in protest.


The Queen of Hearts appeared through the crowd of villagers and went to the centre of the circus ring. Opening her cloak with a flourish she revealed a row of spare hearts pinned to her chest. She told the ringmaster he could have one of the spare hearts and then called for surgeons to perform a heart transplant operation.

The Queen of Hearts holdiong a heart for the ring master

Left the Queen Of Hearts holding a heart for the ring master

A hush came over the villagers the surgical team arrived. Anaesthetic was given and the operation began. The diamond heart was extracted and replaced by the new heart. 


The surgical team arriveThe surgical team prepare for the operationPreparing the anaestheticadminstering the anaestheticstarting the operationReplacing the heart

Above pictures of the surgical team arriving, administering the anaesthetic , and transplanting the heart

Recovering from the operation

The ringmaster was sewn up again. When he came round from the anaesthetic he was a changed man. He never mistreated the animals again. In honour of this change of heart,  from cruelty to kindness, the circus was re-named the Circus of Liberty.

Above the Ringmaster comes round

As an example of how ideas at The Blackie often take off from what's 'in the air' at the time, the idea that the ringmaster's change of heart could be dramatically illustrated by a surgical heart transplant is a good one. While, at the time, 1980, actual heart transplants had been carried out for some time, they were still 'in the air' as one of the most important surgical procedures imaginable. And this gave the ringmaster's operation a fitting dramatic edge as a high point in the Circus of Liberty performance.

The names of the kids and adults who produced the full story/script for Circus of Liberty have, unfortunately, been lost over the intervening decades.

The Costume Workshops

There were 5 performing animals in the circus. Their costumes were made from various kinds of soft cloth and other soft materials. For example: fake fur, towelling fabrics and wool. We decided on a 'soft look' for the costumes because a basic point of the circus performance was that the animals were being ill-treated and a 'soft look' would help them to appear both natural and appealing and help to win the audience's sympathies to their side.

The 5 animals who performed in the circus were: A Lion - An Elephant - A Panda - A Monkey- A Brown Bear.

Heads for the animals were also made in these workshops. We experimented with a range of materials: chicken wire, papier mache, gauze, plaster of paris, bandages, etc. We discovered that heads produced using these kinds of materials were both too heavy and too 'hard' for the sort of performance we envisaged. So, these 'first generation' heads were mounted on plaques and became a part of the big top environment being created in the upper dome.

The first heads being madeThe first lions head being madeThe first lions head almost finishedThe antelope head being worked onThe heads in postiion over the dome door

Above the first generation of heads being made in the lower dome. Left the heads in position above the entrance to the upper dome.

 The 'second generation' of animal heads, used in the performance, were made of much lighter materials. For example: foam rubber, card, etc. The eyes for these heads were made from wooden beads - and for the monkey from a table tennis ball cut in half, each half becoming an eye.

The other performers in the circus also needed costumes.

Costume making workshops

Above costume making workshops - Sally showing off the Queen Of Hearts hat.

The Queen of Hearts wore an amazing, long, white dress - borrowed from Liverpool's Everyman Theatre. Her crown and cloak and spare The Queen of Hearts with villagershearts were made in the costume workshops. Jack O' Diamonds wore a red tail coat - borrowed from the Everyman Theatre. His black top hat was made in the costume workshops. His ringmaster's whip was borrowed from John Knox (a friend of The Blackie). And his shirt, deemed suitable for a ringmaster, was provided by Bill Harpe (a member of Blackie staff). His trousers, also deemed suitable for a ringmaster, were his own.  Right The Queen of Hearts with villagers 

Making the plaits for the villagersmaking the plaitsThe villagers appeared in their own clothes. But they wore hats with long, string plaits dyed in different colours and hearts made from paper and fabric pinned to their chests. Hats, hearts and plaits were made in the costume workshops.

Left the villagers making their plaits

The surgeons - who carried out the heart transplant - were dressed in genuine surgical gowns, hats and face masks - all loaned to The Blackie for the performance by local Liverpool hospitals. The surgeons also came equipped with an operating trolley and a drip feed - also loaned by local Liverpool hospitals.

Transforming The Upper Dome

starting work on the upper domeThe work of transforming the upper dome into a big top environment took place concurrently with the prop and costume making workshops happening in the lower dome.

The transformation of the upper dome was led by Wendy Harpe (a member of Blackie staff), and a small team of kids and adults.

