How circus training has expanded in the UK

In Circus, Features, Opinion by Katharine KavanaghLeave a Comment

Disappearing with a travelling troupe used to be the only way to learn the tricks of the circus trade if you weren’t born into an established circus family. Over the last 50 years, however, that has been changing with an ever-increasing number of clubs, schools and training centres appearing around the world.

There are vocational training programmes designed to set students up for a performing career while, at the other end of the scale, if you’re just interested in having a go at some of the physical skills that make up a large part of every circus programme, there are taster sessions and activity days that allow you to feel the magic (and the bruises) for yourself. In between, are seasons of recreational classes and regular programmes that allow young people and adults to develop circus skills as a hobby, which may or may not lead them into a professional performing path down the road.

The move towards widespread circus education is often traced back to the work of Margate man Reg Bolton, who worked as a clown and, in 1975 at the age of 30, launched his company Suitcase Circus to introduce circus skills to the local streets and council estates of Edinburgh. In 1981, he organised the first ever Community Circus Festival, held in Manchester, and in 1985 he moved with his family to Australia, where he was instrumental in developing the strong culture of youth circus that the country now enjoys.

He wrote several books about the benefits of circus training in young people’s development and, in 2004, earned a Doctorate for his research on the subject, before sadly passing away in 2006 while doing what he loved best – working on a show at an agricultural fair in Kununurra, Australia. Bolton once described himself as having ‘orangutan arms’, and it was always his ambition to make circus accessible to everyone: ‘elegance and perfection would not be the only criteria’.

The UK’s first full-time circus school was Fool Time, set up in Bristol in 1986 by Richard Ward. Seven years later, Fool Time became Circomedia, which is now one of two schools in Britain where you can get a Degree level qualification in circus skills (and, as of last year, the only school in the world to offer an MA in ‘Directing Circus’). The other British degree school is the National Centre for Circus Arts in London, known for many years as Circus Space until its name change in 2014. Although both schools offer a Batchelor of Arts (BA) qualification, they have very different focuses: the Circomedia course is called ‘Contemporary Circus with Physical Theatre’, and is set up expressly for students who wish to create narrative, character or meaning driven shows; the National Centre’s ‘Circus Arts’ course is more technically based, with teachers from the world of Cirque Du Soleil coaching students alongside more theoretical classes in the history of performance.

Both schools are members of FEDEC, the European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (the acronym works better in French, which is the language of more circus schools than any other). The federation is 20 years old in 2018, and its membership of 57 international organisations, each providing vocational circus skills training, now also includes several from outside Europe. Most of these schools are known by abbreviations, with some of the most prestigious being ENC in Montreal, NICA in Australia, and CNAC in France.

Some universities in the UK also now include taught circus modules in their more general Performing Arts degrees, such as Edge Hill University near Liverpool, or the University of South Wales in Cardiff. Whilst all these courses can hone physical ability to various levels, and offer insights into the business elements of becoming a working professional in the performing arts industry, there has only been one full time course in the UK that provided on-the-road touring experience and training in the tenting lifestyle.

Students of the 2006 ACA training programme perform in the big top, including Joseph Fearn 2nd from front

The Academy of Circus Arts was launched by Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton in 1993, who saw the need for an alternative training model that taught the trouping skills needed for a successful career as an artist in classical variety circus. Students on the ACA course were involved in every aspect of touring a tented show, from build up to pull down, moving every week to perform in gala events and at festivals and fairs. At the end of the season a Graduate Showcase was held in the Zippos tent, where proprietors from other shows were invited to watch the new artists performing alongside a professional team. Like in other circus schools, each graduate came away with their own marketable solo act with which to win themselves work, alongside additional skills such as tumbling and basic juggling learnt along the way. The ACA is now a registered charity dedicated to promotion of circus arts and education, but hasn’t offered a full time programme since 2015.

Students at the Wookey Hole Circus run by Gerry Cottle and his family get regular performing opportunities throughout the year

Although the ACA has been the only formal tented training programme, other travelling opportunities can sometimes be found with companies like NoFit State, who have a history of providing apprenticeship schemes, or with Let’s Circus, the parent company of Circus Central, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s circus school and training centre, who tour in a black and white tent nicknamed The Magpie. Gerry Cottle’s Wookey Hole Circus not only allows youngsters from 9-16 the chance to perform in front of visitors at the Somerset attraction each weekend, but also has a regular slot at Glastonbury Festival, and provides further opportunities for career progression into the larger touring show put out by the Cottle family every summer.

With the increasing strictures around animal performance, the traditional route of apprenticeship to an existing trainer is still the best way into this particular line of work, although many riding stables will offer classes in dressage steps to experienced riders as a route towards High School performance.

One of the previous graduates from the ACA programme is Joseph Fearn, who now runs his own community circus school in Birmingham. Joe has performed professionally as an aerialist, but his passion lies in sharing the magic of circus with others, and he set up CircusMASH in 2011 with his husband Zaq Andel, a trick skating performer.

Joseph Fearn training on the Academy of Circus Arts course in 2006

I used to love circus’, Joe tells me, ‘As a kid, Uncle Sam’s would come every year to Maypole where I grew up, and I would come out and be waiting for the bus, and trying to walk along the back of the bench like it was a tightwire. I remember that magic. It’s not really spoken about but everyone understands it. “Run away and join the circus” It’s got some light about it. It’s intangible but it’s there, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know I could do something in circus until I went to America. As soon as I found out it was a possibility, that was it really, there was nothing else I wanted to do

For Joe, the first hint that circus could be a real career came after he signed up to work for a summer with Camp America. The organisation recruits staff to work at children’s summer camps in the US and, because of his interests in dance, theatre and gymnastics, Joe was selected for a role with Circus Of The Kids.

