Developing Touring of Circus in the UK

Below are notes from the three presentations given as part of the session Developing Touring of Circus in the UK: Case Studies and Plans for Future Developments held on 18 April 2013.

Di Robson: The Exhibitionists

Di Robson, the director of DREAM, spoke first about her work with the Exhibitionists project.

The Exhibitionists was a project conceived as part of Exhibition Road Show, a nine-day one-off celebration of art, music, science, literature and acrobatics on South Kensington's Exhibition Road, and saw experienced artists such as Sue Broadway (a co-founder of the early circus company Ra-Ra Zoo) and Lindsey Butcher (the director of Gravity & Levity), as well as emerging artists such as the choreographer Ella Robson Guilfoyle, work with a troupe of 24 young acrobats and dancers.

The idea behind The Exhibitionists was to create a project that would give these young artists an early experience of working within a large, professional company — the sort of opportunity for which UK circus artists, in particular, usually have to travel overseas. The mix of circus and dance practitioners was also intended to enrich the process: the acrobats learned elements of dance vocabulary, and the dancers learned to work in a harness and to work at height.

Most of the Exhibitionists were UK graduates, but some were brought over from the Australian school NICA, and there were artists also from Colombia, Sweden, Brussels, and other countries — an international make-up that ensured the artists involved in the project left it with an address book of contacts.

The Exhibitionists performed every day of the nine days of the festival:

The Exhibitionists will now continue in a similar vein: reforming as a group of 14-16 performers the group will create a new performance and premiere it in the spring/summer of 2014, touring to 4-5 venues (mostly large ones with 1000+ seats).

Ali King: Turtle Key Arts and Ockham's Razor

Turtle Key Arts started working with Ockham's Razor in 2006 by producing their triple bill, a collection of three short pieces — Arc, Memento Mori, and Every Action... — that's still in repertoire and has now toured to around 40 venues. At that time there was no list of venues interested in circus, and so Turtle Key adopted a few different strategies to persuade venues to take the work:

Self-sufficiency: To allay the concerns of venues, Turtle Key / Ockham's Razor tried to be as self-sufficient as possible. They rigged for their shows themselves, and eventually invested in their own truss. Though this was a significant expense, it made rigging easier by standardising the process and allowed the company to go anywhere — even performing outside as part of Watch This Space and the City of London festival.

Promotion: Turtle Key invested in marketing materials for the Ockham's Razor productions. Rather than spend £100 on some cheap postcards they produced large-format brochures that would reflect the high quality of the work itself.

Partnerships with venues: Turtle Key worked with venues to build audiences interested in circus work. Often they would organise backstage tours, post-show talks or workshops around performances, and during their first tour they chose venues near colleges to try and bring in students. They also worked with venues to keep the ticket costs low so that audiences would take a risk on something new.

After six years of this groundwork, and after another full-length show, The Mill, Turtle Key were ready to produce Not Until We Are Lost. A show which, at least on paper, is difficult to produce/host, NUWAL can only play to around 100-120 audience members at a time, and requires venues to pull out their seating and staging to provide a flat, neutral performance space. To get in more audience Turtle Key sold the show with two performances a day, and usually 6-14 in a run. The production also includes an embedded local choir — another action building on Turtle Key / Ockham's Razor's history of community engagement. NUWAL premiered at artsdepot in September 2012; twelve venues and counting have now taken the show.

Rachel Clare: Crying Out Loud

Crying Out Loud was formed in 2001 with a £30,000 bursary from Arts Council England at a time when the body was just starting to recognise that there was a need for creative producers not affiliated to organisations or venues and working within a flexibly defined role.

In 2009 Crying Out Loud were invited to lead City Circ (formerly the Circus Venues Alliance), a network of London venues either programming circus or interested in the form. In 2009 City Circ cooperated to jointly market a season of contemporary circus across the capital, with nineteen shows programmed in thirteen boroughs, and also commissioned a piece of research from Audiences London to analyse box office takings and produce a report on the patterns and behaviour of circus audiences. One of the report's key findings was that circus audiences are very loyal and that they will travel to venues to see the work (dance audiences, by comparison, tend to have one local venue that they stick to).

Through City Circ, Crying Out Loud also secured funds to instigate two artistic residencies at City Circ venues: Stratford Circus took on Acrojou Circus Theatre, who worked on their piece for young audiences, Waste Time, and artsdepot hosted Ockham's Razor, who began work there on Not Until We Are Lost.

City Circ is now run by the venues in the network, who meet four times a year to exchange information and to discuss ways to work cooperatively.

Rachel then briefly introduced two other projects Crying Out Loud are working on:

PASS: Formerly the Cross Channel Circus Alliance, PASS is an EU project, funded by Interreg, under which four venues in northern France are cooperating with four in the south of England for the purposes of artistic exchange, training, organising residencies, etcetera. Recent PASS activities in the UK include Camille Boitel and Little Bulb collaborating during a residency at Farnham Maltings, and Tilted Productions undertaking a residency at the Drill House in Great Yarmouth to work on their new production Fragile.

Circus Evolution: Funded by Arts Council England's Strategic Touring Programme, Circus Evolution is a three-year programme to develop circus touring in the UK. Under the project Crying Out Loud will work with ten venues — divided into two groups: those with some experience in hosting circus work, and those with none — arranging training sessions on circus marketing, rigging and production as a first step toward forming a full touring network.