Roll up, Roll up! The Carnival is in Town!

This year’s Out There International Festival of Street Arts and Circus in Great Yarmouth has a distinct carnivalesque vibe – channelling the sideshow traditions and popular entertainment tropes of days of yore, writes Dorothy Max Prior

Circus, street theatre, music, interactive game playing, and outdoor arts of all sorts across Great Yarmouth’s streets, parks and venues. Yes, here we are again – another Out There Festival. They come round quickly! But hang on – it doesn’t feel like a year since the last one. Which is because it isn’t – the Festival has moved from September to the spring half-term holiday weekend at the end of May/beginning of June, meaning that the 2024 edition comes hot on the heels of the last one in Autumn 2023.

‘It’s been hard work and something of a rush,’ says executive director Veronica Stephens. ‘I had a short holiday after wrapping up the last one, then it was Christmas, and then – countdown to the next one!’

But they’ve done it – bravo. Artistic director Joe Mackintosh, Veronica, and their team of bright young producers and administrators have somehow pulled it all off. And that’s whilst also instigating the development of the Ice House – a massive project that will see the building developed into a multi-use community arts venue and a national centre of excellence for circus and outdoor arts training and creation for Yarmouth.

And it’s another great line-up for Out There this year, with the usual mix of local, national and international work of all scales – although this time round the festival is a little more contained, starting on Thursday evening with Party in the Park and some indoor shows; then bursting out all over the town on Friday 31 May and Saturday 1 June, but with a substantial amount of community engagement leading up to that action-packed weekend programme.

Gorilla Circus: RPM

One of the shows I’m most excited about is the return of the legendary Insect Circus: We thought they’d retired, but the insects and their trainers are back for one final extravaganza … The Final Grand Finale, in fact –  staged on the Friday and Saturday evening of the festival in the Park. 

The Insect Circus was created by partners in life and work, Mark Copeland and Sarah Munro. Both are visual artists with a theatrical bent. Mark is a BAFTA winning designer (for his work on the BBC series Gormenghast). His work as a maker and painter can be seen in Yarmouth at Out There’s headquarters at the Drill House – it was he who designed the fabulous ‘giant paper theatre’ proscenium stage for the venue, and his legendary pink snail painting hangs on the venue’s wall. Sarah is a sought-after costume designer, these days well known for her work with theatre company 1927. The couple have a longstanding relationship with the Festival, having brought numerous shows to previous editions, including The Equidae Retirement Home for Pantomime Horses, set in the windows of  Palmers department store; and Miss O’ Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama, in which Miss O’Genie and her Damnable Dolls presented an alternative approach to a coconut shy, giving us a chance to throw things at famous misogynists. 

‘They have an amazing ability to reflect on circus and theatre work of the past and give it a modern twist’ says Joe.

The Insect Circus started life as a set of paintings by Mark Copeland – giving us such wondrous images as ‘a giant stag beetle closing its jaws around Mr. Maroc the Beast Tamer, two ladybirds drawing a pram with a clown inside, and the Great Flingo outlining the fragile wings of a butterfly with thrown knives’. (As eloquently described in an interview with Mark in Sideshow Circus Magazine

The Insect Circus featuring Pippa Coram as Albina the Awesome

Then came The Insect Circus Museum, an installation housed in a specially modified truck – an old horse box kitted out like a vintage gypsy caravan – which toured to festivals. Audience members entered in two’s and threes to find a fabulous display of carefully crafted figurines, skilful automata, letterpress posters and other printed ephemera celebrating the daring-do’s of the fleas, butterflies, wasps and ants who were the stars of this allegedly world-renowned circus. ‘Cabaret Mechanical’ style boxes lit up when buttons were pushed to reveal the teeny performers in action: snarling wasps are tamed; fleas hop in acrobatic harmony; and The Peaple, a Liverpool-based bug band, sing their little hearts out. The installation was finally retired as a touring show a year or two ago, and is now housed in its own specially designed ‘museum’ at Great Livermore in Suffolk.

