The Skinning the Cat story began in 1988 when Becky Truman, the company’s founder and artistic director, created an aerial extravaganza, ‘Snakes and Ladders’, for her degree show. Very soon the company was formed and became the first in the UK to tour on an aerial ‘rig’, also developing a style which at the time was unique and has since inspired numerous new companies. Skinning the Cat’s narrative and character-based shows were a forerunner of what we now call ‘contemporary circus’.
Within a year the company was touring in Europe and witnessing the extraordinary circus movement which is held in such high esteem on the continent. Meanwhile, in the UK the company constantly struggled for funding and as there was to be no compromise in terms of the quality of the show Becky and the other women in the company, who were passionate about their work, frequently received scarcely enough wages to make ends meet.
In an era when circus was undervalued in the UK Skinning the Cat had the good fortune to be based in Bradford where the council was visionary and proud to support the company over many years.
Over the next few years, Becky and Skinning the Cat won awards and accolades. Becky was featured in ‘The Best of British Women’ a book by Martin Miller published in 1993 and received the Prince’s Youth Business Trust ‘Young Achiever of the Year’ award presented by Jasper Conran.
In a field which was yet to be recognised as’art’ by the Arts Council of England Becky was asked to create a special show for the Millennium Dome, she was artistic director for the 2002 Commonwealth Games Opening and Closing ceremonies in the Sponsor’s Village.
Becky sat for 2 years on the Circus Advisory Board at the Arts Council.
Finally in 2002 the company was awarded a grant from the Arts Council which enabled them to develop what turned out to be the final touring show, Rubicon
In 1995 Jill Truman wrote a piece for The Catch magazine – it tells the story of the company’s first 8 years or so and captures the dynamic mood which, emanating from Becky herself, pervaded the company and enabled it to stay at it’s place at the forefront of contemporary circus in the late twentieth century.
“It all started in 1988 when Becky put on a performance featuring four trapeze artists and her own costumes and sculptures as part of her art degree at Bradford College. The show was later repeated in a fashion show mounted by Bradford Festival at the Wool Exchange. The following summer, having completed a Prince’s Trust business course and raised money for a van and the original A-frame rig Skinning the Cat toured the UK for the next two years. In those early days, the show was all about shapes, movement, colour, sky-dancing: featuring doubles trapeze, doubles web and cloud swing performances. Becky also developed her own unique routine on corde lisse.
There were two performers and two technicians – although, from the beginning, technicians and performers have overlapped to the extent that they are often indistinguishable: thus avoiding much of the traditional hierarchy and backbiting. Because there has never been time or energy to spare for arguments about who does the catching on the trapeze, driving the van, hammering in the stakes and other traditionally male jobs, an all-woman company quickly evolved.
In 1990 the company grew to its present size of six performers, plus an administrator, who remains in Bradford , and they acquired their current rig, which resembles the cross-section of a cathedral: a huge central arch flanked by two smaller ones. It is painted gold, encrusted with mirrors decorated with sculptures of mythical reptilian creatures and hung with giant cobwebs. The new show was a full-scale aerial drama, with a developed plot and characters, an elaborate lighting design and specially-mixed music. Circus, acting, and dancing skills were added and they began to engage freelance choreographers and directors for the rehearsal period.
The performances are devised by the whole company but the design and construction of the costumes and structures, and the overall vision has always remained very much with Becky. Her original inspiration was the traditional fairground, but it quickly developed into the weird reptilian, bird-like, non-human shapes with brilliant colours and sparkling light. There is an oriental influence, Chinese and Balinese, in both costumes and makeup with Peking Opera as a major source. The music is an eclectic mix of carousel, modern beats, jungle sound effects, storm sounds and organ music, pop and classical. You name it.
Their first break abroad came in 1989 – a tryout gig with a German agent that led to a European tour in 1990. Then they added a stage to their equipment and bought a larger van. The following winter, Becky, with the help of a grant from the Prince’s Trust went to Paris and acquired a French agent. This brought bookings in France, including Aurillac: a big breakthrough. By 1991 they were touring in Spain and Italy as well with a new version of Chameleon. Since then, they have zigzagged across Europe, (where most of the enthusiasm and the money is) every summer, travelling many hundreds of miles, Channel-hopping up to five times during the season for UK gigs as well. In addition, Becky has occasionally to fly off to perform a solo show at some other venue in between Chameleon performances, catching up with the others in time for the next gig.
The solo show was developed mainly for winter performances and has been seen at Leeds City Varieties, Circus Space in London , Barcelona , St Petersburg , Amsterdam . Called Firebird it is primarily an exuberant and exotic display of corde lisse and cloud swing. This winter Becky and Rachel Hyde broke into the European variety circuit with a six-week run of a doubles trapeze act, part of a programme celebrating the opening of the Rheinhalle in Cologne .
The population of Bradford , though often bemused, has welcomed Skinning the Cat from the beginning. Individuals and organisations have been generous with their help, from mixing the music to supplying tools and materials. The vivid and sparkling colours with which the Asian population enliven the grey streets, shops and public places of the city have been a pervading creative influence. Bradford council has been generous with financial support. Bradford Festival has backed them and they have had constant use of facilities in Manningham Sports Centre and elsewhere. So Bradford remains their home – there are not many places in Britain where you can live more cheaply or find so much space going cheap in derelict textiles mill.
It is a tough life, though. There is no space here to detail the money problems, the vehicle failure, the technical breakdowns, the human letdowns, the sheer bloody impossibility of working creatively in the cold, materialistic world of the 90s. When I asked what personal qualities are needed to keep the show on the road they listed: stamina, imagination, stubbornness, physical strength, absolute belief in what you’re doing, determination not to give up, level headedness, bloody mindedness … ‘And you have to be sensitive to each other’s problems – but not too sensitive, because show comes first: never take out your stress on other people. Oh and performance skills and creativity, they go without saying.’
Skinning the Cat was the first company to tour the UK with an outdoor rig. Their style is absolutely personal, but its success has led to a number of imitators, which means that they have to keep evolving in order to stay ahead: no problem so far. Currently, they are working with Liverpool-based Urban Strawberry Lunch, a group of musicians who specialise in making and playing on sound sculptures. The plan is for a new show to tour in the summer of 1996. Called ‘The Singing Tree’. So far it features a sorceress, flamenco dancing usherettes, and a musical aeroplane …
They still have plenty of dreams: currently housed in a cold and crumbling mill they are seeking a space to start an aerial centre for Bradford and long-term Becky plans are for a full aerial tented traveling circus – although this would mean sacrificing the very special atmosphere of their performances in the sky. The reason they have survived, says Becky, is because everyone who sticks with the company is completely committed: it becomes their life. It is bloody hard work, but everybody has a creative input and the satisfaction of doing a job that they love: not many people can say that. Another reason could be that they put on a good show.”
The company went from strength to strength throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Becky designed the Sponsors’ Village opening and closing ceremonies for the Commonwealth Games
The company survived the disastrous night in 1998 when arsonists totally destroyed the Enchantress tree rig. Through an extraordinary collective feat of single-mindedness and resourcefulness, only one show had to be canceled and the summer’s tour continued as planned.
Again and again, Becky designed events and shows which set new, ever higher standards for her artform – who else would fly a Magic Carpet from the newly restored roof of Wakefield Theatre Royal and Opera House for the pantomime?
Visit the gallery and follow the links to see spectacular examples of Becky and Skinning the Cat’s unique contribution to the development and acknowledgement of Contemporary Circus.