Village Hotel, Nottingham; 29-30th January 2016
‘Bringing Friends Together…’ reads the tagline across the brightly coloured cover of this weekend’s programme of events and, for many, the Circus Reunion is the only opportunity in each year’s busy touring calendar to gather circus family, friends and colleagues together under one roof. This is a time to relax, to catch up, to learn, and to party.
According to this year’s organiser, Frazer Watson, the Circus Reunion is a well established tradition that, unfortunately, was allowed to fall by the wayside in recent history. In 2011, the idea was reinstated by Gerry Cottle, who hosted a new reunion at his Wookey Hole premises and, for 2015, Frazer was invited to take up the challenge. From being the storybook cliché of ‘the boy who ran off to join the circus’, Frazer has worked both in and out of the circus world, and is currently the Secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors. I ask him what his favourite thing about the Reunion is, and he tells me, ‘a lot of people come from different backgrounds and different age groups – it’s great to see the interactions.’
This is reassuring to me because, as a first-timer, it’s not so much a reunion as a meeting place. I’m not only a guest, but a speaker too, and I arrive feeling trepidatious… Will people want to talk to me? How will people respond to my ideas around the circus reviews and critical dialogue that I think are so important? Will I still fit into the posh frock I packed for the Saturday night glam-up, which I haven’t worn since being a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding five years ago?
When I arrive, however, the warm hug I receive from Frazer’s wife, Sharon – who has helped organise the event – sets me at ease, and the fact that Friday night’s dress code is pajamas and dressing gowns means I can really relax into the evening.
For dinner, I find myself sat with painter and ex-trapeze artist Terry Bunton, who is one of the sponsors of this weekend’s event along with Circus Stardust Entertainment and Aloumo Events. He and his partner (the catcher in their old act, Len Bateman) have travelled from Ramsgate, and our other tablemates are Jamie Ogier and Richard Le Lerre (clown and ringmaster from Circus Starlight in Guernsey, which runs a short summer season each year), and official event photographer Dan Foster, from just up the road in Leicester.
There’s entertainment and games laid on, but the event is informal enough to allow for general chat and socialising too. There’s a stand where you can check out Terry’s artwork, and another where Helen Averley, Steve Cousins and Kerrin Tatman of Circus Central are collecting stories about circus life during World War One, for a Heritage Lottery funded research project they’re undertaking over the next year.
Helen is also the first of Saturday’s speakers, after a morning spent watching the delightful BAFTA winning film Marvellous, about the extraordinary life of Neil Baldwin, aka Nello the Clown. There are a few technical hitches getting the day started, and it tickles me that watching a film about a clown becomes a miniature clown-show in its own right! I’m glad that I’ve seen the film before though, as the charming portrayal of a simpler, more trusting – more accepting – version of life is worthy of full attention. It intertwines performance by Toby Jones with some of the real people in Nello’s life, including the man himself. Here in person this weekend, aged 89, Nello proves that learning disabilities do not have to be the hindrance that people sometimes see them as.
Helen introduces herself and her circus journey, which began with Belfast Community Circus 20 years ago. Growing up in Kenya meant circus was never a part of her childhood, but when she discovered it she fell immediately in love with the way it made her feel, physically and in spirit. After moving to Newcastle 10 years ago, she and partner Steve set up their own company, Let’s Circus, which has evolved into production, training and research facets. Like Helen – and myself – many people now come to circus from outside of long-standing circus families, and the history projects are a way to connect young people to the wealth of heritage they’re joining. Following the success of their first exploration into circus histories of the North-East, the team have been funded again to bring together stories of World War One and the impact it had on circus people, production and communities.
‘The story that initially sparked our interest’, explains Helen, ‘Was a bittersweet account from the clown Grock’s autobiography, which struck us as symbolic of what happened to communities of friends and families across Europe… Across the world.’
