News & Reviews
Melbourne, Australia - The Age; Circus performers: what to do after the Big Top leaves town?
5th December 2015
Once they flew through the air or spun around in hoops of fire. But when that is all over, what comes next?
For circus performers, when the body is no longer up to the physical demands of the work or you need the kind of home life that constant touring doesn't permit, the options for a new career are far from clear.
Take Mel Fyfe. In her heyday she was a strong woman under the big top. One of her best-known tricks was laying on a bed of nails with someone tap dancing on top of her – hardly the skill set that allows you to walk into a new life as an accountant.
Or Kareena Hodgson, who left school in year 10 to learn circus skills and as Kareena Oates was a demon with the hula-hoops, performing for different troupes around the country. When she decided the time had come to leave the sawdust her career choices were a question mark.
And as any circus performer will quickly tell you, it's not a high-paying industry. Circus people generally don't have bags of savings to tide them over while they train up to move into a new career.
Little support for the switch to life after performing
Unlike AFL and other elite sports, where a lot of resources go into ensuring players have the skills and education to move to a career after playing, the circus life is more of a vagabond one, work is short-term, often freelance, and a year-long contract is a rare luxury.
Hodgson, Fyfe and others say many circus performers find it difficult to make the change. Whether they leave because of age, injury or the need for a more family-friendly lifestyle, the transition is tough and the support almost non-existent.
Mel Fyfe, 45, knows she is very, very lucky. She came to circus in her late 20s after teaching dance and acrobatics, but knowing the teaching was unlikely to deliver a reasonable income, she also trained in office and computer skills.
After retiring from performing with Circus Oz about five years ago she came back to the company, organising tours, among other things, and is now company manager. She says her background in performing, combined with her training in administration, makes her a good fit for the role. "I've been that performer on tour, I understand what they need".
But many others don't find the transition so smooth. "Some go into arts administration or they have families. A lot of the people I started working with just can't give it up so they end up freelancing, but that's really hard and you end up getting burnt out."
Older performers – that means anyone over 30 – can also extend their time in the spotlight by shifting to more character-based roles and away from the physically demanding parts.
Missing the spotlight
And for many performers, it's bitterly hard to imagine a life without that time in the spotlights. Fyfe says: "When I gave up I was still craving an outlet, I just had to be physical in some way and I needed to still be a bit of a show pony. I started roller derby so that filled a big hole. Your ego takes a massive hit."
Even now, five years after taking on the "office job" at Circus Oz, Fyfe still has a yen for performance and occasionally thinks about how she could get back on stage. "I am missing performing, it's going through my head. But obviously physically I'm never going to be what I was."
For Kareena Oates, 43, the decision to quit performing was an easy one. More than a decade ago, she decided she wanted to start a family so made a clean break, while still at the peak of her career, and still loving the circus.
"I've never regretted it one day of my life, I have very fond memories and I loved it but it was time to stop. It was a big choice but I knew it was the right choice."
But she has seen many circus friends struggle with the change.
"It's hard to know what to do. I don't think there's enough support. I talk to a lot of my friends about it. We're all mid-40s and a lot of them are still working. To let go is really scary, the work starts to dry up. It's tricky. You can't really prepare for it in any way and I've seen a few people have really difficult times, financially and across the board."
Forced out by injuries
Perhaps the toughest break from the circus is for those forced out by injury. While the rates vary, each year there are several serious injuries. The Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance says the injury rates are certainly higher than for other performers and integrating back into work can be extremely difficult.
Zoe Angus, industrial officer with the MEAA, says because a lot of companies are small, family-run businesses and a lot of performers are on short-term contracts, it's a very hard industry. "Of all types of performers it's probably toughest being a circus performer".
Post circus, Oates has started a family (her children are nine and seven) and is now studying life coaching. She says having the financial and emotional support of her partner made that possible. But she says other options for retired performers, such as teaching or tour managing, are scarce and require a skill set that many don't have.
"I know many that are trying (to leave) and many that want to but I don't know many that have completely. It's really hard to know what to do next especially if your career has been going for 20 years. What do you do when you've never done anything else? It's hard to go back to being a beginner. Also you're 40 and that can be a very hard time to change."
Photographer: Ponch Hawkes