Paul Donoughue | ABC NEWS | Thursday 2nd July 2015

After 17 years at Circus Oz, outgoing artistic director Mike Finch talks art, athleticism and the politics of clowning around.

Mason West performs a risky handstand

I told my mother I wanted to get into advertising. She said she’d disown me.

My parents were both into theatre. So it was sort of like totally acceptable for me to want to do something theatrical or something interesting or political — there weren’t any barriers to that. And then when I said … ‘I’m going to go into circus’, [my mother] was like, ‘Oh, relief, fantastic’. But the thing that really attracted me to this style of circus was the diversity of work — that the performers were really empowered and they were making this work themselves. It was really eclectic, it was political, it had something to say about the world. There was almost no rules — you could say anything you wanted in the show. And it embraced the broadest version of humanity: women, men, queer, the whole gamut of what humanity is could be represented on the stage in a really fun, representative way.
Drumming on a swing

It was much more like being a curator of an art exhibition with 14 or 15 amazing artists.

It’s a really fascinating form. I was always really physical — I loved riding bikes, making things, horsing around — but I never liked competitive sports. I was also like, ‘Why do we have to get out onto this football field and beat the snot out of each other for one team to win and one team to lose?’ The idea that half the people there would walk away having not won anything, and the other half had won, I just never really understood. Then when I discovered circus and the notion that everyone wins [it was] just as physical and just as dangerous and intense, and there is this playful and physical risk, but … there’s room for everyone — it was boys, girls, big people, little people — but also, if the show went well, everyone wins, including the audience. They all walk off feeling triumphant.
Circus Oz performers Emma J Hawkins and Mel Fyfe

[Circus is] a smorgasbord of opportunity.

It would freak out a lot of old fashioned Australians, who say, ‘No, sport is a part of Australian’s identity’, but actually circus is much better at providing opportunities for healthy [living] for every kind of kid, much better than sport. Because it includes also the really introverted kids — the really shy kids can learn how to juggle, the ADD kids become clowns — it’s a smorgasbord of opportunity. In that way, it is also a very political form, in that it is inherently democratic and inclusive.
Circus Oz performer Lilikoi Kaos with lots of hoola hoops.

For the circus performers, you have got to peak 100 times a year.

The really intense acrobatic parts of the show, which are performed by nearly all of the cast, require the same sort of discipline [as] high-level gymnastics. But [gymnasts] are different again in that you build up to a peak — the championships or the Olympics — [and] you achieve your absolute best, and then it drops off again. For the circus performers, you have got to peak 100 times a year. And a lot of it is interactive and collaborative, so they are catching each other, people are jumping out of the roof being caught by other performers, people are doing somersaults, they are caught in mid-air by the catcher in the flying trapeze act. So it requires a huge amount of discipline and repetition, and risk management — how do we fall, how do you practice falling. It requires eight-hour days of training, in the lead-up to the show, then when we are on the road it is trying to fit in two hours of preparation training before each two-hour show.
Hazel Bock's unconventional juggling

There is surface-level politics — typically making fun of authority. But below is the politics of inclusion.

At one level, we make jokes in the show about the current state of politics. We’ll have a go at coal-fired power stations or asylum seeker policy on stage, just the same way that a political cartoon would be on the back of a paper. So there is surface-level politics — typically making fun of authority.

But below [that] is the politics of inclusion — that half the cast are women. The catcher in our flying trapeze act, who catches all the guys, is a woman. There’s body diversity — so there’s big people, small people, tiny people, all sorts of body shapes all achieving and succeeding. So that’s political.

Circus Oz performer Lilikoi Kaos with hoola hoops

[Comedy] is crucial.

For us, the type of work we make, it nearly always descends into comedy. There’s beautiful moments in the show, there’s acts that are really lyrical, but essentially it is a good night out — it’s people laughing and enjoying the celebration of danger and risk. It’s a particularly irreverent Australian thing: just as someone is about to step onto a tightrope, someone heckles. That energy is right through the show. So all of our performers, they are not only highly skilled technically, they are sort of clowns in their own way.


IMAGE CREDIT: Images via ABC News