This evening was set aside to write up my experience at the World Premiere of the utterly delightful Bedtime Stories from Upswing that I saw this afternoon. Until I got home to find notifications of the #tigerdouglas scandal on Twitter.
At first appearances, this is self-confessed traditional circus super-fan Douglas McPherson condemning all forms of public performing arts subsidy via a Telegraph blog post, apparently oblivious to the fact that art serves more functions than just catering to the entertainment qualities that he prefers in his evenings out. If the oversights in his piece are not immediately obvious, Dana Segal has laid out a few of them here.
The cynic in me, who is currently reading the disturbingly accurate Trust Me, I’m Lying – an insider’s guide to media manipulation – wonders if this is a promotion strategy to garner interest that may direct traffic to his book. (And yes, I see myself playing along here.)
But this is dangerous territory. To me, this is not just an article about arts funding. What McPherson does – despite our many shared interests – flies in the face of everything I believe about promoting an understanding and appreciation of circus arts. He is creating a divide between classical models of circus production and the newer variations borne of shared roots.
Circus exists on a continuum that encompasses heritage, history, innovation, arts and entertainment. Within all of this, there are excellent and significantly less good examples. To denigrate all that is experimental or drastically evolving is akin to a dance writer damning anything outside of a classical ballet repertoire, or a theatre critic who will only acknowledge the value of tried and tested play texts.
To be a critic has to be more than shouting opinion, ‘I liked this’, ‘I don’t like that.’ A knowledge that delves into the muscles powering a production is required (and, in circus, that applies both literally and metaphorically). Many new circus productions inspire a contemplation and imaginative mode of viewing that, coming from a theatre background, I find easy to tap into. What has been a fascinating journey for me is learning to utilise the same techniques to read and appreciate the dramaturgy of more classical circus shows.
Just as two productions of Hamlet will have relative merits, so will two big top spectacles. Or a big top spectacle and a studio theatre circus show. Or a street circus performance and a Spiegeltent extravaganza with large PR budget.
This is why critical circus dialogue is, well, critical. For any art form to flourish, the best must be given its due merit, and the weaker be shown where it can build. To say ‘I didn’t like it so it must be bad’ is as reductive as ‘I liked it so it must be the best.’
Part of the beauty of circus is its inclusive spirit and, in the close knit circus community, it’s scary to say when a production doesn’t rise to the top. But those artists who are serious about their careers understand that it’s for a greater purpose than their own ego. So Douglas, when you don’t think something is good, that’s great; tell the world, but tell us why. Likewise, is every aerialist or liberty act you see up to the same standard? Mark the differences.
Otherwise you run the risk of making the very art form you love the butt of ridicule. The excellent satirical response from Stewart Pringle that coined the name #tigerdouglas makes me rather discomfited.