Cardiff, 6-8th March, 2015
Circus people are practical people. When I mention that I’m attending a ‘circus conference’, it lifts eyebrows, raises smiles, and boggles brains. But circus people are also passionate people, and that passion makes things happen. For three days, the converted church that is the home of NoFit State Circus in Cardiff has been converted into a build-your-own-conference centre for individuals and organisations involved in youth circus work across the UK and Ireland. This is a place where decades of practical experience and knowledge will be shared and passion channeled into growth and development for the sector.
The event has been organised by CircusWorks, the membership body for circus educators in the UK, known up until last year as UKYCN (UK Youth Circus Network). The timetable for the three days includes presentations, plenary sessions and workshops, as well as evening social activities and a home-cooked lunch. There has been no external funding for the conference, explains Pete Duncan from Circus Eruption, as he shows me around when I arrive late to the party on the final day of the event, so this is a grass roots circus event. We do it all.
Other commitments prevented me from attending the first two days, but I had been eagerly following the activity thanks to an excellent live tweet from Circus Central. After a cheery welcome from smiley pregnant Sarah – who has been up since 6am with her four year old – I’m shown the building, the toilets, the DIY coffee station and equally important DIY washing up station. As I take in the white-washed walls tacked with sheets of flip chart paper, notices of email addresses and hashtags, the semi-sprung floors strewn with crash mats (some of them being slept on by yesterday’s delegates), and the piles of props and branded Bianco beakers lying amidst a seemingly haphazard arrangement of chairs – all illuminated with natural light flooding through the stained glass windows – I realise that this, as much as any tented performance or aerial extravaganza, is circus. Collaborative, real, with no trace of elitism and with everybody keen to muck in.
I sit chatting to Nigel Roder, who runs Concete Circus and is a member of the CircusWorks board, and he mentions that some of the American guests have been surprised to discover that, this side of the Atlantic, the job roles of performer, trainer, manager and promoter are often indistinct and fluctuating. To me, this is part of the pragmatic nature of circus work – we wear the hats needed to get the job done. I have attended plenty of theatre and arts-based conferences where much is discussed and little is achieved, but this event stands out in its practical application.
In addition to the workshops offered in skills and training methods, all the discussion sessions I witness both come from and generate action and progression, and even the administrative organisational tasks, the planning and evaluation, are conducted as physical activities. There is a strong networking thread running through the event of making ‘offers’, of whatever support and developmental activity is achievable in the short, medium and longer term between organisations and individuals. Perhaps most importantly, the documentation of the three days is a clear priority, with the aforementioned Tweeting, article links published to Facebook, and follow up emails and dropbox communication set in motion.
In addition to the British and Irish contingent, the conference also hosts two Guest Speakers from Canada. Dr Dean Kriellaars is a global advocate for physical literacy, and Patrice Aubertin is Research Chair and Director of Teacher Training at Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal. Presenting for the first time in Europe, their academic and scientific work on circus and physical literacy is a clear marker of the power social circus has to transform lives.
During the morning I also find myself inspired by the novel approach to juggling training devised and presented by Craig Quat, who has moved from the States to work in Cardiff with NFS. The inclusive, motivational nature of his games and exercises has managed to convince me that the practise doesn’t have to be the chore I always felt it before. In the afternoon, I surprise myself with how well my body remembers flying trapeze. One of the greatest benefits of the workshop sessions is the chance to learn from others’ teaching methods and see how they can be transferred and applied to your own practice with young people. It’s also fabulous to see the engagement and involvement of teenagers and young adults who have come up through their youth circus programmes, become members of the CircusWorks Youth Forum, and are now working in the sector themselves.
The CircusWorks Chair and Board do not even receive travel expenses for the time and work they put in, as it is currently a non-funded organisation, whose members’ fees go towards blanket membership of the European umbrella organisation EYCO, webhosting, and the running of events such as this weekend’s conference. An application for charitable status is underway but, as all monies are needed to ensure a continued line of development and strengthening for the sector, full reports and documentation from the conference will be available to members only. To join up, click the link from the newsletter here.
Even if thinking and planning may not be what most people consider when they think of circus, it’s clear that it comes directly from the passionately beating heart of practitioners, making it a powerful force that’s driving the sector forward.