Invisible Circus:
No Dress Rehearsal

A Feature documentary by Naomi Smyth

An inspiring documentary about performance, love, hard graft and pigeon shit.

  • Genre: Documentary (Arts)
  • Runtime : 98min
  • Director: Naomi Smyth
  • Distributor world-wide : Future Artists Cinema, VOD, DVD and Event/lecture screening
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  • Currently enjoying 5 out of 5 star reviews on Amazon.
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What the critics have said

"Naomi's film is a look at one of the most exciting stories to happen in Bristol in recent years and she was in a unique position to document Invisible Circus supremo Doug Francis and his cohorts as they let their imaginations run riot." (Bristol Culture)

"There is one circus, The Invisible Circus, who hold all and more of the magic that comes with the old and new; from the hard graft and creativity, to the luxury/despairs of liberation. I've been fascinated with them since I moved to Bristol, where they're based." (Amelia's Magazine)


About the film

Meet the ring master of this invisible circus Doug Francis as he leads Bristol's anarchist circus from margins to mainstream with the motto:

'If it's not impossible, we're not interested'.

The film's 3 year span takes them from chaotic squat crew to licensed building managers with huge show budgets – via rotting garages, crumbling cathedrals and a takeover of Bristol's ex-police HQ.

Doug collaborates with developers to use derelict space for circus spectacles and working arts spaces. Relationships in the close team reveal the gain and the pain of success, but they're still working for free. Profit or loss?

Directors statement

Naomi Smyth - Director

In 2006, round the corner [from where I lived] there was a squat in the old Audi garage – a mysterious four-story hulk of a building where pictures kept appearing in the windows. One night the doors were thrown open. It was teeming with people – they'd built a stage, a set, draped the broken old walls in red velvet and they did these cabarets that were a mix of very polished acts and people who were just trying things out. [Performer] Ed Rapley's first few goes at a one-man show were not the Bristol Old Vic sell-out standard they are now. But he was up there doing it, finding out what worked.

It reminded me of the leap of faith necessary to create something. I fell in love with the people that gave that excitement back to me and I wanted to show them and everyone else what I felt. 

I kept talking about filming them, but I was shy. Then the eviction hearing was announced and I had to do it, or I might have been left without a record of that time. I jumped in and didn't stop for three years.

I could feel from the first night that it was something special. It wasn't just the Invisible Circus involved at that stage, there were lots of people from all over the Bristol squat, activist, street art and performance scenes. But the performance element was very strong, and the look of it gave the place an identity. When I first started asking people about doing interviews I was directed to Doug Francis.

He seemed to have the clearest idea that this was a base from which to develop both Art space Lifespace and the Invisible Circus. The names and the projects were his from the beginning – one coming from the squat world and trying to legitimise the use of empty buildings in London, and the other from performing at festivals.

I think Artspace were on the crest of a wave that has since engulfed Stokes Croft. There is a strong creative and activist culture there which recently boiled over with the riots.As Hinch says in the film, waves like that where artists 'take over' whole derelict chunks of a city are part of an old tradition. And much as we might like to think it's revolutionary, it's also part of a city's regeneration cycle and can represent the thin wedge of gentrification. There are positives and negatives.

Having a lot of cheap or free space for artists to work in is part of what makes Bristol such a creative city. Groups like Artspace, who put the work in, do the renovations, do the paperwork, invite the inspectors in and get their work seen as legitimate and beneficial by building owners, are carrying the flag for lots of similar projects.

As far as the Circus goes, again we are part of a tradition. When I studied theatre, my favourite parts were the big art projects in vast factories and abandoned places – Paris and Berlin in the 1910s, San Francisco and New York in the 60s and 70s – huge crews of artists from different disciplines congregating and creating spectacular and weird shows about busting though the line between performer and audience. It's been great for Bristol and long may it continue. I want people across the world to know more about it and get inspired to do it themselves.

The film became about the contradictions between love and money, and how they are worked through by a group of people who love each other and the work they make together, but also have a need to live and a desire to succeed in a world that is essentially commercially driven.

The biggest challenges were the moments where Artspace came up to a choice between doing things the 'normal' mainstream way in order to get a building, funding, or a licence – and staying 'underground' and keeping the project at the level it was at.

The step forward was always made but never without a great deal of discussion, discontent and a feeling of loss for some people. Many of the crew came from activist backgrounds where corporate collaborations were something they never aspired to and felt very suspicious about. The closer I look at things, the more they open up new questions. I think new ways of working should always be tried and getting locked into an 'us and them' mentality is a dead end.