Circus student reading list

12 years ago when I went to study circus at university there was a reading week but no reading list, either required or recommended. I don’t know if there’s one now but I thought it would be an interesting challenge to come up with my own list.

TheCircusBook

The following consist of things I wish I’d been more aware of before taking my degree. My list would have given me things I lacked in 2005 (and perhaps still do).

Some entries provide a wider understanding of circus and related activities such as side-show and magic. I have not included books on the history of theatre or dance as they were included in the course syllabus. For some inextricable reason, the history of circus was not covered on the course. Others entries on the list are featured as an attempt to deepen the students’ knowledge of the creative process and the real world application of such a process.

The UK circus student reading list

If I’d consumed all this stuff I would be in a better position to take a degree in circus.


After sharing this article a couple of people suggested some additions…

Harm van der Laan recommended “The ordinary acrobat”

Charlie Holland, author of one of the books on my list suggested the following…
“I normally did a couple of film lectures (at The Circus Space) and recommended ‘The Golden Age of the Circus‘ by Howard Loxton, as an accessible introduction, and ‘The New American Circus’, by Ernest Albrecht.
The UK circus timeline you link to was iirc derived in part and with my permission from my fuller version (with a couple of small errors I’ve never quite been arsed to correct!) at http://palaceofvariety.co.uk/page24.htm

For those interested in the development of circus acrobatics, I cannot over-recommend Strehly’s ‘L’Acrobatie et les Acrobates’ http://gallica.bnf.fr/m/ark:/12148/bpt6k882577q/f17.image – a book that really should be translated into English by someone, one day.”

 

Blog post about pants.

It is clear there are circus memes which travel around from company to company, show to show, artist to artist. This is of course expected and unavoidable – and in some cases, a positive trait.

Acrobats performing in underwear is a good exapmle. It may be beautiful, funny or shocking to some. But I have seen it so many times in the last few years that I don’t even notice it as an artistic choice. It’s become the default.

Perhaps this is the point? Perhap the idea is to show off the human body, for the costume to get out of the way and simplicity to come through? The choice and awarness of choice probably vary from company to company but on some level the circus underwear meme is playing its part.

I am surley slave to circus memes as anyone is, justifying decisions after the choice is already made. I’m striving to be aware of such memes and choices in my work but we are all susceptible to culture and trends. It’s where ideas are grown from.

The key then must be to seek influences from a wider pool of knowledge than just circus. While at the same time being aware of developments in our art form. Taking advantage these developments and being aware and clear in our intention and choices.

Clickbait Circus

An article by Douglas McPherson has recently stirred up the funding debate in the circus and wider arts community.

Total Theatre and Exeunt Magazine dismiss the article as mere clickbait. It was my first thought; the quality of argument and logic in the article certainly could be interpreted as such but I’d like to give McPherson the benefit of the doubt. Why should the response be cynical? Perhaps it is the authors attempt to add to the marketplace of ideas. If so, I think it’s fair to respond to such an attempt as brave and positive. It is also our collective duty to counter the position and move forward. If one is so sure of the truth, it will be quick and easy to reply with thoughtful, reasoned argument.

The following quotation sums up McPherson’s position concicley: “Stop all public funding of the arts, now!”.

This is a statment worth considering- radical and challenging. Not original but relevant. As long as taxpayer funding exsists, it is a political issue and fair game for criticism, transparancy and questioning.

The other issue McPherson raises is the traditional vs contemporary circus debate that probably stoped being revelant or interesting 15 years ago. Not to say audiences are informed about the differences- there is still much to be done on that front. Rather that within the industry, things have moved on. It’s not an issue. Both exsist and will continue to do so. Hopefully.

Artists move between the two camps, and so do audiences. Funding doesn’t. Why is this? That is a question I think worth exploring. A question for the funders and the circus traditionalists.

Yet I feel no one should care about traditional or contemporary label. They may be useful marketing tools but using them as a guide to judge the quality of work is just plain silly.

Good ideas are good ideas. I don’t care about the label- it’s the work that matters. I love great circus. I don’t care if it identifies as traditional or contemporary.

Clearly in the past McPherson’s opinion differs from mine on the subject. “Much ‘narrative’ and ‘theatrical’ contemporary circus has left me yawning,” says McPherson.

If one was to properly engage in political debate about art, funding etc, I would enjoy watching and reading it. I would look to others who are far more clued up from both sides of the discussion to put their arguments forward.

On reflection I don’t think Douglas McPherson’s recent Telegraph article is a very good starting point for such a debate. His lack of research with contradicting statments and incorrect facts make it too easy to dismiss the general principal he believes in. This does not mean the principal is wrong, just that McPherson is not expressing it effectively.

I suspect people whose opinions are already formed on the matter are looking at the facts or theoritical arguments. They are reflecting on their immediate situation and at their subjectived experience. They know they are right because they know their reality. Anecdotal evidence is most compelling first hand.

Luke Wilson – Moisture Festival – April 2011

I’m currently sat in a hotel lobby in a foreign country typing on a MacbookPro Retina, which Luke would have particularly have approved of. Not only for my superior choice of technology, but also the pretend rock star status of living on the road.

I went through periods of seeing Luke every day, almost every waking hour for a few months, to seeing him randomly once every few months. So it’s only recently that I’ve really come to appreciate that I’m never going to see the particularly skinny Englishman again. Until now it was possible that not running into Luke was an unfortunate side effect of busy calendars. But now, 2 years since his death, I think my brain has fully accepted that meeting Luke is not going to happen again.

Sadness asides, I thought it would be interesting to those who never knew Mr Wilson or his work to use this anniversary as an opportunity to analyse a little of his work and try and understand some of the detail and reasoning in his compositions.

I’ve been watching a version of Luke’s club routine (which he mentions in Repetition, posted on Circus Geeks), filmed by Alan Plotkin. In Alan’s words, “This was the last time I filmed Luke Wilson. It was at Moisture Festival 2011 at the Vashon Island venue. I challenged him before the performance to go drop free and he nailed it.”

