Ring Mistress for Circus Oz, Sarah Ward describes herself as ‘loud, big and bold’. She’s also a phenomenal talent, lending her powerful vocals and a load of colour to the already vibrant line-up of performers in the circus. Sarah tells us more about the show, which will be visiting the Glasshouse this month …
Back at the start of your career, you achieved a Diploma in Acting. What made you decide to study acting in the first place?
I was always attracted to entertaining people, right from a very young age. I also like using my imagination and losing myself in a story. From a young age I was putting on pantomimes and little shows inside the house, and from there I went on to perform at the yearly shows at high school. I did some acting lessons outside of school – and singing lessons as well.
Apparently you decided fairly early on in the piece that mainstream just wasn’t for you?
Well, the first thing was I’ve never been a size 6, 8, or 10. Size 10 is very large in television, and I was always a size 12 or bigger. I knew that I’d have to work very, very hard and make a lot of personal sacrifices … So, I decided I didn’t want to subscribe to what the media thinks is a beautiful woman; I wanted to challenge that idea. In order to do that, I had to create something outside of the mainstream and challenge it from the outside.
I also found that the mainstream politics was very conservative – particularly around gender identity. What a woman can do and what a man can do seems to be very set on television, in musicals and even in a lot of theatre. You know … 1: It’s boring! And 2: I wanted to create something exciting and that challenged the status quo.
This is obviously how some of the special cabaret acts, like ‘Sista She’ and ‘Diva Yana Alana’ you’ve received so much renown for came about! But how did you go from touring with these cabaret acts to performing in Circus Oz?
Interestingly, it’s all about who you know sometimes. Anni Davey, who worked with the company [Circus Oz] for many years as an acrobat and MC directed our cabaret show, Yana Alana and The Paranas. Her partner is Mike Finch, the Artistic Director of Circus Oz. He was really excited with the fact that I could sing and do a lot of character work and that my cabaret work challenged the status quo and was political.
Circus Oz’s history is actually quite feminist … they challenge the idea of what a woman and a man can do. A man can put on a dress and skip around the stage, and a woman can have a brick smashed on her belly. It seemed what I was doing matched what Circus Oz was doing.
Eventually, when the position became available, I was auditioned. The ensemble also had a say in whether they thought I’d be good for the group – and I was brought on board last year in March. So, I’ve been doing it for a year and a half now.
You have a lot of strings to your bow … singer, writer, cabaret artist, composer, clown and poet, but what are your roles with Circus Oz?
An MC, Ring Mistress role. I like to call myself ‘Ring Mistress’ – because I’m a woman and I’m making up my own rules around the role. It’s fun! I call myself the ‘boss lady’ in the show. That’s really fun too … subverting those two words, ‘mistress’ and ‘lady’, which have been used in the past to scandalise, oppress, or box in women. I’m not doing any of that when I’m on the stage – I’m loud, I’m big, I’m bold – I take up a lot of space! I walk around and introduce people to the show; I introduce people to the politics; I write my songs and I help put them to the acts with the performers and directors.
So what’s the current show basically about?
Because we’re immersing ourselves in a wonderful sub-culture called ‘steampunk’ with this show, at the very beginning of the show I say: “This show is what the past would look like if the future had happened sooner”.
We’re bringing elements of Victorian England, when steam and industry ruled, and we’re bringing those elements into now and looking at them politcally. What does coal mean now? Wow – women have rights now, what does that mean? There are some really interesting parallels there.
With any show that Circus Oz does, I encourage people to go. You’re going to be challenged; you’re going to be excited; you’re going to have a lot of fun and laugh; your jaw is going to drop. It’s all performed by people who are very multi-skilled. You won’t see one animal on stage – and you won’t miss them either!
Interview by Jo Atkins.