Big Kid Circus ringmistress Olympia Posirca tells Douglas McPherson about surviving in lockdown – from relying on food banks, to Cuban artists getting stuck in the UK, and why circuses desperately need help from government
Salsa music fills the big top. A dozen Cuban acrobats dance merrily in the ring. Outside the spotlit circle, a 91-year-old great-grandmother with silk flowers in her hair blows out the candles on a birthday cake shaped like a circus tent.
Doreen Enos isn’t an audience member on a night out, however, because there can be no audiences. This is a circus in lockdown. And if there is no social distancing within the encampment of lorries and caravans on Morecambe seafront that’s because the 35-strong cast of Big Kid Circus has been officially classified as a single household since the pandemic pressed ‘pause’ on its UK tour in March.
Enos and her daughter Pam, both retired circus artists, were visiting granddaughter Olympia Posirca, Big Kid Circus ringmistress, when the lockdown began, and they’ve been there ever since.
“That’s been a comfort to us and to everybody, because my grandma loves everyone,” says Posirca, who lives on the beachside site in a caravan with her husband and two children, aged three and one. “It’s a daily routine for everybody to go past her caravan and give her a wave or have a chat with her.”
‘Circus has existed in Britain for more than 250 years and we’re good at adapting’
Asked what Enos – known to one and all as Oma, the German word for grandmother – used to do in the sawdust circle, Posirca answers: “Absolutely everything. The trapeze, tumbling, magic. She did the comedy car with my granddad and went to the US as one of the Digger Pugh Girls” – a famous troupe of dancers and acrobats that Australian showman Digger Pugh hired out to circuses around the globe.
While many grandparents have endured the lockdown in isolation, Enos has been surrounded by acrobats rehearsing daily in the big top.
“When we’re allowed to reopen, we need to be in the same condition that we were in when we stopped,” Posirca says. “We can’t sit on our backsides for however many months and expect the performers to do triple somersaults straight away.”
But if life in a locked-down circus sounds like business as usual, the party atmosphere hides the financial nightmare for a company stranded with no income for the foreseeable future. “If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry,” says Posirca.
Big Kid Circus was founded in 2005 by Bulgarian couple Kiril and Biliana Kirilov, who had previously performed as Duo Jordanov.
The 2020 season got off to a disastrous start when Storm Dennis prevented the company from erecting the tent on its first stop at New Brighton. The next ground, at Weaverham, Cheshire, was so boggy that it took five days to pull on to the site and build up, and another three days to pull off.
In all, bad weather meant the company managed 10 shows in five weeks on the road before arriving in Morecambe in March. It had just erected the big top when it was told it couldn’t open because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“If we’d had a normal start to the season, we would have had a little bit of a financial safety net,” says Posirca. “But because of the storms, that safety net was non-existent.”
This year’s show is called Cirque de Cuba and its 25 Cuban cast members were given the opportunity to fly home, but the circus faced a dilemma. “If the lockdown was over in three weeks, we might not have been able to bring them back, so did they want to stay here and wait it out?” says Posirca. “It was up to them, but before they could make a decision, the borders closed.”
‘Some people have sent us pictures of themselves having a circus in their living rooms while they watch, with popcorn and pretend tickets’
In the meantime, the circus was running out of diesel for the generators that provide its electricity.
“The local council has been fantastic,” says Posirca. “It has provided us with electricity and water and said we can stay here as long as we need to.”
In terms of financial support, however, the circus has fallen through the cracks. In common with many other circuses, the company doesn’t qualify for a government grant because having no permanent building means it doesn’t pay business rates.
The majority of the performers, as non-UK residents, are ineligible for furlough or income support and, because of their restricted visas, are unable to take alternative employment.
Posirca, who was born in Rotherham, qualified for the self-employed income support grant but calculated that it would cover her outgoings for only a month and a half – small consolation with no reopening of large entertainment venues in sight.
“We’re relying on food banks,” she says. “They came to us, because the police told them we were too proud to ask, but without the support of the local community, we wouldn’t survive.”
Even Enos’ birthday cake was donated by a local resident while other supplies have come from neighbouring businesses.
“When we can, we’re going to do some free shows in Morecambe as a thank you,” Posirca promises. “And every year when we come back, we’re going to do two charity performances with NHS and key workers allowed in for free.”
In the meantime, Big Kid Circus has filmed its show and put it online in a bid to support itself.
“We had no professional cameramen, it was just us filming with our phones,” says Posirca. “It was very strange performing without an audience, especially for me and the clown, because we rely on feedback. But the public don’t seem to notice the difference. Some people have sent us pictures of themselves having a circus in their living rooms while they watch, with popcorn and pretend tickets. They’ve created their own atmosphere.”
The online performance, available to buy or rent, has only given the circus’ finances a small uplift, however. “We were able to give the Cubans £20 a week for a couple of weeks,” Posirca says. “Someone in the local community set up a GoFundMe page and we were able to give them another £20. But you don’t know whether that £20 will have to last you until October…”
Zippos founder Martin Burton has said the circus industry could “wither and die” without government support during the pandemic and Posirca is disappointed that more isn’t being done for the industry in its country of origin.
“In Norway, Cirkus Arnardo received €420,000 to help it stay afloat, and another circus received €120,000. We need the UK government to acknowledge that we’re here, because at the moment we’re not eligible for anything.”
Posirca is a 15th-generation circus performer on her mother’s side and “17th or 18th-generation” on her father’s. She comes from a line that stretches back through such big top dynasties as the Chipperfields and Fossetts. She made her first appearance in the ring at the age of three and she’s confident that the circus community will spring back from the crisis that has suspended business around the world.
“As soon as we’re told we can open, that’s when we’ll start our tour, whether that’s next week or Christmas. We’ll have to work within a new normal, but circus has existed in Britain for more than 250 years and we’re good at adapting,” she says.
“Our biggest problem is uncertainty. If they said: ‘You can’t open until August 2021,’ we could plan around that and come back bigger and better than ever. But we don’t have a timeline. We just hope we can perform again soon.”