Unfortunately I never got to see this version live so I am almost certainly missing detail which video cannot convey. I did however see two versions of Luke’s older club routines live and Luke shared a couple of different older versions on video with me.

You can watch Luke talk briefly about his Moisture festival here:

The Moisture Festival version is my favourite of his club routines and in my opinion the most interesting and developed. It gives a clear definition of Luke’s artistic choices and yet leaves a couple of unanswered questions.

Act breakdown

Luke stood sideways on stage looking across stage- not at the audience. He is holding 5 clubs- two clubs in his left hand, visible to the audience.
0:28 Routine starts
Places 5 clubs one at a time precisely on stage in a line, using his hands and feet. Reminiscent on Sergei Ignatov. http://juggling.tv/160
0:41 Hands in pocket, takes a moment to collect the image.
0:44 Foot lingers, almost flirtatiously around the first club
0:49 Hands out of pockets in stylised way.
1st Club kicked up. Manipulation thumb roll sequence
0:53 2nd club kicked up
0:57 3rd club kicked up – juggle walks forward and turning
1:00 Stand still – leaning into juggle run
1:04 4th club kicked up – 4 in doubles, classic fountain. Walks forward – odd feet – reaching for the remaining club
1:15 5th club kicked up
1:21 Triple into scissor catch in squat. Looks at audience.
1:26 Club down – fake drop – foot catch into 4 club routine: multiplex
4 club fast triples
4 club singles
53 iIn triple singles – turing backwards in a circle
Switch to synchronous – splits
1:59 High throw into multiplex bend back
2:02 Freeze with odd catch. Look at audience. Manipulation turn
2:10 Careful placement of balance – finger – cross armed set 3
2:14 Clubs with a balance – left-handed start – 3 chin rolls – drop into 4 – 53 chin roll turing
2:26 collect
2:27 Pass club around body getting lower until on the foot.
2:31 Kick club causing it to roll on floor
2:34 Odd jump – pick up other club
2:35 Slow hand – look at remaining club – turn walk to it with purpose
2:43 5th club in kick up position – look at it
2:44 Kick up into multiplex pattern
2:57 Scissor catch look at audience – club still rocking gently
3:01 Stand up
3:05 Turn and throw 2 clubs away*
3:09 Almost a new person – new routine
3:13 Odd feet and club movements – puppet like – repeating patterns
Odd patterns, placements and wrist traps – odd starts and stops
linking moves, half turns
3:52 Chin roll combinations
3:57 Chin roll reverse cascade
4:01 Balance
4:06 Multi placements
4:09 Helicopter kick up – backcross combination – flat front 44strange1
4:15 Stylish 2 on a 342
4:20 Wilson 52242 wrong-end
4:22 Squat again – fast juggle – doubles with music
4:25 Fast doubles
4:27 Flats turning
4:33 High throw – Ignatov – slapbacks – half turns
4:45 Catch all 3 in right – squat – look at audience
4:52 Fake hard throw of one club
4:54 Slow 1 club slide – lego – puppetry movement style
5:05 Point
5:09 Helicopter wrist trap kick up – Luke signature
5:44 Ends kick up sequence
5:47 Contortion cascade
5:50 Under arm trap – problem and solution
5:57 Leg catch freeze – build up tension
6:04 Triplex kick up
6:07 1 up Pirouette
6:09 Throw clubs behind him
6:14 Bow
6:24 Exit stage

Luke starts the routine standing still on stage, not looking at the audience – an interesting choice. It isn’t till a few seconds in that he looks at the audience, allowing them to take in his appearance and identity. Before that first look Luke is almost secondary to the props, the oddity in his moment and choices are clear but we don’t know how he feels about it.

The juggling begins with Luke kicking up into a 3 club cascade, he turns in a circle allowing the audience to take in this first and most classic pattern. From then on there are only a few classic juggling patterns which have been chosen for specific reasons. Most of the act consists of juggling created by the performer, something which used to be a rarity in juggling.

The first compliment (freeze) allows the audience in, before we have seen a window into his world, a taste of skill and things to come but that eye contact allows us to catch up and take Luke in. The freeze itself is an interesting position, in a sitting squat, far from a unusual ballet-influenced circus poses.

The section where Luke is continually moving and adjusting his legs, arms and clubs are a slight (but only slight) exaggeration of his OCD tendencies. Going for a coffee with Luke could be fun; moving the cutlery or various napkins off-centre would result in him subtly readjusting till everything was back to being in its rightful place, square and proper.

Watching Luke warm up every night for several months was also a chance to see how much he enjoyed systems which would be carried out pace for pace, throw for throw every night. Luke enjoyed his discipline. These puppet-esque movements sit very well with his energy on stage and yet are surprising and unusual, far from the normal movement qualities jugglers traditionally use.

The precision of placing the club into a balance on Luke’s head, is something that is common in many of his routines. Moments of careful precision that Luke was so excellent at, the weight and gravitas he gives the prop and the detail of the pinky finger out – reminiscent of a delicate tea cup which Luke was so fond of and makes for an important moment, heavily contrasting with some of the fast and complex juggling that has preceded it.

Luke runs his own version of a classic 423 kick-up using wrist traps to catch the kicked-up club (Luke help popularise wrist traps in club juggling, taken from another juggling prop – the devil stick. Luke invented many variations with wrist traps, now commonplace in contemporary juggling). This pattern is run for 33 rounds and lasts over half a minute. It’s an unusual choice of trick to run for so long.
Luke has chosen a unique trick to him, subtle in detail. It would be easy to miss the wrist trap if it were ran for only one or two rounds and it’s not a particularly difficult trick in a single repetition. As the pattern plays out the tension builds, we see Luke begin to struggle from the shear repetition and final relief when he breaks out of the loop. Repeating the pattern for so long allows the audience to take in and possibly understand the juggling and gives effective dramatic build in the act.

Luke also particularly enjoyed kick-up tricks which may also explain why he chose to repeat his 423 variation. He finishes the routine with a triplex kick-up, a trick Luke loved and is covered extensively in this video tutorial we made together in 2009.

