News & Reviews

Circus Oz at 40: from self-made tent to global success, in many tricky moves

19th March 2018

By Tony Wright for The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2018

Tim Coldwell tosses a bolt of old canvas painted a faded green and gold on to a benchtop. He turns it to expose the stitching. It is supported along the seams by a strip of what turns out to be a car seatbelt.

He doesn't say it, but there is careful pride in the casual way he displays this odd remnant. Indeed, carefully framed behind glass on a wall nearby is another gaily painted canvas fragment.

Here, then, are the remains of what was the first Circus Oz big-top, preserved as testament to one of the most enduring and widely loved excursions into the fantastic in the history of Australian arts.

The canvas patches are 40 years old.

They tell a story that remains breathtaking in its audacity.

Circus Oz rejoices in a permanent, multimillion-dollar home these days in what was the old Collingwood Tech School.

There are rehearsal studios with ceilings as high as the crown of a circus tent, fully equipped workshops, costume rooms, administrative offices and outside, its beautiful old Melba Spiegeltent, splendidly mirrored, its intimate performing space surrounded by elegantly crafted wooden booths.

The circus seems barely to pause from an exhausting program these days, touring its latest shows across Australia and the world, offering master classes and education programs, staging festivals and cabaret in the spiegeltent and getting involved in collaborations with other arts companies, some of which owe their existence to Circus Oz in the first place.

Its latest Big Top – a massive thing 35 metres high and 44 metres wide, held up by 182 steel poles and 1.5 kilometre of wire – seats 1356.

It cost, in 2002, $1 million.

It is all a very long way from the early months of 1978, when Circus Oz hoisted its first tent, a 600-seater that cost $7500.

Coldwell, a founding member of Circus Oz – still rejoicing in the title of Senior Circus Artist – remembers clearly the genesis of that first tent.

He designed it, and with a crew of starry-eyed colleagues, helped to sew it together in a Carlton basement.

Etched into a plaque outside today's Circus Oz headquarters are words that capture the essence of the whole extraordinary venture.

"Defying gravity since 1978."

Quite. All those acrobats and aerialists over all those years, cheekily thumbing their noses at gravity.

Coldwell himself made his name in the early days of Circus Oz by walking up the wall of Collingwood's hugely popular Last Laugh theatre restaurant, and then walking upside down across the ceiling, as if by magic, occasionally stopping to have a smoke, hanging nonchalantly high above the heads of diners. Every night. For eight months.

It was 1979. Circus Oz was only a bit over a year old. The show would establish Circus Oz in the minds of theatre-goers as one of the most innovative performing troupes anywhere – a reputation it has maintained for four decades.

And here is the greater defiance of gravity: creating a circus from nothing, a circus of a kind the world had never seen before – which would inspire dozens of other such troupes, large and small, to form across Australia and the globe – and to keep it not only from folding, but growing ever more dazzling.

For 40 years!

It began in the dying days of 1977 when Coldwell and a dozen or so performers from two small and separate circus-based theatrical troupes – the New Circus, formed in Adelaide in 1974, and the Soapbox Circus, associated with the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band at the Pram Factory in Melbourne – "cooked up the idea of putting us all together as one big circus", Coldwell says.

He carefully names them, these fellow collective founders, most of them multi-skilled in the circus arts, from juggling to wire walking, from acrobatics to aerialist manoeuvres. Sue Broadway, Jack Daniel, Jim Robertson and his wife Pixi, Jon Hawkes, Robin Laurie, Ponch Hawkes, Kelvin Gedye, Alan Robertson, Hellen Sky, Michael Price, Laurel Frank, and the members at the time of Captain Matchbox Whoopee band: Mic Conway, Jim Conway, Gordon McLean, Peter Muhleisen, Tony Burkys, Colin Stephens, Steve Cooney (formerly married to Sinead O'Connor) and the late Rick Ludbrook. Yes, and an entrepeneur named John Pinder, of which more later.

They were all young, these performers devoted to creating radical contemporary art out of old traditions. With, as everyone who's seen a Circus Oz show knows, a distinctly Australian accent and a larrikin sense of humour.

They congregated at the Australian Performing Group headquarters in Carlton: the Pram Factory.

The big old brick building in Drummond Street, once a real pram factory and demolished in 1980, was an astonishingly creative incubator of Australian new theatre, an evolution in many ways of the pioneering La Mama Theatre around the corner in Faraday Street, which gave voice to the writers and performers who would dominate Australia's stages and consciousness for decades.

Anything seemed possible in those heady days.

A number of the circus performers inhabited the building's tower, and it was there, says Coldwell, while consuming whisky, beer and illicit substances – and, as always, arguing – they hit on the idea of forming a collective that would become Circus Oz.

Together with their wide range of physical skills, honed on the streets, at festivals and at country shows, they had attitude and energy to spare. They understood and embraced satire and knew that, somehow, they were in the avant garde of a muscular movement that could draw on the threads of the fringe theatre that came before and the political change and experimental enthusiasm sweeping Melbourne's arts world.

If they were to form one big circus, however, they'd need a tent...


Photograph by Simon Schluter

Circus Oz at 40: from self-made tent to global success, in many tricky moves -