• Interview: John-Paul Zaccarini

    John-Paul Zaccarini, Beside Myself | Photo: Mark Morreau

    My second favourite circus neologism behind mathematrickster (a sort of juggler; guess which sort), Circoanalysis is the invention of rope artist, actor, mime, circus director and mentor John-Paul Zaccarini. Combining the unlikely disciplines of circus and psychoanalysis, Circoanalysis has two manifestations: on the one side a small body of written work including two short published essays (‘Circus as Death Writing’ and ‘Objectification and Subjectivity in Circus’) and an in-progress PhD thesis, and on the other a practical application for circus artists through the intervention and guidance of the Circoanalyst. Having read the published material, I met with John-Paul to talk about how the theory was being used, and asked him first, in summary, currently,

    What is Circoanalysis?

    At the moment it’s kind of a teaching and directing method for circus that is maybe more akin to how one would direct an actor or approach a piece of devised theatre—and it’s listening, essentially. Listening and helping to kind of bring the circus artist some clarity about what they’re doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s aims are to get rid of all the unnecessary layers of narrative—like being a postman juggling balls into a postbox. Why would you do that? Isn’t what you’re doing already interesting enough, already a metaphor? What it doesn’t do is tell people what to do, which is basically what circus training does: tells people this is right, this is wrong. Circoanalysis’ aims are to reveal the person who does circus and why they do circus within a circus act—to make it a truer experience, or a more authentic experience, so that we can connect to other human beings as opposed to trying to be superhuman.

    So how does Circoanalysis work in practice? Does it happen in the training space, or do you have people on the couch, or…

    At the moment it’s been pretty much on the couch. So it’s outside of the training space. In a way you go to analysis and you talk about your relationships, your work relationships, all sorts of things. The Circoanalytic Hour helps you to understand what’s going on between you and your trainer or you and your teacher, you and your director, you and your peers—more importantly, you and yourself.

    And what I’ve found is that rather than helping a circus student with their final piece—rather than being in a space with them, where I’d normally be, and where as a teacher you’re under a pressure to succeed in your job and end up showing them what to do. I’ve found this method much better, because maybe the acts won’t be as good as if I’d been there in the space, but the students have grown more in that process, so they’re more prepared to go out of the school and think for themselves and create for themselves.

    Because the school is so obsessed with product. And also the students are obsessed with product. They think they need to leave the school with the act that will make them. With a thing to sell. And that’s fair enough, that’s absolutely fair enough. What it means is that they don’t actually have that much respect for process. Process isn’t taught. Just get to the trick. Do what you do to get to the trick; ignore the process. But it’s easy to make a product, it’s not that hard. Just look at that; copy that. If you’re just interested in making money: look at that, copy that. I could show you in a couple of hours how to make a decent circus act that would sell—it’s really not rocket science. But interesting how that’s the focus when it could just be a side thing, a workshop that they teach: How to Make a Sellable Circus Act.

    Has the Circoanalysis found it’s way into the other work you do—mentoring, directing, etcetera?

    It’s influenced my work as a director; I talk a lot less as a director now because of this experience, and I allow people to tie themselves into knots trying to explain what they want. So after trying to explain to me what they want they realise that they don’t know what they want. They realise they’ve got no idea what the show’s about without me having to tell them. I don’t have to tell them anymore, which gives them a sense of empowerment and a sense of responsibility for it. So yes it has influenced my work as a director, but it depends on what I’m directing. Sometimes I would absolutely go, Move left more, Do it on a count of three. It just saves time.

    Are there are any companies or artists that particularly inspired you to go in this direction?

    I’m going in this direction because I was bored. I just found circus really banal, and I found it banal very quickly. I never came into circus to do circus, I came into circus to enhance my theatre work. I just ended up doing circus, for a long time. Circus in itself I always thought kind of banal.

    Ironically it was Cirque du Soleil that made me go and do circus—Nouvelle Experience. That, Lindsay Butcher in Ra Ra Zoo was the other thing that made me go. And the last thing was Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Circus seemed to be the nearest to how I might make my own Theatre of Cruelty. Because for me Theatre of Cruelty is an impossible manifesto. You can’t make a piece of theatre like that, that’s not possible, but circus was the closest to how I might inch toward that. And I think my thesis is a similar manifesto. I’m not intending it to be a possible thing, but I’m thinking of it as being an inspiring thing to inch towards. And because it’s impossible, it means you can’t do it and it’s not prescriptive, in a way. If it gets slightly difficult and confusing then there’s a reason for that—because I don’t want it to be prescriptive. I keep the ambivalence in the writing, essentially.

    Moving onto your own work I wanted to ask you about Beside Myself, where you repeatedly try to climb a rope carrying this heavy dummy or manikin. Could you say a little about what the film is and where it came from?

