North West Circus Network

Feature in Issue 4-4 | Winter 1992

Here in the North West – home of the next but one Olympics, Britain’s newest tram system and several notable soaps – we like a bit of a circus.

NW Circus Network is in touch with around 700 circus practitioners – those who use circus in performance, teaching or play-related activity – from Merseyside through Greater Manchester to West Yorkshire.

That should tell you two things. Firstly, NWCN has a helluva constituency and responsibility to deliver. And secondly, that’s an awful lot of people in one region throwing things in the air and catching them on the way down.

Community performance groups

Community circus groups like Bezircus, Quircus and Manchester CC flourish; they’re packed out. Then there’s the full-time professional companies such as Swamp, Skylight and the late lamented, no longer tented Snapdragon Circus from Hebden Bridge. (Why, Mr & Mrs ACGB Drama Panel, did you fund circus training projects but not productions in 1992/93? It’s at least irrational and is a tension that’s been there for four years at least.) Plus a host of juggling groups get into it for leisure, for the innate pleasure of tumbling, acro, unicycle and rope stunts.

The majority of circus bods are concerned however to make drama out of the form, to devise performances, and get them seen in very public spaces. My own group used to treat highly politicised sagas in circus, like the French and Russian Revolutions, the Silentnight Beds dispute in Barnoldswick (one of Maggie’s favourite factories), all topical stuff.

Checkpoint Jimmy

The border between circus and physical theatre has always been a low-key affair; like crossing from Lancashire into Yorkshire, it just sort of comes over you but you still feel OK about yourself. Circus still relies upon clowns, for instance. That’s why there’s so much interest in the lazzi of Commedia, the fools of Bolek Polivka and Pierre Byland, and all the European traditions of clown. Clown teachers like John Lee are nipping in and out of the region like yo-yos to lead workshops.

Take a company like Ra-Ra Zoo and you’d be hard pressed to locate its starting point. Was it circus, visual theatre, comedy or what? And what does it bloody matter anyhow? Just about the only technical skill we couldn’t teach ourselves in the region was aerial work. A few lucky souls attended Helen Crocker and Deborah Pope’s Aerial Taster in Manchester some while back and then earlier this year NWCN promoted an aerial residency by Cathie Sprague and Lynn Carroll of Chimaera, with follow-up by the internationally acclaimed Pauline Palacy. Now every group in the region has its own ropes and rigs: Skylight would be the first to admit that the residency explains the major use of trapeze in its spring ‘93 show.

Training

NWCN is concerned to provide training in response to members’ needs. That training often focuses on devising and performance skills, not circus at all. That explains the line-ups for the Schools for Fools, the likes of Fortunati, Les Bubb, Mick Wall & Alan Heap, Guy Dartnell, Franki Anderson, Rick Zoltowski, John Lee, Loudmouth Mime, Peta Lily and John Mowat. If they ain’t physical… Our next residency looks set to offer a director to community groups working on their current productions and improving approach to structure and form.

The Network also encourages Mini Conventions, huge swap shops, symposiums on the street, and performances in try-out.

Ways of working

Whilst being an autonomous beast with varying levels of energy – like we don’t have a worker at the moment – we do try to establish pilots which influence practice nationally.

Circus World was a magnificent three-month project in tandem with Stockport MBC which provided access sessions, intermediate training, and a live production to finish.

Not one but two new community groups emerged from that and Stockport continues to cherish and foster both! The resulting Report and Video do much to extol the virtues – and dangers – of community circus projects. (This documentation was distributed to local authority leisure departments around the UK as stimulus and encouragement.) Cheap, fun and accessible on the one hand – well, there isn’t another hand unless it’s a bad performance.

Juggling alone doth not a credible show make.

This article in the magazine

Issue 4-4
p. 11 - 12