The driving factor behind this blog was my selection for the European Union’s ‘Unpack The Arts‘ residency for cultural journalists. The programme exists to raise the awareness and profile of circus arts in academic and critical literature and, in order to prepare myself for the residency at the end of June, I decided to get stuck in to research what’s already out there.
You guessed it: not a great deal.
So I’m going to share my findings with you here; please comment, link, and add to the discussion… Enjoy!
This is the statement I made in application to the programme earlier this year:
Britain has a long and glorious tradition of theatre arts but, in the last century, our cultural perception of circus has narrowed in the wake of successes in the world of classical acting. Circus is now generally viewed by the public as a poor foreign cousin, who amuses and interests us in his otherness, but is never considered seriously as an important member of the family.
I want to be able to contribute to a sorely needed public discourse surrounding circus arts in this country; from conversation with UK based circus artists, there is a feeling that home-grown performers and companies are often overlooked in favour of overseas artists. Circus is too often seen as a novelty, rather than a respected art-form. From my participation in Unpack the Arts, I hope to build a stronger position of knowledge and understanding, which I can share with a wider public to help bring a greater recognition and acceptance of circus arts.
For many contemporary theatre makers, on the other hand, ‘circus’ is becoming trendy. In the same way ‘physical theatre’ became a popular buzz-word in UK theatre that embraced a broad spectrum of disciplines, imported from international performance methodologies, ‘circus’ runs the risk of becoming an indistinct and indiscriminately used adjective without proper critical discourse. To ensure that our performance literature is able to comment appropriately on this emerging trend, I want to delve into the world of circus and engage with minds who have been working and exploring the field for decades. Unpack the Arts will not only immerse me in that world for a short while, but will help me build connections and networks to call on into the future so I can develop and extend upon the dialogue begun this summer.
I had a brief introduction to circus through time spent touring as a volunteer with NoFitState Circus, and was struck by a marked split in audience response. The uneducated public – myself included – were awed by the spectacle they were presented with at circus performance, but those who had some understanding and experience of the disciplines involved were able to see deeper and comment on the level of skill. Whilst the basic awed response is perfectly acceptable within the realm of audience enjoyment, it is entirely inappropriate for those who review and are relied upon to comment critically. In order to give a fair representation of the work on offer, there have to be writers publishing regularly in the UK who share the professional level of understanding – John Ellingsworth can’t do it all on his own (as well as understanding, it is important that critical literature also embraces a range of opinion).
Through my participation in Unpack the Arts, I want to be able to add my opinion to the mix, with the confidence that my technical knowledge is adequate, and with the contacts to ensure I can continue to develop and add to that knowledge. I also want to offer audiences the chance to develop their own understanding of the challenges particular to various types of circus performance, and the skills necessary to overcome them. As any good magician knows, it is important to maintain a certain air of mystery to capture your audience’s imagination; but it is also essential for the audience to be able to tell the difference between a good magician and a bad one, so that respect and recognition can be given where they’re due.