Julius Green: Everyone should run away with the circus
A year from now, circus folk worldwide will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the invention of their art form in London by trick horse rider Philip Astley.
Astley famously discovered that a horse galloping around a 13-metre diameter ring generates sufficient centrifugal force to assist the balance of a rider standing on its back. And so the circus ring was born. To his horse-riding displays he added acrobats and clowns, and, in turn, circus itself was created.
In the 19th century, the introduction of the big top tent set the ring inside a bespoke, mobile venue owned and operated by the circus itself. This formula is the envy of every touring theatre producer.
Of course, many of what we now label “circus skills” long predate the invention of circus. But a circus consists of much more than the skills themselves. Despite the use of the word to describe a state of chaos, in reality a circus is a highly disciplined and well-organised creative community, and one that today’s theatre practitioners have much to learn from.
According to Ron Beadle, professor of business ethics at Northumbria University, a circus is a uniquely ethical business model – a “practice-enabling” institution that exists primarily to facilitate the work of the performer. Significantly, the circus proprietor is characterised as an enabler rather than an exploiter. There is no ‘them and us’; it is family – often literally.
The wisdom and experience of the old is cherished as much as the energy and enthusiasm of the young. Apprentice performers develop their skills working alongside more seasoned ones, much like theatre’s oft-lamented repertory system.
Despite its traditions, this is not a closed community. It is refreshingly open-minded and always embraces new people, talent and ideas. Some of the UK’s most successful circus companies – including Zippos, Cottle’s and Gifford’s – were created by people who ‘ran away with the circus’.
In recent years the skills nurtured by circuses have been appropriated by a multinational entertainment empire and adopted by ‘holistic circus’ therapists. Anyone who includes a back flip or a Cyr wheel in their performance now calls themselves a ‘circus artist’. We’ve seen circus ‘spaces’, circus ‘hubs’ and a self-styled National Centre for Circus Arts (which famously served croissants rather than candyfloss at its launch event).
The distinctive iconography of circus has been borrowed by countless pop stars, and even one of Cirque du Soleil’s shows was circus-themed.
It’s often trumpeted that circus is being ‘reinvented’, as if this were assumed to be a necessity. Circus remains a remarkably resilient model and has stood the test of time. It’s not broke and it certainly doesn’t need fixing.
With all this in mind, my friend the circus proprietor Martin “Zippo” Burton asked me a few years ago if, as a theatre producer and director, I would like to collaborate on a new project. The plan was to present a company of traditional circus artists (some of them from 10th-generation circus families) in a full-scale spectacular created specifically for proscenium-arch stages.
As a circus enthusiast, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And it promised a welcome respite from the “low drizzle of persistent complaint”, which David Hare memorably identified as typifying the theatre industry.
So we came up with Cirque Berserk, which boldly promises “real circus made for theatre”. Things started slowly, as our theatrical creative team adjusted to living in caravans and working in midwinter on the tarmac surface of the car park where the now ringless big top had been set up for rehearsals. But it didn’t take long for everyone to warm to the overwhelmingly positive energy of the circus.
It’s a creative environment like no other, where the only ‘motivation’ anyone has is to put on the best possible show. No challenge is insurmountable, and people solve problems on the spot and with their wits rather than with the producer’s bank balance.
Our company of 50 includes 10 different nationalities speaking eight different languages. It is a wonderfully vibrant ethnic mix. Everyone multitasks – the rampant, divisive demarcation that has come to characterise theatre is entirely absent.
The truck drivers operate followspots and sell programmes, and everyone rigs their own kit and helps out backstage: setting props, sewing costumes, repairing equipment and loading lorries. The complex sound and lighting designs are brilliantly recreated every night by one (Hungarian) man, operating entirely from visual cues.
Performers with young children bring them into work, and their colleagues take turns babysitting. The boss doesn’t have to organise this: everyone just happily gets on with it. There are none of the wearisome debates we constantly hear in theatre about work/life balance. To a circus artist, the two are inseparable, and this is a cause for celebration, not complaint.
In practical terms, it soon became clear that the transition from ring to stage would have both advantages and disadvantages. Throughout the world, the 13-metre ring is virtually standard, so performers are effectively always working in the same space. An extraordinary amount of time, effort and money is wasted by touring theatre companies adapting their work to differently proportioned stages, and it took a while for the circus team to get used to the frustrations of this, as well as the boredom resulting from delivering only eight (rather than their usual 14) shows a week. Not to mention the inconvenience of not being able to walk home from work in 30 seconds.
The theatrical setting also inevitably creates some restrictions in terms of the acts we can present (lion-taming, for instance, would be impractical). We still manage to showcase 34 different skills, and have discovered (perhaps not surprisingly) that four motorbikes racing around inside the Globe of Death is particularly effective on stage.
On a proscenium-arch stage, circus acts are more animated, immediate and dangerous
The Globe, numerous aerial and ‘thrill’ acts (all without lunge wires) and more than 30 uses of naked flames, have raised a few eyebrows with health and safety inspectors. But they quickly come to appreciate that ultimately the skill and knowledge of the performers themselves, rather than the notably lengthy risk assessment, ensures the safety of both artists and audiences.
Gratifyingly, it was apparent from the beginning that the acts themselves have far more impact on a proscenium stage than in a ring. They suddenly seem more animated, immediate and dangerous. The apparently constant risk of colliding with the lighting bars and masking flats adds a whole new frisson to proceedings. The Cuban acrobats propelling themselves through the air off a springboard think it’s hilarious that they sometimes disappear into the lighting grid. Audience members, of course, are on the edge of their seats.
So has our experiment worked? Well, the show is currently booking its fifth theatre tour and has just confirmed its second West End season, so we must be doing something right. And as for me? I guess it’s back to the day job – struggling to persuade star actors to tour and arguing with the entertainment unions about overtime payments.