Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Social Circus

By: Tess Cartwright


Living in the UK for the last year and a half, I have come to discover the glaring differences between North American culture and Britain in regards to social circus. I say North America because I grew up in Canada, went to school in the US and worked for a social circus project based in Chicago, CircEsteem for two years. North America is inherently multi-cultural. Immigrants founded the continent and American and Canadian culture has been bred from a hodge-podge of all different nationalities. Though the U.S. has many racism issues, there still remains the acceptance that different nationalities have and always will live in the same space. Canadians in general have fewer issues surrounding racism, we are polite and since we are a much younger country and have a smaller population, immigration has always been a fact of life. However, it is common for immigrant families to be among the poorest in North America and have fewer opportunities whilst remaining in their isolated neighbourhood.

Social circus is the use of circus arts within under-privileged communities as a means towards social justice and social good. As a social circus practitioner, I regularly visited these neighbourhoods to teach circus to youth who have next to nothing and see circus as a welcomed distraction as well as something they can excel at. Often, depraved youth are incredibly tactile and pick up circus skills quite quickly. Circus is a metaphor for the rest of their lives, believing they can’t do something and then they realize that they can achieve anything if they put their mind and body to it.

There is a large divide between social classes in North America but, in my experience, the upper class didn’t have a large problem with subsidizing the lower class in the circus communities. Rather, they understood the power and potential of circus and it’s investment into the future. The more you invest in projects that help the poor, the less violence and crime will inevitably occur.

In the UK the general attitude towards social circus is different. There is less outright racism but British people tend to be less ‘outright’ in every respect. This doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. Rather, it is bottled up and stewing in the pit of society’s bowels. The UK is technically a part of Europe but only since living here do I see that they don’t actually consider themselves a part of Europe. For many, there is resentment towards Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans that have moved to the UK. They often live in segregated communities where they speak their own language and find it difficult to get jobs. They are ostracized from society, punished for seeking a better life for their families.

At the moment I feel circus is a rich kid’s game. It is fashionable to go to a fancy circus school, graduate with a poncy act and then see how much you can charge. Gigging and teaching are really well paid compared to North America. So why would they go into communities and work for free? The incentive isn’t there. Furthermore, the middle to upper class parents who pay for these fancy circus workshops would cower at the prospect that any money be used to work with “gypsy kids”. British people won’t accept all facts of globalization; it doesn’t just mean American MTV shows and Kraft taking over their chocolate. People want a better life, so they seek refuge in wealthier countries and try to make it. Helping them will help everyone and create a happier society. Ignoring these cultures that have moved to the UK and pushing them away will perpetuate crime and violence. I truly believe circus, a non-verbal skill that teaches one personal strength, can save the youth that are failing school and being bullied by their peers.

Britain is behind in the social circus movement. Sure, projects that preach what I am venting about exist, and individuals who I have met who understand where I am coming from. There is just a vast number of circus people I have met who don’t even know what social circus means. Circus artists who are too concerned about obtaining a grant to realize some gratuitous vision that hardly anyone understands. The world does not need more circus masturbation! Or they are interested in the “noble” cause that is travelling to Asia to an exotic climate to do social circus in the winter when they have no work on. They could really make a difference by staying at home and directly help their community in their own backyard! I do not want to undervalue the greatness of helping the disadvanted overseas. It is clear that Western world has a hand in why 3rd world countries are so poor, and there is a responsibility to bring great initiatives to those in need. I just want people to see that there are groups of people left behind and in need in the UK.

As circus practitioners it is our duty to use the power of circus to help people. Trust me, you will feel far better teaching a group of under-served youth to spin plates than you will showing up at a posh house in the countryside to teach a group of drooling four year olds how to juggle for an hour dressed as a clown.

EDIT - January 23rd 2012

Now that this blog has gotten so much attention, I feel it is my responsibility to mention two great organizations that do exceptional social circus that I have come across in the UK.

Albert and Friends, www.albertandfriendsinstantcircus.co.uk, work with urban youth in London and have not only put together an incredibly impressive performance troupe, they travel all over the world. Giving young people opportunities to experience diverse cultures and unique audiences for their entertaining performances.

