No elephant in the room: how modern circus is changing

The UK circus sector is challenging outdated ideas about the art form and its audiences. Rachel Clare, founder and artistic director of London-based creative production company Crying Out Loud, gives her perspective on the shift.

As a producing organisation, the artists we work with at Crying Out Loud (whether as touring partners, associated groups and individuals, or via various residencies) are always at the heart of what we do.

We work with extraordinary artists – people practising in the field of visual theatre, and often leaning towards circus arts or installation – whose work is sometimes difficult to categorise. They’ll frequently be artists exploring combined art forms; perhaps performers who’ve been trained in dance, or circus, or visual arts, and who are now working to create something unusual or extraordinary using those skills and tools.

I originally set up Crying Out Loud in 2002 with a Producer Bursary from Arts Council England, at a time when there really weren’t nearly as many producers (and certainly fewer role models in that area) as there are now. Prior to that I was working freelance as a programmer for organisations like Southbank Centre, Lyric Hammersmith and Riverside Studios.

Rachel Clare Crying Out Loud

While programming, especially for festivals, I was continually coming across these amazing physical artists who weren’t often being presented or profiled elsewhere. I initially partnered with a co-director, Emma Gladstone, who at that time was working at The Place theatre (Emma had a strong dance connection and is now director of dance at Umbrella).

Crying Out Loud then expanded by following the most vital and interesting emerging work across circus, dance and physical theatre coming out of the UK and Europe. One of the areas I was most closely researching was the ‘for all ages’ group: shows for everyone to experience together, as opposed to aimed directly at children or young people only.

“It’s a very exciting time for circus; there’s a hunger at the moment for work that has something to say”

Time after time, I found that some of the most fantastic work in that area was being made through contemporary circus shows. That’s how we began working on this circus trajectory, and now nearly 15 years later there’s been a big change in terms of the investment made and the facilities available.

It’s a very exciting time for circus; I think there’s a hunger at the moment for work that has something to say, and that says it in unusual or dynamic ways. There are some great artists graduating from the various different circus schools in the UK and across Europe. There seems to be an inherent quality to contemporary circus arts that retains the itinerant nature of a traditional circus performance.

What we find at the National Centre for Circus Arts (formerly Circus Space) in London, for example, is that  the students come from all over Europe. I think it’s illustrative of the culturally rich and broad contributions that have always been a core part of the circus art form.

Many of the artists we work with have this quintessential aspect of being quite hard to define and pin down. Often the work is created and performed in a theatre context, and is inherently theatrical in nature, but there’s often no text as the vocabulary is all visual. There’s typically a lot of work with colour, tone, texture…all different elements of primarily visual storytelling.

There’s usually a fairly strong narrative of some sort, but it’s seldom a linear one, and I love that. I love that you can create narrative out of objects, colour and music. In many of the shows that we work on, those elements become important characters in their own right. One of the obvious advantages to circus arts is that it is a universal language. (I think that’s among the main reasons why I do this job.)

Before I set up Crying Out Loud, I was fairly distraught about the standard of work I saw being made for children and families. Early on, one of the things that really pushed me was the belief that you can create truly transformative experiences for all age groups, and that they don’t have to be patronising and over-simplified. You can present high-quality work to a broad audience that operates on a multitude of different levels without compromising on quality.

Crying Out Loud 2

When Crying Out Loud started, it was much easier to find that sort of work in Europe than here at home, but that has changed and now high-quality crossover work is widely available in the UK. We’re based in London, but the majority of our activity is aimed at audiences based outside of the capital – over the years I think we’ve been to more than 50 venues in England, Scotland and Wales.

We have a core group of probably about 28 venues and festivals that we regularly visit as repeat partnerships, and 11 or 12 that are part of our Circus Evolution circuit, a programme aimed specifically at getting circus arts out there to more people. Circus Evolution is supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring strand [a fund allocated to extensive touring projects that combat shortages of particular art forms in certain geographical areas of the UK].

This money has enabled us to forge much stronger relationships with many different staff and departments in theatres around the country, and to work with them on really developing dedicated local audiences for circus arts. One way in which we do that is by liaising closely with marketing departments a long time in advance of a show arriving, making sure that they’re able to come and see performances ahead of the booking and promotional period.

We give them a really clear sense of the work and the artists involved. They even collaborate with us on certain elements of the programming, to make sure that the shows they present are good fit and effectively communicated to their audiences. Part of the reason this approach has been so effective, I think, is that for a long time there appeared to be a widespread misconception of what contemporary circus actually is. People tend to have certain expectations based on a historical understanding of what circus used to mean, whereas the reality today is very different.

As part of our research in that area, we interviewed 500 people from various venues around England who hadn’t seen contemporary circus before – many of them clearly imagined it would be something much more traditional, perhaps involving a ringmaster, red-nosed clowns and possibly even animals.

They tended not to feel very invested in that concept and said that they wouldn’t be comfortable booking a ticket and taking friends along to a show. But once we had showed them our artists, and some of the promotional materials we’d created for those shows, many of them immediately said that they’d want to buy tickets.

The tours and materials that we put together challenge traditional ideas about what ‘circus’ can mean. Looking at our website, in fact, most people won’t think that the work we’re showcasing is even ‘circus’ in the traditional sense at all. We’re now in the process, through Circus Evolution, of developing better tools to address those sorts of preconceptions, and to help establish a much clearer understanding of where contemporary circus arts have evolved to today.

Since a core part of our wider approach is centred around ideas  ofpartnership and collaboration, we always underpin our outreach by ensuring that our touring programmes – whether they’re for UK-based or European acts – include some form of dedicated local artist engagement through workshops, masterclasses and other knowledge-sharing activity.

 

Our work in this area hasn’t exclusively been about developing audiences for UK and European artists over here, either: we’ve  also worked for about eight years now with a circus creation centre called La Brèche in Cherbourg, France, and helped to send around 18 UK-based companies and artists over there to work on creating some 22 new shows. Part of the reason that we’ve spent so long lobbying for the interests of the sector at home in the UK is that those sorts of exchange programmes were sometimes very much a developmental necessity for the artists, due in part to a lack of sufficient opportunities at home.

One of the key remaining challenges facing the UK sector today –  particularly for emerging artists – is the question of how work gets  created, and the issue around the availability of suitable spaces in which it can be developed. The level of training, dedication and investment required for all physical performance work is very particular with regards to circus arts, especially given the degree of honing, practice and repetition it requires to perfect.

Not only do you need specialised equipment in many instances, but for developing some shows you’re also going to have quite unusual height and storage requirements. In London, especially, we lack a dedicated space for visual performance of around 500 seats; there are more of that size outside of the city, but they tend to rotate their programming regularly and thus offer fewer opportunities for longer runs. I feel that’s something to address which would really aid the development of work in this area.

All that being said, though, there’s certainly a great deal of innovation and development happening in the sector at the moment. In particular, we’re seeing a lot of very exciting experimentation and creative risk being taken in exploring new uses for established circus apparatus.

Many artists seem to be taking ownership of traditional pieces of apparatus, for example trampolines or the Cyr wheel, and attempting to do something radically different or unusual with them. Several are even creating their own apparatus from scratch now, which is always fantastic to see.

As told to Mark Powell

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