The pirouette is the final full stop for the juggling, enforced by the dropping of the clubs**. The holding of breath as the audience begins to show it’s appreciation and the exhale of relief helps underscore how much concentration has gone into performing such a complex and well thought-out performance.

Luke was a talented magician and I can see it’s influence in the whole routine, particularly in his bow which was obviously thought out and practiced. The unbuttoning of his jacket and classic open hand position reminiscent to me of dove magician, Lance Burton as was Luke’s immaculately folded sleeves.

Luke left nothing to chance and thought out every detail of his work. Everything had been gone over with a fine comb, from the choice and variation of prop (Luke could probably have written a book on this subject) to his method of rolling up his selves.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for me to take from Luke’s work is to question every choice, be aware of every decision.  Do what you believe in.

I miss Luke.

**The dropping of the clubs really confused me. When studying on my degree Luke taught lessons examining at the nature of status and how we treating our props on stage adds to the communication of how much an audience should care about what we are doing (trying not to drop in the most part). 
Theories for Luke’s end throw include, it was as simple as a stylistic choice or that he got carried away after performing such a perfect routine. However both these reasons don’t fit well with me, they don’t take into account Lukes meticulous nature or his lessons on giving the props value.
For my money, the best guess comes from Jay Gilligan, he said that in one of the MRL laboratories Luke was exploring the idea of finding an ending that could not go on. Jay went onto say, “in one case his [Lukes] solution was to make an ending that was not only conceptual but also literal in the sense that he threw the clubs away from him, preventing any further contact and therefore erasing any doubt at all that he would continue.”
* At 3:05 into the act Luke turns and throws 2 clubs away. It looks slightly award and messy, if we understand the end drop then I cannot fathom this prop dump. My only attempt to grasp Luke’s choice here is that it’s a stylistic choice (or someone was supposed to take them from him?). I wish Luke was around now so I could quiz him about it.
Many thanks to Lauren Hendry,  Sean Gandini, Jon Udry and Jay Gilligan for their thoughts and feedback.

The Making of Beta Testing

Beta_Testing_logo

Why make a show?

Luke Wilson was a teacher, colleague, mentor and friend. He inspired me to set up Circus Geeks in March of 2011. Circus Geeks started out as a blog set up after a particularly late night conversation between myself and Luke. Although memories are fuzzy from the night’s events, the definition of juggling, art and how to make the perfect pizza were all discussed. As well as this, a mutual agreement was reached on the lack of information, ideas and connection circus artists manage to share with each other and the wider world. So I set up a WordPress blog, bought the URL and Circus Geeks was born.

At the time, I was performing my solo act in various venues around Europe and was getting a bit down about the idea of working in venues for long stretches away from home or venues in London which offered audiences that were more up for a night on the town rather than seeing a piece of circus.

I graduated with the act in 2008, so by 2012 I was no longer getting the same excitement I got when I first performed it. The solo with the silver cups and balls in Beta Testing was based on the feelings I had doing my graduation piece over and over again.
To be good at juggling (or anything) requires a massive amount of repetition. Typically this attitude of repetition has been continued into the artistic practices of some of the best jugglers of all time. Many have performed 7-10 minute numbers in cabarets, music halls, variete and circus. Their acts didn’t vary too much, perhaps a change of trick once in a while or a new costume but pretty much set pieces to be performed 100s of times, finding different audiences for each performance. Luke wrote an interesting essay on the subject of repetition which you can find on the Circus Geeks blog here: https://circusgeeks.co.uk/2011/09/04/repetition/

After reading Seth Godin I realised that I needed to make an active choice to constantly create new work, find people who were interested in my work and share it with them. Upon reflection I realise it’s what Gandini Juggling do so well (a company I have worked with intermittently since 2008 and has had massive influence on my juggling and views on art).

I knew that performing interesting, new circus work in the UK can be hard as audiences are not aware of what circus (perhaps ‘alternative circus’) can be. I’d always been obsessed by TED (in 2009 I had watched every TED talk there was) and wanted to give my own. I thought that making a show somewhere between a TED talk and a circus performance would be something I’d love to see and making it about juggling would help audiences in to a world very alien to them. It would be an interesting challenge.

I also knew I didn’t want to make a solo.

I met Matt and Jon in the early to mid 2000s at juggling conventions. We became friends and saw each other at juggling conventions. Matt graduated from at Circomedia and Jon studied as an electrician’s apprentice (we still get the occasional story from Jon about how he was electrocuted or how he ruined some poor clients kitchen by drilling holes in their ceiling by accident) but he dropped out, moved to London and made the shift to professional juggler. Matt went onto found his own circus company, PanGottic.

In October of 2012 I asked Matt and Jon if they were interested in Beta Testing, they were both up for it. Each has their own solo shows, so for the first version on Beta Testing we supplemented a small amount of new material by borrowing from their existing work.

We went on to be awarded the Propellor Prize in March 2013, which enabled us to make more material and a more cohesive show, which was premiered at the Roundhouse CircusFest in April 2014.

Beta Testing Inspiration

I like recommendations from sources I trust – almost everyone does.
Here is a list of stuff that have influenced the show and stuff we love:

TED talks
– All of Seth Godin’s TED talks – Arron quotes him in the solo scene where Arron is juggling and talking at the same time. – https://www.ted.com/speakers/seth_godin
– Jay Gilligan – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB_sfnwbgvk
– James Randi – http://www.ted.com/talks/james_randi
– Rodney Mullen – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEm-wjPkegE
– Richard Dawkins – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxGMqKCcN6A