Let's Circus, www.letscircus.com, work with a diverse group of youth from all over the Newcastle and Tyneside area. Their outreach has 5 locations and they are dedicated to teacher trainings that perpetuate the social circus power and encourage everyone to be a part of their amazing mission.

My intention by writing this blog was to promote discussion and encourage social circus. I have been informed by my observations and I wrote the above passionately.


  1. Tess, you might possibly be moving in the wrong circus circles to have a full overview of the UK's 'social circus' scene. Possibly being Sheffield based might skew things with the amount of practitioners and performers based there on the potentially jaded,(relatively) well paid workshop and performing circuit.

    Britain is far from behind in the social circus scene. If anything it's ahead of the cycle and you've arrived at a point where wide spread circus skills has been tried and put aside by many in the classic rotation in the pantheon of activities available in community arts*
    You might find (especially in South Yorks) that the 'deprived' have 'been there, done that' and a circus types already tried that or they've been exposed to it at school or at some grant assisted project from Swamp (or possibly Greentop?)

    Social/community circus has been established in the UK for years. You can look at the work of people like Jim Riley who has been involved in community circus since 1985 (arguably since 79 building on the work of Australian Reg Bolton). Jim then founded Skylight in Rochdale in 89. Skylight being set up to champion the use of circus skills within education, youth and community work. Provide an environment for performers to develop and also to explore circus skills ability to meld with other art forms. Rochdale was and is still far from a middle England, caucasian bastion of Daily Mail readers.

    Practitioners who came through Skylight such as Bradford's Daryll Hacket have gone on to champion the use of circus skills to great effect around some of the most socially deprived areas of Northern England. Wherever possible he attempts to run sessions that are free to the user at the point of provision.
    Daryll has also mentored jugglers who got their first taste of circus skills through him to the point where they have gone on to either perform or teach with a similar social bend. Daryll also has set up a circus project in Romania, I suppose that comes under your view slipping of to a sunny climate in the off season.

    There are plenty of examples of free or low cost circus provision in the rougher parts of the country if you look hard enough. You might have to dig it out because there not all promoting themselves outside of the local area or on rec.juggling or amongst the UK hobbyist/performer/convention scene. You have long running set ups like the Leeds Children's Circus (Harehills, far from middle-class, £1 session). You have people called in by youth workers on an ad-hoc basis to provide circus skills sessions at various youth centres around thier cities.
    You have jugglers like Millhouse in Manchester who makes his money working for a workshop provider and by doing walkabout but runs his own social sessions independently (with a 15 mile bike ride with circus equipment on his back and bike trailer). Scenes like these are repeated throughout the land. (paid well/discounted and free)

    Yes there are people expecting to be paid for their work on the social side and there is (was) money out there in the form of council funding, arts grants etc. That covered their fees (and the fees of other practitioners/youth workers etc). In a system that is as accepted in the UK in a private/public partnership. We can't all run on the crumbs that fall from Guy Laliberté's table.

    Too finish off since I'm spending far too long on this I think you are way of the mark on the balance of arty pretentious circus to social/community circus. I think your starting to fit in well with the reactionaries with your 'carity begins at home' dig at (I assume) PWB

    I think that as a circus practitioner I'll decide what and where my duty is myself

    Art, poetry, rap, street dance, break dancing, junk band, press clubs, sports, climbing, outwards bound, parkour, skateboarding/BMX, graffiti, DJ'ing, acting, samba drumming, Film, Media & Digital content etc. etc.

  2. I will offer that Reg Bolton ~ Grandfather of Social Circus ~ Hatched it all in the UK http://www.regbolton.org/ as well as (the most impressive group that i have studied anyway ) Belfast Community Circus School is in the UK http://www.belfastcircus.org/. Legend has it that there was a 12 year waiting list and that that was the only place Catholics and Protestants would get-a-long.

    My Grandfather left Lisdoonvarna County Clare as a refugee of sorts. So you might imagine my prejudice towards how I feel about the UK and how that reflects on my personal work serving refugee populations via circus.