His first two weeks were spent learning basic skills which he would spend the next few months teaching to children from 7-15 years old, moving to different locations around the US and putting on shows for the community whilst improving his own technique. By the end of the summer he was able to perform all the basic level disciplines and was invited to return again for the next season.

That tour and the education it gave me about circus and what it was really sparked off my interest,’ Joe explains. ‘I carried on teaching low level skills to children and started researching about circus training. At the time I didn’t know about Circomedia, but found out about the courses run by Circus Space and Zippos and applied to both. I didn’t know much about the different between them, and picked Zippos’ ACA programme mainly because of economic reasons, and because Circus Space (now the National Centre) seemed scarier as my skills weren’t at the high sports level.’

At the time, as a young performer, the physical skills seemed like the most important element of the training course but, looking back, the overall experience of working within a community has had the biggest impact.

Joseph Fearn teaching aerial silks at CircusMASH in Birmingham

It was definitely a highlight of my life for sure’, admits Joe. ‘It was work, doing everything – not like being a student in a more traditional university sense. At times it was very labour intensive, but looking back the experience really gives you an understanding of circus life. We had to be in place, build the big top, do a show… but that was subject to everything running smoothly logistically, so the training was a bit inconsistent. There were circus families there who also performed in the show, and then part of their job was teaching us as well, but different people would come and go so we didn’t always have a clear training schedule.’

The first two weeks of the course were spent learning the opening number, finale and a vaulting act and, as the tour started and the shows went on, the students were gradually brought in to replace some of the professionals as their skills developed, so that they could hone their acts in front of a live audience. ‘I had to go on for the aerial silks number before I felt ready’, says Joe, ‘Because the professional aerial hoop artist fell and broke her arm, and the show had to go on. It felt awful at the time, but this is the reality of the business.’

From a graduating class of 10 in 2006, he is one of four classmates still working in the circus industry (one of whom is Ross Farrer, ringmaster for Happy’s Circus). From making up routines on the climbing frame after school to now running his own school, Joe has found a way to share the thrill of the circus – and its integral community spirit – with a new generation of youngsters.

CircusMASH has won three awards over the last few years, acknowledging their powerful impact on the community, contribution to local arts and culture, and as an entertainments agency. ‘The best thing about running a circus school is the people,’ says Joe. ‘Helping them do something that nobody else can – especially when you see them in the show at the end of term and see the excitement on everyone’s faces.’

Prince Charles visits Reg Bolton’s Pilton Children’s Circus in 1982

Outside his role co-directing CircusMASH, Joe sits on the board for CircusWorks, the UK-wide organisation dedicated to strengthening and supporting the youth circus community, named for Reg Bolton’s pioneering PhD thesis. According to their website, there are now more than 80 registered youth circus organisations around the British Isles, 16 of which are in London. Wales and Scotland are home to another 16, split equally between the two countries, and Northern Ireland lists four, with another two in the Republic of Ireland. In turn, CircusWorks sits as part of a larger European Youth Circus Organisation (or EYCO), which facilitates teacher training opportunities, cross-cultural exchanges, and reinvigorated promotion of circus as both an art form and as a beneficial activity for social and physical development.

Grania Pickard of Oddly Moving Co. teaching acrobalance skills at Circomedia in partnership with Bristol Autism Support IMAGE: Paul Blakemore

Last year a pilot scheme was run in Wales to introduce circus skills to the primary school PE curriculum, following a similar experiment in Canada. Results from the Wales Institute For Physical Literacy show that circus activity can engage pupils in movement and exercise who don’t respond well to the 70-year old pathways of competitive sports that traditionally dominate PE lessons. Children who’ve taken part in these trials show improvements in confidence, motivation, physical and mental health and, of course, movement ability.

PE teachers were trained by circus teachers from NoFit State in Cardiff and Circus Eruption in Swansea, both of whom have been running community circus education programmes since the 90s. In London, Albert & Friends also regularly teach circus skills as part of school curricula for physical education.

We all know though, that circus is not just for kids, and there are also many adult classes on offer, often held at some of the same venues as the youth circus programmes. As a family, you could go on circus camp in Cornwall with Swamp Circus, or practise flying trapeze in Regents Park in London with Gorilla Circus. Converted churches are popular homes for circus schools, due to the high roofs. Falling attendance for religious services over the years has seen many of the old buildings sold off to private owners, and circus groups are able to keep the community spirit intact so are often welcomed over private developers. Most recently, Norwich – one of the Cities of Circus for the #Circus250 anniversary year, in conjunction with Great Yarmouth – has reinvigorated one of its old churches with a transformation into the Oak Circus Centre, run by Lost In Translation Circus.

A quick Google search of your local region is often all that’s needed these days to find an opportunity to test out your circus mettle. Once you have a few strings to your bow, you could also undertake a BTEC qualification to see if Higher Education is the way for you, or follow volunteering opportunities with companies like Performers Without Borders that will allow you to perform and pass on the magic to disadvantaged communities outside of the UK.

Circus has a magic that draws people to it’, enthuses Joe Fearn. ‘You can’t find that just anywhere. And because people are drawn to it, people want it, so when you can shape it in a way that can benefit people, they will lap it up… And that’s education!’

Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."
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Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."