In this extract, Grock describes how he and international colleagues naïvely plot a way to avoid accidentally killing one another if pitted unwittingly against each other on the battlefield, and it soon leads into more personal connections from the audience. David Konyot, a clown of today, tells how he travelled to Hungary to find his great-grandfather’s grave, and discovered a family plot which includes two further brothers who had fought on opposite sides during the First World War. The call is out for anyone else who may have any tales or collectibles that relate to circus or circus performers of the period (although Helen is quick to point out that she doesn’t want to take away anyone’s heirlooms – copies are welcomed!) Biographies from the time can provide another great source, so we’re encouraged to share any recommendations. For more details or contacts, the project has a Facebook page here.
After Helen, Thomas Chipperfield takes the floor. He is a big cat trainer who talks about his experiences coming to the UK from Ireland, and working on tour with Peter Jolly’s Circus before setting up the stand-alone show, An Evening with Lions and Tigers, with co-director Anthony Beckwith. It’s rare to hear the professionals’ side of the business, as media space is more often dedicated to opposing views – regardless, it transpires, of whether those views have any basis in fact or experience. Particularly illuminating are the political inconsistencies in licensing bodies, and the hypocrisy sometimes seen from celebrities who jump on the popular bandwagon of bemoaning performing animals in circus, but ignore equivalent – or more pressing – animal welfare issues elsewhere. As Thomas points out, however, audiences keep on coming.
In the past, circus workers have tended to either keep their heads down regarding issues of trained animals, or burst out in emotional response. Thomas, at 26, seems part of a new modern breed, willing to stand up for what he believes in, in an educated and persuasive manner. As David Konyot chips in, ‘A level playing field is all we’ve ever asked for. Unbiased reporting. Let people make up their own minds, but give them the full information.’
Next, I’m invited up to speak. Thomas has clearly sparked a passion that many people in the room feel strongly about, and I’m pleased when people engage equally as vocally with my comments on the lack of critical discourse in and around circus work. We talk about the different values of opinion and critique, of how a typical press review compares to an insider’s perspective, and about a history of fan-based admiration with a lack of critical content or detail in circus writings. We discuss what sort of critique is of value to what sort of person and, I’m pleased to hear, there seems to be an agreement that there needs to be more critical response to circus performance to act as a marker of relative quality between different shows amid the different forms that currently co-exist. When I’m asked whether The Circus Diaries is open to contributions from other people, my answer is a resounding Yes! As I always hurry to point out, the more voices there are talking publicly about circus, the more well rounded the impact will be.
As Thomas Chipperfield says in regards to ‘the animal issue’, ‘One of the biggest mistakes made in circus was ‘No Comment’. I will argue that the same applies to other circus-centric performance priorities that stand at risk of being ridden over rough-shod by the bigger boys of theatre and dance culture. Difference in opinion is fine, tensions are acceptable, the important thing is allowing all the voices to be heard.
The rest of the afternoon is dedicated to free time. I take the opportunity to indulge in the hotel’s swimming pool and spa facilities, and it feels for a couple of hours like being on holiday. And then it’s time for my own circus trick as I manage to squeeze into my old dress – lace-up back and all – alone in the confines of a toilet cubicle, and emerge like a newly transformed Cinderella to join the party for the evening.
I find myself chatting with David Konyot about his new company, Chelsea Productions, who provide an ‘Act Doctor’ service. Turns out this is circus lingo for what theatre people tend to call a dramaturg, offering evaluation and advice on improving a performance but, in this case, with experience that stems primarily from the circus tradition rather than the theatrical (although I’m sure there are plenty of cross over points).
A very tasty two course dinner is served, before the entertainment kicks off again for the evening, provided by comedy impressionist Rick Sheehan. Unfortunately, my Cinderella tale has reached an end, and I have to leg it to catch the last train back home before I get to see what he has in store. I hear from my new friends on Facebook that he did a sterling job of entertaining the entertainers, and that the partying went on long into the night.