‘Does Anybody Talk About Circus?’ at #DandD11

The REP, Birmingham; 9th January 2016

IMG_7927Every year, theatre company Improbable hold a national Open Space event called Devoted & Disgruntled for those working in the UK theatre sector. The worlds of circus and theatre are overlapping more and more these day, so I decided to head along and see how the land lies for people walking on and working round those edges.

The overriding themes that emerged out of the three-day event were around issues of diversity and inclusion but, when I called my session on circus, one participant commented:

A lot of these issues have been around in theatre for a while. I came to talk about circus because it feels brand new. It’s an area that the theatre world doesn’t really know how to approach yet.’

IMG_7929It’s also an area that fuels much passionate conversation from those involved (our session ran on for half an hour longer than scheduled as there was so much to talk about – there aren’t many opportunities to get together to hold these kinds of discussions around circus issues). The report of the session is available here , and readers are encouraged to add their own comments to keep the conversation going. If you don’t feel like clicking a clink, I’ve copied the report below!

Most of the participants were either producers or festival programmers, and the main points the emerged were the need for a common language among circus practitioners, which can then be communicated with venues and programmers so that everyone learns how to talk about circus. At the moment, it’s a scary and mysterious concept for many of those responsible for buying in shows to make money and please their audiences. This is the same need that was raised during the circus sector Open Space held during last year’s Circus City festival… Seems we’re all after the same thing, now how do we make it happen?

Convened by: Katharine Kavanagh
Attendees: Mary Swan, Oluwatoyin Odusi, Becki Haynes, Michelle Walker, Nikki Ralston, Dan Ball, Jo Crowley, Sally Christopher, Jess Brewster, Hannah Jaspar, Antonio Ferrara, Marlien (?)

KK – Surprised and delighted to see so many people at this session – thank you!
OO – Contemporary circus is quite a niche area, so you have to be within the dense arts environment of London for it to seem familiar. Outside of London venues are scared of the language used and unsure of what audiences they can draw in. Circus feels like a big risk to them.
DB – In London, it feels like the novelty of circus technique is beginning to wear off and there’s more desire for substance.
MS – Both things seem to be symptomatic of what’s happening at the moment. There is a slowly developing network of venues for circus that tours to theatre spaces, learning not to be scared off by the language. As a director and outside eye, I also find myself working with a lot of artists who are looking to develop their work in terms of depth of meaning.
DB – Theatre makes progress because we fail. Circus artists can’t fail because of the physical risk involved. Does this hinder progress?
OO – As BME artists, we can’t afford to fail. If we fail, we close doors that were openened as an experiment to let us in and no-one else can get in afterwards. Every artist has to live, so failure is always hard. The financial requirements in circus and its infrastructure are also so high. The current economic culture is about getting Bums On Seats.
NR – Current circus is so diverse, there’s a huge range of style, not just large scale and equipment heavy. And that makes it hard, because the word doesn’t just mean ‘one thing’, so how can we know what we’re looking for?
An amazing thing about circus is that it’s incredibly accessible. (e.g. NoFit State’s Open House tour)
DB – Most circus I see follows the act-ringmaster-act-ringmaster-act-ringmaster structure. Does that limit the potential of circus as a form?

Outburst – OH NO IT DOESN’T (Example of people not being aware of what goes on in current circus work?)

