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Saturday, 30 November 2013

A Degree in Circus Arts - National Centre For Circus Arts graduates talk about their training and their future

Unemployment rates among actors and dancers are notoriously high, but it's a different story in the circus. In the following article, which originally appeared in The Stage, I asked recent graduates of the fomer Circus Space - now the National Centre for Circus Arts - and former students now performing at the highest level worldwide, how Britain's only degree course in circus arts prepared them for the world of work.

Degree students at Circus Space
Lynn Scott performs an act with a crystal ball, tilting her limbs to roll the orb around her body as if it were attached to her skin by magnetism. But if we could look into that crystal ball, what future would we see for Scott and the other students who graduated from Circus Space this year?
In times gone by, running away to join a circus meant serving a gruelling apprenticeship mucking out the animals and putting up posters in the hope that one of the performers may deign to teach you a few tricks and grant you a turn in the spotlight.
Today, it’s more common to enter the industry through formal training. But how well does attaining a BA (Hons) Degree in circus arts from Circus Space - now the National Centre for Circus Arts and the only UK school to teach the subject to degree level - prepare students for the world of employment?
According to aerial hoop performer Ben Brown, who graduated this summer, “Most of the teachers are working professionals, so you learn a lot about professionalism, how to work with directors and what prices you should set for individual clients.”
Circus Space is also the best place to hear about auditions, either through adverts on the school’s website or by networking with circus artists who use the Hoxton-based facility to train, adds Brown, who signed a contract for seven months work in a Singapore holiday resort shortly before graduating.
According to joint chief executive Jane Rice-Bowen, “All of the course is focused on ensuring that the students have all the tools they need to be employed.”
That includes helping students create their own website and providing them with professionally shot photographs and DVDs.
“In the third year, we work with students on a project called the Deutsche Bank Award for Circus which provides a bursary of £10,000 for a student or group of students to take a piece of work forward,” Rice-Bowen adds.
Inside Circus Space
Previous winners include Kaveh Rahnama and Lauren Hendry who formed So and So Circus and used the bursary to buy a van and equipment and put together a national tour of their show, Introducing... The Hot Dots!
“But even the students who don’t win will have been shown how to put together a business plan and given the skills they might need one day to make an application to the Arts Council,” says Rice-Bowen.
Katherine Would, who graduated in 2011, points out that the graduation show attracts talent scouts from leading circus companies and agents and leads many students to their first job.
Acrobat Productions is a fantastic agency that saw me and booked me for many fantastic jobs whilst guiding and advising me as a performer,” says Would, who trained as an aerialist after a background in elite gymnastics.
She was also added to Cirque du Soleil’s database of potential talent as a result of the graduation show and is currently appearing in Las Vegas in the Soleil show The Beatles LOVE.
“The degree course helped me get the job by giving me a varied skill base and strong aerial training,” says Would.
LJ Marles is another 2011 graduate currently working internationally, in the touring show Traces by Canadian company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers).
“Two students from my year are also working with 7 Fingers, but in a different show. Another is working with another Canadian company, Cirque Eloize,” says Marles, who is about to begin work on a new 7 Fingers production in Montreal.
“I’m not sure any university can prepare you for the world of work,” says Marles, who went to Circus Space from a background in street dance. “We had professional circus performers, previous graduates and agents come in to talk to us and share their experiences, which was very helpful, but you’re never really prepared. Situations and issues arise which you have to figure out for yourself and you gain experience that way - which, unfortunately, is the best way.”
For Marles, the training was more important than the degree at the end of it: “When you go to auditions or apply for jobs they ask to see what you can do, not your degree.”
Rising from the dust
- Training when Circus Space
was still a building site
Marles’ advice to students is “Start promoting yourself before you graduate so that people know you will be available and you can have some work as soon as you graduate. I didn’t do that and so it took a while before I had any job offers. My first job after graduating was actually at Circus Space. They had an event for a book signing and wanted some circus performers, so me and a few others from my year took part.”
Rice-Bowen agrees that in terms of getting work a formal qualification is less important than the training. “But, once you’ve finished your performing career and maybe want to move into teaching or directing, having a degree will be incredibly useful. It shows that you’ve trained to a very high standard.”
The market for circus skills is constantly changing, says Rice-Bowen. “Last year was a bumper year because of the Olympics. There are fewer circus artists being booked for product launches and parties than there were a few years ago, but there’s been an increase in demand for stage work, particularly in small to mid-scale theatres.”
The Barely Methodical Troupe
- Formed at the NCCA
and appearing at Underbelly
in 2015
Because of shifting market trends, Rice-Bowen expects most graduates to have a varied portfolio career: “They may tour with a company for a season, then come back to Circus Space and do some teaching. They may be devising their own work and supplementing it with cabaret. Then they may do an advert or an arena show with a pop star.”
Few graduates go into traditional tenting circus. But for some the call of sawdust and spangles will always be there.
“One girl came to us with a Phd in astrophysics,” says Rice-Bowen. “She trained to be an aerialist and went on to tour around Ireland with a very traditional circus as an aerialist and ringmistress.”
Whichever sector students go into, Rice-Bowen reckons the prospects for long term employment are good.
“We track our students through the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey, carried out by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and find that three years after graduating 93% of our students are working in circus. That’s significantly higher than for actors or dancers.”
Marles warns prospective students that life in the circus isn’t easy. “Prepare to sweat and be in pain most of the time. But if you’re worried about a lack of work, then I would tell you not to worry. There are plenty of jobs in corporate events, festivals and abroad if you have a good enough skill level. Also, you will have the most fun ever!”

For the story of how Circus Space was founded in a former Victorian power station, and many other stories from the world of circus, read Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus!

Click here to buy Circus Mania - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

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