Juggling
– DROP – Luke Wilson
– Red/Blue – Luke Wilson -http://www.renegadesignlab.com/diversions/redblue.html
– Smashed – Gandini Juggling – http://smashedjuggling.com
– Water on Mars – Tony Pezzo X Patrik Elmnert X Wes Peden – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ppgy_9yx5-w
– Flowerpot – Clockwork – http://juggling.tv/171
– Anatoli and Viktor – http://juggling.tv/121
– Anthony Gatto – http://anthonygatto.com
– Dieto – http://juggling.tv/633
– PeaPot – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wO3Ua1lmrU
– The Qian Brothers – http://juggling.tv/1541
– Sean McKinney – http://www.seanmckinney.com
– Robin Gunney – http://juggling.tv/5023
– Kris Kremo – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzkoZH1JKmo
– Ball Sticks – Guy Heathcote – http://juggling.tv/2042
– Pomp, Duck & Circumstance – Donald Grant – http://juggling.tv/1798
– Alexander Kiss – http://juggling.tv/343
– Bobby May – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6ZUoqxWwMo
– Sam Veale – http://juggling.tv/906
– Steve Rawlings – http://juggling.tv/2504
– The Two Marks – http://juggling.tv/257
– Ty Tojo – http://www.tytojo.com
– Bob Bramson – http://juggling.tv/364
– Jay Gilligan – http://www.fourthshape.com
– Erik Aberg – http://erikaberg.com

Books
– The Lynchpin by Seth Godin
– The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
– 4000 Years of Juggling – Volume I & II- Karl Heinz-Ziethen
– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (Radio plays over books every time)
-Steal Like An Artist- Austin Kleon

Random
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/01/two-truths-about-juggling.html
– Stewart Lee – http://www.stewartlee.co.uk
– Robin Ince – http://robinince.com
– Penn & Teller – https://circusgeeks.co.uk/2013/03/19/public-fan-letters-penn-teller/
– Steve Jobs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA

Week by week break down: https://circusgeeks.co.uk/?s=beta+testing+-+creation+week

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The show

Scene break down

Endurance
The idea of Jon juggling as the audience arrived came from watching the DVD of Anthongy Gatto setting the world record for 7 ring juggling as an audience around him ate their dinner. Anthony juggled 7 rings for 15 minutes and 6 seconds finishing with a 5 ring pirouette.
In Beta Testing(BT) Jon juggled 5 balls for 5mins, which is hard to do under pressure. We did some training for it 6 months before the show and Jon was managing close to 20 minutes. It’s interesting to see how showmanship can be used or ignored to manipulate how an audience will react to a trick.

Keynote
The opening idea for the show comes from a piece I made about learning 5 ball back crosses. The piece grew from a performance I did at Jacksons Lane as part of a Lab:Time showcase in June 2012. Since then I’ve tweaked the slides and script but ultimately the key themes of the piece have remained the same, showing an audience the process a juggler goes through to learn a trick.

Jon’s Ring routine
Originally set out to remix and reference jugglers of the past with accompanied projected visuals but after initial testing we decided to scrap that aspect. Instead we have a really nice routine that helps lift the show after its initial text-heavy piece.

The Dreaded Question
This monologue comes directly from an early and popular post on the Circus Geeks blog. Steve Ralwlings helped us connect the scene with the lead in of the heckles, helping set up the tone for the piece.

The Lexicon
Again this scene started from a popular post on the blog, written by Erik Aberg. When we first showed it to an invited audience we received mixed reactions. But after scrapping some material, reworking and clarifying intentions with Steve we arrived at a scene which is very fun to perform and normally well received.  Our review from the Evening Standard says this scene alone is almost worth the ticket price.

Red/Blue
The idea of the colour change and playing on my colour blindness came after I was looking into colour theory and ways it could be used in juggling. I wish Luke could have seen me perform it.

Gentlemen
Matt and Jon both had sequences and tricks with everyday objects so it was logical to tie them together. Chair juggling was something I’d wanted to try for a long time, so we spent a few interesting (and scary) days throwing furniture at each other.

Act Art
This scene changed little as I went through the creation of BT, so there’s not much to be said. The original act can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMTvvphbdVU

Ring Passing
Originally the idea was to explore drops, setting up the idea of apologising for each drop, as the drops went on the apologies would get grander and increasingly ridiculous.
But after various experiments we came to the version in BT, it’s more a window into a world that only jugglers normal see. The truth is myself and Jon can easily perform the trick, at first we didn’t have any script or set material but the more times we performed it the more things we found to improvise around. Setting a structure allows us to guarantee (some degree) the piece isn’t too flat but isn’t too strict so we can be sure the piece stays fresh for us and in turn the audience.

Chop Suey
Chop Suey came very late on in the creation period, only 10 days before we premiered. Steve Rawlings pushed us to create a scene that was a bit lighter than some of the other scenes and fill it with juggling. It was refreshing to be a bit silly on stage.

Fish
The original concept was looking at risk and consequence. If a high-wire artist falls off they die; if a juggler drops, it’s a bit akward. Even when juggling seemingly dangerous items like fire torches the consequence of something going wrong is usually a lot less than the perceived risk. We thought it would be interesting to make a real understandable consequence.
Throughout various showing we experienced with the amount of attempts, juggling balls, music and even size of fish. The optimum is the version on the video. On the last night of our premier run at the Roundhouse we had the salmon and rainbow trout cooked up for a celebratory feast!

Big Balls
We spent 2 weeks in La Breche in France working with Howie Bailey to develop the ‘big ball’ scene. It comes from various Lab:Time work I’ve done with Howie before, working with 3D mapping and projection. The juggling in the scene is not the most technical but the prop, lights and pressure of hitting cues make it a very hard scene to get right.

 

What next?
Circus Geeks are currently applying for funding from Arts Council England to support a tour of the show in small-scale and rural venues across the UK. Fingers crossed!

Supported by:

lottery_png_black1Jerwood Charitable Foundation Logo

101 Lessons

101_film_school

101 Things I Learned in Film School ®‘ by Neil Landau & Matthew Frederick is a beautifully concise book which caught my eye when browsing the Tate Modern gift shop. I thought it would be nice exercise to go through the book and apply some of the lessons to circus. I’ve picked and adapted 39 lessons which I think could easily be applied to circus performance.

1) Start strong

Prompt intrigue

Suggest the central theme

Revel back story

2) Start late

Cut the first 30 seconds of a piece.

3) Show, don’t tell

4) Three stages of show making

Pre-production – meetings, fundraising, planning etc

Production – rehearsing

Post-production – selling the show etc

5) Audiences want to be as close to the action as possible.

6) Conceal the action.