KK – There’s a difficulty that stems from audiences being unfamiliar with circus technique – it means nuances of performance are often missed because the spectacle overwhelms.
MS – It’s taken a long time for circus artists to start looking outside of themselves. My concern is that there might become a purist attitude to what counts as circus. If I hire an actor and teach them to do a certain number of limited tricks on a trapeze for a specific role, Is that circus? The alternative would be finding a circus artist who is a super-strong actor and happy to not use their full circus potential because of the strictures of the type of show I’m making.
What we need to do is develop a shared vocabulary out of accessible shows that are already gaining visibility (eg Bromance)
OO – Like theatre (there are different types of theatre) we need time to allow different strands of audience to emerge and identify themselves and their different needs.
The thing that Does My Head In is artists who can’t talk about their work, or say what it is. To create a vocabulary, are we also talking about creating a canon for circus?
KK – Can ACE provide support to help promote awareness in this area?
NR – Projects have to be industry initiated. We do have a group within ACE that talks about circus. It’s quite new and adhoc at the moment, but we’re aware that we have to do something internally to allow for this sector to grow.
Lots of proposals come in as ‘slash projects’ – circus/theatre dance/circus eg. We’re keen to encourage this melting away of boundaries between artforms.
MW – Over last 10 years other artforms have really blurred, but circus feels like its in more of a silo still. Real collaborations just starting to happen, which is really exciting.
KK – There’s a problem that non-circus people don’t have the language or the understanding of how circus work develops differently to theatre or dance for example, and there’s a lack of directors and producers from within the circus sphere. (In fact, there’s a lack of shared language even within circus atm!). But this is shifting. Things are moving in the right direction.
NR – There’s a fear around circus if you’re a programming venue – having an element of something familiar to latch onto helps to ease that relationship
MW – Some people don’t connect ‘aerial’ work necessarily to ‘circus’. We’ve been putting it in our shows for a decade and no-one’s ever identified it that way.
OO – There’s often a feeling that other artforms try to dominate the conversation in attempted collaboration, and try to tell circus how to do things. It’s difficult for circus to develop its own voice within this culture. (Examples given of artists not being respected for their knowledge)
Out of all artforms, circus is the most ‘fusion’ – it includes all things within it. And the communication with audiences is universal to humanity (opposed to text-based eg)
Circus is Really inclusive, without having to say so.
NR – That’s one of my favourite things about circus! We don’t want to lose that, but there is also room for the ‘high art’ versions
OO – When I worked in Luton, people weren’t engaging in other arts but, when we initiated circus programmes, suddenly Everybody was getting on board. People just came to see the work in All its variety – people in jeans, people dressed up, people eating popcorn, people using their mobile phones to record. These events were always the highest attended outside of music events.
It’s a shame when regional areas don’t get to see this.
MS – The responsibility is not just with venues – artists need to know how to talk about their work, and what sort of images to use. Often the copy and pics provided are not encouraging audiences to come and see work that, in person, they are likely to enjoy.
SC – When we had Ramshacklicious’ Grime at Norwich and Norfolk Festival we found it a very successful show for the audience’s who came, but nobody understood what it was going to be.
KK – The context of venue/festival is important in how much pre-information audiences expect/require
OO – Circus Evolution focuses on circus in rural areas, and all the marketers they spoke to said ‘We don’t know how to sell this!‘ – the organisation ran masterclasses on what you need for different audiences.
MS – We also have a problem sometimes with communication of age appropriateness.
HJ – People still think circus is a particular thing – Slava’s Snowshow has been massively popular at the Southbank for the last 4 years, but we get 100s of complaints because it actually starts in quite a dark place and people aren’t prepared for that.
SC – Red Bastard is another good example. If parents want to bring their kids, they’re welcome too, but it’s their responsibility, as long as we let them know what may potentially be in store
OO – The onus is on companies to give clear copy, then families can make choices
MW – It’s different in outdoor environments with unplanned audiences
OO – But should we learn from our European cousins who do make risky artistic work for public spaces? See what happens?
JC – The more these works come into the public sphere, the easier it will become
NR – But, at this stage, we do have a responsibility to work on this element, to help it become part of the public consciousness
KK – What action can we take towards this?
DB – Is it just communication about potential offense that needs fixing? All companies have to do promo, why is circus different?
KK – Circus artists selling their own products (outside of 7 minute acts to tenting type shows etc) is very new. There are training and education needs that are yet to be satisfied that other art forms have benefitted from for years as a normal part of their culture.
OO – There’s no point reinventing the wheel – we should make people more aware of CircusFest etc, promote it more strongly to arts communities so they can come and see a variety of work and familiarise themselves a little.
Would be really great if CircusFest could be circulated to different cities around the UK – can we propose this?
Also find a way of organising masterclasses so people can sit together and chat like this?
JC – There’s a gap in the infrastructure between existing theatrical business and the emerging circus sector – we have to have a shared growth rather than one leading the other. When I try to think of leading names of circus producers, I can only think of a couple of people, leading or not!
MS – Circus is a small world, but it’s not good at talking outside its own walls
OO – Circus needs to work collectively to establish its standards. The circus fraternity has to endorse the people working towards this – it can’t just be overlaid from outside (example of US author who wrote a book on circus but circus community went ‘Who is this guy?’)
DB – In juggling community we refer to ‘juggler tricks’ and ‘non-juggler tricks’. How do we create quality in a world where ‘wow factor’ is relatively easy to produce for mainstream audiences?
