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Aerialist Rebecca Truman: ‘I’m very happy up in a trapeze. The air is my comfort zone’

Truman in her 1988-2002 solo show Firebird Rebecca Truman in her 1988-2002 solo show Firebird
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It’s 30 years since Rebecca Truman founded pioneering aerial company Skinning the Cat. As she publishes her new memoir, she tells Douglas McPherson about the ups, downs and dangers of the circus high life

There’s a trapeze swing in Rebecca Truman’s kitchen, a legacy of a career that earned her the title “the grande dame of aerial”. She explains: “When I stopped doing trapeze, I found that my body had become addicted to traction and that if I didn’t do a lot of stretching by hanging on the trapeze, I got a lot of pain.”

Apart from that, she just happens to like sitting on the type of perch that has been home for most of her life.

“I’m very happy sitting up there in the kitchen,” says the former acrobat. “The air is my comfort zone.”

Truman’s new book, Aerialist, marks the 30th anniversary of her founding the pioneering all-woman aerial company Skinning the Cat, in 1988, when she was 21. The troupe was the first to tour the UK with its own outdoor trapeze rig and for the next 14 years travelled all over Europe, often performing against dramatic sunsets at festivals, but also appearing in circus tents and theatres.

The company – which took its name from a trapeze move – blazed a trail with its elaborate costumes and equally creative rigs, all of which were designed by Truman. Between directing the shows and running the company, she also turned her hand to everything from driving the lorries to hammering in the stakes that held up the rigging.

If you want an easy life, don’t go into the circus

“When you work in the circus, you do everything yourself,” she says. “If you want an easy life, don’t go into the circus.”

Truman’s desire to fly through the air was innate. As a child, she hung upside down from road signs, climbing frames and trees. She was also a compulsive maker of things, the more ornate and colourful the better, from whatever fabrics, paints and other bits and bobs that came to hand.

Her circus dreams were fired by her favourite childhood book, Noel Streatfeild’s The Circus Is Coming.

Truman’s interests came together at Bradford College, where she studied art and fashion. Her final degree show was an aerial performance featuring costumes she had designed and made herself.

Rebecca Truman in her kitcehn

From there, she was commissioned by the Bradford Festival to organise a fashion cabaret and perform a trapeze show that became the basis of Skinning the Cat.

“I received Prince’s Trust funding to buy a van and I was set,” says the woman who was subsequently named the Prince’s Youth Business Trust’s Young Achiever of the Year, in 1993.

During the 1980s, new circus was in its infancy and aerial acts were particularly rare outside of the traditional big top.

“You didn’t see aerialists the way you do now, on adverts and in every community show,” Truman recalls. “I didn’t set out to be different – I just was.”

In terms of Skinning the Cat’s visual impact, Truman considers it one of her biggest strengths that she was both costume designer and performer. She knew how ambitious a costume could be without restricting her acrobatics.

“Designers tend to play safe with aerial costumes,” she explains. “They stick to patterns on a body suit, whereas I was able to push it so much further.”

As artistic director, she adds: “I approached circus from the perspective of the visual arts. I saw it as a picture.”

Double trapeze act from Skinning the Cat’s 1992 show Chameleon

As manager, artistic director, costumier and performer, however, Truman says she eventually ran herself into the ground by trying to do too many jobs at once.

“The main problem I encountered was trying to run the company while still trying to be artistic and a performer. I would have loved to hand the running of it over to someone else, but I could never find someone who had my drive.”

Further stress came from the challenge of trying to be both boss and friend to her colleagues while living and working together 24/7 during European tours.

“They might be treating me as a friend and then I’d have to say, ‘I don’t think that was done well enough’, which is a kick in the teeth. It’s a difficult situation, but I don’t think there’s an answer to it in a small company,” she says.

Truman divides her career into “before and after the falls”.

In her memoir, she graphically describes her best friend and Skinning the Cat member Lou Sumray falling head first from a rope during a dress rehearsal in Amsterdam in 1994 and the ordeal of accompanying the performer to hospital. The extent of Sumray’s injuries was initially misdiagnosed and she was lucky to survive.

Soon after, Truman fell during practice and broke an ankle that would never properly heal.

Before the accidents, she never dwelt on the dangers of trapeze. “It’s probably a youth thing – you think you’re going to live forever,” she reflects. “We were often asked, ‘Aren’t you scared of falling?’ But at the time you’re too involved in trying new moves to worry about that.”

Outwardly, the accidents had no affect on Truman’s attitude to the risks. Forced to limp to the trapeze on crutches, she designed a costume that made them part of the act. Being in the air freed her from her impairment.

Inwardly, however, the psychological damage took its toll. “It crept in and showed in other ways, through insomnia and panic attacks,” she recalls.

Rubicon (2002)

Truman wound up the company in 2002, the same year that she was artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies in the Sponsor’s Village of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Immediately afterwards, she suffered a mental breakdown that left her unable to leave the sanctuary of a friend’s attic.

Today’s circus industry is more safety-conscious than it was when Truman founded Skinning the Cat. “I see shows now where the cloud swingers have a lunge belt on. That would have been embarrassing in my day. Even crash mats were for wimps when I started.”

In Truman’s opinion, however, the increased attention to health and safety “hasn’t made much difference” to the inherent dangers of trapeze. Pointing out the death in March this year of Cirque du Soleil performer Yann Arnaud, she says: “At the end of the day, an aerialist is holding on with their heels, their toes, their hands. There’s going to be a moment when the bar’s a bit sweaty or you’re not completely concentrating. It’s human error that makes it dangerous, and you can’t safety-check that. I’m more surprised that people aren’t killed more often than by the fact that someone gets killed once in a blue moon.”

Sixteen years after Skinning the Cat came off the road, Truman continues to make costumes for companies including the Bradford-based Irregular Arts, as well as for drag artists. “Because my style is so over the top, it suits them very well,” she says of the latter.

Her varied working life also incorporates teaching, sculpting, mask-making and having a stake in a factory that makes ropes especially for aerialists.

She may no longer be performing, but as Truman writes in her memoir, and as that swing in her kitchen confirms: “Cut me in half and I’ll have ‘aerialist’ written all the way through.”

The Aerialist by Rebecca Truman is available from Amazon. Visit: skinningthecat.biz

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive