News & Reviews

The Guardian - "The greatest show on earth: how Circus Oz brought a big message to the Big Top"

29th August 2016

Under darkness, an impossibly small crate is left in the middle of the stage. Then: lights and fanfare, as dozens of performers clamber out of it with a huge energy that will carry the rest of the show.

I know how they do the trick and I don’t care, because the whole tent smells like popcorn and sweat, and my ears are ringing with cheers and an incredible live band. On Saturday night, the Circus Oz performers will climb higher than I will ever have the courage to, hold one another in ways I’m not strong enough to try, and move faster and more precisely than my comparably weird, dumb limbs could permit.

But I don’t feel bad. The inescapable message is that we are all extraordinary. It’s a wholesome, invigorating agenda.

In the popular consciousness, circus is confined to the Sub-Art™, apolitical, “family entertainment” section of live performance. It’s discarded among programming that aims to pass a day, rather than to expand or challenge.

But for Australia’s national circus, this is a misclassification. Circus Oz established itself in 1978 as a satirical, animal free, politically progressive and feminist Australian company, which every year since has dedicatedly toured regional Australia, entertained our capital cities, and showcased Australian talent in 26 countries across five continents.

It’s an under-appreciated gem in our national cultural identity – but they’ll try to dupe you into thinking the Collingwood rehearsal space is simply a fun factory.

The ceilings are so high they forcibly reduce you to the size and mentality of a child. In the main room, performers make casual small talk while throwing and catching and flipping their colleagues. I’m led around like a lost orphan who’s fallen into some magical other world in a Disney film.

The props department is a floor-to-ceiling archive of giant clams and false-bottomed vending machines, and there’s a huge sandwich press with hundreds of nails where the heating element would be: a person goes where the sandwich should go, and then a performer tap dances on it while someone is inside with the nails poking into their skin. It’s insane.

Ania, the musical director, was an apprentice to Doctor Seuss, probably. She leads the band on the key-tar, before wheeling out a “percussion tree” that grows four different kinds of triangles and bell lines and cymbals and bongos. It’s so cool, and I tell her this about 10 times, like an idiot.

They still have the top of the original Big Top, hand sewn by those with the know-how in a kitchen in Collingwood in 1978. They made the whole tent that way.

But the institution has grown since then. Perhaps it’s also matured.

The first sign of the shifting internal culture at Circus Oz is the bleachers from that original Big Top, which have been cut down and turned into office seating – the rehearsal space has a boardroom now.

Tim Coldwell helped sew that first Big Top in the 1970s. He isn’t a sad clown so much as a busy clown, and these days he’s also a production manager. He hangs up on a call to a theatre in Sao Paolo, and sighs tiredly.

“I don’t know if we’re more established [now], or if there are more people whose job is categorising whether or not something is a kid’s show,” he explains, his voice rough, perhaps from having done so many tricks.

Circus Oz arrived in 1978 when the Soapbox Circus roadshow and Adelaide’s New Circus came together to make something special. Born in the crucible of Melbourne’s Pram Factory theatre, they shared the scene’s ambition of making political Australia work – and the reality of having no money.

“It was effectively the entire Melbourne fringe in one building,” Coldwell says. The whole organisation performed the show, cadged Pram Factory resources, fiddled with the books, and built the very tent they would perform in.

“I was 20. It was different.”

“It was the 70s,” Laurel Frank adds.

Frank, another founding member, has stayed on as an incredibly patient costume designer. Like a circus mum, she frets over fabrics that sufficiently grip the Chinese Pole without stopping the kids from having fun.

It certainly wasn’t always just a kids’ show. Or a kids’ show at all. The first production featured “kangaroos fucking”, and that act toured for years. “Generally we got away with it,” says Coldwell. “It was great.”

But the greatest juggling act of all has been pushing the boundaries while also making bank. “The core of the whole thing is the relationship between the performers and the audience, and that doesn’t run the way business runs,” Coldwell says. “It doesn’t run the way workplaces run.”

Frank continues: “All our history and new obligations … it gets harder to change and take big risks. A business has to survive. A lot of political opinions aren’t going to be well-received around the world. Producers are buying our show and they have their parameters.”

Look close enough in the ring and you’ll see an organisation trying to keep sustainability, activism and cool tricks in the air at the same time.

You’ll also see Robbie Curtis execute an incredible, accelerating routine with a growing number of juggling balls, and the strongest and most competent arms and abs I have ever seen. Unlike their previous show But Wait, There’s More – a surprising, deeply progressive manifesto on anti-consumerism, and the beauty of the individual as part of a whole – the new show, TWENTYSIXTEEN, doesn’t start with a political thesis.

“I see this show as a whole series of little things,” Coldwell says, “It can take you everywhere. Acts become soft political statements and metaphors. A guy getting shot out of a cannon at a wall of barbed wire onto a crash mat of human kindness or something … Silly agitprop stuff. It’s fun.”

