Until my first job offer, I had not considered that the performing arts could be a career. The company was called Exponential. I had met its members by chance as they lived across the street from me and my roommate Rachel (who was also my eventual trapeze partner) in Leeds.
I had just completed my degree and had been training with the company for about a year. I think the artists they originally booked for a tour dropped out at the last minute. Rachel and I had worked hard all year to develop a strong double act and they thought, why not?
It was hard work – but also one of the best summers of my life. We were not just performers – we did everything from hammering stakes into the ground to fixing the dodgy PA and rigging lights. One day, I sat at the top of a 10-metre aerial rig trying to get all our equipment down before it got soaked in an imminent rainstorm. I remember feeling that I was a world away from the labs and lecture rooms in which I thought I would spend my life.
I learned the realities of touring and circus life before going on to train at an institution where the focus was on developing myself as an artist, but where students did not get a huge amount of exposure to how the industry works.
Most of all, I started to learn about boundaries. Circus life can involve risky work beyond what goes on stage. You need to be able to question the dominant cultures and practices and consider its impact on your well-being. I’ve been mostly lucky and worked with some great companies but there have been moments when I have had to stand up and say: ‘Why are we doing it like this?’
I now work on the Equity Variety, Circus and Entertainers Committee. Circus is the union’s fastest-growing membership and has expanded hugely in the last 15 years. Our goal is to help create a culture that allows circus to flourish but also recognises the need to put artists’ well-being at the forefront of thinking.
Current role: Artistic director of Upswing, a London-based contemporary circus company
Trained: Independently and at the Centre National Des Arts Du Cirque, France
Direction and consultancy: Barnum (Chichester Festival/Cameron Mackintosh), Into The Woods and Orlando (Royal Exchange, Manchester), Peter Pan and Wicked Lady (New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Victoria Amedume was talking to John Byrne