How to… create theatre using circus skills

Written for The Stage for their surely reductive How To... series, appearing here. Frustratingly credited to John Byrne but actually I wrote the entire thing and it was barely even edited!

1. Go beyond acts and routines

Two hundred and forty-nine years ago, Philip Astley put a series of performers’ cabaret acts and daring feats in a round building in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Then in the 20th century, a movement we call ‘contemporary circus’ began, when artists realised there was more that they could do with those extraordinary physical skills than creating six-minute acts introduced by a ringmaster. Imagine what you could create by combining the physicality and skill of circus with the potential of theatre and dance…

2. Remember, the body and movement are political

The presentation of human bodies in performance is a political act, and if we forget that then we are also being political through our ignorance. When you frame a body on a stage, you’re shining a light on how it looks, what it’s doing and everything that means, and reflecting on personal identities and society. Circus can be stronger, riskier, sexier and more impressive than other art forms, so therefore it can also be more ‘problematic’ when it reflects outdated stereotypes and roles. Contemporary circus that is truly contemporary understands and plays with this, remembering the importance of representation in our culture.

3. Keep the fun and keep the danger

Circus has always been an art form with wide appeal for audiences – subversive entertainment made for the masses, often made by people who have chosen alternative and itinerant lifestyles. It’s real and live – and risky. Contemporary circus is broader, but at its heart it is the same art form that thrives on danger, irreverence, fun, anarchy and excitement, alongside the emotional complexities and intent of choreography, narrative and dramaturgy. Consider and combine all these aspects for something great – or break any rules like circus should.