A couple of years after the installation was set up came the idea of a live show, with circus and cabaret artists taking on insect roles, wearing beautiful costumes designed by Sarah. I particularly remember the show at London’s beautiful old music hall venue, The Hoxton Hall, featuring a lovely aerial act that told the sad story of the Mayfly, who only lives for one day… 

Many different artists were involved over the years – the show is almost a roll-call for Britain’s contemporary circus and variety community. Lots of those legendary names are back for the grand finale – the show is being revived, but then immediately retired again. It’s a catch-it-if-you-can last chance scenario! Mark and Sarah put a call-out to anyone and everyone who had ever been involved, with the idea of bringing 12 performers together. They’ve ended up with 25 travelling to Yarmouth to take part. ‘And that’s not including the children,’ says Mark, who goes on to tell me that one performer, Pippa Coram (aka Albina the Awesome), is coming all the way from Australia for the show! There’s also Simon Deville as The Great Flingo, Marcos Rivas Farpon as Mr Maroc (expect some Iberian stag-beetle wrestling), and Safia Amalgharabi as Talullah the Worm Charmer. Aerialist Vicky McManus is returning with her daughter Saskia Poulter for the Mothball Bolero, Phoebe Babette Baker will perform as Phee and her Bee on the tightwire, and Ashling Deeks brings Dungo out of retirement. Then there’s Dungo’s trainer, Peggy Babcock IV, played by company stalwart Persephone Pearl, who was last (un)seen as the back end of a pantomime horse… 

Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen

This year’s festival will also see another Insect Circus associate Marisa Carnesky on the bill – one of the few indoor shows on the programme, her magnificent Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen is on Thursday 30th and Friday 31st at the Hippodrome – Britain’s legendary oldest purpose-built circus venue.

Joe tells me that programming in to the Hippodrome fulfils a longstanding ambition: ’We used to put some shows in there,’ he says. ‘But then the Hippodrome’s summer show season was extended, so September was no longer possible – but with our change of dates to May, it is now possible. And it is our intention going forward that we do have a show in the Hippodrome each season. Something that does span the popular and contemporary worlds. With the Ice House opening next year, we hope to build on our indoor programme ’. 

Showwomen is a spectacular four-woman show researched and directed by Marisa Carnesky It has been created in collaboration with Veronica Thompson (aka hair-hanger extraordinaire Fancy Chance), performance poet and sword artist Livia Kojo Alour, and ‘fire lady’ and suspension artist Lucifire. The show asks: What happens to the showgirl when she grows up? And why and how do women perform dangerous and taboo acts? The four contemporary circus/live art performers explore their own showwomen circus and sideshow practices with reference to the legacy of forgotten and marginalised British entertainers; taking as inspiration 1880s teeth hanging aerialist superstar Miss La La, 1930s pioneer clown Lulu Adams, 1940s body magic star Koringa, and 1950s Western skilled performer Florence Shufflebottom. The show interweaves live action, in-depth interviews and archival footage to create a dreamlike landscape mixing death-defying stunts, taboo-breaking acts, notions of political resistance, and secret backstage rituals. ‘Expect witchy goings-on in full leopard-print, naked crocodile women scaling walls, ladders of swords, live hair-hanging, never-ending pom poms and ectoplasmic clowns,’ says Marisa.

Compagnie Têtes de Mules: Parasite Circus

Back to the outdoor programme: something that immediately caught my attention was Compagnie Têtes de Mules (great name!) with Parasite Circus, which promises ‘fairground theatre, smoking, nudity, loud bangs, buffoons, and hideous puppets’. An irresistible combination, I’d say.

‘They’re a French company, and it’s real street theatre, ‘ says Joe. ‘There’s a bit of a lack of that on the European circuit at the moment, with a lot of the work dance or circus based. Têtes de Mules combine a contemporary arts sensibility with popular entertainment values. Blood spurts over the audience – it’s a lot of fun! Dark humour, we like that!’

Ah, so a tie-in with Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen and The Insect Circus – adding to the carnivalesque circus-sideshow vibe of this year’s Out There Festival. ‘Exploring the sideshow tradition in a contemporary way,’ as Joe puts it. 

Also with something of a sideshow vibe comes legendary maker Paka the Uncredible, who is returning to Out There Festival with Bag of Snakes, addressing the bad image Medusa has received over the years… 

‘Paka will be part of what we’re calling the Ava-go-goville,’ says Veronica. 

This bespoke zone will be sited on one of the greens in the town, between park and seafront, and will feature contemporary mock-amusement-arcade type interactive entertainments. The Losers Arcade (a big hit in 2023) will be back, along with the  Miniscule of Sound’s World’s Smallest Nightclub, and Professor WM Bligh’s Circus Photo Tent.