    What I’m doing at the moment is I’m making these—I’m calling them small, unsellable pieces. And I’m fortunate enough to have a little bit of money to make these little unsellable pieces. They’re pieces I need to make, essentially. I don’t care who watches them. Who buys them. What happens to them at the moment. At some point I’ll deal with those questions but at the moment I just have to make them. So I’m making what I want to make regardless of the market or regardless of whether or not there’s a demand for them. Which is one of the points of Circoanalysis—to take the circus artist to a point where the demands he/she responds to are their own. As much as possible. It’s a fine line how much we incorporate the market or internalise the market. So these pieces are little moments on my own Circoanalytical journey with myself—as a circus artist, specifically. Beside Myself is Part II. It’s the second one. The first one was a very short rope. I’m lying on the ground and I climb a short rope and leave my image there and then the image comes alive and I respond to this image—my self. And when I can’t quite respond to it on the floor—it’s in a little frame and I fill it with water and it drowns and I go back up the rope and it drowns. The other me drowns. At the moment I’m very much working with versions of me and responding to versions of me. So Beside Myself is a certain version of me. It’s made on my frame.

    It’s a piece that I don’t think I’ll ever talk about what it means. I’ve got a feeling that people get different things from it. I can tell you what I was feeling when I was making it—things like, Why the fuck am I carrying you, you’re so heavy, Why am I carrying you up this rope? What do I need to get rid of? So it’s kind of like baggage. Baggage that you think you should still hold onto but actually you might as well just let it go.

    There could be alternate endings to that. The ending I would like is to disappear up the rope, pull it away and leave him there. Over and done with, dealt with. See you later. Can’t keep on dragging you up the rope. This is an impossible thing. So I think the ending where we’re both lying there is slightly pessimistic, slightly you know—it’s not as positive. Maybe you’ve had your chance. The rope gets pulled away, you’ve had your chance. You weren’t up to it and you’re stuck with him there, with it, whatever it is.

    What I really liked about the video was it had that quality of ambivalence—and that’s a word that you use in one of your essays when you’re thinking about what circus can aspire to be. And I think maybe there’s this assumption that a piece can have different interpretations—but that each audience member only gets one. Whereas to me it’s much more that what you’re feeling is the blend of things and people’s perceptions of art are actually incredibly sophisticated—just not put into words or self-analysed. And a lot of the time when you see circus that’s got a narrative it’s really about pinning something down.

    Yeah, and my particular rant about circus is that what it tries to pin down is the jolly or the superhuman or the lovely or whatever. It tries to pin that down and says this is what it is and it leaves out the ambivalence of it fucking hurts and it’s really dangerous and we’re playing with death or failure. Showing just the bright side of it. Ambivalence is a more mature attitude rather than a split—good, bad.

    There’s a bit in one of your essays that was actually just a bracket you hadn’t filled in: ‘Is there something here about pure technique and the metaphor of wisdom’?

    What do you mean by ‘metaphor of wisdom’?

    Well they’re your words so—

    Really? Shit…. Gosh, I don’t know what I was on. I suppose for me wisdom is more akin to intuition. It’s that attitude where you work and you work and you work, technique technique technique, very little soul happening. And then there’s a moment where you’ve done so much hard work that there’s a sort of fusion suddenly. It’s like a flash—it’s the attitude where your intellect and your intuition just join, meet up, and you get the idea. You get the idea that unlocks the door and everything joins up. All these disparate things… happen.

    And I guess what I was after there was that you’re at a point where you have technique, you have technique and then suddenly your soul, or your affective or emotive qualities, links everything up and you get the idea. You suddenly find a trick you hadn’t thought of—a trick you never thought was possible, and you wouldn’t have thought was possible. And maybe it’s a mistake. It’s not something you can be told, it’s not something you can be taught. They’re breakthrough moments.

    I wanted to ask you about something you say in one of the essays: that ‘archaic modes of training’ are still in operation.

    I’d say one of the main areas of my research is I deal with objectification of the circus performer—as a stuff to be moulded. Not just by the trainer, but by themselves as well; they internalise that kind of trainer and that punishing routine to mould themselves, to treat themselves, handle themselves in that way. And I wonder, I wonder what it does to someone’s psyche, to be put through that. Essentially being told what to do instead of being listened to and asked what do you want to do.

    And I think maybe the impasse that circus comes up against is that it’s getting quite repetitive. It’s repeating itself. And I see it every year with new students. Same thing, same broom, same conceits—same tricks pretty much. Another approach to it would be to say, There are the balls, what does it make you feel like doing? And then helping them to do that. And then you’re not reading out of the book of beautiful moves.

    How can we expect them to be creative when they’ve been told what to do for that amount of time? And then theatre is plonked on later, in a kind of arbitrary way—a token gesture of dance, a token gesture of theatre plonked on. They don’t give a shit; they want the trick. The creativity has to be taught within the actual technique itself I think.

    I think I read somewhere in an interview from quite a way back that you preferred teaching kids because they have freer movement, and was wondering if that was still the case in light of what you’re doing now.

    Did I say that? I do prefer working with actors and dancers on circus rather than with circus performers because they’re freer. They’re not bound by their technique, they’re not indoctrinated by their technique. They’re not indoctrinated by the ideology of circus, the beauty of it. They’re freer and they’re more engaged. Dancers because of the subtlety they bring to their movement—I’m not saying they’re better but they bring something else to it. And actors always bring an intention to it. So for me it’s immediately more interesting.

    Because my interest with a circus artist is to bring their intention to the fore—then they won’t need to be the postman or the mermaid or the bird or the dream sequence. They’re intention should be enough. Obviously the question is Why would you think that standing on your hands is a good way to make a living? Why? What convinced you of that rather than all the other array of things that you’ve done. That for me is much more interesting than being a postman.

    We go into the circus because we know that there isn’t a script. We’re not playing someone else. I know actors will say “when I’m playing Macbeth I’m not playing someone else, I’m playing the Macbeth inside”, and that’s one school of acting. But essentially we go into circus because we don’t want to do someone else’s thing. We want to do our act. So what we’re doing is telling a personal—a really personal—story there. So why do you need another story? Are you ashamed of your story? I know my story’s pretty… well, it’s not shameful, but it’s quite hectic my story and I certainly will not give it directly, but I know its there and I know enough of my reason for doing circus to not have to place it in a superfluous narrative or borrow a narrative or give my narrative to someone else to do with it what they want—I’m certainly not going to do that. That feels like prostitution in a way—because the material is so personal and intimate to me. So this whole issue of narrative in circus and storytelling in circus—that’s the angle I’m coming at that really there’s plenty of story there.

    What you were saying earlier about technique and repetition—I tend to think that what’s missing is eccentricity. It’s the sort of thing you see so much more of in breakdance—where there’s this thing that you can do anything you like, anything that comes into your head.

    You probably find it in jugglers. I think jugglers are the most—for me jugglers are the most original. Not every juggler. But the most original people I’ve met in circus have been jugglers. Because they think about things…. Fuck it, I’ll be rude. I’ve got a feeling that there’s so much endorphin happening in some circus acts, it just prevents any kind of critical thinking about what they do. That amount of pain-numbing hormone: it makes you dumb. Essentially. Because I know—I know when I’ve done a really really really hard training session I’m completely dumb, I don’t know how to even tie my shoelaces up. I’ve got to sit there and go nnnuggh? And there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in circus, a lot of pleasure, and we know that pleasure effaces any sort of critical thinking. I think jugglers are different because they can actually train for hours and hours and hours without getting that same buzz. So they’ve got a bit of spare brain left, and I think those classic obsessionals—they’re just postponing something with their juggling. Just got to keep on adding balls.

    Obviously you have a lot of experience as a circus performer, but in your essays you tend to put yourself alongside your readers as an ordinary person, not one of the ‘superhumans’.

    I think I’m trying to step outside—I’ve been inside and then I step outside… I’m slightly split—because I’m both a circus artist who does a type of circus that I criticise as being the impasse of circus, where it’s stuck, and I’m also the circus artist that does work that pushes beyond that. I fully admit that I do a purely infantile circus that is purely pleasure seeking. I admit that; it’s fine because we need that, we need that to be in the world. But not just that, and the predominance of that is what I’m ranting on about.

    Another thing I wanted to pick up from one of the essays was this line about the sort of work you criticise: ‘To be circus it must not fail… It does not include failure in the telling of it’s story.’

    I don’t mean for it to incorporate the real failure, the physical failure. Like you drop on purpose or you fall off the rope, but somewhere for there to be the acknowledgement that we as human beings fail on a daily basis and we’re constantly afraid of failing. Just to see success for me is a split thing—you split off failure completely. Fine, that’s fine, I don’t mind seeing that, but why the predominance of that? I’m not saying that people like Ockham’s Razor and Lindsay Butcher and Matilda Leyser and the Gandinis haven’t explored failure—they all have in their work. But no one knows that we’re out there; or a very, very small audience knows what we’re doing.

    And God I don’t know how to do it. I’m not saying I know how to do it. So in my impossible manifesto, in this thesis, that’s one of the main points—how do we reincorporate the failure. And if creation is born out of wanting to make amends, or more on the Freudian side it’s melancholy that thrusts us forward, or it’s guilt, or whatever it is—how can we reincorporate those aspects back into circus rather than repressing them and just doing the happy stuff. But, again in the impossible manifesto, without making it too personal. Not to say I am particularly guilty, so I’m going to do this thing to make amends. More like we are guilty, we all make amends. And make that a metaphor for a more universal experience.

    John-Paul Zaccarini trained first as an actor and dancer, but quit to become a mime, working with such luminaries as Peta Lily, Phillipe Gaulier, David Glass, Lindsay Kemp and Andrew Dawson. For most of the 90s he ran his own company Angels of Disorder, then following a three-month crash course at Circus Space formed Company FZ with performer/director Flick Ferdinando. In ’98 FZ created Throat, performed by John-Paul and directed by Flick, which won a Total Theatre Award, was nominated for The Stage’s Best Actor Award, and toured for nine years before being put to bed. Throat was followed by Loser in 2004 and the current production Horse, which will be at the Edinburgh Fringe in Underbelly’s Hullabaloo, 7-31 August (excluding 12 & 19). FZ’s next production will be We Can Be Heroes (more information on their website), and following that, currently in the very early stages, a new solo for John-Paul.

    John-Paul Zaccarini was interviewed 16 July 2009 at the cafe by the lake in Finsbury Park.

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