Creates curiosity and intrigue

7) Story telling -> Beginning – Middle – End

  • Act 1 – Establish the problem
  • Act 2 – Complicate the problem
  • Act 3 – Solve the problem

Establish • Complicate • Solve

8) Practice the perfect pitch.

High concepts can be explained in one sentence.

9) A good title says what the show is.

10) Create memorable entrances.

11) Create a show on different scales.

12) Every scene must revel something new.

13) What can the human eye process?

14) Set rules early, clearly and simply.

15) If it can be acted why do it with circus?

16) Make the setting a character.

17) Define the relationship to the 4th wall.

18) Beware working with children & animals.

19) Have a plan but enjoy the detours.

20) Signs of novice circus.

It’s a dream, all black costumes, sequins, bare feet, m

Amely sound track,

21) Leave breathing room.

Both theatrically and practically.

22) Place figures in uncomfortable proximity.

23) Ensure everyone is making the same show.

24) Have some show stoppers.

Big tricks, tear jerkers, hilarious jokes etc.

25) Every show is drama, conflict and suspense.

26) Dig deeper.

Do fewer things better.

27) Good writing is good rewriting.

Write->leave->revisit->rewrite->repeate

28) When you receive a no write back thanks.

29) Different spaces, venues, audiences might be better for a different kind of show.

30) Rhythm / Tempo

Larger pace created by the show / pace of scene or act

31) Don’t cast by looks.

32) Actions speak louder than words.

33) If you want to make circus, see circus.

34) Work in the trenches.

Take less than ideal gigs, learn around your subject / ultimate goal.

35) Let it go already.

Make->assess->move on->repeat

36) Play well with others.

37) Make it shorter.

38) Don’t over use cliches or coincidences.

39) “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Circus Hackathon

NOLA Hackathon 2011
NOLA Hackathon 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading a bit about new ways technology is allowing people to collaborate, things like Google Drive, GitHub etc. It seems as usual circus has a bit of catching up to do!

In Wired a while ago I read an article about Hackathons and thought it would be great to see/take part/organise a circus equivalent. Hackathons are a chance for coders to meet up, work like crazy in small teams and produce a sketch version for a new service or product.

Earlier this year when I was in Montreal I spotted Impro Cirque, something quite close to my idea. Unfortunately I left before it took place but from video it looks pretty fun…

I’d love to see a more informal version done in the UK, perhaps no ‘public’ audience. No one gets paid- All it would need is some interested circus artists and some space (perhaps some pizza and beers at the end of it). Perhaps two days manic work and a fun showing at the end of it? Best team performance judged by a panel wins a years supply of Apple products (or not)?!

Just a thought….

Public Fan Letters | Penn & Teller

I’m currently reading ‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon which ties in to my interest in what seems to be a changing consensus on the origin and process of creativity, art and copyright law. One chapter mentions writing a public fan letter. Here’s one of mine…

I love Penn & Teller, they are not only my favourite magicians but also my favourite artists. I love their open and honest opinions on life and their approach to work. I love their backstory, how they went from street performing carnies to Las Vegas headliners. I enjoy their outspoken (well Penn’s out spoken) views on religion, politics and rational thinking. I try and watch as much of their work as I can, I’ve managed to see them perform live a few times and each time they have something new to offer.

A couple of years ago I performed at a magic convention in Vegas and was lucky enough to see and hear Teller deliver a presentation on Penn & Teller‘s artistic and technical approach to creating a new piece. It was one of the most interesting and inspiring things I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s a nice segment from Teller from a different piece he sometimes gives…

Each week I listen to Penns podcast and when the chance arises I read his books which bring me to tears of laughter. I love listening to Penn argue his point of view which is always phrased in such an informally precise way that it takes you by surprise.

Their careers have decades of success to them, with such a wide variety of material and outlets, from an appearance on the West Wing arguing the right of flag burning to creating a TV series about (and entitled) Bullshit. From directing Shakespeare plays to producing their own films. They seem to have a talent of producing well thought out opinion and conveying it in an original and thought provoking manner.

They are a massive inspiration to me and I can’t wait to see what’s next from them, you know it will be ace.

One of my favourite Penn & Teller pieces…

A note to myself.

Making stuff is scary. Shipping stuff is scary. Performing new stuff is terrifying.

It’s easy to forget that the first time you stepped out on stage you didn’t know what was going to happen or what it was going to feel like.

Artists in other industries can at least hide behind their creation, the film they produced, the sculpture they created, the music score they wrote or even the tangible product they designed. It still takes balls to deliver but it’s not quite as personal and raw. In a live performance medium you are the product, the end result and your actions are the art. You can’t hind behind the art, you are the art.

In circus it’s common that the performer is also the director/choreographer/administrator/publicist so the pressure on getting everything right is huge and very personal. You have to trust to your vision and actions before you have any idea if it’s going to work or if it’s any good. Self belief is the most important attribute to any artist and yet too much misspent ego can be a curse.

Every artist at some point feels the guilt of relying on tested ideas, not pushing oneself to deliver new work that has been dreamt up, written down and developed behind closed doors. Don’t feel the guilt, act upon it.

There’s a comfort in thinking, “I could have done that better than them”. There’s no comfort in stepping out and doing it, just reward.

Get on with making and sharing.