JC – When audiences see more and more, they begin to spot it themselves. Circus needs to be on more regularly in more places to become a normal artform.
SC – When I saw ‘The Elephant In The Room there was one stunning moment of skills at the end that made it for me, the rest I was bemused by.
BH – Elements need signposting. Circus is a signpost, people know what circus is.
KK – I disagree. The pop-cultural image of big top circuses as established by the PR giants of the early 20th Century is still prevalent amongst the general public. We’re in a priviledged position because of our particularly daily cultural involvement.
MS – The wrong expectations can be very dangerous
HJ – We have to balance potential for complaints with getting people through the door. With Slava it works, but striking that balance is much riskier with unknown work
OO – Demographics make a difference too – you couldn’t programme venues in Walsall with the same things you do at the Southbank. The sensibilities are different.
Londoners are priviledged with cultural options
The luxury ideal would be to experiment with 3/4 different types of circus show to see what fits for a venue, but when the venue’s priority has to be chasing the money that’s dangerous. SO they don’t know what will bring in an audience, so they don’t book any.
JC – This is an issue across all artforms when you’re outside of the mainstream
OO – Is there a pot of ACE money for growth and development that would allow a venue to experiment with different types of circus in this way?
JB – Circus is in transition still. Arguably, circus is the thing that can bring audiences back to regional theatres. It has that accessibility in performance.
OO – R&D money isn’t available for circus in the same way, because of the prohibitory rigging cost requirements
JB – Links with venues can be a good way forward
MS – It’s beginning to happen, but then where does the work go? We use our small space for artists to bring in their work – if they can make it here, then it’s tour ready.
MC – That’s about thinking outside of the way you were trained. We’ve had to do it in theatre – learn how to make the epic in a box room
JB – Those restrictions also propel artists away from spectacle in their creation
HJ – By combining more than one artform, you can also bring in audiences from each sector
JC – There’s a lack of support for artists making work of scale – dialogue needs to happen about how this work is made and its requirements. The independent performance sector is particularly invisible
NR – Every large GTFA award means fewer projects funded in total. There’s some use of Strategic Touring grants in circus
OO – CircusFest should be used as a platform to showcase possibilities. And then rotate the showcase out of London in the future!
NR – The National Centre For Circus Arts roadshow went out to the regions (still awaiting final report). But people aren’t working together in their own backyards, let alone nationally.
JC – The problem with Strategic Touring grants is they’re not artist led. Excludes a lot of work
MS – Yes, there is currently only a very small pool of us writing applications for circus!
DB – Why not get rid of the word ‘circus’ and split into defining by discipline – juggling, aerial etc like dance has contemporary, ballet, ballroom etc?
OO – Because circus is the umbrella, like dance is. It’s important for artists to do their homework and sell appropriately. ‘Where will my work fit in contextually with venues and audiences etc?’
There’s a responsibility to think deeper when making work.
OO – Another question to think about could be ‘How do we tour overseas?
NR – Circus goes to Europe quite easily
JC – And it gets paid for!
NR – And people get it!
OO – There’s a history of evolving terms within all art forms.
HJ – Exploration in the UK holds risks
OO – The sector as a whole needs critics, academics, reviewers
SC – Those people exist. What about… Total Theatre?
KK – Critics writing from a theatre or dance background have different values than people who come from a circus background. It’s like what we were talking about in terms of directors and producers – people from other art forms giving their option of what circus should be
JC – How can we grow a critical dialogue within circus?
OO – Circus artists need to validate themselves. Stand on their own two feet, confident that what they do is worth something in it’s own right
KK – In sessions I’ve held, there has been a fear about ‘not knowing enough’
OO – Start with some money and say ‘just write/say anything’ as a stepping stone?
HJ – Funding should be given for critical dialogue as well as making
JC – Total Theatre Awards now include a circus category, but when we put a call out for assessors only on circus special is came forward. Yet those discussion groups are one of the best places I know that fosters critical chat. We’ve been having some talk with CircusFest to see if an element of critical thinking can be included
SC – Is it that the type of person attracted to circus is generally not into this kind of world?
OO – We have a history of not being taken seriously. I’m surprised there aren’t more circus people here today actually
JC – That’s why spaces for dialogue are so important, to break that down
MS – Again, it’s to do with training – most circus workers aren’t used to talking about their art. There’s a fear
JB – Is it because British circus is quite new (artistic circus anyway)? I’m surprised more people haven’t come to this session when a lot of topics seem like old theatre hat. Perhaps because it’s Brand New people aren’t sure what they can contribute/what value it might be?
MS – There was a lack of people at the circus industry D&D too.
OO – The key thing is to open communication channels
SC – There are so many angles all coming at once in the circus field
KK – Circus is playing catch up on all the developmental stages that theatre and dance went through in the last Century, but at a much quicker rate because it can see what they did and can learn from it.
OO – We have to let it happen organically! Don’t make circus horseshoe into pre-existing terms and expectations. If the theatre community won’t accept us I don’t give a shit – the proof is in the pudding of audiences.
Circus comes from passion, not from a business plan.
SC – Having so many ways to be involved gives it a beauty and natural inclusiveness – it fits to you, you don’t have to fit to it
OO – There’s a respect and equality between every element of the craft, from technical to performative via administrative
SC – Is this why the element of critique is missing? These are family, you don’t want to risk spoiling relationships?
MS – It doesn’t feel like there’s permission to critically value each other’s work because it’s not been done before. It’s a chicken and egg scenario. There was a bit emerging around juggling in the 90s, but little else
KK – And, as a general character trait of jugglers, they tend to be quite analytical
MS – I couldn’t name you a famous trapeze artist. But there will be legendary ones in the future

