If you were considering adapting the much-loved British television series Shaun the Sheep for the stage, would circus be your first option? Would Aardman’s animated animals from Mossy Bottom Farm come to life if played by acrobats?

Yaron Lifschitz, the Artistic Director of Circa Contemporary Circus, freely admits that when the idea was first suggested to him he wasn’t sure. But as soon as he met the team at Aardman and began discussing ideas with them, his hesitation evaporated – though it still took a lot of playing around, dead-ends and rewriting before he was convinced they were on the right track.

Rehearsals for Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show. Photograph courtesy of Circa Contemporary Circus

Blending animation, theatre, film and live acrobatics to present a show that is packed full of mischief and playful adventure, Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show has its world premiere in the Lyric Theatre, QPAC next month, with previews from 2 March and the official opening on 6 March.

Speaking to Limelight, Lifschitz is proud of just how sophisticated the show has become; a show that he believes will appeal as much, if not more, to adults as to children.

Shaun the Sheep was created by Aardman, the Academy Award®-winning UK studio behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, which is famous for its stop-motion clay animation techniques. Telling numerous woolly tales that centre on an enterprising sheep named Shaun, who refuses to follow the flock, the television series consists of 150 seven-minute episodes and has been seen in 180 countries globally. The series has spawned a half-hour special and two feature films, with a second half-hour special currently in production and set for a 2021 release.

“We have always had an ambition to create a Shaun the Sheep circus show,” said Ngaio Harding-Hill, Head of Attractions and Live Experiences at Aardman when the collaboration with Circa was announced.

“The physicality of circus performance marries perfectly with the slapstick traditions, thrills and humour of the brand. Circa’s creative vision made them the perfect partner to create a Shaun the Sheep circus show for global audiences. Shaun is already very at home in Australia, so we are thrilled to premiere the show at QPAC.”

Based in Brisbane, Circa has played to over 1.5 million people in 40 countries since 2004. The company began 2021 with all stops out. First came two world premieres in January: Humans 2.0 as part of Sydney Festival; and Sacre, using the Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, at Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong. In February, the company revived its production of Circa’s Peepshow at the Sydney Opera House. Now comes Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show.

Yaron Lifschitz. Photograph courtesy of Circa Contemporary Circus

Asked by Limelight how Mossy Bottom Farm came to Brisbane, Lifschitz says that the idea was initially producer Andrew Kay’s.

“He said to me ‘I’ve been looking at Shaun the Sheep as a potential project and I think circus would be great, and you are the guys I want to work with’. I said ‘I’m not sure this is our kind of gig but let’s have a conversation’. He then decided he didn’t want to go forward with the project but gave us his blessing. And we met with the team at Aardman and we fell in love with them,” says Lifschitz.

“They are such insane, kooky artists from Bristol who have this kind of strange, beautiful, humane take on the world that in some sense is almost the exact opposite of what we do but keys into the humanness of what we do at the same time. Stylistically [our work] is quite different but ethically I think it’s quite similar and resonant, and we really got on.”

Lifschitz went to Bristol in the UK where Aardman is based and spent several days writing with them. This was pre-COVID one assumes?

“Yes, that’s right, BC!” says Lifschitz with a laugh. “I was in Bristol in June/July 2019 and we have been working on this project [since].”

“We wrote a version of a story together [but] realised it wouldn’t work. Then I went away for six months and basically pulled what was left of my hair out looking for a conceit that would work and would be useful for circus because circus is a pretty ordinary storytelling medium. It’s great at conveying energy and emotion and human states but it’s pretty lousy at telling a simple story. And I am not a great fan of obvious narrative, it’s not my thing. So that obviously posed a pretty major challenge for me.”

Eventually they found their solution, though Lifschitz doesn’t want to give too much away about the production before audiences see it. Suffice to say, it uses a mixture of existing animation and a screen language created by the show’s designer Dan Potra (who trained as an animator) and video director Craig Wilkinson.

