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How NoFit State tore up the circus rulebook

Rehearsals for Block, 2016
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The miners’ strike, high unemployment and clashes between the police and New Age travellers. That was the charged political landscape against which five students set out to introduce a new form of circus to Britain, 30 years ago.

The seeds of NoFit State Circus were planted in a juggling club at Cardiff University.

Founders  (from left), Dave Williams, Richie Turner, Peter Gregory, Ali Williams, and Tom Rack
Founders (from left), Dave Williams, Richie Turner, Peter Gregory, Ali Williams, and Tom Rack

“I wasn’t at the university,” recalls Tom Rack, the last of the founders still with the company, “but I was friends with a bunch of people that were. We figured out that as a juggling club, we could get the use of university minibuses to go to festivals. Then we figured out that if we started doing workshops they’d give us free tickets. We then realised that if we started doing performances, they may even pay our expenses.”

The result was a performance group called the Balls Up Jugglers Club. The university club had been formed by Toby Philpott, a former street entertainer and puppeteer on films including Return of the Jedi. Philpott took the students busking and Rack says: “That was where we learned our craft, on the streets.”

When graduation threatened to send the students their separate ways, half the group set up a vegetarian restaurant called Munchies. The remaining five – Rack, Dave Williams, Peter Gregory, Richie Turner and Ali Williams – formed NoFit State Circus in 1986. They played a mixture of street shows, children’s shows and pantomime-like productions.

“At the time, everything was the something state circus: the Chinese State Circus, the Moscow State Circus. We became the NoFit State Circus as a joke, and it stuck. It was apt, because we were young, wild and crazy,” says Rack.

The name also reflected the troupe’s skills level, which in turn shaped their artistic direction.

“We were great jugglers, but our skill on the tight wire, the trapeze, tumbling and acrobatics was not great. But we could be funny with it, we could be theatrical and we could tell stories with it. We called ourselves ‘circus theatre’, and started inviting theatre directors to direct the shows.”

Mundo Paralelo, 2012. Photo: Farrows Creative
Mundo Paralelo, 2012. Photo: Farrows Creative

For its first few summers, NoFit State was hired for festivals by Arts Play Umbrella, but in 1991 the circus bought its own big top with the help of sponsorship by Cardiff company Allied Steel and Wire, and set out on its own.

“One of the things we’re passionate about is that the spiritual home of circus should be under canvas,” says Rack. “Living together, travelling together, putting up the tent, dealing with the wind and the rain creates a spirit and soul that comes across in the work.”

At first the free-spirited lifestyle was more important than the show: “We started this so we didn’t have to get proper jobs and grow up.”

Although the concept of animal-free, street theatre-based ‘new circus’ had begun in the 1970s and was becoming established in Europe in the 1980s through the work of French company Archaos, and in North America by Cirque du Soleil, the form had yet to gain acceptance in the UK. Troupes such as NoFit State and Snapdragon were regarded as hippies on the fringe of society.

“Traditional circuses looked down at us and called us ‘Have a go circuses’,” says Rack. “They didn’t think we’d stick around – and many companies didn’t.”

Audiences were also confused.

“We’d get, ‘Where are the elephants? Where are the tigers? Where’s your red nose?’ We also had people trying to drop their kids off. You know: ‘Circus is for kids.’ It took a long time to challenge the perceptions of the audience and get them to understand that it was a different form of circus and, yes, it’s accessible for children, but also accessible for adults,” says Rack.

NoFit State continued to be different, and by 2000 was touring groundbreaking promenade performances in a custom-made tent shaped like a flying saucer. There were no ringside seats, because there was no ring and no seats. The performers moved through and above the audience.

When NoFit State started out, there was no public funding for circus, because the arts council classified it as entertainment, not art. In the early days, the company earned a living from shows in the summer and signed on the dole in the winter.

The company's original pink lorry
The company’s original pink lorry

Ironically for a company that always had a left-wing message in its shows, it was a small weekly income from Margaret Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme that allowed the group to sign off the dole and make a living from workshops in schools during the winter. To raise cash for a new lorry in the 1990s, the company sold ‘crisis bonds’ in a 20th-century version of crowdfunding.

Rack reckons it was not until circus skills were given a high profile in Mark Fisher’s Millennium Dome Show that new circus was embraced by the arts establishment and the public at large. There’s no doubt, however, that NoFit State laid the foundations for the respectability that contemporary circus enjoys today.

In recent years, public funding has allowed NoFit State to develop more lavish productions and travel abroad. In May it will stage a show in New York.

Reflecting its maturity as a pillar of the new circus scene, the company that was once based in an office above a crumbling backstreet pub has also moved into an impressive training facility in a former church in Cardiff.

“In the past, we always thought, ‘This may be our last year, we’ll gamble everything, and if we’re going to go out we’ll go out with a bang’,” says Rack. “Now we’re in a position to plan two to three years ahead and be a little bit more strategic about the work we do.”

Looking back over the past 30 years, Rack believes it was the early hand-to-mouth days that made NoFit State Circus the company it is.

“Our lack of funding and support made us make work that people want to come and see, so we can sell tickets and eat. That entrepreneurial spirit is part of our culture and why we’re still here.”

Profile: NoFit State Circus

Chief executive: Alison Woods
Creative director: Tom Rack
Performances per year: 157 (2014/15)
Audience: 68,000 (2014/15)
Employees: 16 core staff, more than 100 on contract
Turnover: £1.8 million
Funding: 39%
Website: nofitstate.org

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