5 things that suck about Circus Artist’s websites

Here are 5 (of many) things that suck about the average circus artist website…

  • Flash. It’s amazing that in 2012 there are still people posting links to new websites that have Flash embedded. Flash doesn’t work on any iOS devices (iPhone, iPad), is buggy and is unnecessary. If you really want spinning animations or even some tasteful crossfading photos then HTML-5 is where you need to head. Leave the Flash in the 90s!
  • Splash pages. No one wants to land on a page that is just a photo of you with ‘click here to enter’ (BOOM,BOOM!) written underneath. It’s pointless and ups the chances of someone giving up on you before they get to see what you’re really about.
  • Homepages. Circus is a visual, live medium. Obvious I know but clearly some of you need reminding of this because you don’t have a video on your homepage. Why not?! Having great images on your site is important but not as important as showing what you actually do! Embeding a YouTube or Vimeo video is super simple, if you don’t want their logos involved they pay for a Vimeo Pro or VideoPress account (personally I think it’s fine, people trust YouTube and therefore more likely to click play). Don’t make a potential booker have to search for your video, it should be one of the first things they come across.
  • Use of lingo. Your site is probably not aimed at people who understand circus lingo so avoid specialised words and phrases.
  • Ego (I’m learning this one the hard way). You don’t want ego on a site that is about you. Sounds odd but it’s true. Your design, layout, copy, video, blog and social media should be aimed at a particular type of customer. You need to address their worries and wants rather than use your site as a chance to show just how really great you are. That’s not to say you won’t show your strengths, it’s just you want to do it in a manner that connects and engages rather than shows off. It’s possibly the most important thing to learn in marketing and particularly important for artists who have to promote themselves. If your sites going to be effective at driving you business then you need to study this stuff and more!

Changing Direction

A common question in the contemporary circus world right now seems to be “where are all the circus directors?”

People are researching and writing, looking within and without for an answer. But the answer is actually pretty simple if you think about it. They are all in Russia, telling people what to do.

Valentin Gneushev
Valentin Gneushev, Russian artistic director, choreographer. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev.

That seems to be the major issue at the heart of the “modern” circus director. If circus now is all about the individual, their personal desires and motivations, then what role is the “director” meant to fulfil? Heaven forbid that the director should tell the artist what they should actually be doing!

I do describe one part of my work as “director”: but it very rarely takes the form of the kind of work that we expect from a film or theatre director. And indeed, strange new job descriptions have emerged as the circus community tries to define the role of circus director. “Outside eye” being one of my personal favourites… Or we try to avoid the issue altogether by bringing in dramaturgists or choreographers rather than directors.

The most successful contemporary circus directors seem to be those who create shows that they claim to be based around honesty and realism and individuality: made with and for the specific artists involved. Yet strangely, most of those shows also seem to carry on working well with replacement casts and new disciplines. Is it possible that these contemporary circus directors are more about spin than content?

Some of the most successful modern circus shows in our brief history have been the product of the French school system. Shows where a theatre director or dance choreographer were brought in to create a show with the students. Here perhaps the director’s role is more real than in many productions, but even here the artists were already “booked”, the skills already fixed. So even in these cases, the director’s role was to mould the material given to him, rather than to start with his own pure artistic desires.

This is not to say that the power of the artists personal values should be entirely discounted. Looking to the East, Moscow’s Valentin Gneushev [1] was incredibly successful in the late-80s to mid-90s with his modern circus act productions. He started with a concept, often inspired by paintings or other artworks, and then sought out the artist that he wanted to make the act with. Having worked in Variety shows with many of “his” acts, I feel strongly that the most convincing of these acts are those where the artistic concept meets the personality of the performer. In other words, those cases where Gneushev found exactly the right artist to personify his concept. Obvious of course, just as a film director also looks for the right leading man for his movie: but in both cases, the original concept comes from the director, NOT from the performer.

So where does that leave us today? We do need circus directors who can listen to the sensibilities of the circus artist: directors who can find the core within the individual and help to bring it out. But at the same time, we need directors who can take responsibility for the content: to make artistic decisions, and to use the artists themselves to communicate the directors intentions.

We need circus directors who, when neccesary, aren’t afraid to tell circus artists what to do.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentin_Gneushev

Practice Systems for Juggling: Completing Halves

Practice System 3: Completing Halves

Explanation

Completing Halves is a system that, like Five Lives, is also set as a game. Similar to Five Lives, it is designed to work on solidifying one pattern. The advantage to this system is that it can last as long as you want it to last. If you only have 5 minutes, it can last five minutes. Likewise, if you want to train your one trick for an hour, then this could also work for you. This system is rough and ready to go: simple and effective.

Example

Below is an example of Completing Halves using 5 ring pancakes:

1. Make and attempt at your longest run with 5 ring pancakes. Let’s say you get 25 catches when you drop.
2. Half the amount to get 12.5, which is rounded up to 13.
3. You know have three attempts to get 13 catches clean.
4. If you achieve this within your three attempts, then return to step 1, constantly trying to beat your personal best. If you do not manage to get your 13 catches clean within three attempts, then half it again to get 6.5, rounded up to 7, and repeat the process again.

This is a very simple system, yet I feel it is very effective. I personally enjoy the fact that it is so simple, and isn’t time dependant.

I hope you enjoy it, and I would very much appreciate any thoughts, feedback and questions that you may have on the subject. Have fun!

Practice Systems for Juggling: Five Lives

Practice System 2: Five Lives

Explanation

Five Lives is a system that I came up with which is specifically designed for solidifying patterns. Unlike the pyramid system, the amount of throws and catches can change, depending on your skill level that day. An advantage about this system over the pyramid system, is that you cannot fail. Another advantage about this system is that it is quick to complete. I personally find this very useful as I sometimes have to train in limited space facilities. This means that I could just have 20 or 30 minutes spare before I have to move space. This system is perfect for just that situation.

Example

As this is set as a short game, you start with fives lives. Every time a level is not achieved, you go back to the previous level and loos a life. Below is an example of a standard game of Five Lives with 7 balls.

First you set your levels.

7 throws (a flash) = level 1

10 throws = level 2

20 throws = level 3

30 throws = level 4

40 throws = level 5

50 throws = level 6

Etc etc.

Now, you start on level 1. As it is level 1, you have 1 attempt to get your target. If you fail, you loose a life. If you succeed, move onto level 2. Now you are on level 2, you have 2 attempts to achieve your target. If you fail, go back one level to level 1 and loose a life. If you succeed, move onto level 3. This sequence continues until you eventually run out of lives. Take note of your highest level and see if you can beat it next time.

This system can also work hand in hand with the Pyramid System (for explanation of Pyramid System, please see previous article). Once you have died (in the game), remember your highest achievement of that round. Make this the top of your Pyramid System for that day and create your pyramid from the top working down.

