Spectacular Celebration: in conversation with Garry Robson

As professional circus company Extraordinary Bodies takes to the stage at Bristol Old Vic this month to present Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror, award-winning actor Garry Robson tells us how he’s preparing for the lead role in this truly spectacular celebration of diversity and equity…

It’s 1933 Brandenburg and the Nazis are burning books and suspending civil rights. Many are desperate to escape, but for Waldo and his travelling circus of outcasts, acrobats and aerialists, ‘the show must go on’.

As Hitler’s dictatorship strengthens and oppression grows, the daring humanity and courage of this circus troupe stay hidden beneath the painted-on glamour of Waldo’s big top. Love, loyalty and risk-taking balance on the tightwire as the world outside becomes darker and more dangerous.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror is a brilliant new circus theatre musical by Extraordinary Bodies, which has been co-produced with Bristol Old Vic and Theatre Royal Plymouth. Written by Hattie Naylor (Ivan and the Dogs, The Night Watch) and Jamie Beddard (Messiah, The Elephant Man), with an original score by Charles Hazlewood (Paraorchestra), the production is a large-scale collaboration between D/deaf, disabled, and non-disabled artists and creators and is informed by historical research and the experiences of real performers.

Playing Waldo the Ringmaster is award-winning Disabled writer, actor and director Garry Robson. Robson has just completed a national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical playing Donnie Kirshner, having previously starred in Graeae’s Reasons to be Cheerful and The Threepenny Opera, Pericles (National Theatre), Our Town (Regents Park), and the role of Arvide Abernethy in Sheffield Crucible’s Guys and Dolls. He is also a familiar face on television for lead roles in CBBC’s gameshow Crisis Control, BBC Wales Pitching In and BBC’s Silent Witness. This month, Robson lets us in on the spectacular story of love and resistance that is showing at Bristol Old Vic from 11 March to 1 April…

Where did your love for acting, writing and directing first begin? Can you take us back to the moment you decided to pursue a career in performing arts?
My report card invariably read. ‘Would do better if he concentrated more. Acts the class clown’. It was my first good review and it gave me the taste for performance. My great grandparents were the Edwards travelling players, a pop-up theatre company operating between the first and second world wars. My Auntie Pearl had long retired from the family firm but still put on full make up every morning and would love to regale me with theatre tales. Her stage name was Pearl Blanchard and she had been a child star and had performed with Charlie Chaplin in a couple of silent shorts. So you could say it was in the blood. When the school told me I couldn’t be an actor because “there were no disabled actors” but that I should focus on becoming a clerk, the scene was set.

Can you tell us more about the production of Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror and what audiences can expect to see?
It’s a fabulous show that mixes up a heady stew of circus, music and theatre. It’s based upon the experiences of circus performers during the rise of Nazism in 1930’s Germany. Travelling circuses then and now can be surrogate families for people marginalised by society. As you can imagine, these people are proud of their differences and their culture did not sit well with the petty spitefulness of fascism and were gradually weeded out and their performers sent to the extermination camps. This is a story of one such company just as this storm is about to break. But these people didn’t go down without a fight. This is a story of resistance, love and romance and eventually, for some, survival. It’s packed with great circus performances, comedy and punchy powerful songs that drive the narrative. It’s a beautiful piece of new writing that tells a near forgotten story that has strident echoes for the world we seem to be drifting into today. Unmissable.

What first attracted you to the role of Waldo and how has it been slipping into his life?
It’s a great part first and foremost and tells a hidden history of deaf and Disabled people that I felt it was important for people to hear. He’s an arrogant, mouthy character with allegedly a heart of gold so some would say it fits me like a glove.

How have rehearsals been so far? What’s it like working alongside this cast of talented actors?
Busy! It’s a big show and, rather like a travelling circus, everyone’s mucking in and taking on a variety of roles – musician, actor, tumbler, aerialist, clown – which certainly keeps you on your toes. The skill levels are so high I’m proud to be part of this multi-talented ensemble.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
Most of all that they’ll have a good night. Also, maybe think a bit about the spectre of fascism and how it can destroy people because of some haphazard notion of who belongs and who doesn’t. And, of course, I have no doubt they’ll go away whistling the tunes.

How is the approach and attitude towards disability in mainstream theatre changing and improving?
I think the recognition that deaf and Disabled people are not seeking handouts but that they bring something fresh and new to the party and a unique way of looking at the world has finally sunk in. There’s still a way to go but the picture is improving all the time. We’re pretty damn good and have some amazing stories to tell. Come and see this show if you don’t believe me.

What’s next in the pipeline for you?
Well I’ve come to this show straight from a nine-month commercial theatre tour so a bit of rest and a chance to reintroduce myself to the kids would be good. I do also owe a couple of scripts to folk so I’ll incorporate that with writing time.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror is showing at Bristol Old Vic from 11 March – 1 April. Book your tickets at: bristololdvic.org.uk.