New Award for Circus Theatre at Edinburgh Fringe

This year, the prestigious Total Theatre Awards (presented annually at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, helping to boost the careers of many new artists) have launched a brand new award specifically for Circus Theatre in association with Jacksons Lane, the most prolific circus producing venue in the UK. It seems timely, with two out of last year’s eight awards going to circus companies (Circa and Pirates of the Carabina), a third going to Company Non Nova, who have a less distinct circus connection, and further nominations for 3 Is A Crowd, Stefan Sing and Cristiana Casadio, NoFit State, Jeanne Mordoj, and Gandini Juggling.

Adrian Berry is Artistic Director at Jacksons Lane and, even though he called for a dedicated circus section to the Fringe programme last year, he says that this Award has sprung into life very quickly over the last month:

Total Theatre made an approach asking if we could support the awards in any way. Initially I thought not, but then we looked at what we could do which would be new, bespoke, special. The Total Theatre awards have often included and acknowledged circus but never anything particular – possibly a conscious decision to reflect the diversity of both circus and visual performance.

But I felt the time was right to push things forward and see if they would consider a specific award. So we came up with the idea of the new Circus Theatre award. We also were keen for our name to be directly linked to it – it’s a pretty big statement. It transpires that Dorothy Max Prior (who’s behind Total Theatre Magazine) had been keen on the idea for some time. So there was a nice synchronicity.

The differentiation between what is ‘circus’ and what is ‘circus theatre’, for the context of the award, is something that will take a while to establish. Awards co-ordinator Jo Crowley anticipates much discussion of these issues during the critical analysis, debate, and dialogue that runs through the assessment and judging process. These stages, which aim to bring together skills and expertise from artists, producers, critics and academics, offer opportunities for a range of people to engage in vital critical discourse, and have in-depth conversations about specific performance areas, evolving art forms and artistic excellence.

Berry will be part of the judging panel, attending all of the nominated shows, and I can’t help wonder who else from the circus world will be among the team of over 40 assessors. Many of the criteria for assessment will tally with those of the other awards but, in the area of ‘craft and skills employed’, the work of circus artists is often misunderstood, with simple crowd-pleasers often applauded over virtuosic physical skill. Crowley explains that employing a range of different perspectives is vitally important to the assessment process, and 3-hour long breakfast discussions are held every two days to talk over and analyse such differences in opinion. Among the 12 final judges (who will be assigned to individual awards once nominations are in, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest) are Lyn Gardner and Donald Hutera, who each have a wealth of experience watching and reviewing circus-based shows from their respective angles of theatre and dance.

The full criteria, as explained to me by Crowley, are:

  • The intention behind the work as evident in the performance
  • The rigour with which the production is made
  • The craft and skills employed
  • The structure
  • The relationship between form and content
  • Consideration of the audience
  • The risks and challenges the show takes/embraces
  • The forms used and the success with which it brings together these various elements

She also points out that the team are ‘keen to understand particular issues and challenges that arise from comparing work from different cultures, and seek to identify these through the various meetings and conversations.’

Berry’s personal ‘top 3’ criteria are that the show be:

  • New to Edinburgh
  • Small to mid-scale
  • Developing the artform and audiences

For him, the important element that defines ‘circus theatre’, is the desire to communicate something, rather than simply impress. ‘So a guy performing 40 minutes of juggling tricks may not make the shortlist’, he explains, ‘but companies and artists like the Gandinis, or even Mat Ricardo, transcend the skills through structure and form, and offer something more engaging and theatrical.’ These are the Total Theatre Awards, after all.

Regular readers of this site will know I feel strongly about the need for greater critical awareness of circus arts in the UK, and this Award is a great step in that direction. Berry agrees:

It’s another big step forward for circus in the UK. We often go on about how far behind we are from other mainland European cities in terms of sector development but each year we take another stride forward. This award feels more like a leap, and we’re proud to be part of it.

Edinburgh Fringe is probably not the place for it, but I’d also love to see a national award for the traditional skills-based circus presentations, as those acts are even further behind in terms of recognition for their own brand of artistry.

The Jacksons Lane Circus Theatre Award, although not offering a tangible prize as such, has powerful clout in the world of programming for theatres and festivals, and will also enable the winners to generate stronger bids for funding and support in the future.

As Berry proudly announces, ‘A Total Theatre Award is for life not just for Christmas’. I look forward to seeing who the first lucky recipients will be.

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