Example

My highest achievement in Five Lives today was 30 catches of 7 balls. My pyramid for today could look like this:

30 catches x 1

20 catches x 2

15 catches x 3

10 catches x 4

7 catches x 5

I hope that you have as much fun with this system as I have. If you have any questions or comments then please do leave them below. Thank-you.

Things Jugglers Say

I have always liked kick-up tricks with clubs, and have over the years somewhat specialised in them to a greater or lesser degree, including teaching workshops at juggling conventions specifically about that particular trick, and releasing a couple of videos onto the internets based around some of the variations possible. This has lead to me being perhaps somewhat known in the juggling community for this particular trick.

Yesterday I performed my club juggling act at an event held at a circus institution: a press conference type show with circus students and teachers, and various city officials in attendance.

It wasn’t my best show, but I did my job reasonably well, and was, as far as I could tell, well received by all. After the show, one of the jugglers (who had mentioned already that he had done one of my above mentioned workshops some years ago, and was also very interested in kick-ups himself) complimented me on my act, and then followed that up with: “but you don’t do many kick-ups in your act.”

I agreed with him, and talked a little about how I have been doing less kick-ups in general in recent years, due to the wear that they put on the knees and ankles, and the worsening injuries that that in turn entails.

Whilst this is true, and there are specific kick-up variations that I no longer practice for that reason, I have now thought a little more about his statement, and what it could mean.

For the fact of the matter is, that in the act I performed, which lead directly to the comment of “you don’t do many kick-ups in your act”, I do 5 different kick-up variations, for a total of 43 individual kick-ups in a 6 minute act.

That actually seems like quite a lot of kick-ups!

Is it me? Do I think I’m doing a lot and I’m not really? Perhaps, but no-one has ever said to me before that “it’s not very many kick-ups.” Quite the opposite, in fact: audience members commenting specifically on the kick-ups (rather than the absence thereof) is a rather common occurrence. But to be clear now, I refer now to non-juggler audience members.

I don’t know how possible it ever is for us to put ourselves truly in the position of the audience, to overcome our preconceptions of technique, to enter into the mindset of the outsider. And as I have surely written before, the responsibility to mould that mindset rests strongly with us as performers. But we have to first be clear ourselves as to what we are communicating.

A lot of modern/contemporary/new-school/creative/manipulation-based juggling is based around non-repeating patterns. About short sequences, single throws and rapid changes. And in some ways, I find that to be a shame. Only variation and repetition can lead to images and recognition, and I consider such things to be important aspects of our juggling reality.

Perhaps my 5 kick-up variations are too few? Or the repeating patterns too many? But too few for who, and too many based on what criteria, exactly?

How many variations on a theme are too much? When does repetition cross the line from boring pattern to strong image (and back again)? As a juggler, can I ever truly “see” my juggling from the outside?

And how do I know how many kick-ups is enough?

Practice Systems for Juggling: Pyramid System

In the ever growing world of juggling, people are improving, at different rates, all over the world. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. The thing that surprises me is that a lot of jugglers are happy to spend hours practicing their hobby, but do not train in a structured and organised manner. I am constantly surprised at people who arrive at the training space, completely unaware of what they intend to practice and how to do it. I am however impressed at the increase of skill made by people with good practice discipline as opposed to those with no or bad practice structure.

As juggling is a huge part of my life, I have spent time trying to find the most efficient way to practice. I understand that not everyone likes to practice in the same way, and that some systems will suit some people more than others, but I have seen some people slog away at a trick for years with no progress, and I am shocked that they haven’t tried to find the reason why. I firmly believe that if you find a practice system that is good for you, then you shouldn’t strictly only stick to that chosen system. I feel it is important to mix things up, try other practice structures and challenge yourself.

I am not the creator of these systems. Some of the systems I have fused with others to develop them in ways that I feel make them stronger. I have also, taken inspiration from some systems, to develop others in ways that are more suitable for me. I’m not claiming that all of these systems are going to work for you.

These methods are starting points for you to test for yourself and see if:

  1. You enjoy them.
  2. See any improvements in your juggling.

I’d be interested to hear about your opinions, experiences and own training methods and how they compare to mine so please leave any comments or feedback below.

Practice system 1: Pyramid system

Explanation
The Pyramid system is a common and efficient juggling system. Though at times it can be tedious to execute, if you are dedicated to it, you WILL get results. This system is suited mostly to patterns as opposed to tricks. The main goal of this system is to solidify patterns to a consistent level.

Example: 5 clubs

  • 5 catches (a flash) x 10
  • 10 catches x 7
  • 15 catches x 5
  • 20 catches x 3
  • 25 catches x 1

Above is a pretty classic example of a Pyramid system. Obviously the Pyramid will be altered depending on one’s level. You must complete the first layer, in this case the flash x 10, before you proceed to the next level, and so on.

Creating your Pyramid
In order to begin this splendid exercise, you first need to create your perfect Pyramid. I am sure there are many ways to do this, but here is the method that I would use if I was creating a Pyramid for 7 balls.

  1. Find the amount of catches that you know you can achieve. For me, I know I have achieved 100 catches a few times. So this is going to be the top of my pyramid, because if I get this, I will be very happy.
  2. Next, I would work my way down to the second layer, to just over half way. For me I will have 30 catches. This I will have to achieve three times. I go just over half way because I feel that if I waste my energy doing 35 catches, then 40, then 45, that I do not have enough energy to concentrate on the full 100 catches. But that’s just me.
  3. Next I will go down to the third layer which is 20 catches. I will have to achieve this 5 times.
  4. The second to last layer I use is 10 catches this I want to get 7 times. This is the amount I would ideally like to perform.
  5. Finally I get to just a flash. This I try to make as perfect as possible and do this 10 times. As one should always start from the bottom of the Pyramid, the first exercise should be easy, and should act as a warm up for what is to come.

Now that that is my Pyramid designed, I would now have to execute it. Starting at the bottom and working my way up to the top. In doing this I would take regular short breaks (maximum 1 minute) every 5 minutes. If I do not achieve my Pyramid that day, then that is ok. It’s either too hard for me, or I’m just having a bad day. Give yourself a time limit. If your Pyramid isn’t complete in say 30 minutes, then admit defeat and try again tomorrow.

