Combining Arts: Ben Maier’s An Imaginary Circus

Written by Janette Loughlin

Belfast-based, London-born poet, songster, playwright, actor, teacher, student and all-round artistic bard Ben Maier is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to combining the arts.

Belfast-based, London-born poet, songster, playwright, actor, teacher, student and all-round artistic bard Ben Maier is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to combining the arts. Making his solo debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, Maier’s play An Imaginary Circus will run from Saturday 4 August to Sunday 19 August at Fiddlers Elbow, Piccadilly Place.

Merging the lines between drama, poetry and music, An Imaginary Circus is formed around the story of a young man in a small town in eastern Europe during the early twentieth century. His father is the master glass cutter at a local factory, and when it closes down, the young protagonist tries to set up a circus to raise money. And here’s where he hits an inspiring little bump in the road: with no performers he’s forced to create his own – An Imaginary Circus. Ingeniously, all the characters are played by Maier himself, with a little help from the audience too of course.

It’s this aspect of audience interaction that makes the play so unique and in keeping with the spontaneity of the performance. By getting the audience to participate, whether it’s coming up to use an instrument, hold a prop or become involved in the narrative. Maier muses: “I like making the audience feel like it’s a big party, that they’re part of this event.” Of course there are degrees of risk in such an open performance, but that’s what makes An Imaginary Circus so fresh, so unique, so brave. Being on that edge between nervousness and assurance can be a very rewarding experience for performer and audience alike. Maier continues: “You know that sort of feeling that you get – going to plays and gigs – and just being blown away and thinking more than anything I really want to give this sensation to someone else. I want to through my poetry, my show, I want to make someone feel how I felt when I saw that brilliant thing.”

And Maier’s taking it all on board himself in this one-man show in a suitcase. Having previously performed at the Fringe Festival with the Belfast-based Wireless Mystery Theatre company, he knows what it’s like to travel with a troupe, perform well and succeed in a theatre environment. But having worked on An Imaginary Circus for over a year, debuting it at this year’s Belfast Book Festival to a brilliant, sold-out reception, Maier thought it was time to take it to the Fringe on his own: “I thought, I want to go next year and have, you know be completely on my own back – so if it goes badly it’s completely my own fault and if it goes well…” it’s his own reward.

When it comes to the visuals used in the production, Maier has sourced an authentic moleskin set of overalls, worn in a French factory in the 1930s “since it’s supposed to be this guy from a factory town but it’s quite ill-fitting and brightly coloured,” certainly helpful when it comes to flyering the Royal Mile as well. With bunches of bright, plastic flowers, tambourines and horns to play with alongside the guitar maestro, Maier, An Imaginary Circus is guaranteed to be a spectacle for eyes and ears alike. “The most important thing,” Maier continues, “is that it’s fun more than anything, and touching. I have a terrible fear of boring people so I want to make it exciting and inviting for everyone.”

The inspiration behind the genre-splitting An Imaginary Circus came from a series of poems Maier had written about the circus. Before a reading, he had a song he wanted to perform as well, so ever so slightly bluffed that it was a part of the show and then it twigged: actually, that could be quite a good idea. Initially, however, Maier’s love for both music and poetry seemed to amount to choosing one or the other, but instead, he developed the various artistic forms within  An Imaginary Circus further. “So the idea is essentially not to confine plays, poetry or music, but to just have the idea of a show or a performance so the audience are wondering: is this a gig? Is this a reading? Is this a play? And mess with those expectations.”

Upsetting these expectations is necessary to carry theatre, poetry and music onwards. We are saturated by sameness and cliché and monotony, it’s refreshing to see someone break the rules a bit. Maier comments, “if someone comes to Edinburgh to see the show and they find it hard to describe what it was, but they at the same time really felt excited and could look at it … the fact that you can do anything because it’s art, and it’s literature, and it’s fiction, you’re not bound by anything at all.”