Cue: lovely chat about circus as a leveller, a place to fit in as oddballs. ‘Circus was the one area I could breathe’ (OO)

Then, as the group was dispersing:

OO – The most successful way I’ve found to promote circus to programmers is to invite them AND their tech team to come and see a show with me. They see the work, the diversity of audience attending, and the reactions of those audience members. It’s a triple win, and then makes pitching afterwards so much easier. You have points of reference, even when recommending alternative shows.
KK – Maybe the theatre way of marketing work – printed copy and images – is the wrong way to sell circus?
OO – It’s also really helpful to be able to offer suggestions about alternative ways the venue space can be used following any adjustments for bringing a circus show – eg changing the floor = now you can have ballroom dancing! Offer solutions to the problems the venues see.

(P.s. The only platform dedicated to circus critique in the UK needs your support – please help if you can! https://www.patreon.com/thecircusdiaries?ty=h)

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4 Comments

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  1. I think the problem about critical dialogue starts in the culture of training, within the disciplines of circus and the kind of people circus attracts. There are high number of those who choose to do circus who either dislike writing or have a learning difficulty such as dyslexia that makes it difficult for them. In textual based performing arts theory and criticism are part of the culture. Dance has the history of establishment to have enough aficionados dedicated to writing and researching it. There are fewer and fewer arts critics as it is. There is a wider discussion about funding for critics – which of course your Patreon is part of. I have no solutions… Would love to try and be part of some at the National Centre.

  2. Other people have also suggested that, in general, the sort of person who is often drawn to a practical activity like circus is also often turned off by the more academic process of analysis. As far as I am aware, most of the teaching staff in circus schools also come from this practical background, so may not feel comfortable with instigating much critical discourse themselves.

    What is particularly interesting though, is that in this era where traditional arts criticism in mass media is waning, the opportunity to engage critically in other ways is being explored more thoroughly. Perhaps filmed responses, or discussion groups recorded by one designated person, or podcasts, or emojis and cat pictures, or or or…. Once the idea of critical thought is received as valuable within circus work, I think ways of transmitting this will follow naturally.

    Perhaps I should look into running some workshops at National Centre… Who would be best to speak to about this do you think?

    1. Ping me an email to rebekah[at]nationalcircus.org.uk with your thoughts and I will have a think about who to put you in contact with. I’ve also had some thoughts but will chat via email!

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