I hope that this practice method helps in someway. If there are any questions then please email me at jon.udry@gmail.com

Have fun!

Fully Committed – A brief rant about Online Diaries.

The online diary should be a very handy thing. I fill in my available dates on an agency’s website and the agency knows when I’m available for work. The idea is that they can save time by telling a potential client which acts are free on a particular day without having to phone around. This apparently simple bit of streamlining has many problems when put into practice and is in fact a complete waste of time and effort.

So many diaries – So little time.

I’m on the books of many different agencies (possibly as many as 50). If they all start insisting that I keep their diary up to date then my entire professional life will be spent updating diaries. Of course, the only thing I will ever fill in is “busy filling in diaries” over and over again. This is assuming I can remember 50 different user names and passwords that are often allocated by the agency system and can’t be changed to “username” and “password” like I did with my bank account. Keeping your own diary up to date can be a struggle at times. Adding even a couple more does nobody any favours.

What, where, when???

The whole point of an online diary is so that an agency knows whether or not I’m available. In reality, this depends on what I’m being asked to do and where & when I’m being asked to do it. Most of the website diary systems I’ve seen are fairly black and white. On any given day you are either “Booked” or “Available”. Some let you distinguish between AM and PM but even when you can include this level of detail, problems can easily arise. If my diary says that I’m booked on March 19th, PM, then I might miss out on another booking in that time slot. That should be fine but the new booking may be just down the road or begin 4 hours later in plenty of time to travel from one to the other. ‘PM’ is 12 hours long after all.

I am not the sort of act that drops out of a gig as soon as a better one comes along. Despite my belief in the first come first served ethic, I was once offered a job that paid (without exaggeration) twenty times more than the one I had in the diary. It was over several days and the pre-existing gig was just one afternoon. As it turned out, I managed to pass the one-day gig on to another performer with no harm to agent, client or myself. I took the new gig but had I been using the new agency’s diary system I wonder if I would have been offered it at all.

You can always leave a date un-booked if you think there is a chance of working elsewhere in the same timeslot or if it’s a gig you can easily pass on, but this can make you look like you’re not working at all or not updating the diary properly. Either of these can make you look bad to the agency (as does writing nasty articles about their diary systems – sorry).

Last Minute Larry

Diaries change very fast. Even with the best of intentions, they go out of date very suddenly. You might hear of a gig cancellation and be ruled out of a possible replacement gig five minutes later as you simply haven’t had a chance to update all of your diaries.

I’ve presented arguments like these to various agents and they usually say the same thing, “Don’t worry Sam, we’ll always call you if we get a potential booking”. If this is the case, then what is the point of the diary? If the agent still has to make the call, no time or money has been saved. Sometimes I’ve been told, “We just want a general idea of when you’re around.” This seems pointless too but is probably the best argument in favour of online diaries. If you are working on a cruise ship for several months then perhaps you can save everyone some time by mentioning the fact but it gets a lot more fiddly with one-day bookings. It could also help when you are away on holiday but there are even gigs worth cancelling a holiday for.

I have a theory that agencies only insist on diaries because they’ve forked out a lot of money for the software that manages them. Software that sends out 20 identical text messages from your PC is probably cheaper and certainly more effective. In the age of the smart phone, people are not difficult to get hold of.

Happily, most of the agencies that trial a diary system seem to abandon it after a few months leading me to believe that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

There are some companies though, that seem to persist with their diaries and I’d very much like to discuss it with them.

If only there was some way of knowing when they’d be around?

Sam Veale – March 2012

Circus and Celebrity

After reading ‘Who Was Philip Asteley?‘ by Nell Stroud (co-founder of Giffords Circus) I got thinking about the lack of modern day circus celebrities.

Why are there no circus celebrities?

I think it’s important to define what I mean by ‘circus celebrity’. I mean an individual widely known throughout society who becomes and stays famous because of their circus work.

Astley's Amphitheatre in London circa 1808.
Astley's Amphitheatre in London. Image via Wikipedia

In the past when circus was one of, if not the primary form of entertainment there were many minor circus celebrities and a few superstars such as Philip Astley and Jules Léotard.

Older members of the public might know the name of some past famous clowns but it’s unlikely they will know the names of any trapeze artists or acrobats. But artists from other circus disciplines have made it to the top of the bill and become household names in the past. It may surprise some of you to know that there have been few juggling celebrities equivalent to the David Beckhams of the world today. Both Enrico Rastelli and Paul Cinquevalli enjoyed fame and fortune, with sell out shows and even product endorsements.

As circus lost it’s status as the number one entertainment destination house hold circus names went in decline. Cinema and then TV created starts of their own that were better suited to their medium. The best way to become famous in the past was to appear on TV or in a film, if the guys in charge wen’t interested in you then your were out of luck.

But now we have the internet.

We all have access to our own publishing company and film studio. Society is diversifying. Individuals are forming their own tribes of like-minded people, no longer held back by geographic constraints.  Within these communities artists and experts appear and become ‘micro-celebrities’. These tribes are linked by individuals who belong to more than one tribe and share an aspect of one tribe to another. Often these connecting individuals will share their favorite artist or expert, turning a micro-celebrity into a ‘hyperlink star’.

I think it’s a matter of time till a circus performer/entrepreneur becomes famous, someone will be at the right place, at the right time, have the right attitude, image and work. And it could be good for all of us. Someone able to interest society at large in circus would mean more ticket sales and more competition, resulting in a better standard of work.

It’s what Philip Astley, P.T. Barnum and Guy Laliberté did. Only when they did it they could rely on interruption marketing. Shouting on a street corner and hoping people would stop. But now everyone is shouting. So you have to create your own tribe and rely on connectors sharing  your art on Facebook, Twitter and the rest. Build your fan base and let your fans build you. But people will only share your work if it is remarkable.

So make remarkable work that others can share, become famous and then share your success. Simple.

(Sorry if you were looking for an article about celebrity circus, fortunately you’ve missed reading about that for at least another click!)