Organised by Stumble Dance Circus director, Mish Weaver, the Serious Circus symposium is the first iteration of an ongoing project to create a network of support and practitioners who are using circus to create issue based work. Held in Cirocmedia’s St Pauls venue in Bristol, the well attended event comprised of guest speakers, 60 second soap-box pitches, performances and an Open Space session.
The first guest speaker of the day was Teo Greenstreet, co-founder and former CEO of the Circus Space and current director of Greentop, Sheffield, who began proceedings by encouraging us to begin any kind of practice from a place of gratitude, to think about the steps we took to get here today, and about the significance of play and the fool (based on his Technologies of Foolishness thesis).
The ‘soap-box’ platform allowed anyone present to stand up and tell the crowd about a project they were working on, and this demonstrated the breadth and scope of interests in the room, including projects about environmentalism, re-connecting with the natural environment, infertility and parenthood, ethical design practice, participation, and taking circus to areas of deprivation.
One of the most positive elements of the day was seeing the diversity of topics being considered, and the range of practitioners who see circus as a medium to communicate meaningful content.
The second speaker of the day was Ali Williams, founding member of NoFit State Circus and now independent producer, discussing her current project As a Tiger in the Jungle, a circus theatre show where artists from Vietnam and Kathmandu tell their stories and which takes exploitation and survival as some of its central themes. Amongst discussions of the project, Williams draws attention to the difficulties in managing audience expectations when presenting issue-based circus work, highlighting some of the prejudices which can still exist in the minds of audiences and bookers that circus should be a medium associated mainly with spectacle and entertainment. However, she notes that; ‘audiences are able to process this kind of work and discover meaning.’
The issue of ‘quality’ is one which was returned to throughout the day, and questions were posed about the difficulties (or perceived difficulties) of presenting work which has depth of content as well as high levels of both theatrical delivery and technical circus practice. This is an interesting topic in and of itself – and one which was touched on at my own Damn Everything but the Circus seminars in Edinburgh this August – which seems to be a recurring theme within the discourse of contemporary British circus practice.
Next up was speaker Paul Evans, artistic director of Crashmat Collective, discussing his experiences directing artists from cultures outside of his own, mainly in Palestine and Nepal. Evans’ talk drew attention not only to the sensitivities needed when directing stories which are not your own, but also the very practice of transposing other culture’s story telling methodologies into a western framework.
Recent Circomedia graduate Tilly Lee-Kronick presented the first performance of the day, utilising static trapeze and spoken word in an excerpt from a longer piece of work dealing with expectation and the female circus artist.
The next speaker was Andy Hope, co-founder of eco-festivals organisation Croissant Neuf, offering his experiences of living and working sustainably, and of the challenges and merits of creating sustainable festivals. Humbly presenting his rather extraordinary life, Hope advocates for the power that can be found in community, in choosing to live on the road, and the increased availability of technologically green solutions which are now available for uptake.
The penultimate speaker of the morning was PhD candidate Laura Murphy, discussing her background as an activist and links to her current practice examining aerial work and the female body. Unpicking issues of spectacle and narrative around aerial practice and its framing of the female form, Murphy presented video trailers for her work My Brain is a Radio and Contra, both of which use aerial rope to provide a visual underscoring of the themes in the work.
Murphy’s presentation led into an open discussion about some of the difficulties in getting issue-based circus work seen, and the stigma and suspicion that can surround circus work which purports to have ‘serious’ or ‘weighty’ content. Problems exist around finding producers and venues to accept work which is seen as being ‘too circusy’ for a live art or theatre forum, but would equally be dismissed as ‘too experimental’ for established circus audiences. Murphy concludes that one of her biggest issues is finding a platform for her work.
Scenographer Andrea Carr was the final speaker of the morning, discussing her experiences of working within sustainable theatre design. Highlighting the importance of reclamation, recycling and salvage as key components of design practice, Carr posits that a change should be made in funding structures and budgeting practices to increase the amount spent on labour, and less on materials. She argues that the labours of gathering, sourcing and compiling materials often cost more than the materials themselves, and a reconfiguration of how we value these different ‘costs’ would be a beneficial move forwards, concluding that ‘design and sustainability should be considered holistically, not as an add-on to projects.’
Before lunch, we were encouraged to pitch ‘Open Space’ topics for afternoon discussion groups and the topics covered included:
Is ‘doing nothing’ an option?
Prejudice and Preconceptions of ‘serious work’
Nudity on Stage
Process as Product in community work
Racial Diversity in Circus
Sadly I wasn’t able to make it around all of the groups for long enough to be able to provide more in depth coverage of all of the discussions had, but one of the themes that continued to circulate throughout the day is the issue of prejudice and stigma around issue based work, and how this can be challenged.
In discussion of the stigma around ‘serious’ work, points were raised about the difficulty of integrating the concepts of ‘issue’ and ‘spectacle’ and whether the ‘ethics of circus performance may have a resistance to compromising style, technique and the concept of the extraordinary body’. (Laura Murphy)
The afternoon saw further soap-box pitches, including Performers Without Borders, work about the lingering stigma of menstruation within society, and circus work exploring HIV.
Prior to introducing the final performance of the day, Mish Weaver spoke about her own experiences of making work about environmentalism and climate change. Outlining the difficulties she had experienced in getting audiences to engage with serious content rather than simply appreciating the spectacle, she noted that often viewers were quicker to appreciate the visual beauty/technical prowess of of piece rather than discuss the message, and the difficulties in balancing an ‘unattractive theme with an attractive package‘.
The final performance of the day was an excerpt from Can of Worms, which has been directed by Weaver and is performed by Charles Brockbank in a delicate exploration of fragility and imbalance filled with pathos.
As the day drew to a close the attendees were encouraged to provide any final comments and questions, and the consensus grew that the symposium should act as a beginning for a cohort of those looking to further issue-based work, providing a place for information, shared resources and support. I personally look forward to seeing where this goes next, and am excited about the prospect of circus continuing to branch out, evolve and develop to tackle difficult issues and act as an instrument for change.