*Originally written for This Is Cabaret
England’s second city, Birmingham, has been slow getting off the ground when compared to the circus developments in Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield – and of course, London. This weekend, however, the celebrations to mark the opening of the new Library of Birmingham are bringing circus to the fore, with free large scale public performances from Wired Aerial Theatre, and NoFit State Circus as part of the ‘4 Squares Weekender’ from 6th-8th September.
Birmingham Hippodrome, who are producing the event on behalf of the Birmingham Arts Partnership, have been gradually introducing more contemporary circus into the city’s entertainments over the last few years, hosting free open-air performance programmes each summer.
Previous years have seen circus based acts from Acrojou and Matt Pang, as well as Motionhouse and Wired Aerial, who have both returned for 2013, with further circus skills added to the programme from Mimbre, The Black Eagles and Upswing Aerial.
NoFit State have been appearing in the city-centre streets for the last three seasons and their ‘Open House’ project for 2013 began earlier this year, with a call out to local performers to get involved and join the show. I spoke to Joe Fearn, Director of local circus-training organisation CircusMASH, to see how momentum is building in the region.
You grew up in Birmingham; was it easy to get involved in circus?
I used to pretend I was in the circus, but never saw it as a possibility! There was never any circus community, just occasional bits and pieces that would come into schools. When I left school ten years ago I applied to do a summer camp job in America, and a circus school got in touch with me – I’d been planning to take the first thing that came up, so lucky for me it was this one! After the first summer, they invited me back full-time, working with kids, and learning bits and bobs like learning to juggle. Coming back over to Birmingham after that made me realise how much we were lacking here.
Was it your plan to bring circus to your home town?
I never really thought it would happen this way. In 2006 I trained on the Zippos Circus ‘Academy of Circus Arts’ programme, which gives students a broad background in different skills, whilst living on the road and performing as a circus company. I focused on rolla bolla and aerial silks, and after graduating I had a brief stint with a traditional tenting circus in the UK, before heading back to the States to work as a freelance performer. In 2010 I spent a year in Canada, and then started to feel like it was time to settle down and get a proper job. I moved back to Birmingham, got an office job, and then found myself phoning in sick all the time because it just wasn’t for me!
The Creation Climbing Centre in Moseley let me use their space to continue my personal training, and there seemed to be some interest in aerial classes, so I started running a few, and it gradually built. After a few months I thought I should have a name, so CircusMASH was born.
Have you found much support in the region?
I spent a good two or three years not realising what was happening! We worked on some collaborations with RoguePlay Theatre, who are based in Birmingham and use circus skills in their shows, and have done a number of projects with schools and local youth groups; then in 2012 we were involved in a bigger project commissioned by Birmingham Hippodrome for Six Summer Saturdays, which boosted CircusMASH a lot. There’s lots of support from everyone I come into contact with, even people who don’t know about circus; people who’ve never even been to the circus! The Hippodrome are really interested in driving circus, and held a Circus Symposium last year to look at ways of getting it out there. We were also lucky enough to have Orit Azaz as a mentor, who lives in Birmingham and is one of NoFit State’s Artistic Directors.
Orit is Artistic Director on this year’s ‘Open House’ project, which sees NoFit State back on Birmingham’s streets twice this year, bringing together local performance groups from diverse disciplines such as parkour, cheerleading, hula-hooping, circus, belly dancing and acrobatics. I saw the initial performance on the 23rd-24th August when groups met together for the first time to begin sharing their skills and experiences, and I look forward to seeing the culmination this weekend. How has the experience been for you?
‘Open House’ is brilliant, because it helps to expand the local networks. There are lots of practitioners who live in the area who do juggling and… they’re not interested in making a community. I can’t do everything, there’s so many skills in circus. Passing performers can be hooked in to run workshops and make our community one. It’s really exciting to be at the start of this drive for circus in Birmingham! I work at CircusMASH full-time now and, though we currently use three different training spaces, we’re in hopes of getting a space for ourselves now, which I never in the beginning thought was a possibility.
Circus isn’t seen as accessible, where anyone can learn, but they can! We’re making these kids into something that’s pretty unbelievable; that’s what I wanted to do in Birmingham.
The ‘4 Squares Weekender’ kicks off this Friday 6th September with ‘As The World Tipped’ from Wired Aerial Theatre in Victoria Square at 9:30pm. For further details of the weekend’s free activities, see the official website here.