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Circus performer and aerial rigger Barnz Munn: ‘I’m still scared of heights’

After training as a shipwright, Munn took his knowledge of knots and rigging to circus. He’s renowned for his counterweighting techniques, using pulleys to put people into the air. He tells Tim Bano about Flown, a show he is taking to Cornwall’s Minack Theatre with circus company Pirates of the Carabina…

How did you get into circus?

I was never a very big fan of circus. As a little kid I went to a circus with lions and tigers and big scary clowns. I had a recurring nightmare for about 20 years. I left school at 15, went to a boatyard and did an apprenticeship in Gosport. It was old-fashioned, 100-year-old boats. They were beautiful. Then I was building stages for a big community show by NoFit State Circus and there was this beautiful aerialist and I thought: “How the hell do you get brave enough to talk to people like that?” So I just followed her about and found things to do in the show.

Why do you like to put things into the air?

I’m not sure. I’m still scared of heights. But you fly one thing and go: “What can I fly next?” Flying a Chinese pole or a drum kit just seems like a natural thing to do. A flying baby grand piano may make its way into the next show. The circus artists had no way of leaving the ground gracefully and I came up with counterweighting because we had no money for winches and I knew about knots and pulleys. We didn’t realise we’d come up with something that hadn’t been done before. My attitude to circus is: “If you haven’t got it, go and make it.” You start off on a creative level, then you go: “Let’s make sure no one dies.”

How do you think circus is faring in the UK at the moment?

Venues won’t take a show for more than two or three days. The standard thing is: “We don’t have the funding to do a long run”, which means circuses have to make small shows and get in very quickly. Bigger and more exciting shows aren’t getting made. What we’ve proved time and time again is that if we’re given time at a venue, we can build an audience and people will make money. But I don’t think circus will shrivel up. It’s sustainable by its nature, it’s inclusive and doesn’t require vast amounts of funding for it to survive. I feel quite positive. It’s rare even for people to talk about traditional versus contemporary circus, they don’t take different camps. I couldn’t call us ‘contemporary circus’. The term makes me cringe. Circus is a good enough word.

You’re about to take your show Flown to the Minack Theatre. Is that a challenge?

It’s the hardest get-in we’ve ever done. We’re going to abseil on to the cliffs and put in big anchor points, our high-wire artist will have an 80ft drop behind him. It’s a reverse rake stage because it has been sliding into the sea, so the front of the stage is a foot higher than the back of it. But we’re fairly confident it will work.


CV: Barnz Munn

Training: I left school at 15 and went into a shipwright apprenticeship. And then made it up from there.
First professional role: Fire performance as a stilt-walking cyborg at a tribal rave gathering (1992)
Agent: None


Flown runs at the Minack Theatre [1], Cornwall, until April 29

Part of The Stage special edition focussing on circus. For more circus coverage click here [2]