LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Thursday, 20 May 2010

How to choose a UK circus school, from Zippos academy to the National Centre for Circus Arts

Juggling at Circus Space
The UK's only training facility to offer
a degree in circus arts.

Want a degree in circus arts? Or fancy hooking up your caravan and joining Zippos academy for a summer’s intensive training in the big top? Theatrical bible The Stage recently ran a special circus issue to which I contributed the following article on training opportunities in the UK.

Circus Space
in Hoxton, London
In the sawdust ring of the Circus Mondao big top, 9-year-old Cinzia Timmis and her 12-year-old sister Madalane are putting a troupe of pygmy goats through their paces. Elsewhere in the twice daily show, they ride horses, perform a magic routine and don sequins and fishnets to join in with dancers a decade their senior.

Out of the spotlight, they work in the stables, help put up the circus tent and, presumably, find time to go to school as well

The girls are following in the footsteps of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents who have travelled with tent and caravan for 200 years.

At one time, it was only people like Cinzia and Madalane, who were ever considered true circus people.

Those who ran away with a travelling show to become an apprentice were always jossers or flatties - outsiders - in the old circus parlance, and had to prove their commitment by doing the dirtiest jobs, such as mucking out the elephants, before they were considered worthy of being schooled in the arts of the circus ring.

In today’s circus world, however, there are fewer elephants to attend to. The old circus families, and their traditions, have largely given way to contemporary companies like Canada’s international success story Cirque du Soleil.

Training at Circus Space
Circus skills have spilled out of the big top into theatres, arts festivals, pop concerts, cruise ships and corporate entertainment... and along with the increased employment opportunities for acrobats and fire-eaters, there are more formal routes into the industry.

At the National Centre for Circus Arts, formerly Circus Space, in London, you can even get a degree.

Founded in 1989 by a group of new circus performers who wanted a place to train and teach outside the traditional circus environment, the newly 'National' circus school is a state of the art facility in a former power station in Hoxton. The cavernous rooms where the furnaces and generators once stood provide the perfect space for trapeze.

On the three-year BA (Hons) degree course, students are given a one-year grounding in a variety of skills - juggling, trampoline, aerial work and acrobalance - before choosing a speciality.

There are no previous qualifications required for entry, which is by audition, and according to Head of Aerial Disciplines, Juliette Hardy-Donaldson, the students have a variety of aspirations.

“Some want to be in companies they already know. Others want to start their own companies or freelance. The events industry is the bread and butter in this country, because it’s good money.”

Typical graduates are Kaveh Rahnama and Lauren Hardy, who co-founded their own company, So And So Circus, as well as returning to Circus Space to teach on the youth and recreational courses that the school also provides.

“Circus Space changed my life,” says Kaveh. “As performance arts courses go, I’d say one of the
Inside Circus Space
biggest strengths of Circus Space is that they tell you very realistically how to make a living from circus. You do a whole module on a business plan. A lot of my friends went to RADA or LAMDA, and they never had that.”

Kaveh adds that the degree course is no cinch, however. Of the 22 students in his year, only 16 graduated.

“Some people think it’s going to be a bit of fun, but actually it’s incredibly hard work. As well as circus skills, you do a lot of conditioning: circuit training, press ups, sit-ups, as well as theatre and movement.”

A possibly even tougher introduction to life in the circus is offered by the Academy of Circus Arts.

Martin Burton of Zippos circus founded the Academy after hiring a trapeze act trained in a conventional circus school. He asked them to hang their swing in his big top, and was told they didn’t know how to.

“They’d trained in a building where the trapeze was already hanging each day. So although they’d developed a really great act, they hadn’t learned one of the key things, which is how to hang a piece of kit that is going to save your life.”

The trapeze artists then proved unable to adapt to living in a caravan and travelling from town to town each week.

Burton’s solution was a circus school that roams the country in its own tent - the one where the BBC1 sitcom Big Top was filmed. The 2010 course runs from May 1 to October 2, and in addition to the £2,800 fee, students are encouraged to bring their own caravan, although bunk wagon accommodation is available to rent.

The result of living the circus lifestyle 24/7, says Burton, is that “Circus directors from around the world queue up to employ my graduates because they know they will be used to sitting in the box office, putting up posters, building up the big top and taking it down, driving trucks from town to town... and all the many, many things that go with life in the circus besides just doing your act.

“The other part of the ethos is that they put on a show each week. So the students know they’d better pay attention to what we teach them on Monday because they’re going to be doing it in front of an audience on Friday.”

Gerry Cottle with students of his
Wookey Hole Circus School
An emphasis on rehearsal for regular public performances is also at the heart of the Wookey Hole Circus, a new training facility founded by veteran showman Gerry Cottle at the Wookey Hole caves tourist attraction in Somerset.

Cottle began the school as an evening class for local 9 to 16-year-olds.

“We’re getting a good name,” says Cottle. “If you ask most people if they want to see a youth circus, they’d think it’s not going to be very good. But when they come and see all these little smiling faces... then the kids start doing forward somersaults and riding unicycles standing on each other’s shoulders, then they really do like the show.”

Thanks to the success of Cirque du Soleil and circus-themed pop shows by Britney Spears and Take That, David Davies, Chairman of the Circus Friends Association, says “There’s a big interest in circus throughout the country at youth level. There are a lot of circus skills being taught in youth clubs, circus clubs and universities.”

Despite the efforts of Cottle, Circus Space, the Academy of Circus Arts and a very small number of other circus schools, however, the opportunities for professional circus training in the UK remain limited and of an uneven standard compared with other performing arts - and compared with countries such as China, which has state-run full-time circus schools in every province, taking pupils from the age of six.

It’s no coincidence that Britain’s two most successful touring shows of the past decade have been the Chinese State Circus and the Moscow State Circus, or that performers from China and Russia (another country with a tradition of state-funded circus schools) dominate the cast of Cirque du Soleil.

Gerry Cottle
in his younger days
Jane Rice-Bowen, CEO of Circus Space, feels that increased public funding for training and development is the main requirement if home-grown talent is to compete on the world stage.

“We want people to think about circus in the way they think about opera - as a very expensive endeavour. I think we have to talk about circus on that kind of grand scale in order to produce something as successful as Cirque du Soleil.”

Clearly, structured training to a recognised standard is the foundation of any profession. But, in the colourful world of the sawdust ring, there will always be room for those who simply want to run away with the circus.

Helyne Edmonds did just that. From school, she got a job in a circus box office then filled a vacancy when an animal groom left the show. Today, at 32, she’s a director of the Great British Circus, and in 2010 was the UK’s only lady tiger trainer. Read her story in Circus Mania, along with the full stories of Circus Space, Gerry Cottle's Wookey Circus School and Zippos Academy of Circus Arts.

But what’s life really like in the circus? To find that out you’ll have to read my new book, Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed Of Running Away With The Circus.

You’ll find it in all good bookshops price £14.99. But the good news is you can save a jumbo-size £5 by ordering direct from Peter Owen Publishers for just £10 postage free.

To buy Circus Mania for a tenner, simply call 020 8350 1775 or send a cheque or postal order to:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Or click here to get Circus Mania on your Kindle!