How did you get involved with Circus Space?
I ended up here accidentally. Before studying at Circus Space I did a bit of acting and dance but I never really thought about performing as a potential career. It started when I was about 11 or 12 messing around at school and I asked a guy to show me how to do this caterpillar move. Because it looked fun I decided to sign up to a dance course that was very classical: ballet, tap…it wasn’t something I was interested in at all. I wanted to know if there was any way I could learn how to spin on my head so I was told to look at Circus Space. My first thought was, “What? Circus? I’m not interested in clowns and all that c*^!p”. But they gave me a prospectus and the first thing I saw was that acrobatics was part of the weekly schedule.
I ended up auditioning; I didn’t expect to get in, but then I got offered a place. I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a go’. I like physical things, and I’ve always been into sports and martial arts and that type of stuff, so it fitted on that level but everything else was completely alien.
What was alien about it?
When you learn a move in dance, the way you approach it changes depending on body type and strength levels. With circus arts it was very much “there’s one way of doing this move and we’re all going to learn how to do it the same way”. At first it really didn’t work for me. It took a long time to adapt and for my body to physically accustom to that way of learning. Another issue was that I’d never had a strong desire to learn circus – I didn’t know anything about it. After a year or so, once I got accustomed to the lifestyle and that way of moving, I started to have more of a creative view of circus as a whole.
In the third year all the students have to devise their own individual show. How did you find this process?
To have complete creative control over a performance was really positive. I was at the peak of my fitness… During those four or five months focusing on one piece, I was completely immersed in the process. That level of freedom is… heaven. I put everything into that process; I was acting, being a circus artist, a set designer, a costume designer and a director simultaneously and it was good. When you’re an actor, you often don’t get a say in how things are done, this was pure creative control on every level.
What did you do once you left?
After I graduated I thought, ‘What do I do now?’. We still had access to the facilities to train so after a long break I came back and started to maintain the things that I’d learnt. At Circus Space it had been constant, almost 12 hours a day for three years. By not being immersed in that world so much I started remembering things I’d stopped doing, like acting professionally, teaching, dancing…it gave me an opportunity to do all the other stuff I was interested in again.
What kind of projects have you been involved in since graduating?
My first performance involving circus after graduating was with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The only brief I had was that they were looking for circus performers. I was in two minds about it because I was quite deep in a project with teaching and creating work again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to perform, but I went to the audition and I was really pleased to see that they wanted actors who could do other stuff as well. And I thought, ‘Yes, this is interesting’. I got offered a part and it was great, for me the circus seemed very subtle, it was more of an acting job. I had a character, he had a name, a background story. We had a whole heap of fun; there was a lot of stage combat with weapons, chasing people and wiping blood off this that and the other.
What have you been doing since then?
After the RSC… I went back to teaching and choreographing and directing a youth circus performance at the Roundhouse…I also started training in stage combat with the fight choreographer for the Batman Live show, who had also been part of the RSC show. I successfully auditioned for Tamasha Theatre Company in 2011 [for The Arrival, co-produced by Circus Space - watch the making of video] and now I’m back teaching this group from the Roundhouse.
What’s teaching like?
I teach some youngsters and they say, ‘How do I do this thing like you?’. I say, ‘I can show you the technique with regards to how the human body works, but after that it’s important to find out what that means to you’. I always try and get that individuality out of my students as opposed to conditioning them to move exactly the same way. I work for a Pupil Referral Unit, so kids who’ve been kicked out of school. It’s very open in a sense that the important issue is that they get involved in something; it’s not about constant improvement. I don’t like stereotypes and genres, people like to label things and it can also be very restrictive, especially if, like myself, you’ve had no exposure to circus as a culture or an industry.
Looking back on Circus Space, how do you feel about it?
I hold circus in high regard now, but I didn’t have an appreciation for it up until I came into the building. I just used to look at it and think, ‘Oh it’s people with make-up on their face and they run around on horses and there’s a clown in a silly car and none of that is funny’. But now, I see how many different elements there are to it. You have aerialists, acrobatics, object manipulators…and as much as they have completely different approaches to using the body and the mind, the level of dedication required to excel in your discipline is huge. That’s probably the main thing I took from here. Once you’ve got a true passion for something and you really stick at it, you can progress. And if I’m honest, at the beginning of the course I thought, ‘Well I’m here now I may as well finish it’, but I had no expectation that I would come out of here with anything other than a really nice pointed toe.
What did you find most challenging about training to be a circus artist?
My biggest challenge going through Circus Space was having people understand that there is more than one way to be in the circus world. And there’s a few stereotypical concepts that people have about circus and people who do circus. Trying to explain to people who don’t know what circus is can be quite problematic. They think Cirque du Soleil, they think trapeze, they think you’re a clown …I still have an interest in doing circus skills and sharing that with people, but it’s my concept of it. I don’t have a desire to be in with the ‘in’ crowd. I don’t fit in, and that’s okay, it’s cool, but on a broader level, it does affect the universal access to circus, because it seems like the door is closed to particular types of people. Wouldn’t it be great to have acro-balancing for PE? They’ve got parkour and beat-boxing, but not circus, why is that? On a social level, it’s a shame.
And the best thing?
My biggest highlight has been learning to do something that I didn’t have an original interest in…something that I found really difficult initially. If anyone was going to say it wasn’t going to work for me, it was me. It really opened my eyes… Now I know I can do anything, as long as stick with it. It’s not a question of ‘no you can’t’, the real question is ‘do you want to?’. If you’re serious and you really want it, I don’t care if you’re overweight, or underweight, or not strong, or you can’t do a push up; it starts with that and it builds and builds.
What three things do you need to be a successful circus artist?
Perseverance; adaptability; knowledge of your body
If you had a magic wand, what three things would you like to do over the next five years?
I would like there to be more understanding from people who aren’t involved in or clued up on a particular discipline - be that acting, circus, dance. I would like the whole world to respect their physical health and enjoy their bodies while we’re here. Life is short – how many amazing performers, artists and athletes have we missed because somebody never got told they’d be great at doing it? …And no more trivialisation of the arts. It’s got nothing to do with the fact that your skill makes more money. Somebody who has really put effort and time and dedication into what they do shouldn’t be trivialised. I would like people to have a bigger and more open mind of what we do as artists, ‘Oh you’re just an actor, when are you going to grow up and get a proper job?’. People thinking like that is what makes people quit.