“We barely had a name one month into rehearsals,” Frank explains, “because there wasn’t anything to lock it down. It’s a little nerve-wracking to go this way … but it empowers the performers.”

It works. MC Dale Woodbridge Brown totally commands the space. He plays a parody of the camp ringmaster with requisite handsomeness, agility and charisma. Off-stage, he wields the same easy charm.

“I am still really excited by watching people do superhuman things,” Brown says with an earnestness shared by everyone in this place.

When Brown, an acrobat by trade, dislocated his elbow after a botched trapeze routine, he reasonably expected to be put down. Instead, they promoted him to ringmaster.

“They put sequins all over my sling and I went from there,” he says. “The new outfit is head-to-toe black, red and yellow sequins.”

Before joining Circus Oz, Brown tells me, he’d “done a couple of cartwheels, maybe the splits”. He had been working at the Aboriginal Legal Service in Dubbo, but got bored with it. He knew that, with work, he could make it into Bangarra. But for an Indigenous Australian good with his limbs, Bangarra seemed a well-worn path.

“Here, I get to do whatever I want to. I don’t know why Indigenous people haven’t tried circus before. It’s in our blood. It’s storytelling and our physicality, and it’s what we were meant to do.”

To rob him of a punchline, Brown is a triple threat: gay, Aboriginal and adopted. It’s not uncommon for him to be approached after the show by families with kids who are gay, or Aboriginal, or adopted, and to be told “now, she has a role model”.

“That’s why I’m doing it,” says Brown, who scripts a lot of his lines. “I don’t write for everyone; I write for them.”

Everyone I speak to seems to want to inspire that same sense of empowerment. In TWENTYSIXTEEN, the director Anni Davey has given free reign to a diverse cast, to create a show that feels artisanal and bespoke.

“[Equality] was one of the launchpads for the company in the 70s and it’s still a consciousness that attracts a lot of performers,” she says. “It’s a political statement to say that [all] people are extraordinary.

“You can look through the eyes of somebody who’s just like you and feel that there’s a place for you, and it’s a valuable place and it’s an important place.”

Oz is about empathy and representation without explicit moral instruction. You’re not thinking about the social safety net when a performer jumps, without harness, from the ceiling of the big top – but you leave the tent brimming with a sense of the potential in everyone.

The feeling isn’t accidental; it’s at the heart of the relationship between the audience and performers – and it informs Oz’s operations outside the Big Top, too.

Since 2006 they’ve raised more than half a million dollars for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and every season they fundraise to give away 1,000 free tickets to refugees, women’s shelters and other disadvantaged groups. These are no mean feats, regardless of how much boho, show-on-a-shoestring ratbaggery might have been lost since the 70s.

There’s also the Blakflip program, comprising scholarships, internships and classes, to identify and develop promising Indigenous performers. It has so far had more than 30 Indigenous talents take the stage with Oz – including their current emcee, Dale.

Their Good Time For Schools and Hand2Hand programs get at-risk and marginalised children into circus workshops to foster skills as well as inclusiveness and diversity. A total of 17 schools participated last year, and the testimonials are life-affirming. Audrey, Year 3-4, says: “Thank you very much. You gave us the encouragement to one day join you.”

“These little kids are dealing with stuff that a kid should not be dealing with,” Del Robinson tells me, “and we let them know there are other things out there”.

Del is a firebreather, and also the director of Social Enterprise. She runs a lot of these programs, and is also the only person I speak to who talks about Oz in terms of KPIs.

“I came from the corporate world,” she explains. “You get your budget, you get your bonus and someone gets a great share price … I love being able to say I ran away to the circus.”

Despite a different vocabulary, the thing that keeps her at Oz is the same as the others.

“For a couple of hours when these kids come into the Big Top they’re not the kid at school who has grubby clothes or who hasn’t eaten breakfast. They don’t feel disadvantaged. They come in under the Big Top and they feel part of the community. There’s no label attached to them. They get to enjoy the show, they get to laugh. That’s fantastic.”

Given the hostility of the Australian arts landscape, Circus Oz maintains the proud, progressive spirit in which it was conceived with encouraging success – and it’s a welcome departure from the traditional framework of Australia’s academic, angry political theatre. With a social conscience matched only by its inspiring energy, collective power is in the soul of this place; the rehearsal room is warm, and equal, and supportive, and it’s laid bare again in the Big Top. The metaphors inspired by 10 strong arms raising another body are too obvious to finish.

But for all their activist sensibilities, Oz is absolutely no less a circus.

“I’m gonna shave Flip’s head out in the carpark,” Brown says, running past with one of the tumblers in tow. He sighs sarcastically: “Carnies”.

TWENTYSIXTEEN is touring Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria until 15 October

- Patrick Morrow

The Guardian -