Over the course of the playscheme a colourful circus frieze was created Painting the frieze - showing clowns, stilt walkers, etc. The frieze was made by painting onto large sections of paper which were to hang side by side around the walls of the dome. The frieze making workshop began, along with the other making workshops, in the lower dome. But we soon discovered a larger space was needed and the workshop was moved into the upper dome.

Picture right painting the frieze

Frieze going up on the dome walls

As sections of the circus frieze were completed they went up around the dome walls, reaching a height of some twelve feet. To complete the transformation and to give the upper dome a big top style feel, swathes of cloth, some red, some yellow, were hung from the centre of the dome ceiling, reaching down some 40 feet to meet the top of the paper frieze.

Hanging the cloth hanging the clothThe dome dressed with lights and garlands

The dome being transformed with cloths and lights

The Rehearsals

The rehearsals for the circus performance took place largely in the dome. They were scheduled so as not to clash with the work of dome to big top transformation. Rehearsals were led by Bill Harpe (a choreographer and member of Blackie staff).

The villagers rehearsing their dancesBill and Sally giving the performers notes

Above villagers rehearsing their dance and  Bill and Sally giving the performers notes.

As well as teaching the performers their moves the rehearsals revealed a problem: that humans dressed up as animals performing animal tricks (jumping through hoops, walking upright, etc) are not very exciting. The solution to emerge was that the animals should perform 'kids' tricks - given that the tricks were done well and were a little unusual. So, the rehearsals produced: a roller skating monkey, a cycling and hoola hooping bear, a weight lifting lion, a dart throwing elephant and a skipping panda.

Bill Harpe rehearsing the lionBill rehearsing the surgical team

Above Bill rehearsing the weight lifting lion and the surgical team

The rehearsals for the surgeons - who were to carry out the heart transplant on the circus ringmaster - took place in the lower dome. This was because they needed to rehearse with their surgical equipment (an operating trolley and a drip feed) and these could not be brought into the upper dome until the time came for them to play their part in the performance. Some accuracy was achieved by the surgeons, both in rehearsals and in the performance, not only because of their props, but also because the surgical team of kids was led by Julie Hallam (a friend of The Blackie and a one time registered nurse).

The ringmaster, 'borrowed' from The Crawford Art Centre in Liverpool (a friend of The Blackie and one time member of Blackie staff), Ed George Collinson, became too busy with The Crawford's own spring event to take part in most of the rehearsals.  So, we invented a new character, 'Jasmine Cabbage', to be an onstage storyteller-cum-director to make sure the final rehearsals happened in the right order. With only 4 hours to go before the actual performance our ringmaster arrived from The Crawford and rehearsed the entire show three times without any of the other performers to help him.

The Show

The show starts with the opening of the large double doors in the upper dome - the main entrance at the front of The Blackie building. Once the audience have come in - greeted with offers of tea and coffee - Jasmine Cabbage enters to announce the start of the performance. An hour later - when the animals have done their tricks - when the wicked ringmaster has had his change of heart, from cruelty to kindness by way of a heart transplant, and the show draws to a close, we served cakes and biscuits and more tea and coffee. The animals, the team of surgeons, the reformed ringmaster, the audience and the villagers from the Village of Hearts and Plaits ended the afternoon celebrating together.

The Ringmaster with new heart meets the animalsThe Ringmaster at the party with his new heart

Above the Ringmaster meets the animals after the operation and at the after show party with his new heart.

Cast and audience celebratings

Left cast and audience celebrate

Three quotes from The Blackie publication 'The State Of Play' - a report on Blackie playscheme activities published in 1971:

"Michelangelo once said that the best sculpture was one you could roll down a hill and find in one piece at the bottom. This showed it had an inner strength as well as an external aesthetic value - Today, instead of rolling the stone down the hill, give it to the children to play with."

"To transform, decorate, change or build a large environment around a theme can have 40 plus children working together towards one end. It is a communal game with no losers."

"The mind is a muscle."

We would like to thank the many kids and adults (no record exists of the numbers) who contributed their time and energy to the Circus Of Liberty playscheme - both as performers and as makers in the workshops.


Of the individuals and companies who contributed different materials to the playscheme we can name six: David Newton and Phillip Carter at Littlewoods J.M Centre in Liverpool, Mr. N Kincade, administrator - Mossely Hill Hospital in Liverpool, Mr. Law, Supplies Officer - Liverpool Area Health Authority, Sefton General Hospital, The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool.

We would also like to thank all those who contributed time, energy and materials to the Circus Of Liberty playscheme - but whose names have been lost in the mists of time.