The Losers Arcade

Also channelling the carnivalesque will be perennial favourites Rimski and Handkerchief, the musical clown duo who will roam the streets of Yarmouth on their pedal-powered Bicycle Piano and Double Bassicle. We are invited to accompany Rimski & Handkerchief as they pedal, plonk and play their way through some of Out There’s key locations, singing songs of timeless wonder, en route to a favourite picnic spot for An Afternoon Out – which will no doubt see them setting out their stall of bric-a-brac and wondrous objects of all sorts.

Great also to see that local supported artists and Festival favourites CocoLoco are back again, this time with Mafia Wedding, which will engage students from local performing arts colleges as bridal entourage and wedding guest extras. The show tells the tale of a mafia boss with a pregnant daughter in urgent need of a groom (not to mention a bridesmaid, a priest, and a congregation) for a shotgun wedding about to take place! Out There have been instrumental in moving CocoLoco on from their classic two-handers to larger ensemble shows, often working with community performers and students, for example in last year’s show Shangri-la-la, which is now touring in the UK and elsewhere.

‘They’ve got an amazing wealth of experience and knowledge [in street arts and performance] and we’ve been hooking them up with younger artists and students for quite a long while now,’ says Joe.

Another company who have received consistent support over the years from the Festival is Gorilla Circus, who this year have been artists-in-residence at the Drill House, the organisation’s year-round venue, and take a new direction when they return to Out There Festival 2024 not with flying trapeze, high-wire or hair-hanging – as seen in a previous outings to Yarmouth such as their large-scale show Unity.This time, it’s a ground-based show, RPM.

‘It’s more urban dance than circus – no aerial at all this time,’ says Veronica. So, dance acrobatics and rollerskating – all staged on a moving treadmill.

‘Thematically, it’s exploring the repercussions and recovery from colonialism,’ says Joe. ‘And with some really unusual movement work – a really strong piece.’

‘Unity was the show they developed after they’d had the experience of working with Generik Vapeur,’ says Veronica. (Gorilla Circus worked with French maestros Generik Vapeur on Bivouac and Merci pour l’Accueil.)

 ‘Unity has spoken word, working with a poet, and is a political piece – moving away from the spectacle; the ooohs and the aaahs. Meaningful and very moving’

Gorilla Circus are based in the region and are now an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation.

 ‘We’ve helped them on the road – and are helping get their work out in Europe,’ says Joe. ‘They are touring Unity now – but also creating work in new directions (such as RPM) rather than staying with the familiar. We’ve always encouraged them to explore a greater range of artistic forms and to experiment with scale. Unity is a work of scale, but cleverly designed, so transportable. But they have smaller scale works too, which is good.’ 

15Feet6: Primus. Photot: Geert De RyckeBoulevart

Also on the circus and dance front, we have a good number of strong international shows. 

Primus, by Belgium-based 15Feet6, is a collaboration between Finnish Cyr wheel specialist Rosa Tyyskä (formerly of Cirque du Soleil and the Finnish female collective Sisus), and the equally busy and skilled Belgian Jasper D’Hondt who specialises in teeterboard, Russian bar, acrobatic bicycle and acrobatic roller skating. The 2020 lock-down forced the couple off the international touring circuit and into collaboration with each other – and the bicycle-for-two show Primus was the result!

Collectif Bim”s Place Assis (which translates as ‘a place to sit’) is a non-verbal performance that explores the ways people behave on public benches – and the way they interact with each other, the five performers challenging the norms that rule public spaces and social relationships.

Portuguese born (but Yarmouth based) Dulce Duca – juggler, rollerskater and street performer extraordinaire – is back with Unstoppable – a two-woman show, first made with Sarah Munro for the Bartholomew Fair in London, and on this occasion performed  with Tsubi Du from Australia – a costume designer and actress now based in Norwich, which Joe says will be ‘highly participatory’ and a ‘classic piece of street theatre, drawing people more and more into the show’. Which I can well believe: I first met Duca in Guadalajara when we were both performing with the Ficho Festival Caravana, where I witnessed her taming gangs of Mexican teens in some of Guadalajara’s more deprived neighbourhoods, training them to throw her clubs or allow her to balance on their shoulders.

Joe points out that participation and inclusion – always key components to Out There Festival – will take centre-stage at next year’s Festival, which will have participation and  inclusion as its theme, and will see a collaboration with international circus and street arts organisation Circostrada, with the Fresh conference welcoming a large cohort of international delegates, and an enlarged Festival in May 2025. 