“We never try and do anything that looks like slow-motion animation because it’s so complicated and impossible to do well,” says Lifschitz. “So the [production] creates these layers of live and animated and pre-recorded circus media because I couldn’t do a TV-to-stage show, it’s just not our thing. Even if we wanted to we wouldn’t do it very well.”

Rehearsals for Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show. Photograph courtesy of Circa Contemporary Circus

As for the costumes, Lifschitz says that costume designer Libby McDonnell and the team at Aardman spent a month of creative development finding the best approach.

We didn’t want to do suits and we didn’t want to do something that was too obvious so we’ve engaged a guy called Rick McGill, who’s a master milliner to create these headpieces,” says Lifschitz.

“So, I suppose it’s a nod to a Lion King-like aesthetic. The acrobats wear hats that have ears and eyes on them, and sheepskin aprons that make them look like cool Brooklyn hipster sheep. Again, what we have discovered is that lots of things work and quite a few things don’t and you kind of get snookered by the thing that doesn’t. Then you find something that’s really good and think we have to go from there. So it’s been a really big process.”

Around once a week during the creative process, Lifschitz and his team would present their ideas to Aardman “because you need a sign off”.

“They have been great, and interestingly because they are wired in a completely different way to us the things that we think are going to be difficult, aren’t. So when I said to them ‘I want to do a scene where a sheep shears herself in a burlesque number to bra and pantie sheepskin’, they went ‘great idea’. But then they get really concerned about how big the relative size is between people and sheep, for instance.”

Without revealing too much, Lifschitz says that since Shaun the Sheep is non-verbal, they use a billboard to help with the narration. “It starts by saying A Star is Born and it changes to A Star is Shaun. You have to have a few puns in a show that is based on a pun title!”

Jethro Woodward, a Melbourne-based composer, musician, musical director and arranger, whose many credits include the scores for Windmill Theatre Co’s Rumpelstiltskin, Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio, has composed the music.

“He has got a lovely aesthetic,” says Lifschitz. “His work has got a lovely upbeat happy tempo with rock energy and good contemporary practice. Every show is haunted by the ghost of what you don’t want it to become. For me I was terrified that this show would be naff, a bit childish, a bit silly, a bit so-what-and-who-cares? So I am kind of working to make it sophisticated and interesting and engaging in a whole variety of different ways for it not to just be a young audience show. So, it was really important finding a composer like Jethro who can work in contemporary dance, who can write a film score, and can work on a family show or early childhood show, and can span all that.”

Rehearsals for Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show. Photograph courtesy of Circa Contemporary Circus

Asked if he thinks that adults will enjoy it as much as kids, Lifschitz says: “Much more! We have to keep the kids happy but we have to inspire the adults to find and unleash their inner child. I almost view that as circus’s moral duty at the moment. I really feel like there is so much seriousness and so much doom and gloom in our civilisation at the moment that something that can be witty and playful and cheeky [is just what we need]. This is a character that’s based very much on the trickster; the basis of Shaun the Sheep is that play is fun, play is good and it puts positive energy into the world, which is exactly what circus does.”

“The thing that I am most proud of with this show is just how sophisticated it is.  There’s no way you could transpose this show into a shopping centre, it’s just not that show,” says Lifschitz.

“Aardman, for all its success, has never done a live performance version of Shaun the Sheep that’s truly worked and I think that’s because it’s a much more human and ethically engaged kind of work than its playful exterior would suggest. It’s really a family show, it’s a show about a family – and the thing about family is you are stuck with them. This is a family stuck on a farm together. There’s a patriarch and the older brother, the cheeky young brother, the cast of kooky cousins, but they all have to get on and survive, yet keep themselves interested and engaged, and that drama I think is what gives the show its resonance. It’s not really a show about sheep, it’s a show about family.”

Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show plays in the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, 2 – 21 March

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