Game for a laugh - ‘I joined Fossett’s Circus and stayed with them for a year’
As circus celebrates 250 years as an art form, Eoin Butler finds out what it's like to run away with one... for a day
'He's going on holidays tomorrow," the PR person whispers anxiously to my instructor, as I am helped up on to the tightrope. "Don't let him break a leg." Holidays be damned. I stride across the rope undaunted. I'm fearless. I'm committed. I laugh in the face of danger.
Also, the rope is only about three feet off the ground. Daniel Sturridge would struggle to do himself an injury falling off this thing.
Circus as an art form celebrates its 250th birthday this year. To mark the occasion, Street Theatre Ireland is offering a series of one-day circus workshops for children aged 9-12 at The Ark in Temple Bar.
From the traditional big top to Cirque du Soleil, it's a medium that has evolved continuously over the centuries.
"Contemporary circus," workshop facilitator Johnny Phelan explains, "has links to all sorts of art forms, from vaudeville to silent film. We bring our act to places like theatres, outdoor street festivals and corporate events."
At the workshops Phelan and co-facilitator Richard Kane are planning at The Ark, participants will get a chance to try out things like balance classes, juggling workshops, face painting, magic, feather balancing and devil-sticking. "These are all skills kids can pick up pretty quickly," says Phelan. "There's usually a method..."
As he speaks, a large peacock feather, which I had been attempting to balance on my index finger, falls gracelessly to the floor. "You were looking at your own finger," Phelan gently chides me. "I told you to keep your eyes on the top of the feather."
I repeat the trick as per his original instructions. Naturally, I'm successful this time.
"Once participants follow the instructions we give them," Phelan continues, "they'll achieve a result. And they tend to get a pretty big kick out of that. Then at the end of each day, we're going to put on shows in which the kids each get to demonstrate some of the skills they have learned that day."
Reluctantly, I am required to dress up in clown attire for the photographs to accompany this piece. Face painter Mo King supplies the make-up, wig and clown nose. "Where did that tunic come from?" Gerry the photographer asks absent-mindedly. I dunno, I reply. It looks like a cast-off from the Artane Boys Band.
"That's it," chuckles Gerry. "That's exactly what it looks like." The shutter of his camera clicks incessantly. "Bubbles," he directs, with a wave of his hand. "We need more bubbles!"
All freelance writing is a bit demeaning. A bit degrading. A little emasculating. But this latest venture seems a little on the nose, even for me.
While the make-up is being applied, Phelan and Kane attempt to mitigate my discomfort and humiliation by placing it in a historical context. Clowns were originally introduced to circus to keep the crowds entertained between circus acts, they tell me.
The tramp or hobo clown had his origins in America's Great Depression. "They were inspired by the hobos on the trains," explains Johnny. Their eyes and their mouths would be wiped clean, where the rest of their faces would be caked in dust."
In Europe, there was the white-faced Pierrot clown, who was apparently a sort of upper-class straight man, as well as the Auguste, who was the lower-class funnyman. What about the trope of the sad clown, I ask? The pissed off clown? The wondering-what-the-hell-he's-doing-with-his-life clown? "There's some truth to that myth," Kane concedes. "Because in the old circus, clowns would often have been retired trapeze artists. They'd have injured themselves in accidents and been depressed because they were watching other people living the life they dreamed of for themselves. So there was obviously sadness and tragedy there."
Phelan isn't so sure. "I think that trope mainly came from people catching a glimpse of clowns in make-up backstage. He might be sitting at the back of a tent after a long day's work eating a sandwich or smoking a cigarette. He seemed sad, but they were just seeing him out of context. Because he wasn't performing."
"Okay Eoin," the photographer instructs. "Could you bring your hands into the frame and wave them like this?" He means jazz hands, right? Gerry nods. No way. I'm a human being, Goddammit. Thus far shall I be emasculated and no further!
That line in the sand finally established, I ask the middle-class Phelan how he was drawn into the circus world? He tells me that while studying for a degree in Irish in Maynooth University, he spent one summer working as a janitor in England. "Juggling was popular over there, so I picked it up from some of the guys in the factory."
On returning to Maynooth he founded a juggling club, which he says was the first such club in Ireland. "Then after college, I literally ran away with the circus. I joined Fossett's Circus and stayed with them for a year."
His family, initially at least, weren't thrilled with his choice of vocation. He remembers his late grandmother paying him, what was probably intended, but wasn't necessarily received, as a compliment. "She said, 'Oh well Johnny, there's room in this world for us all. Even you'."
But his family eventually agreed that, as long as it paid the bills, they wouldn't stand in his way. And it has paid the bills. Indeed his own children, Emer and Oran, are today budding performers in their own right.
From the moment I walked into the room, I've been eyeing a pair of devil sticks lying in a box in the corner. Emer gives me a quick tutorial in how to use them and soon I'm away.
What elements of the craft are children most drawn to when Phelan and Kane run these classes? "The kids love it all," says Phelan. "The devil sticks, the tightrope, the stilts, plate spinning..." Kane cuts to the heart of the matter. "Children are always being told, 'Get down off that! Don't touch that!'. What we're telling them is get up on that. Pick that thing up. Give it a go…"
One-day circus skills & performance workshops run at The Ark, Wednesday to Saturday, August 8-11. Tickets cost €32 per child; ark.ie