    Tess, I will aslo say thank you for experimenting with my creation CircEsteem (Founder & Chief Goof-Officer 2001-08). You certainly lent your fair share of ideas and energy and I could not be happier for you! Out creating work and engaging people.

    Get A Long or Get Along.

    I will also offer an invitation to anyone interested in working with Circus Mojo http://circusmojo.com/" my latest circus project "heavy on the social affairs" to drop me a line. I secured a H1-B Visa to allow Tess to work at CircEsteem.... Come try our brand of circus.... Come visit and if you like it and want to stay I will secure more visas. There is no shortage of people who need this work! I look forward to participating with the UK one day via circus of one sort or another!

  3. one problem is that your employed in a grant funded environment so see that side of circus the majority of the time.
    Those of us that do not use/require/want funding are doing fine, i spend 70 - 90 days a year promoting and performing circus.
    My workplace is as varied as circus itself is. from the country mansion to the street and everything in the midst.
    Tess if you want to discover circus in the UK leave the cosy protection of Greentop and become an independant practitioner. Your oppinions on things could change overnight.


  4. I can't tell if your post was your genuine point of view or just an opinionated pice designed to get debate going. Either way here are my thoughts on your post....

    >At the moment I feel circus is a rich kid’s game.

    It's not. Circus (depending on discipline) is relatively cheap to take part in compared to a lot of other sports/arts/hobbies. It's true that lots of 'middle class kids' stick with circus but that's probably due to lots of other reasons than just economic.

    >It is fashionable to go to a fancy circus school, graduate with a poncy act and then see how much you can charge.

    I think this is massively offensive, ill-informed, ignorant statement, it's not worth responding to.

    > Gigging and teaching are really well paid compared to North America.

    That might be true (again I have no way of knowing apart from word of mouth which is hardly reliable) but it doesn't mean it's a well paid job. Might be nice to see the income stats of a circus performer/teacher compared to the national average income. I'd bet it wouldn't be above it.

    >British people won’t accept all facts of globalization;

    What's your source on this statement? Or are you just throwing random generalisations around?

    >Circus artists are too concerned about obtaining a grant to realize some gratuitous vision that hardly anyone understands.

    So are you criticising circus artists for wanting to create their own art?

    >The world does not need more circus masturbation!

    That's like saying the world does not need more bad shows. That's obviously true but irrelevant, for every great show there has to be 10 that are bad. It's a game of statistics.

    >Or they are interested in the “noble” cause that is travelling to Asia to an exotic climate to do social circus in the winter when they have no work on.

    So it's noble to work with kids in the UK but not with kids who happen to live in a nice place but are far, far poorer?

    >They could really make a difference by staying at home and directly help their community in their own backyard!

    Yes they could but I suspect they would argue that their help is far more needed and deserving in places far worse economically positioned than the UK.

    >I truly believe circus, a non-verbal skill that teaches one personal strength, can save the youth that are failing school and being bullied by their peers.

    Good for you, join and create a movement that implements this vision. If you're already doing this do it better, challenge yourself further. But don't criticise those who don't have the same calling as you and make ill-informed generalisations.

  5. I have to say I think you guys are taking this far more seriously than I think it was intended - I know Tess is aware of a lot of the great circus stuff that goes on both funded and unfunded and is good friends with many people who go off and do Social Circus abroad (myself included).

    I think it has a lot more to do with fostering debate about the fact that we could still be doing more, so it's sad to see it get quite personal.

    Personally as someone who has done lots of poncy acts and loads of social circus I think we're doing ok in our use of circus as a social tool, but could do better.

    Mini, I appreciate your point about funding, but I think it's a little disingenuous - after all, I'd be surprised (but very happy) if you are working in schools for free, and ultimately their funding comes from the same place as those who are supported by ACE: the British public purse.

    I also think that many of the generalisations in Tess' piece are true if a little misunderstood - after all, most circus artists are quite liberal, prone to doing helpful things, and quite generally open and welcoming, whereas 'the British people' as a whole are not - take the daily mail readership as a small example.

    On that grim note i'm going to get back to festival planning :)