by Kerrin Tatman
As February was filled with playwriting, March has been packed with circus. Since moving to Newcastle in January, my close friend Rosie Bristow has been pushing me to get involved with Circus Central – the home of circus in the North East.
Circus Central, officially the North East Circus Development Trust, is run by Helen ‘Madame La Bonche’ Averley and her partner Steve Cousins – a multi-purpose centre covering youth work, agency bookings, adult training, research, performance, national development, touring, and community outreach. I have mainly been involved with two strands of the company so far, by working with the youth group – the Five Ring Circus, and participating in the week-long Cirque Music ‘Zig-Zag Universal’ workshop.
I have always been interested in the many attributes of circus, especially from a musical composition and academic point of view, but was apprehensive of actually trying out some of the disciplines myself. But, with Rosie’s encouragement, I found myself attaching (albeit small) stilts to my legs in the first week of living in the city.
Although I tried, and succeeded, to stilt-walk for a short space of time, I was still unsure as to whether involving myself in the performance side of circus was for me; but decided to keep my options open. After all, this move to Newcastle was all about trying new things and finding my ‘niche’. I carried on coming to a couple of the open-Monday sessions to try different skills, particularly juggling, but mainly to accompany Rosie in her aerial act on various instruments. We did begin constructing the foundations for a double-act though, incorporating a duct-taped together double-ended accordion and a huge suit…
Alongside gingerly dabbling in circus performance I began assisting Rosie with her tailoring business, Bristow and Sister – ‘Unusual Outfitters’, which specialises in designing and creating bespoke costumes for circus folk and other performers. As well as aiding her with all administration duties, I have so far helped make a giant lycra cube, stilt straps and a clown ruff.
Cirque Music Week
It wasn’t until March that I became properly enthusiastic about the whole thing, due to taking part in the Cirque Music workshop, led by the wonderful David Insua-Cao and James Keay of Gifford’s Circus. This week of marrying music with circus was the brainchild of Rosie, who encouraged the company director Helen to facilitate it in Newcastle, and with funding secured from the European Network of Circus Interchange (ENCI) it became a reality. I was especially excited to take part as I had previously worked with David as his musical director for the Research and Development 2 of Whole Hog Theatre‘s Princess Mononoke in London, early 2014, and knew what an amazing percussionist he is. Rosie had also been singing the praises of Gifford’s Circus for years after she worked with them one summer as a set design and box office assistant. As the workshop was part of ENCI’s international program, it meant artists from across Europe travelled to Newcastle to take part, and we had representatives from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary and France.
The week’s aim was to look at as many different ways of incorporating music into a circus setting as possible, and in particular integrating it into acts in more ways than just as a accompaniment. We spent a lot of time improvising with aerialists, unicyclists, jugglers and clowns to explore different ways to do this. Some techniques included the musicians following the action, the performers following the musicians, the musicians picking particular body parts to illustrate, the performers choosing different instruments to mimic – we found countless ways of exploring this exciting inter-disciplinary platform. Rosie and myself had been attending a weekly improvisational dance and music workshop since February atDance City, so found these experimentations really useful as an extension of that. It was interesting using these methods with children, amateurs and semi-professionals alike throughout the week, and I found it rewarding, albeit challenging, to tailor what we were doing to suit the level of the group involved in a session.
The week began with Rosie holding a workshop on hat making, so that we all felt unified as a band. This worked really well as an ice-breaker before we had even picked up any instruments and we wore the hats throughout the week, both in performance and in rehearsal, to show our unity. This worked particularly well when we expanded outside into Newcastle city centre and performed samba band tunes up and down Northumberland Street.
The most useful strand of the week for me was getting the chance to develop our own acts, as we were split into groups and each had to participate in at least three of the nine shorts being created. The aim was to think as much as possible outside the box and use music in unique ways with circus. Some of the things that participants came up with were truly amazing – from the comical, the musical, and the dramatic – and there was a real range of ideas on show. At the end of the week we put on a scratch-cabaret evening and performed these constructed acts to an audience.
I would say this week-long workshop was essential to my musical and artistic development, and it really opened some possibilities to me that I thought I would not be able to really participate in previously. As well as enthusing me about circus, it aided my improvisational, compositional and musical director skills, and I am now raring to compose a score for a circus production.
Robyn is a Bristol-based director, teacher and performer. With over 20 years experience she is a passionate practitioner of clowning, physical theatre, circus and street arts. She has a MA in Circus Directing, a Diploma of Physical Theatre Practice and trained with a long line of inspiring teachers including Holly Stoppit, Peta Lily, Giovanni Fusetti, Bim Mason, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma, Lucy Hopkins and John Wright.
Over the past five years she has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and a deep desire to address the injustices in the world. This specialism has developed through her Masters Research ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’, on the streets and in protests with the Bristol Rebel Clowns and in research residencies with The Trickster Laboratory.
Robyn’s Activist Clown research has led to collaborations with Jay Jordan (Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, France), Clown Me In (Beirut), LM Bogad (US), Hilary Ramsden (Greece) and international Tricksters; ‘The Yes Men’ (US).
During the pandemic in 2020, Robyn set up The Online Clown Academy with Holly Stoppit and developed a series of Zoom Clown Courses. Robyn’s research, started during her Masters, has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and activism, online, in the real world and with international collaborators. With this drive to explore political edges of her work she has also dived back into the world of the Bouffon; training with Jaime Mears, Bim Mason, Nathaniel Justiniano, Eric Davis, Tim Licata, Al Seed and the grand master Bouffon-himself; Philippe Gaulier.
Keen to explore the intersection of clowning and politics, Robyn is driven to create collaborative, research spaces, testing and pushing the limits of the artform to create new knowledge and methodologies for her industry and strengthen partnerships for future work. Some of her most recent collaborations and teaching projects have included the Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy (5-day Activist Clown Training), The Laboratory of the Un-beautiful (Feminist Grotesque Bouffon Training for Womxn Theatre Makers) and the Clown Congress (annual gathering of clowns, activists & academics collectively exploring what it means to be a clown in this current era)