News & Reviews

Canberra, Australia - The Canberra Times; Circus Oz comes to Canberra Theatre Centre

18th September 2015

For a few weeks in his early circus career, Tim Coldwell worked as an "elephant boy" with the "strong and dangerous" yet respectful creatures which were once a mainstay of almost every touring circus.

But when he and his friends created Circus Oz in 1978 they chose to leave animals out of it, mostly for ease of touring.

Almost 40 years on, circuses featuring animal acts are becoming rarer and the ever-changing cast of Circus Oz performers has taken its blend of traditional circus tricks, live music and theatre around the world.

Coldwell began his circus career with Ashton's Circus in 1974, before co-founding New Circus in Adelaide later the same year and Circus Oz four years later.

In his time he's been a high-wire walker, hand balancer, upside-down guy, clown, trumpet, tuba and saxophone player, rigger, show director, prop builder, inventor, tent designer, tent boss, truck driver, fork-lift driver, and company director.

With Coldwell's list of skills it would seem he could almost be a one-man circus, but he insists he's not the only circus member with multiple talents.

"It's kind of attention deficit disorder; I've always been interested in doing lots of different things. That's what I like about the circus. I'm very passionate about music and I have immense respect for people who just do one thing and get so incredibly good at it that they can communicate to everybody, but that's never been my forte."

The philosophy of working hard and doing it all was something that attracted him to the circus tradition. After studying drama at university Coldwell joined Aston's where he learnt to drive trucks and put up tents.

"I kind of liked the non-elitist idea that it [the circus] was something all people went to," he says. "I liked the romantic notion of running away to join the circus even though I thought about it more in terms of self-sufficiency and the touring village aspect.

"Then I got into the work and discovered I actually liked working hard."

The "storybook"-style circus toured with 100-plus people, 20 horses, and three elephants, but he and a friend soon decided to create their own "modern circus that came from now but harked back to the 1950s".

Unlike now where circus schools and workshops are commonplace and there's even a university course pumping out professionals, Coldwell made friends with the performers to learn from them in his downtime.

"You'd work really hard and once or twice a week you'd get to ask a question," he laughs. "It was kind of like getting secrets out of people … you had to watch them and copy them."

Coldwell practised tightrope walking in his backyard, bought unicycles with friends he was living with in Adelaide and learnt to juggle with boxes of oranges. Then he and five others bought an old truck and took their street-performing style on the road as the New Circus.

"We set ourselves goals and decided we'd have a high-wire act and someone learnt to swallow a sword and someone learnt to juggle five balls," he says.

For a couple of summers the circus played to the holiday crowd on the south coast between Adelaide and Melbourne touring in a "bunch of old beaten up trucks and old caravans".

Then they started to get serious, performing an indoor circus show at Melbourne theatre restaurant the Last Laugh with aerial acts and a high wire suspended across the audience before joining with Soapbox Circus to create Circus Oz.

They made their own tent to save costs, played two seasons in Melbourne and eventually toured overseas in Papua New Guinea, Holland and London.

They'd made it.

Since then, the people have changed and the skills and tricks have improved, Coldwell says, but the strong sense of family and the feeling of being a touring rock'n'roll  band has remained the same.

Initially, the group intended to continue touring in a tent with performers staying in caravans, but these days, most circus performers want home comforts and few venues allow caravans to stay on site, he says.

"It was hard to constantly build the infrastructure to make it healthy and hygienic, but there's always been those who'd rather do that than live in apartments," he says.

Circus Oz now plays in theatres as well as its tent and has done so throughout its existence. For its season at the Canberra Theatre Centre, 12 performers will take to the stage to bring to life But Wait...There's More - a show loosely based around ideas of consumerism and the permeation of advertising, but mixed up with "healthy doses of real people doing really impossible things", Coldwell says.

While he admits some of the circus magic is lost in theatre shows, he says it offers a different experience where everyone in the audience sees exactly the same thing while avoiding temperature extremes. It's part of the changing face of the industry in Australia which has also seen touring circus families and animals become rarer and formal circus schools spring up.

"Families find it harder these days because of the expectations people have about money, school, and gadgets … while you're touring on the road it's harder to provide all those things," he says. "Setting up a circus school means there are lots of small circus companies… sometimes there is an oversupply of labour."

While there are still circuses that travel with animals, Coldwell says circus traditions of wild animals and big cat shows are fading away. He says he found the elephants fascinating while working with Aston's but there was one elephant he was told to avoid unless he was with one of three people she respected.

"That elephant in the end killed about four people over the course of her lifetime and she got close to getting me once," he says. "But for all intents and purposes they appeared to love doing their act. They were amazing creatures to watch and they were really useful and would work like elephants work in timber in India and Thailand."

Some circuses dumped the animal acts when audiences said they felt sorry for them, Coldwell says, but opinions in the industry and within Circus Oz differ. These days, international travel is more accessible for Australians so for the most part, audiences are less interested in seeing exotic animals in circuses or safari parks, he says. But at the same time, zoos are increasingly teaching animals skills to stave off boredom and perform to visitors.

"You can watch David Attenborough in high definition so people don't have the same need to see them in reality," Coldwell says.

But he believes the same rules don't apply to human performers with audiences still captivated by seeing live acts and hearing live music, despite competition from the plethora of home entertainment options.

"It's always been one of the things that used to distinguish us from the big arena circuses like Moscow Circus where you'd feel a bit like you could be watching it on TV because you're so far away. [With Circus Oz] you're right up close to the performers, you can see the sweat, it's visceral, you can almost smell it.

"Being so close to someone who's doing something which to you is beyond impossible is a fabulous experience it makes it much more real."

The Canberra Times
Clare Colley

Photographer: Rob Blackburn

Canberra, Australia - The Canberra Times; Circus Oz comes to Canberra Theatre Centre -