As Gwen Knox hands over the reins of the incredible Act Belong Commit Sandfly Circus, based in Broome, we celebrate her work and find out how she first got involved in the circus arts.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO CIRCUS/PHYSICAL THEATRE?
When I was a child, my friend Ellen who lived down the road had a really good swing hanging from her tree. This shady space under the tree became our circus ring (as the tank stand was our opera stage) We would dress in elaborate clothes and perform aerial acts. I was always very flexible, I still am despite my age and girth, so always got the gigs that had me performing at the top of the swing. I had mucked around with circus a bit while I was a uni, but never mastered the unicycle. When I was a graduate teacher in Fitzroy Crossing planning a school show with a circus theme, a very enthusiastic man who was working for the Department of Culture and the Arts promoting their grant programs. We sat on a pile of sand outside my house making balloon juggling balls. His name was Reg Bolton. A couple of hours in his company allowed me to get the show and possibly the rest of my life sorted.
As my first circus show it taught me a lot about facilitation of community theatre with remote Indigenous kids. We had a dancing pantomime horse operated by two teachers and a gorilla who lived in a very wonky cage. The 300 kids had devised all the other acts with me. The deputy principal was the ring master who constantly reminded the kids and audience to tell him if Godzilla the gorilla was about to escape. By the time Godzilla(who was another teacher in a gorilla suit) escaped, and this was all captured on film by the Manual arts teacher, the kids and the audience bolted, bowling over the film maker in the rush. We had to stop the show and entice kids out of trees and from behind the bushes.
While I was in Fitzroy Crossing I met a young back packer who was good to party with. A friend and I went to Broome for weekend to say goodbye when he left. We went busking in a shopping centre and earned enough for a carton of beer. We went down the beach and drank it.
A few years later when I was living in Broome and helping run the Fringe Festival I went to the markets to meet a potential performer in a tall red had who was doing shows at the markets. It was the same young bloke. Hi name was Matt Yates (Fat mat).
I was then working in a local school in Broome teaching music and circus. Whenever visitors like Fat Mat, Crash Mat, Alex Marshal, Lockie McDonald, Pixie Robertson, Eleanor Davies, Sian Phillips came through town I would get them to work with my kids. In the mean time I would blunder along on my own.
I left teaching to work as a free-lance community artist. Teaching music, circus puppetry around the country. From time to time I would get Eleanor Davies to work with me and she came up with the name Sandlfy Circus for the Broome circus projects.
I now work as the Artistic Director of Theatre Kimberley. When we decided to take on a youth focus we started a regular circus program in 2007. I gave the organisation the right to use the Sandlfy Circus name. The circus has become one of our flagship programs with over 70 young people attending.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO?
I also write and direct performances for and with young people and love to make puppets. In 2015 I wrote and directed a puppet show called “Ngalyak and the Flood” which was a Franco- Indigenous Australian collaboration. I also wrote the theme tune used as part of the sound track. The resulting physical theatre performance was performed in Broome and at the Festival Mondial de Marionnettes de Charleville-Mézières France Festival OFF to full houses. It was very thrilling to do this project and we have been invited back! I also have a puppetry musical(score by Lorrae Coffin) that will tour the Pilbara region in 2016.
WHAT DOES CIRCUS/PHYSICAL THEATRE MEAN TO YOU?
I came into circus using it as a tool to teach other skills to kids. It is a fantastic medium for this. I recognise that not everyone will become famous performers (though some of “My Kids” have done so.) but they could become great people. I have seen non-readers who couldn’t settle into a chair for more than a few minutes, do so after I had taught them to juggle.
WHAT’S THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR CIRCUS/PHYSICAL THEATRE CAREER SO FAR?
When kids that I have taught in the past come and give me a hug and say thanks.
IF YOU WEREN’T DOING CIRCUS/PHYSICAL THEATRE, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING RIGHT NOW?
I would be a sad old git.
WHAT SKILLS DO YOU LIKE PERFORMING AND WHY?
Facilitating, Writing and directing fabulous shows.
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE IN 5 YEARS TIME?
On a beach in the shade with a long cool drink.
WHY DO WE NEED CIRCUS/PHYSICAL THEATRE IN THE WORLD?
It is such an amazing discipline. It encourages the best in people. The circus family is one of the best families to belong to.
Gwen passionately and steadily nurtured Theatre Kimberley from the ground up. Operating under the umbrella of Theatre Kimberley, Sandfly Circus was begun over ten years ago, providing opportunities for involving children and young people through its classes and community performances. Sandflies is currently made up of approximately 80 children and young people participating across four regular weekly classes. Sandfly Circus students work with a cohort of local trainers in Broome, and the skills of local trainers are often supplement by visiting artists in residence from other places. Sandflies addresses a number of needs in the local region. Importantly this includes reducing inequalities in access to programmes that enhance skill sharing and essential tools and that may assist young people to make healthy and creative life choices.