Interview with Tim Roberts

Just as our Editor is currently connecting with circus in North America, Dave Spathaky of Irish organisation Clown Power has been touring around the UK. Here is an interview he produced with Tim Roberts, Director of Higher Education at The National Centre for Circus Arts in London…

Tim Roberts3
Tim Roberts IMAGE: Ben Hopper

American-born Tim Roberts arrived in London in the 1980s with a backpack, some juggling gear and a juggling partner. They were planning to do shows in the street and somehow ended up sleeping on the floor of my flat for a few nights. I’ve seen nothing of him in the intervening 30 odd years until yesterday when I spoke to him via Skype between West Cork and London.

He recounted what happened before that trip to London and what happened next, with a surprising little peek at his plans for the immediate future:

Dave: ­Hi Tim, welcome to Clown Power virtual studios. First of all I have to say it’s great to see you again after all these years and I’m looking forward to hearing what’s been happening for you in the intervening time. Congratulations on not only being Director of Higher Education at the The National Centre for Circus Arts in London, but recently also Vice President of FEDEC, the European circus schools federation, after several years as President. Wow!

Tim: Yes it seems exciting when you say it like that!

Dave: Just to give us some kind of structure I suggest we start with your early inspirations and work through to the present day. Is that a good plan?

Tim: Yes, that’s great, let’s go!

Dave: Okay. I remember meeting you for the first time in the 80s in my rather seedy flat in Camden town. Do you want to fill me in on what you were doing before you arrived in Europe? What kicked off your interest in performing?

Tim: Well, I could say my interest started really with an interest in magic or rather conjuring. That really started from an early age. My family moved around a bit, we lived in Indiana for a while. It just so happened that it was near Colon, Michigan the home of a number of well ­known American magicians. Harry Blackstone was one and I saw my first professional juggler there, Tommy Curtain, at a magic convention. My interest in magic was fuelled by meeting a few magicians but, at the same time, I felt there was a lack of community because everyone was guarding their secrets and basically wanted money if you wanted them to talk to you!

When I learnt the basics of juggling, partly from the well­known ‘Klutz’ book, and met a few jugglers, I realised that they were much more interested in sharing and actually talking to each other. Basically just a more friendly bunch of people.

So I was doing pretty well at school. I was heading to that time of life where you could be leaving home for college and my parents were really pointing me in the direction of being something like a lawyer. They were hoping for some kind of professional career for me.

I’ve had no plans like that in my head, but while I was waiting for an appointment with a Guidance Counsellor I found a magazine that had an article in it about alternatives to university. One of the things in it was to become a clown. There and then I started formulate a plan! The article mentioned a Clown College in Florida, it was run by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Without my parents knowing, I applied to go there! When the offers came in from various colleges I reached what Douglas Adams called a “trousers of time” moment in my life. One of those times when you make a momentous decision in your life and when you look back you realise it changed the course of everything else that happened to you. You either slide down one trouser leg or the other.

Of course. Yes! I chose the clown college. And of course. No! My parents weren’t too happy with that decision…

For me it was a great experience. I really learnt a lot and at the end of the course I was set up with a job at Circus World theme park in Florida and I ended up as the official Boss Clown! Ironically, I got pretty stressed out doing that job and performing. Not for the last time, so I tried to run away from the circus!

I’d met my buddy Steve Bernard while working at Circus World and we determined between us to put together a double act and head off to Europe. We arrived wet behind the ears and as it happened, it was the same year that Charles and Diana were getting married. We figured there would be crowds of people in London bored with waiting to see the wedding and just dying to see a couple of American jugglers. To our own surprise, we actually did do quite well.

Dave: So that’s about the time when I would’ve met you?

Tim: Yes, I think so. Yes, pretty much. We stayed about a month in London and then headed off to Europe to try our hand in France, first Paris and Copenhagen and taking work where we could find a crowd. Living by the seats of our pants for the most part. It was quite an adventure and we met some great people. Waldo (Paul Burke) and Arsene  were a hot juggling double act, and Dr Hot and Neon (William Galvin and Steve Mock). In Copenhagen we discovered that street performing was almost illegal but quickly gained a loyal following who helped us by grabbing all our bags of props if the police are appeared leaving looking like a couple of tourists. We would then meet up with them and our props somewhere else in town and continue the show where we left off!

At some stage I did actually get arrested.The police put us in the cells and impounded our gear ­ and our money. They did give us a receipt for everything which I still have to this day!

So after all this excitement running round having the time of my life as an itinerant juggler, Steve my partner decided he would head back to America and I decided I would stay for awhile. That was partly prompted by not being able to find my airline ticket which I had left in a bag in a squat in London and had been “liberated”.

So I found myself in Brittany and I had met some more jugglers other Ringling ex­pats, one was Bart Landenberger and another was Sue Hunt. Together we decided to form a juggling group with a French guy, Jean Lucas, which we called L’Institut de Jonglage. The name was a gentle poke at the love of official sounding names in France.

