Woman floats on top of a broom

Making The Top Hat Act

The pie-in-the-sky vision with my show partner Desireé Kongerød early this year was to create a new show called the Top Hat Act. It would be designed for delivery in the uncertain entertainment landscape of the pandemic. This was the gist of the brief we put together for the Arts Council application… and we got it through! The idea stage was the easy bit which lead to a challenging journey through uncharted territory. Part of the work would be to develop our existing Norvil & Josephine show and the rest would be to adapt the fresh goods for a mobile stage scenario. As part of this, we would also take off for a residency at Out There Arts in Great Yarmouth, a laboratory for adapting performances to outdoor scenarios. They say the best thing for creativity is a deadline, so with a calendar full of them, we hit the ground running.

Christopher Howell behind at the workshop.
Bending the steel frame

Challenges

We didn’t skimp on the challenges we gave ourselves for the Top Hat Act. And they were often at odds with each other. For example, the top hat had to be dismantle-able to fit through doorways. But then those many separate parts had to look totally intact when assembled. And it had to be solid like a rock when, for example, our characters Norvil and Josephine are dancing on top of it. Oh, and did I mention that it also had to be able to roll from place to place and then be parked and converted into a stable unit that’s performance ready? No problem! It was like a masters degree challenge in set design. Thankfully we had a genius structural engineer on board to help us navigate this terrain!

The day that version 1.0 was on its feet.

The Creative Process

This mystical thing called the creative process is what we were swimming in from morning until night. But let’s strip away the magical allure this phrase has at first glance. Do you want to know what the creative process really is? Well, often it’s chaos. Other times it’s doubt. Sometimes it’s calling on gut instinct or experience to balance conflicting opinions. Other times it’s facing dead ends that have no solution. But then you go to sleep and someone has a fresh idea the next morning. I’ll admit it. All this can sound like a special kind of artistic hell. Especially when trying to manage a budget and decide priorities that change on almost an hourly basis. But just often enough, we would have a breakthrough that proved that we were a few steps closer to the vision at the end of this road. Those bright moments along the path kept us going.

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All of the above applied to the twists and turns of creating the Top Hat Act. It was to be a mobile top hat stage with a built-in sound system that runs on varying types of batteries to power the speakers, mixer, and microphone systems. None of which we knew anything about. And often even the experts we discussed our tech challenges with disagreed. Every detail had to work in tandem with a catalogue of other requirements to make this beast whirr and pop in every way it should. And on top of that, a variety of magic secrets had to be integrated into the prop to ensure audiences would be left jaw-dropped.

Making the Top Hat Act Into a Show

Our residency at Out There Arts revealed that – instead of short pop-up acts – this endeavour would be better as a show. And if you have a show, you need a finale. So I blew the dust off of an idea I had left on the shelf for many years. It was an escape I read about in a magic tome by a magician called ‘Fu Manchu’. We set off on yet another twisty turny adventure to create it and find a way to do it, our way!

Desireé working away on the new finale idea

We had the broad brush strokes of the Top Hat Act show. We also had a top hat that we could stand on. So then we set out to work on the show with our director par excellence Abigail Dooley. Abigail’s background is in clown and directing and she always knows how to shape what we’re doing into something funny that packs a magical punch.

With Abigail in the rehearsal studio

Testing It On The GrounD

We had been at it for four months, during which time we had shown the Top Hat Act to one test audience. They had not even seen the finale because of several last-minute technical nightmares that prevented us from sharing it. So in a way the show still felt theoretical. Actual real-world situations would no doubt be the next hurdles to cross as our big crazy idea rolled into festivals around the UK. Our debut was at the Out There Festival in August this year. We were still climbing a (vertical) learning curve with how to present this show. But we shared our Top Hat Act with lots of lovely audiences there and returned to London with many ideas of how to take it to the next level. There’s always a next level.

Little did we know we would win another grant to take that next level head-on in only a matter of weeks. It was to feature the act around London as part of Let’s Do London’s Pop Up London Festival. After having pulled that off, the act is now firmly on its feet (or wheels as the case may be) and we are so thrilled we got it this far to date. Look out for the Top Hat Act to roll into an event or festival near you very soon!

Magician appears in bunny costume in magic show.
(Photo: Peter Morgan)

Thanks for coming along.  Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below.
I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

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