Circus in a Barn

by Karen - Copy Editor

Friday 19th July 2019 07:17:57


'Circus shoot. . .farm. . .acrobats' I couldn't help listening in on the conversation between our stylist Carys and director Carmen. I've been working at the Prop Factory for a few months now and, to be honest, I don't get out much. I'm a copywriter for our website and my time is spent in our bursting-at-the-seams warehouse getting up close to our props. I need to find out, among other things, about their colour, their size, what they are made of, how they were made and how heavy they are - all the things, you, as the hirer, need to know. And then write about it.

I'd seen Carys busily scribbling away with what could only be our circus concertina entrance sketched in the background, so I knew a photoshoot was afoot. We take a lot of photos and Carmen was only too happy to fill me in on why photoshoots are so important. 

We use a lot of photos. We need straightforward 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' images for our website inventory. But Carmen's vision is that we are the friendly face of prop hire and we like to be helpful where we can and give you plenty of inspiration on how to use our lovely props. That doesn't necessarily mean arranging highly aspirational shoots (although sometimes it does - our editorial shoot at the glorious Aynhoe Park for one). Just as often it means arranging our props in the same way that our customers who aren't professional event planners might use them. 

Carmen looks at me: 'Actually. . . Carys needs a hand with the set up'. And that is how a copywriter ends up on a vintage circus shoot in the barn of a working farm - and blogging about it.

A very early start one morning for Carys and I with a transit van packed to the top with circus props. Carys is an old hand at photoshoots - she's arranged almost exactly 100 in the one and a half years she's been with the Prop Factory, but still, she tells me, this is the nerve racking moment when you find out if you've bought the right props along and have enough to dress the space. Site visits are must. Know your space and the size of the props you're hiring (our website shows the dimensions of every item we own, fully assembled). Draw a quick sketch if it helps you plan out the space.

Our destination is Duckaller Farm, a dry hire venue not more than a few miles from our Exeter base. For those not in the know, dry hire means you literally hire the space and it's up to you to bring in everything you need. This space is a barn. It's a very nice barn - wooden panelled walls, a serving kitchen to one end and smells gloriously of fresh straw bales. But it is a cavernous, empty space and I can't quite picture how it will become a circus. This isn't by accident. Carys chose this venue as a blank canvas, to show that you don't need to hire an already beautiful venue or an expensive marquee. This will be a set that could just as easily work in a hired hall or, for that matter, on your village green.

Unloading time. Out come the work-hard items that get used for all types of themes and events - our rustic long benches, wooden bunting poles, rustic posts with rope; then the circus props - podiums in several shapes and colours, giant arrow shaped signs and strongman cut outs. The strongmen stand at over 6ft tall and I feel like I need to apologise to them for my awkward manhandling as I try and fail to give them a graceful exit from the van!

Some of the props are extremely heavy. We're not exaggerating in our listing if we write that a prop will need two people to lift. Why not enlist a group of friends to help with setting up? Carys and I have time on our side and can manage with just the two of us. This isn't the most glamorous job though - I'm sweaty and frankly a bit grubby by the time we're unloaded.

We set to work arranging props to Carys' plan. I'm happy to be the gofer in this exercise - building our lion cage tables and fake straw bales, arranging the benches as a circus ring and holding the ladder. The larger structural pieces, starting with the circus concertina entrance, are first to take their place and then we add the smaller styling items - the freestanding show sign, warning children sign, step right up sign and even a little wooden circus elephant - that really bring the set to life. This is a big set using some of our largest props.

If it's just too much for your space our circus arch or red curtain arch would give a similar effect - and maybe add a few extra smaller styling items like our alive! sign and circus half barrels. If, on the other hand, you wanted to go even larger, the circus letter lights with their multicoloured bulbs, would be my favourite choice.

We purposely don't add too many extra bits and pieces to the set - it's very easy to get carried away and costs can quickly mount up. Carys has bought two long lengths of shiny lining material in bright red and yellow, a huge bunch of balloons, paper streamers, popcorn and a short string of electric garden lights - the kind you can pick up in most discount stores - and that's it. Everything else is a Prop Factory hire. 