Tim Roberts2We became quite successful in France and this coincided with the start of the boom in European juggling. We organised the 6th European Juggling Convention in Laval, France in 1983 and the 10th one in Saintes in 1987. While all this was going on, France opened the Centre National des Arts du Cirque (CNAC) in Chalons­en­Champagne in 1985. They hired me to be a full­time juggling instructor and Vocational Training Coordinator there in 1993.

Dave: So lots of other things happened to you but eventually you ended up at the Circus Space in London?

Tim: Yes by that time I had a wife and two daughters. A ‘proper job’ seemed to be the next step. I was lucky to arrive at the Circus Space when Charlie Holland and Teo Greenstreet were still there. They had really built it up over a good number of years, after the initial setting up by volunteers, notably Jonathan Graham, but many others as well.

Lots of other people were involved, Charlie and Teo were the first wave of professional administrators who steered the organisation through that time of struggling, everything is new, the organisation had to find a path to follow when there was none. Of course those people are crucially important. But very often after they leave, there is another crew who

have to consolidate the organisation and make sure it’s going to keep running into the future. I arrived as part of that crew.

Dave: Were you very involved in the re­branding from Circus space to The National Centre for Circus Arts?

Tim: Yes that was really a long process and I was part of the management team that kept driving it all forward. That was at the time when Jane Rice-Bowen and Kate White were the Joint-Chief executives. The organisation started floating the idea almost 7 years before the actual change over! It was really essential to change the name apart from the issues of having to explain what the old name ‘Circus Space’ actually meant. We also wanted a name which didn’t need further explanation and reflected the function of the organisation.

I think by the time we got to the launch party, pretty much everyone understood what we were doing, and why we were doing it.. It was a long process, but I’m really glad we all got there in the end.

Dave: ­ So now you’re the Director of Higher Education at the National Centre for Circus Arts and vice president of Fedec, the European Federation of Professional Circus Schools. You told me you travel a lot and were even officially invited back to Copenhagen to talk to the top brass of the city there?

­ Tim RobertsTim: Yes. FEDEC seemed an essential move as there was so many circus schools springing up all of a sudden. We needed a network. Ironically I was in Copenhagen with my FEDEC hat on and I was giving a talk on the importance of qualifications and degrees for circus artists with some of the top politicians and educators of Copenhagen in the audience. I rather took pleasure of having a slide of my receipt from the police as part of my presentation and told the story of my previous arrest. Looking back now I can have a chuckle to myself. And also I chuckle quietly, as we have an accredited degree course here in London, I can legitimately say to my parents “I didn’t go to university but look, now I run one!”.

Dave: so obviously you’re very involved in the administration of the degree courses within the organisation and accreditation. How is all that going?

Tim: Well, I have to say that it is very gratifying that we have recognition now for the courses that we run. The process we are now involved in is getting recognition for circus arts teachers. It’s a requirement for Higher Education that the teachers themselves have to be qualified in some way and almost my whole team now has a PCert in Higher Education. We want to develop more research into methodology and teaching methods within Circus arts as well as gaining more recognition for the work that people do on a leisure and recreational level. There are a lot of people in the organisation that are working on all these things, my area is only the Higher Education bit.

A lot of that work has been done at European level and The Federation of European Circus Schools has been a driving force behind that. Because it is European wide we don’t have to reinvent the wheel in each country. Much of the documentation can be used very widely, It is all available free at In some ways we have more conformity across Circus arts forms than many other academic disciplines.

Of course there is always work to be done. It would be lovely to build an archive of circus history in the UK. We lobby for recognition of circus arts continuously. And we’re involved in campaigns like the recent tax relief issues in the arts.

Dave: so what about the future for you? Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Tim: Well I would like to see myself less tired ha ha! No, seriously I’m very excited about the future. In fact if all goes well I am moving on myself from London. I’m very excited and humbled that I have been appointed as the Educational Director of the Ecole de Cirque de Quebec, in Quebec City..

Dave: well that’s very exciting wow wow! Congratulations, is that official?

Tim: Well yes if all goes well I’m waiting on a visa but I should be there to start learning the ropes by the middle of the summer.

Dave: Thanks very much for talking to me. And great to catch up on the last 30 years. Amazing to think it’s been so long since we last saw each other. It’s really very exciting to hear that news about Quebec.

Tim: Thanks Dave. Let’s hope we can meet face­ to ­face down the road, maybe in Canada? I hope we can speak again soon.

Dave: Tim thanks for your time and let’s not leave it another thirty years! You still have to tell me about the hot tub incident at the circus meeting in Helsinki that I just heard rumours about!

Tim: I think too many careers are at stake. That will have to stay in the cupboard Dave. Please?

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