Writing my PhD – A Circademic adventure
[Or: I wanna be like Reg Bolton and Peta Tait when I
“After being a circus artist for eighteen years I wondered what my next step should be. After all, what could be as seemingly impossible and masochistic as circus? It would have to be something that required arduous, painful work for a few infrequent yet intense moments of delirious pleasure.
A PhD clearly.”
I read this quote in the introduction of a PhD written by a circus academic or as we like to call ourselves, “Circademics” a few weeks ago while I was in Montreal on a research residency at Ecole Nationale de Cirque. I immediately identified with it. Many times in my circus career I have pondered whilst applying arnica to a Lyra bruise or whilst admiring my latest trapeze rope burn…..this is kind of masochistic, I obviously have some sort of tendency towards painful and complex career choices.
For me it was 15 years into my circus career that a PhD was what I decided should be my next masochistic and “impossible” challenge. I had already completed a Master’s thesis on my work in circus and autism and had gotten the bug for thinking and writing about circus from an academic standpoint. I also wanted to document the history or trajectory of Australian Contemporary Circus somehow so that all of the wondrous work we do day in day out was written down somewhere. By no means am I a historian or aiming to be. I am more focused on creating a document that brings an intellectual perspective to Australian contemporary circus and that also brings some eccentricity to academia. One that can provide some kind of framework for thinking about why we do what we do, what the social and cultural affects or implications of that are, and how much contemporary circus in Australia has impacted on the artform worldwide. As I mentioned before, I just got back from a residency in Montreal- which is often considered “Circus Mecca” and am proud to say that we are held in pretty damn high regard for the diverse and innovative work we create. So we should really start shouting about it I reckon. Through my PhD I hope to shed a spot light onto what Contemporary Circus is, can be where it’s been and where it may go.
So what is my PhD? How on earth do you frame almost 40 years of work and how on earth do you interview everyone who has been a part of that? Well you can’t, at least not in the scope of a PhD. I only have 100,000 words to do it.
And being a circus person the words “that’s impossible” or “you can’t do that” still tweak my “WATCH ME DO IT” reaction, because Reg Bolton taught me that “I can’t” and “that’s impossible” are circus swear words. However, there are rules, and boundaries (which I do stretch to their absolute limits!) that I must work within. Academia likes to frame things and for things to sit nicely into certain requirements. Over the course of my first 12 months the focus of my PhD has consequently shifted in emphasis. At first I set out to write a history of the artform, whereas now I am exploring particular aspects and elements of that history in order to understand the artform itself. Even though a chronological history of the artform is very important as a curatorial process for the maturing industry, that type of linear study would be better suited to a post-doctoral situation, perhaps undertaken as a funded project with the industry as a partner (something I may explore down the track!)
Time and history nevertheless remain important to uncovering the trajectory of the artform: how it has emerged from grassroots street theatre-based circus with a relatively rudimentary skill level to highly skilled and polished work with a diverse production aesthetic; how the practice and aesthetic characteristics of the form developed; what it is about those characteristics that keeps people coming to see the work; and how those “home grown” characteristics are significant in relation to the international profile of Australian circus and circus artists. Therefore, as my research has developed my project has increasingly become a conceptual and theoretical study with a historical thread as part of my methodology. While the relatively short history of the artform must inform understandings about its practice trajectory and cultural impact, it is my use of concept and theory that will constitute the contribution of my doctoral work to analysis of the practice and its national and international success. The training of the “circus body”, the uses of bodies in the creative process and the spatiality of circus practice underpin the success of Australian contemporary circus and its reputation on both the national and world stage.
My process for exploring the industry and its history has a few facets:
Literature: Obviously reading everything that has been written in an academic context about Australian Contemporary Circus was my starting point, which of course then extends to what has been written by international academics about contemporary circus as an artform overall. The field of circus research is relatively new, and although it is growing rapidly, compared to dance and theatre, there isn’t a lot out there. I did however, have the privilege of spending a month at the Ecole Nationale De Cirque library as a researcher in residence. That experience was circus nerd heaven and has contributed immensely to my work so far. I am also extensively reading critical theory in relation to performing arts and philosophy. This kind of reading feeds into my theoretical frameworks and critical thinking in terms of cultural practice and how circus can speak as an artform in various ways. Some my favourite philosophers and critical thinkers that I am reading and using to support my work are: Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Elizabeth Grosz, Giorgio Agamben, Merleau- Ponty, Judith Butler, Elspeth Probyn and Doreen Massey. My bibliography grows each day as does the pile of books I need to read!
Archives: At the very start of my PhD process I spent a lot of time digging up show reviews, newspaper articles, press releases and television stories about the industry dating back to the late 70’s. This was of course an immensely time consuming process, however it did provide me with an excellent insight into the perception of our artform from both the media and audience point of view. Recurring ideas, themes and views are clear in what I have accessed so far. My findings are showing that Australian contemporary circus is regarded highly in international settings with consistent 4-5 star reviews as well as successive programming and tours to the same venues and festivals. A few examples of a combination of outstanding national and international accomplishments are shows such as “Tom Tom Crew” (Strut n Fret Production House) touring for six years, “Briefs: the Second Coming” (Briefs Factory, Brisbane) touring for three years, and “Cantina” (Company2, Brisbane) touring for four years and of course Circa with successive tours and multiple shows touring at once both nationally and internationally. There is no question that such ongoing success demonstrates industry status equivalent to high profile international companies Cirque Du Soleil and 7 Doigts de la main.
Interviews: For me, the most important element is my interviews with industry practitioners. In an ideal world I would get to interview everyone! However as I mentioned earlier I have to fit into a framework and so I ended up narrowing my interview list down from 100 key people to around 30. So far I have conducted interviews with artists across various types of companies. Some of my interview subjects so far include: Davy Sampford, Natano Fa’anana, Ira Seidenstein, Sue Broadway, Chelsea McGuffin, Frodo Santini, Rudi Mineur and Marisol de Santis (La Tohu Montreal). There are many more to go from all over the country and from all kinds of companies. The anecdotes and information I access from these interviews is invaluable to my research. I aim to have all of my interview data collected by February. It is definitely the most joyful and rewarding part of my research process. Being able to sit down with colleagues (many whom I revere and admire greatly) and to hear about their careers and how they see the circus industry is exceptionally inspiring and helps to keep a spring in my step under the heavy workload!
My working PhD title at the moment is: Bodies, Temporality and Spatiality in Australian Contemporary Circus (that might change a million times before I submit it.) Using the methods I have just mentioned, the dissertation will investigate the performance of the contemporary circus body in space and time. Through a focus on certain key companies and performances in their cultural and historical contexts I aim to explore the extent to which the performance aesthetic that developed in Australian contemporary circus has influenced international practice. I will be exploring the growth of the artform, its artistic processes, its national profile, and its major contribution to Australia’s international performing arts output in terms of touring activity and export earnings. I will be discussing gender, spatiality, training processes and extreme uses of the body, creative spaces, spectacle, chaos and order in the creative process and performance, questions of embodiment, as well as community and identity. There is A LOT to cover! And I am really only showing you a snippet of the extent of the work in this ACAPTA Circus Spruik, however it is awesome to give you a quick insight into what I have been up to so far. I look forward to interviewing many of you very soon!