I'm interested to see how Carys uses props differently from their intended use. We've brought along lengths of festival ribbon bunting and wooden bunting poles. Usually the bunting is strung from pole to pole, but on this shoot it is draped around the tented shapes of our backdrop and threaded through our balloon sculpture, whilst the poles are used to hold up our makeshift circus tent. I soon learn that you don't necessarily need a lot of specialist equipment to build a set. We only use everyday items: scissors, staples (a lot of staples), elastic bands, drawing pins and a very basic tool kit. A staple gun is definitely your best friend here.

The final touch - sprinkling of real straw on floor - and we're done. We chose to sprinkle straw on the floor as our fake Straw Bales don't shed! How realistic do they look though! It all looks perfect to me, but Carys, with her enviable visual eye, stands back to view things from different angles and makes tiny adjustments. I take a seat on the back row of the benches and feel a thrill of anticipation as if the show really is about to start.

Where are those acrobats I heard about? It's a short respite though. Our brief for the photoshoot is to create a circus 'aftershow' - a festival feel as though the circus has already passed through. Soon we're throwing streamers around and messing up our pristine set a little. If a party has happened here, it looks as though it was a good one.

So back to those acrobats. After our photographer has been in and followed Carys' brief to get the shots we need, it's the turn of performers from Valerian Entertainment.

Our set comes alive with jugglers, contortionists, acrobats and stilt walkers who emerge from the little wooden summerhouse where they were preparing (the glamour of showbiz!) in frankly stunning costumes and makeup.

Watching them strike a pose on our podiums and circus stools is fabulous and also a chance to take a breather. I'd been warned that there is often a lot of waiting around on a photoshoot and my only task during this stage is to move a few props around and keep out of the way whilst the photographer does his thing. I actually find myself holding my breath whilst a juggler throws knives in the air and an acrobat turns herself upside down on our three star circus podium.

And then it's time for the final set up of the day. All the performers gather on our set for a final group shot. One by one they ease themselves into a balance. This is no mean feat as they have to hold this whilst everyone gets into place and then hold it some more whilst the photographer Alistair Campbell gets the shots. We can feel the tension rising. There are a couple of wobbles - this is tricky stuff even for professionals. We try to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible - we certainly don't want to be any kind of distraction! Finally, the photographer gives the nod - he has what he needs, and it's all over. The stilt walkers come down to usual height, the acrobat nimbly jumps down from her partners shoulders and the contortionist unwinds herself. Their job is done, but ours is just about to get started again.

After all the excitement it's time for the pack down. This is when you need that team of friends again. Loading the van is a bit like attempting a 3D jigsaw, but many of our props ingeniously fold away - the fake straw bales actually flat pack. Our circus trunk handily doubles up as a storage trunk for all our bits and pieces of set dressing. The very final task is to sweep away the straw and streamers and the barn looks as though we've never been there at all.

So what did I learn from my first photoshoot? Well firstly, it's less glamour and more hard graft than I had realised! I really do recommend you enlist a few extra pairs of hands if you have heavy props to move. Secondly, it's all in the planning. If like me, you're a novice at this, well, that's why we write these blogs. You can use the knowledge of our experts - Carys and Carmen - and recreate at least a little of our inspiration. If you are still stuck, give us a call, we're always happy to advise. Thirdly, and finally… there's nothing like seeing your creation through the eyes of your guests and nothing like a few well-placed props to set the mood. If your after-party looks anything like ours, then you surely had a great time!

See all the props we used in this shoot here.

Karen x

Photoshoot Featuring -

Venue - Duckaller Farm

Photographer (Performer Photos) - Alistair Campbell Photography

Set only Photography - Sarah Jayne Photography

Props and Styling - The Prop Factory

Costume/MUA & Performance - Valerian Entertainment

Tags: Circus Circus In A Barn Vintage Circus Circus Event Circus Party Circus Props Circus Decor Party Decor Circus Furniture Entertainment Circus Acts Circus Entertainer Circus Characters Performers