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A Career in Circus: Starting Out (in the UK)

Updated on July 24, 2009

0. Opening Pep Talk

I know what you’re thinking, but unless you are really very old you are not too old. And if you are really very old you’re still not too old for some things. Juggling is obviously less intensive than aerial arts or acrobatics, but don’t get sucked into the mentality that you can’t try because you’re in your twenties and didn’t do gymnastics when you were a kid and have never been sporty-that your body has atrophied or radically diminished in total potential. It takes longer for an adult to get splits than it does for a child plus kids have naturally great strength to weight ratios-but with time and focus you can develop yourself in the ways you want to & ultimately strength and flexibility are only useful in circus insofar as they give you more options for movement. There is something to be said too for the attractiveness of the physical tics and limitations that come with adulthood-certainly some of my favourite aerialists are the ones who started later in life: they had to work harder to get the tricks, and often in the process found their own unique way of executing them. It sets them apart.

Probably it is a bad idea to do circus training on the basis that it will give you a good body. It’s sort of true, but if you train mostly one discipline you will probably develop a freakish highly specialised body-like a hideous miraculous deepsea crab you will be an excellent physical specimen but also slightly grotesque. (I’m exaggerating, but you will get calluses and ripped up hands and scars and all sorts, and reasons of personal appearance aren’t ever good reasons; do it for the love.)

1. Train. Train. Trrrrraaaaaainnnnn.

A large part of circus is grinding away to prepare the body for the extreme demands that will be made of it in the moment of performance. While it’s not impossible to educate yourself and follow an independent course (easier to do this with say juggling than with a specialist discipline like trapeze) it’s better and safer and more fun to train with others at a school. Full and part-time training is available at Circus Space (London), and Circomedia and Circus Maniacs (Bristol). There are evening classes at a lot more places besides. If you’re serious about developing your skills then a significant amount of time needs to be put in-probably a minimum of three to four hours a day three days a week.

You may find that you get more for your money at a school if before joining you spend time developin g yours strength and flexibility. There are a lot of resources out there on both subjects. For strength bodyweight training is best; a site like Gymnastic Bodies is an excellent resource and pretty much all the exercises detailed there will carry over benefits to your circus work, whether it be aerial or acrobatics or handbalancing.

When working on skills-i.e. actually learning trapeze rather than simply conditioning-it’s important at the start to have a lot of guidance and tuition, but after a significant period of intensive training you’ll probably start to feel that you need time to work out new material on your own. At this point you may find it beneficial to train independently with occasional private lessons to get input and feedback. Some of the places in the UK where you can train independently (you’ll need to do a safety assessment with them first, and some require public liability insurance): Circus Space, Circomedia, the Circus Project, the Albany, the Annexe, the Hangar, BTS Project.

2. Know the Enemy-Friend-Frenemy

If you want to be a writer you can learn by writing, but also by reading. You need to see circus, video footage and live performance; you need to read about it, know what’s going on in the wider world. SEEING: YouTube is a good enough source of circus video, even if the quality is wildly uneven, plus you might get some extra mileage crawling Myspace and Vimeo. Talking about the UK here, a few venues that regularly programme circus are Jacksons Lane, Riverside Studios, the Roundhouse, the South Bank Centre, Cardiff’s Millennium Centre, Croydon Clocktower, and Bristol St Paul’s Church. READING: King Pole is a print publication and hardcore trade paper that reviews shows primarily by recounting their exhibited technical material. A couple of the broadsheets will pick up circus shows that play the big theatres or are programmed within prestigious festivals (e.g. the Mimefest); Lyn Gardner in the Guardian is probably the best to follow. Sideshow is an online circus magazine that reviews mostly in the London area; it’s early days but there are some interviews and features there too.

3. Decide What You Want, Really

Most circus performers cut a path somewhere between commercial and artistic work. Commercial work would be something like doing silks at the launch of a new car; artistic work might be performing a piece in a festival or as part of a cabaret, or working on a full-length circus or circus-theatre show. An in-between might be travelling with a touring circus. You can operate in both modes or choose one or the other, but obviously material that works in the context of a theatre might not be suitable for a corporate event-it’s important to perform for your audience.

4. Develop an Act, or Show

OK, so you’ve totally destroyed point 3-you’ve looked into yourself and seen the truth of your motives and desires. It’s time to develop an act. Everyone has their preferred method of doing this: some people prefer to start with music and use it to inspire sequences of movements/tricks; others develop the technical material entire and then spend countless hours searching for music that fits it; but most commonly performers will work out short little bits of tricks/sequences which can then be fit together like a jigsaw against the music.

Unless you’re super patient the latter part of the development process will probably take place after you’ve started performing your act: the audience reaction is feedback you can use to improve material.

Developing a show is harder than developing an act-it’s less flexible commercially; you need other people with a sustained interest and shared vision; there are fewer places where you can perform. Probably if circus-theatre is your goal-as distinct from tented circus-then it’s best to get on top of it while you’re at circus school-the people you need for collaboration will be around and on the same hours, plus the school can probably help find a venue to premiere your show. Circus Space and Circomedia both have their own performance venues.

5. Get Out There

Galling as it may seem it’s definitely a good idea to take some unpaid work performing in cabarets. It’s not hard to get these sorts of opportunities if you’re in London or Bristol (and why would you be anywhere else?) and it gets you seen. The circus world is a very small world, so exhibit yourself in it and, if you’re good, word will get around. There are loads of charity events that use circus performers too-a good way to get experience and CV fodder while saving the world. Paid work will come eventually. Doing your first gigs make sure to get some sort of formal contractual agreement-both to protect yourself, and so that you can get Equity (which is the best cheap option for public liability insurance, and which requires that you have a few contracts under your belt before you can join).

Get nice photos-properly lit and composed publicity shots of you doing your thing. Find a friend who’s good at photography if you can’t afford to hire someone. Borrow a space, borrow some lights. Once you have pictures business cards are inexpensive and a good idea. It’s also a simple thing to set up and maintain a website where you can host the images and put a showreel. Once you have some of this basic publicity material you can, should you wish, look for tented circuses to tour with. There are a number of smaller outfits that will take on relatively inexperienced performers for a season-keep an eye on the job listings at the Circus Development Agency and if you’re looking to join a circus for the summer then try to have your placement sorted by the start of spring.

For corporate work and one-off gigs there are a fair few specialist circus agencies-Impact Artists and Missing Link are two of the UK’s big ones-but your early work is more likely to come from the people you trained with and the people who taught you. Good luck. Don’t give up.

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