Follow me to Zippos

Feature in Issue 6-1 | Spring 1994

In the second of two articles on Zippos Circus Academy, Jonathan Megaw, a recent graduate, recounts his life on the circus training road.

I was 4.30am when we arrived at the River Dart Country Park. The sky was unimaginably big and black and peppered with stars. I was very small and the sky was very big. It was like being back at my boyhood home bordering an Australian National Park.

The next morning before we put up tent, spade in hand, I looked for somewhere to commune with Nature. The place was amazingly beautiful. ‘This is amazing!’ I shouted at the trees. They already knew it. It was also amazingly wet, but I didn’t care.

Some months later at about 12.30pm during a lunch break, I sat in South Sheilds looking across a sparkling sea towards the Tall Ships racing away from Newcastle. The cliffs surrounding the bay were covered with little groups of onlookers like colonies of sea birds. That night after three shows and three workshops I stumbled across the sand dunes, looking up at the most glorious haphazard fireworks display. Somehow the atmosphere reminded me of pre-Peter Mayle Summers in Provence.

The seaside town of Deal. The Rochester Dickens Festival, with our camp in the Castle Grounds and all the audience in Dickensian costume. The Slosh Routine there. The sight of our festooned tent at night twinkling amidst the Dover hills like everyone’s image of a circus to run away to. These images could all be contrasted with images of a circus I often longed to run away from!

My sardine tin home, a container lorry grinding up an anonymous motorway, painted on the back with a cartoon of a large laughing clown apparently devoted to always having the last laugh. The writing ‘Follow me to Zippos’ seeming like a cruel joke. Those motorways and my status made more anonymous by my inability to drive, a circus equivalent of being wheelchair bound. Living in a windowless portable billboard parked beside the motorway, pariah like, outside the protection of the ‘OK Corral’ of caravans drawn up around the tent and beyond the lifeline of water and domestic electric it plugged into. The knowledge that as we drove towards our first show we didn’t know where we were headed and that our Course Director was boiling eggs instead of directing us. The fact that she was replaced five months later. The photos I had to take of my dishes drying to gain an RSA in Variety and Leisure. Six months of trapeze training during which time I was never taught a trapeze move. Working all summer without being paid.

Somewhere between these Heavens and Hells lay the Sublime and the Ridiculous, the daily efforts of our too mortal flesh, training from 9am until 11pm when we could, and the Earth we banged 150 stakes into weekly.

A documentary camera crew was on hand to capture our fleeting mortality. In my case I worried that they were concentrating too heavily on the ridiculous. I gave them what I thought they wanted by being either so put off or so put out that I scowled at them, or fell off something, or both.

I was worried that I was concentrating too heavily on the ridiculous. I didn’t join to perform clowning, I thought, although, and indeed because, that was the area in which I was already best qualified.

It was a long journey and there were a lot of stops on the way. Some of it is water under the bridge. Some experiences I will cherish and some I won’t forgive. I may not forgive having my impression of a Galah as a large Australian parrot confused with my experiences of a Gala at a large Municipal Festival. After performing at children’s parties up to five times a day at numerous Galas and bearing in mind the limitations that that placed on our training, I just can’t feel the same about parrots. Perhaps someone should have told me about the Galas before joining the course…

I do cherish the time and effort given to me by my trainers in the three weeks before our showcase where I presented new material at last. Strangely I did cherish the psychological, if not physical, comfortable certainties of having to put up a 1000 seater tent weekly. I will cherish the memory of the sudden surprising feelings of happiness I sometimes felt at the end of a long day.

Whatever they were, and they were different for each of us, we all learned our lessons in a genuine travelling circus. I, like other graduates, am not sure how the course will have informed my performing career – to my knowledge one of the ZACA graduates has secured a job in a circus.

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Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 6-1
p. 10