Collectif Bim: Place Assis

But back to 2024: I’ve also noticed some interesting musical acts lined up: the Imaginary Orchestra, for example.

‘That’s Eric Tarantola,’ says Veronica. ‘I saw him at Chalons [French street theatre festival] and he is very engaging – simple and effective – a one-man-band using everyday objects to make good quality music.’

‘You’ll remember that we had a focus last year on music within circus and street arts,’ says Joe. ‘We’ve long championed the more unusual musical forms, that fit with the festival, and Eric is a good example.’

Veronica also flags up Kumpania Algazarra – a Portuguese company of musicians who bring together high energy jazz, Latin and Balkan rhythms, with both a static show and a processional walkabout act.

’They’re great at interventions in public space – parading around, jumping into arcades and cafes,’ says Veronica. ‘We feel that they’ll engage well with the Portuguese speaking community in Great Yarmouth’. For indeed, there are very many of those in the area – people from Portugal, although more likely from Angola, Mozambique or other former colonial territories.

Kumpania Algazarra

This year’s Out There Festival will also see the launch of YOT – Young Out There – recognising what Joe describes as ‘the upswelling of youth music and grassroots music here in Yarmouth, which we’ve helped to develop in tandem with the Creative People and Places’ Freshly Greated programme. We hosted a season of gigs – GIGGY – in the autumn. We had a reach out to the community to find young bands and musicians, and we wanted to find some more unusual ways and means for them to perform at the Festival. Some of the  young musicians had submitted videos of themselves rapping in cars, so we thought – let’s get a car!’

Hence, getting an old scrapped car that could be be graffiti’d: somewhere other than a regular stage where young artists could perform – in, around or upon! The car will be in the park throughout the Festival, as part of the YOT programme. 

Also part of the outreach programme is the now established relationship with East Norfolk Sixth Form College, who will host a week-long programme of workshops, training sessions and seminars run by Out There artists, attended not just by the students of the Sixth Form College, but by participants from a number of local schools and colleges – with over 1,000 young people taking part.

The organisation’s communications and audience development manager, Marcin Rodwell, who leads on access for Out There, flags up the SEND festival (Special Educational Needs) programme – now linked in to Out There Festival, as using the Festival’s resources seems to make sense! So Out There opened their doors to the collaboration. And it’s a two-way process:

‘They help us with our access offer,’ Marcin says. ‘They will be providing British Sign Language interpreters and audio description, touch tours and more.’ 

Marcin also flags up the ongoing heritage training and outreach programme for the Ice House, which once played a crucial role in Great Yarmouth’s fishing industry. They are working with 11 schools and three local colleges,  running workshops and enabling participants to create art work in response to the site’s heritage.

‘Participants are making a creative response using different artforms,’ says Marcin. ‘That could be photography, literature, film, game design, sound design…’

Veronica mentions the Out There professional programme, which will take place at the Drill House from Thursday 30th onwards, with informal meet-and-greets, drinks receptions, and sessions run by Outdoor Arts UK, the national organisation for all professionals working in the sector – artists, producers, programmers and more. 

So once again, the Out There International Festival of Street Arts and Circus is going to be a hub of activity of all sorts. Get out there, do!

Out There Festival runs 30 May to 1 June 2024. View the programme here

More About Out There Arts

Great Yarmouth based, but collaborating internationally, Out There Arts is an independent arts development charity dedicated to delivering outstanding circus and street arts events. 

Their focus on circus and street arts grows naturally from this seaside town’s rich performance heritage, providing an accessible medium to support their work. 

The organisation delivers an arts development function for Great Yarmouth Borough Council, developing the town as an International Centre of Excellence for circus and street arts creation, training and delivery.

More About the Ice House

A Grade II listed building of brick construction with a thatched roof, the Great Yarmouth Ice House, once one of a pair, is now the only one of its kind left in the country. 

Out There Arts have a vision to transform it into a National Centre for Outdoor Arts and Circus. This imaginative and creative use of the building will further develop the town’s reputation as the capital of circus in the UK as well as further link the town’s fishing and circus heritage.

All funding is now in place, with the project supported by the Architectural Heritage Fund and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, Great Yarmouth Borough Council, and the building’s former owners Towns Deal Brineflow.

Capital works began in February 2024, and is scheduled for completion in March 2025, in time for Out There Festival 2025.


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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.