Machine-made for laughter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


It's about 5pm and the stage of the Savoy Theatre in the city centre of Helsinki, Finland, is abuzz with action. In just under an hour, the cast of Birdhouse Factory will be wowing the audience not only with their acrobatic stunts but also mechanical know-how.

Transforming props into machines and performers into powerhouses, Cirque Mechanics is a circus act with a mechanical twist. In its trapeze act, for instance, a rotating German wheel doubles as a winder that reels harnessed acrobat Kerren McKeeman up and down in mid-air, while Mongolian contortionist Ganchimeg Oyunchimeg gets all twisty on a turntable-like platform that has four unicycles for wheels.

'It's human power. We don't have an electric machine where you press a button and then I go up and come down,' the 26-year-old McKeeman explains. 'It's my partner who is physically wheeling it up, wheeling it down and using his body weight to displace it. The human body is the power behind the machine.'

The troupe's clown, Jesse Dryden, says the moving platform on which Oyunchimeg performs adds more dynamism to the act. 'We have these machines that say, 'Hey, do you know there's actually a relationship here?' or 'Hey, do you know how this is moving?' That's very distinguishing for this company. What makes it very unique is that we're Cirque Mechanics, so there's a mechanism involved in almost all the acts,' says Dryden.

Hong Kong audiences will be able to catch the Cirque Mechanics later this year.

The American troupe was founded by a group of former Cirque du Soleil artists in 2004. Dryden, a 38-year-old comedian who has been with the company for four years, says he has ambivalent feelings towards his former employer: 'On one hand Cirque du Soleil has opened up the world to circus, and made it possible for a company like ours to exist.

'On the other hand, everything that you do looks like [an imitation] of what they're doing. So you have to work very hard to not imitate and maintain that calibre.'

To do that, co-founder and creative director Chris Lashua has created a unique show, taking inspiration from the industry murals of Mexico-born artist Diego Rivera, illustrations of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and humour from the movie Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. Set in a time during the Great Depression, the Birdhouse Factory revolves around the importance of maintaining hope in times of turmoil and how a change of management in a factory brings life to the robotic and depressed factory workers.

What really makes the show stand out, says Dryden, lies in the way 'mechanism affects circus acrobatics'.

The show has toured more than 70 cities in 11 countries (including North America, the Middle East and Europe) and been seen by more than a million people. Having a small crew - 10 performing artists plus four technicians - means the production is easy to tour but its big set - 5,000 kilograms of steel and wood - needs to be taken apart and reassembled every time they move.

According to the company, it takes about 12 hours to set up the first show at a new venue and three hours to pack everything up again. It's a time-consuming process that puts teamwork to the test.

'It's almost old-school circus when it comes to this - we don't have, like, 50 people working behind stage who are throwing us our props or helping us with this or packing our stuff as we go,' says Viktoria Grimmy, a 22-year-old acrobat who does the Hula Hoop Act. '[We're] one big machine - back stage and in front of stage.'

The challenge doesn't stop there. While everybody is now familiar with their routine, being on the road means performing at venues of different sizes and characteristics. The crew have to practise at each new venue to ensure the show runs smoothly. 'A good example is that this stage [in Helsinki] is very difficult for us, because it's [at an angle]. The guy who's playing the German wheel had to practise quite a bit because it's very difficult to spin your wheel on an angled surface,' says Dryden.

But touring around the globe as a group also helps cast members adapt to different places faster and easier. 'When the only constant is each other, then that becomes the thing that you rely on to keep you sane,' says Dryden.

McKeeman concurs: 'The cool thing about travelling with a group is that you really bond. You get to know new places you've never been, you don't speak the language and we sort of all explore that place together. So you definitely create a really close group of friends.'

Grimmy says the friendships come in handy on stage too: 'We're always there for each other. If my hula-hoop flies out of my hand, someone will run across the stage to get it. It's like a good close family for however long we go on tour. We're here to get each other's backs.'

And no matter where they are, the trio are confident that the message and humour of their show will come through and the audience will be entertained.

This autumn, Birdhouse Factory is pulling into Hong Kong, and the cast are excited about bringing laughter to the stage of the Lyric Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

'We've always thought the show is universal and [we believe in] its ability to appeal to anyone - everyone understands what it means to be sad and what it means to be hopeful. So it's got an emotional level there,' says Dryden.

'Humour is always adjusting for every audience, so when we go to Hong Kong, it will be interesting to see which humour translates. We don't speak. It's all physical comedy.

'The show catches people off guard. They don't really expect a circus to come out of this factory. They expect more of a theatre production,' he says.

'So when there's an actual circus there's astonishment and that is one of our winning edges, as far as we're doing something different.'

Birdhouse Factory, Nov 30-Dec 3, Dec 6-10, 7.45pm, Dec 3, 10, 3pm, Dec 4, 11, 11am, 4pm, Lyric Theatre, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai, HK$395-HK$795 HK Ticketing