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, 2 July 2015

World Circus Day - But how do you define circus?

Does a horse and ringmaster a circus make?

Saturday 20 April is the 10th World Circus Day. But what is a circus in 2019? Is it different from a 'cirque'? Should it have animals? Must it be in a tent?

I wrote the piece below in response to some comments by contemporary circus people that sought to distance themselves from what Charlie Wood of the Edinburgh Fringe’s Circus Hub called the “nasty tents” and “hack clowns” of traditional circus.

If the c-word has such negative connotations for them, I argued, why don’t they come up with a new name for a new form of entertainment that while using circus skills generally results in something that looks and feels very different from what many people would call a circus?

But can we define what a circus actually is?

For me:

It doesn’t have to have animals - the Moscow State Circus is an example without them.

It doesn’t have to be in a tent - the Yarmouth Hippodrome is a purpose-built circus building. Other venues such as the Roundhouse and Royal Albert Hall are perfectly suited to circus, and the very first circuses were in amphitheatres.

It can have themes and story lines - Giffords Circus being an example that mixes theatre with the traditional elements of a big top, sawdust ring and horses.

But for all the differences between the above shows, they have one thing in common: a programme comprised of a variety of different acts.

Astley's - Where it all started.
All the acts in Philip Astley’s original circus - horse riding, acrobats, strong man, clown - existed for hundreds or even thousands of years before he brought them together in a single show - and they weren't called circus until he did. So if Astley is by general consent the Father of the Circus, it must surely be the bringing together of disparate acts into a whole that’s bigger than the sum of the parts that defines the art form.

Many acts have been introduced to the circus since Astley’s time: the flying trapeze; magic; wild west displays and other historical re-enactments. The strength of the format is that it can incorporate just about anything: kung fu, performing budgies, human cannonball, motorbikes, hypnotism.

It’s the continually changing line-up - the constant search for a unique must-see attraction  - that has kept the circus popular and relevant for 250 years. And it’s because of the constantly changing repertoire, as different acts come and go, that it’s hard to say any one act is essential. If a circus can have flying trapeze or not and still be a circus, it should be able to have animals or not and still be a circus. It’s the format that makes it a circus, not the content.

By the same token, individual acts are not in isolation circuses.

Clowns are a familiar sight in the circus.
But is a party clown a circus act?
Clowns, for example, are often seen as the ‘face’ of the circus. But clowns also work outside of circuses (party clowns, for instance) and when they do, their show is not circus; it’s clowning.

Jugglers are a circus staple. But a juggling troupe performing at a festival is not a circus - it’s a juggling show.

Tightrope is a circus skill, but Nik Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon is not in itself a circus.

It recently pained me to read an article that described Bromance by the Barely Methodical Troupe as “circus at its purest.” By “pure,” I guess the writer meant unadorned. The show is performed on a bare stage largely without props or equipment. But the show is more an example of gymnastics than circus.

Zippos or Giffords would be better examples of circus purity, since they retain the elements of Astley’s first circus: horse riding skills, a circus ring and a variety of other acts.

The three-man Barely Methodical Troupe, to me, are comparable to an act like the Kenya Boys. The latter perform a mix of balancing acts within many circuses, but if they performed their routine on its own in a theatre it would have to be called something other than a circus, such as an acrobatics display.

The idea of defining circus as a format is not about it being traditional or contemporary, incidentally, and there’s no reason why circus can’t up date; in fact, it always has.

Cirque Berserk is basically Zippos minus the animals, dressed in a more contemporary way and relocated from a tent to a theatre. It’s a mixture of acts presented in an exciting modern way but just as much a circus as its parent.

Cirque du Soleil - the progenitor of new circus - may have linked its acts with a theme or storyline, just as Russian circuses did before them, but it too retained the format of a lot of different acts, and different types of act, being brought together into the same show - a circus.

