Me + (circus + academia) = ?

I am much of the way through studying on the inaugural MA in Circus Directing (Circomedia, Bristol), and it’s already been mind-altering. Just like my body in its pre-retirement aerialist days, this poor old brain has been stretched and strengthened, stimulated to function in new and exciting ways. Contextualising and giving a vocabulary to form the fuzzy thoughts I’d been having for years but never knew how to express.

Having come to the end of my physical journey with circus due to age & injury several years ago, I found myself wanting to explore my relationship with the art form further and deeper. I was falling in love with directing circus, and struggling to find role models out there who I could contact for advice, or look to for precedence. Essentially, I’d been searching for this course before it even existed. I spent two years looking at physical theatre, dance and directing MAs in other universities in the UK and abroad, reading their prospectuses and seeing what kind of performers and performances were connected with them. None of the them spoke to me and my specific circus-y needs, all would involve relocating to another city, and I wasn’t prepared to uproot myself from my beloved Bristol for something that wasn’t a perfect fit. Then, as luck would have it, I heard that they were thinking of running an MA at my old circus school, Circomedia. IN MY HOME TOWN! I contacted Bim (course director) to discuss what I wanted from a course of this kind – what knowledge I hoped to gain and, ideally, who from. The course began in September 2017, and I’m loving being a student again.

The main struggle I have on this MA is the academic writing/reading involved. There’s not actually that much of it, as lots of the research is practical, but I’ve not written an essay in over 20 years and my mother tongue these days is that of performance description, reviews (and funding applications), not that of academia. It would appear that there is a whole world out there (who knew?) of people communicating in some weird formalised language with odd rules (no talking in the first person) and strict formats (quotations using over 40 words should be indented, single-spaced and without quotation marks), and much academic writing seems to have scant regard for the poor person reading it. And there’s so little writing about actual circus directing, because it’s all so new. Stuff is starting to appear, from Montreal and Scandinavia, from the USA and other small circus enclaves around the world. These rare articles, dissertations and theses are written by people with a passion for contemporary circus, and in a language I can understand, perhaps because the writers know that their primary task is one of communication, and they know their audience, sorry, their ‘readers’.

One of the joys of the MA is that I am given free rein to geek out about the subject. What does it mean? Why does it make people feel the way it does? Why do I like this piece of work and not that? How does it compare to other art forms? Who is making interesting work? Why does circus need directors? And what is this thing ‘circus’ anyway? We few, we happy few, we band of MA students sit in our little common room and discuss these questions and more. For hours. We argue fervently about this theory or that show. We disagree whilst grinning, happy to be amongst like-minded souls, and meeting each other’s gaze with a knowing smile. Realising that we’ve found our tribe.

This is the first year the course has run, and its not perfect by any means. But it is really important that it does run, and that other circus research MAs are created, for how are we as a sector going to develop and flourish if we can’t interrogate the art form itself? Performing circus is so all-consuming, that its only now I’ve stopped and am looking at it from the outside, that I feel I can truly ‘get it’. On the treadmill of training, managing injuries, administrating a small business, seeking commissions, selling yourself, working on other people’s visions whilst still trying to make the circus that you want to make, it is really difficult to find the time to think. To think deeply about the whys and the what-does-it-means. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to do this, and I know that my work will benefit. I can’t wait to try out my new brain.

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