So and So Circus Theatre’s Backgammon For Beginners tells the story of a young man arriving from Iran in the midst of 1970s London. Kaveh Rahnama of So and So Circus Theatre tells us more.
Could you tell me a little bit about the background of the production?
It’s quite epic! How can I explain this in a short way?
It started based on the stories of my father, who came over from Iran in the 1970s. We found though then when we started comparing his stories to those of other people, that you get very different versions. Even in his own interviews, my father would contradict himself. Like, he’d tell you a story that had happened in November of 1976 but the next time he told the same story, it would take place later. Events become hazy in the memory, and you get contradictory versions of one story.
It’s about several things really. One, is that it explore story-telling. And it’s also about the main character, Roshan, and his arrival in London. It’s about an unreliable source, I suppose. It also explores what it’s like to arrive in a culture that you’re not from. There were so many differences when my father arrived here. Even things like being able to hold a woman’s hand in public was very new to him.
The show combines circus skills and dance as story-telling methods. Do those disciplines fit together naturally or is it more of a challenge?
It’s sort of how we work as a company. I do watch a lot of circus, and I’m always interested in how story is told through circus. I often find though, that the acrobatics kick in and the story gets dropped. We’ve been very careful to only include the acrobatics where they fit within the story. Basically, we like stories.
As a performer, I have a desire to communicate and open conversation with the audience, and create emotion. Often with traditional circus, there isn’t a lot of emotion. You see a trick and go, “Wow!” but it doesn’t stay with you afterwards. I wanted to open discussion, and not rely on technique to get reactions.
Could you tell me about your role within the production, and how you’re preparing for it?
The show is my concept. I run So and So Circus with my partner, Lauren. I’m producing the show, and I’m playing the main character, Roshan. We all narrate within it as well, so I’m a narrator as well. It’s a lot of different hats to wear.
It’s a very detailed show. Keeping all those roles balanced is a constant job. There’s a lot of text work and also a lot of physical training. We’re having to keep a lot of things in the air. We spend so much time practising the bigger moves, and then find the smaller ones have been forgotten. This show is like painting the Forth Bridge. Once you’ve finally finished, it’s time to go back and start again.
The set draws on Backgammon Boards. How are you using that within the production?
The set design is by Sue Mayes, who’s got about thirty years of experience in the business. We’ve tried to surround ourselves with experience. We’re a very new company, this is only our second touring production, so we’re trying to get as many experienced people on board as possible.
We talked about different ways to abstract the Backgammon board into the set. For a while we thought about having a floor-cloth of a backgammon board, but settled on something more fluid. We have six spikes which are movable, so we can use those to define the space. They can be a mountain, or a house, or whatever we need. The counters are great too, because you can stack them to get the performance on different levels. We use them as props as well.
The show has been getting excellent reviews from both critics and audiences. What do you think it is that makes people connect to this show?
It’s unusual. When you make a show, you think it’s good (or hopefully you do, anyway), but you don’t really know if it’s actually any good until you perform it in front of audience. With a show like this, venues don’t really know what they’re getting. The show wasn’t even finished when we started booking venues! It’s great that people were ready to take a chance on us anyway.
The audience response has been fantastic, I’m overwhelmed by it. I think people enjoy the blend of skills in it; it’s a show that makes the audience work a bit. It’s not elitist though, and I think people connect to it because it’s true. While we’re telling stories, they are rooted in truth and I think the audience recognises that.
And of course, it looks nice and people enjoy the acrobatics. I’m pleased with it, and I’m very proud of the show, which is nice to be able to say.
Lastly, did you have to learn to play Backgammon before the show?
I’ve been playing Backgammon my whole life! All the cast know how to play. My father makes Backgammon boards. Actually, the board in the show is one he made for me. There’s a few links like that, we use the original suitcase he brought over with him in the 70s from Iran. I asked if he had an old suitcase I could use, and he told me to just take that one. The audience don’t realise these links, but we know and it does make a difference, having those connections.