Many of the companies calling themselves circus today, by contrast, are basically single act shows that draw on a narrow repertoire of skills (usually its a mix of acro-balance and aerial acts - you seldom see a big stunt like a wheel of death or a human cannonball). They are the ones that should be calling themselves by a different name. And why not, if the image of circus is such a burden to them that people like Charlie Wood have to battle popular perceptions of what circus is?

Instead of trying to redefine circus in their own image, why not leave the C-word to circuses and come up with a new one that defines them as they are?

Finally, to prove this is about defining different art forms, rather than saying one is better than another, I’ll leave you with Thomas Chipperfield’s An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Wow, you might think, big cats in a big top - ‘Tiger Douglas’ is going to like that! And, of course, I do. But since it contains no other acts (as far as I know) I wouldn’t call it a circus. And neither, it seems, would Chipperfield.

“What we are doing isn’t actually a circus,” he told BBC Radio Wales, “It’s animals in a show.”

Wouldn’t it be more accurate if certain other shows said, “What we are doing isn’t actually circus, it’s gymnastics and dance in a piece of conceptual theatre.”

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

Click here to buy the new, updated 2nd Edition!


  1. Aw man, just spent ages typing a comment and the internet ate it!

    Basically, love it! Very well articulated and, to a great extent, I agree with you. Although I think my hazy boundaries of where 'circus' can end are a bit further out than yours (not saying either of us is 'right'!).

    I didn't see the Circa show you reviewed unfortunately, but the other stuff of theirs I've seen definitely fits within your definition. Also shows like Casus 'Knee Deep' and GOM's 'Simple Space' have a high acrobatic content, but I see that as a way of tying together the other variety of skills in the way that a last ringmaster or team of clowns would have done?

    'Bromance' is a trickier one. When I saw it, I certainly thought it fitted better under 'theatre' than 'circus'. But, as a commentator, it's hard: these artists are very proud to define their work under the 'circus' banner and, with no other commonly used term to describe these speciality skills once found only in the ring, I'm not sure it's our place to take that away from them. As long as the work is expanding and evolving the scope of what the word means, rather than shutting off more established forms, I'm not convinced there's a problem. Reminds me of one of the first articles I wrote when I started The Circus Diaries!

    1. I tend to agree that if an artist wants to define themselves as circus that's great, as long as they're not, as you say, "shutting off more established forms." It's when people say "We're circus, but we're not like that sort of circus" that it gets confusing and the people that want to separate themselves maybe need another term.

    2. Although, isn't it a truism to say 'they're not that kind of circus'? Isn't that the gist of your article? As long as 'that kind of circus' is not seen or spoken of as a lesser thing, just another variety. Like trying to explain Punchdrunk theatre to someone who knows the RSC or West End musicals: it's not 'that sort if theatre', but it doesn't denigrate those sorts either, just rings the differences.

      It's good to have something for every taste :) And can actually help build audiences across the range of circus offerings. 'Hey, if you liked that, why not try this?'

  2. YES to variety. I liked your well-informed argument a lot. Variety once flourished in the rings, and has suffered from the gradual reduction in animal acts, among other things. And while I agree that a circus does not have to have animals to be a circus, it needs to be more than circus ballet, in my view. The company from Montreal, Seven Fingers, at least, to its credit, does not use the C-word in its title. They are staying true to a core production mode, while increasing the quality of the "circus" acts. Not really a circus to my eyes, but good for them in finding an appreciative niche market.

  3. A further thought on the difference between 'circus' and 'the circus,' and how that little "the" makes all the difference. Bobbo the clown, talking about this on Facebook, reminded me that the public always say "we went to the circus," or "the circus was here last week." They tend not to remember the name of the show, but they know without doubt it was "the circus." Does anyone come out of a theatre or festival-based contemporary circus show and say they've been to "the circus"? Within the industry, some people talk of "making circus." But perhaps in the eyes of the wider world it will always need the tent and the caravans, the grass and the clowns, the coming to town and the leaving again to be defined as "the circus."