Richard Watts  | www.artshub.com.au  |  Monday 31 March, 2014

The opening of Circus Oz’s new headquarters in Melbourne will have a flow-on effect to the entire circus sector.

After spending the past 20 years in the increasingly cramped Naval Drill Hall in Port Melbourne, Circus Oz has moved to a permanent new home in Collingwood, close to where its first ever public performances were presented at the Last Laugh Theatre Restaurant in 1978-79.

The $15 million dollar redevelopment of the former Collingwood Technical College, designed by award-winning architects Lovell Chen, was supported through the 2011-2012 Victorian state budget. Victoria’s Minister for the Arts, Heidi Victoria, officially opened the new building last Friday.

The company celebrated its return to Collingwood by holding an Open Day on Saturday attended by local residents and members of the Melbourne circus community.

Circus Oz General Manager Lou Oppenheim said, ‘Obviously it’s been fantastic to have the support of the Victorian government in making this building happen in terms of funding … and the open day on Saturday was a testament to the community support we’ve also had; we had at least 2,500 people come through the doors, which made us feel really welcomed by the community here in the north.

‘It’s been the culmination of an awful lot of people’s work, and as with everything at Circus Oz, we’re standing on the shoulders of all the people who’ve come before,’ she told ArtsHub.

The new headquarters, which includes two large rehearsal spaces, will allow Circus Oz to grow its access programs, financial sustainability and artistic vibrancy, Oppenheim added.

‘There’s an ongoing impetus for all arts companies to increase their own earned income, whether that’s through box office, philanthropy or other streams; and for us, one of the main ways we can do that is by opening our doors to the community and run things like public classes and corporate workshops … We’re now also able to do those things concurrently; we were never able to do that at Port Melbourne.’

Artistic Director Mike Finch said the building’s new training spaces would be accessible to Melbourne’s circus community as well as to the local community.

‘The plan is that our major creative development period each year will be about eight weeks of intense work with the full time ensemble where we make each show; and we’re about to go into that now to launch the new show in June. Then the show itself will be on the road for between three and six months each year, and during that time the facilities will come to life in terms of activating external users, the open training program and our classes program,’ he said.

‘We’re already having people drop into the building. A whole lot of circus performers are already dropping in and using the place as a hub to meet people and talk.’

In the lead-up to Circus Oz relocating to Collingwood, the company met with numerous representatives of the local circus sector to try and ensure that companies with existing circus training facilities for hire would not be disadvantaged by the changing status quo.

‘We’ve had long conversations with local circus artists. For example Blue Circus Studios up in Fitzroy is run by Jeremy Davies, who’s been a long term Circus Oz person … we’ve been having a lot of conversations with him over the last year about the impact.

‘We’re actually caught in a little bit of a halfway bind between wanting to provide – when we do kick in open training and drop-in training for professional circus performers – we want to make sure that its price is very accessible, because this is a government building and we’re very aware that it’s a great facility, but we also don’t want to undercut existing training models elsewhere,’ Finch explained.

National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) Program Manager Rose Stephens said the new Circus Oz building was a state of the art facility which captures both the history of the site and the future of circus arts.

‘Circus Oz has a unique relationship with NICA. Not only do they employ a number of NICA graduates, they also provide substantial industry support to NICA course development and the provision of feedback to our final year students at their showcase event,’ she said.

The two organisations would not be competing for circus artists’ dollars, Stephens added: ‘A significant issue in professional circus arts development in Australia is the availability of suitable space to rehearse for practitioners (particularly at height). Although NICA has opened its space after hours for the profession, the addition of space availability from Circus Oz is very welcome. This means that between the two organisations we can hope to meet the service requirements of the industry. We have actively worked together to pilot models where our industry folk can benefit from both facilities. The two organisations are committed to working together in the best interests of the industry.’

As well as providing facilities for local circus artists, Circus Oz’s future plans for the Collingwood site also include a new circus incubator program called SideSault, described as ‘an incubator program for small to medium companies creating new work’.

‘It will be a curated program, but it will basically be us helping smaller companies put together the resources needed to make a show,’ Finch said.

The Circus Oz-owned Melba Spiegeltent, which will be installed on the site later this year, will be central to the SideSault program, he added.

‘One of the things that I’m really interested in is people making a show designed for a Spiegeltent. They can rehearse it in our Spiegeltent but then tour it around the world and take it into other people’s Spiegeltents, which are usually far more fully booked. It’s almost impossible to get rehearsal time in David Bates’ Famous Spiegeltent for example, they’re so busy doing cabaret – or it’s on a ship travelling around the world going from venue to venue. So the idea of using our Spiegeltent as a rehearsal venue is a really interesting one.’

Circus Oz is also intent on furthering its commitment to social justice through partnerships with its new neighbours, including St Joseph’s Primary School, the Collingwood Housing Commission Flats, the Artful Dodgers Studios, and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre.

‘The vision for the building is that all those different social groups are running into each other in the building; that’s already happened at the Open Day but there’s a real potential for a bunch of corporates who are paying top dollar to do a corporate team-building program, to be sharing the building with some youths at risk, kids who are maybe first offenders, or whatever. They’ll be sharing the same space, working on circus skills, or at least sharing some of the common areas, so that’s all part of the vision,’ explained Finch.

And what of the vision for the remainder of the Collingwood site, which is being considered for further development as a new multi-art form arts precinct?

Oppenheim said, ‘It’s probably mainly an Arts Victoria question but we are incredibly supportive of the rest of the site becoming an arts precinct, and we would welcome artists in the broader sense of the word within those buildings.’

Circus Oz’s 2014 production, But Wait…There’s More premieres in Melbourne from 18 June – 13 July, Visit www.circusoz.com.au for details.

 

PHOTO: Circus Oz’s 2013 production Cranked Up. Photo by Rob Blackburn.