One of the first shows to be performing at the newly completed Glasshouse Arts, Conference and Entertainment Centre will be the famed Circus Oz. After 30 years of international touring, the show will WOW local audiences with breathtaking feats and good ol’ fashioned circus humour. Focus chats to Circus Oz Artistic Director Mike Finch and General Manager Linda Mickleborough about the upcoming show.
> What is the history behind Circus Oz?
Linda: Circus Oz was founded in late 1977 as an amalgamation of two already successful Australian groups, Soapbox Circus and the New Circus. The principles that were the heart of the original Circus Oz philosophy are still reflected in their performances today: collective ownership and creation, gender equity, a uniquely Australian signature, and team-work.
The founding members of Circus Oz loved the skills and tricks of traditional circus but wanted to make a new sort of show that a contemporary audience could relate to, adding elements of rock ‘n’ roll, popular theatre, and satire.
They wanted it to be funny, irreverent and spectacular – a celebration of the group as a bunch of multi-skilled individual women and men, rather than a hierarchy of stars. Above all, they didn’t want to take themselves too seriously.
They sewed and welded together their own circus tent, got together a collection of old trucks and caravans and went on the road. Circus Oz was a fresh and original voice in circus, and the company was immediately popular with Australian audiences.
In the mid-1980s new contemporary circus and physical theatre troupes began to appear across the world, in the wake of Circus Oz. It was at this time that Circus Oz itself underwent a major skills development phase through intensive training with acrobats from China’s Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe. Many of the skills learned over the years from the Chinese, such as pole-climbing and hula-hoop, continue to flavour the show, albeit reinterpreted and presented in a distinctly Circus Oz style.
Only one of the founding members still performs with the company, and yet, as new waves of people have joined Circus Oz over the years, they have embraced the company’s co-operative style and philosophy and made it their own.
The overall tenor of the performance has remained consistent over the years. There are usually 11 to 13 performers (normally with at least 2 specialised musicians) who present an intimate spectacle of unrelenting energy, humour, multi-skill playing, surreal imagery, grace and strength, fully integrated with a live and original musical score. Circus Oz continues at the forefront of international contemporary circus.
Its performances today are as distinctive and dynamic as its touring program – the recent critically-acclaimed, sell-out season on Broadway being followed by a successful tour of small Australian regional towns. The Circus Oz show is continuously revitalised with the injection of new ideas, skills and people.
> 31 years of history: what has changed and what is still the same in Circus Oz project?
Linda: in the beginning, back in 1977, the founding members of Circus Oz had a desire to do something different in the world of circus. They created Circus Oz – a unique recipe of hilarity and intelligence, spectacle and irony with a commitment to social justice, gender equity, and a good time for all.
The company was founded as a collective whose members did everything from fixing up the battered old trucks they travelled in, to sewing their first canvas tent on borrowed sewing machines. Now the company tours with massive shipping containers, a highly skilled support crew and a state of the art tent!
But we have never lost our commitment to the original spirit of multi-skilling and anarchic but disciplined creativity, always presented with a good pratfall.
> How extensive is the range of performances? And who are your standout stars that the audience can’t help but to ‘ooohh’ and ‘ahhh’ after?
Mike: there are no stars in a Circus Oz show. The multi-skilled ensemble engages directly with the audience, celebrating a shared experience.
Each member of the ensemble is chosen for their diversity: strong women, graceful men, manic crazies and smooth movers, musicians and tumblers, united by a shared sense of humour and a desire to work in a group. It’s a tricky but joyful challenge: unusual eccentrics who like to collaborate.
We have heaps of diverse acts that include traditional circus apparatus with a difference. There is the swinging trapeze and chair balancing, a wild inline skating act, eccentric ballerinas and tap dancers, an exquisite aerial rope act, hoop diving and a scary bed of nails. Mel Fyfe our Strongwoman also lifts half a tonne of people!
> Circus Oz has a big heart too. You have helped to raise over $250,000 in donations to give to various charities … Why is this an important face of the Circus?
Linda: Circus Oz has for many years engaged in issues associated with social justice and a good time for all. This has taken many forms, including AIDS benefits and ticket give-aways to indigenous Australians, the Starlight Foundation for seriously ill children, refuges for the homeless, shelters for the victims of domestic violence, families living on housing commission estates, the Red Cross, the Royal Children’s Hospital, Anglicare Kids in Crisis program and other similar programs within Australia.
Circus Oz has also had a long-standing connection with refugees and asylum seekers. A large group of Kosovar refugees were invited to the show in Melbourne. Numerous tickets have been given to refugees from East Timor, as well as to other refugees and asylum seekers living under temporary protection orders.
The company has undertaken performances and workshops at Maribyrnong and Villawood Detention Centres. Children from Villawood and Maribyrnong have been invited to Circus Oz performances in Sydney and Melbourne (accompanied by their detention centre guards). Since June 2002, Circus Oz has raised over $225,000 in donations to support refugees and asylum seekers. We believe in tolerance, diversity and human kindness.
> How does one go about finding a circus star?
Mike: Circus Oz celebrates gender equality, therefore the process starts with an equal mix of men and women, all of them highly talented in more than one way, many of them very funny, most of them musical, nearly all of them acrobatic.
Our performers are a diverse mob with different body shapes, backgrounds and skills. We hire performers because of their originality and difference, not because they are a ‘star.’
> Tell us a little about what makes Circus OZ so spectacular and different from the normal circus?
Mike: What is a ‘normal’ circus? I would hate to see one of those.
Circus Oz is a high energy, animal-free performance that showcases outstanding skill, beauty and a heap of irreverent, Australian characters. Our new show, ‘Barely Contained’, is a good time for everyone, as adults and kids get the show on a number of different levels.
The whole show is set to the original live beats of the new Circus Oz band. There really is something for everyone; anything could happen, and it probably will!
> Thank you Mike and Linda.
Circus Oz will be performing Barely Contained at the Glasshouse Theatre on Thurs 13, Fri 14 & Sat 15 Aug at 1.30pm & 7.30pm.
Tickets $20 – $59. Tickets can be purchased from the Glasshouse Box Office at the corner of Clarence and Hay Streets, Port Macquarie, on (02) 6581 8888 or www.glasshouse.org.au
Photos thanks to Jim McFarlane.