Australia: Circus Oz

Founded in 1978 when two Australian groups Soapbox Circus and the New Circus joined forces, Circus Oz is currently undergoing an exciting transitional phase. The state government of Victoria is supporting the company by providing a state-owned purpose-built home, located in Collingwood, a suburb close to the city of Melbourne. It’s expected that the company will move into their new home in early 2014. Architects Lovell Chen have designed a building that incorporates former technical school buildings with purpose-built rehearsal spaces, offices, and workshop space for costume and set production.

‘Australians have a reputation of not talking ourselves up but we [Circus Oz] are promoted internationally as Australia’s national circus, so it’s nice to have a building that represents that. It also means we can realise our potential,’ says artistic director Mike Finch. ‘For the first time in 35 years, we’ll have our own custom-made headquarters. We’ve always had these hand-me-down buildings, occupying the old Australian Ballet Company, and now we’re in an old navy drill hall, which is pretty run down and certainly not big enough for us.’

The troupe’s current HQ has not allowed the company to run the show in its intended format; aerial acts have had to rehearse out of their actual position on stage and there have been ongoing problems with audience seating arrangements. The move will have a significant and creative impact on the company.

‘It’s literally the first time our show will run in rehearsal in the correct format,’ he explains. ‘This new building will let us set up the entire environment and we’ll be able to replicate the show conditions during rehearsals. In the past we have had to do bike tricks with run-ups from the public street outside and we’ll now be able to do everything in the rehearsal room. Also the aerial work and bungees can be set up; it’s all possible in the new building.’

Circus Oz’s current show, Cranked Up, takes their previous show, From The Ground Up, to new heights. Inspired by steelworkers, it’s a nod to the building work taking place on the new HQ, and plays with the physicality of a construction site. A giant steel beam hangs from chains, the costumes are informed by steelworkers, and the look of the piece is industrial. Equally the theme represents the constant development of Australian culture ‘from the ground up’.

‘There are indigenous Australian performers in the ensemble and an equal number of men and women, which gives a sense of diversity being expressed,’ says the artistic director. Does Finch feel that 2013 is a risky time for troupes like his to consider expansion? The Montréal-based Cirque du Soleil has struggled this year with bad press, redundancies, and even a fatal accident. Perhaps the curtain is about to go down on circus acts?

‘In global terms there has been a huge boom in the circus industry,’ he says. ‘Cirque du Soleil has led that boom in terms of totally commercialising a specific run for 10 or 12 years – or even longer – on shows that are running in pretty much their original format.’

The philosophy and practice at Circus Oz is, he explains, completely different; the performers create the work and the devised pieces remain individual. ‘The show is constantly evolving and when a performer leaves, the material leaves with them and a new performer comes in and creates brand new work completely based around their own identity. There is a level of authenticity we aim for and we embrace and celebrate the individual for who he or she is.

‘Humans want that personal interaction; that’s why people go to an arena to see their favourite rock band – they’re not going to see them play covers of The Rolling Stones or Oasis. They go to see those actual bands on stage performing their authentic work.’

And whilst he recognises the appeal of spectacles and polished performances ‘like a Cameron Mackintosh musical’, he prefers to see Circus Oz as ‘more like an actual living rock band’ and not a global brand like Cirque du Soleil.

He adds that they ‘continue to only have one show made by an ensemble of 12, just as we have for the last 35 years.’ Moreover, the personality of the troupe has a lot in common with the Australian people. ‘At the heart of Australian culture, and what Australians are all about, is a kind of irreverence and larrikin ratbaggery that’s not polished and finished or too up-itself,’ he says.

The company is not interested in playing to 6,000- seat auditoriums, even if there is demand for large-scale productions. The artistic director prefers instead to play in venues that hold around 2,500. Finch feels stadium venues are disadvantageous, as the audience sits too far away to connect to the performance.

‘[Massive venues] go beyond the human scale – circus requires a suspension of disbelief and requires you to understand that the person on stage is a real human being,’ says Finch. Their current Big Top, launched in Sydney in 2002, fits 1,390 people and at the time cost AUD1m to build. The temporary structure is used when performing in major Australian cities but most of the regional and international touring takes place in proscenium arch theatres.

This year the troupe will continue to tour Cranked Up, visiting a variety of Australian locations including Darwin and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Mount Gambier in South Australia. Then in early 2014, Circus Oz will take the show to America, calling on California, Kentucky and Massachusetts before heading over to Canada.

The troupe is also hard at work developing ideas for the next show which, says Finch, will be completely different but still absolutely in the Circus Oz spirit of humour, spectacle, wit and skill. Described as ‘an irreverent take on circus performance, that takes a look at the overwhelming tsunami of data and information on offer for audiences today,’ it will play with the conventions of popular performance, vaudeville, variety, music hall shows and cabaret. Due to open in Melbourne in June 2014 in the Big Top, a tour of regional Australia will follow. The show is open for international tour bookings and will run for two years.