CIRCUS: A flying success

As Circomedia, one of the UK’s first circus schools, celebrates its 30th birthday, Helen Dorritt finds out about plans for the next three decades

Peer behind the heavy wooden door of St Paul’s Church in Bristol and you won’t see a typical ecclesiastical interior. Gone are the pews and the hymn books, replaced with a sprung floor, crash mats and an impressive grand volant flying trapeze rig. Welcome to Circomedia, the centre for contemporary circus and physical theatre.

Since its humble beginnings in a community hall as its original incarnation, Fooltime, Circomedia has grown to become a powerhouse on the contemporary circus scene. It offers a degree, a BTEC, and vocational training for aspiring performers, plus 28 weekly classes for adults and children and a public programme of 60 performances a year. All this takes place on two sites, St Paul’s and a former Victorian school in
the suburb of Kingswood which houses four of Circomedia’s studios.

Circomedia’s 30th birthday in April was a chance for the organisation to reflect on its history and its future. Since replacing the executive director role in 2015 with a new artistic and managing director post - complementing the existing artistic and education managing director role held by Bim Mason, one of the original founders - Circomedia has reviewed its mission statement, making it clear that it seeks to become the “European centre for research and production of transforma- tional experiences arising from circus”.

One of the first jobs for the new post holder, Nic Young, was to cast an outsider’s eye over the 2013-18 business plan. “I was able to take a fresh look at what Circomedia does, and how it does it, and work with staff to clarify and amplify the vision” explains Young, who joined the organisation from being director at Newport’s Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre. “We’re now in the middle of writing a new business plan for 2016-22 that’s more overtly ambitious in our aims for the next 15 years”. So while Circomedia has delivered the BA that was talked about in the plan (it’s now in its third year), it’s adding an MA in directing for circus to start in September 2016. The new plan has also doubled the number of performances taking place at St Paul’s, to increase the scope to support artists and to develop audiences. “We’ve changed some of the language we use: we no longer talk about a ‘creation centre’, which has very specific connotations that we couldn’t deliver, but we do talk about being a development agency and pro- viding support for artists, audience development and the artform through this” notes Young.

The introduction of the BA in2 014 alongside Circomedia’s existing vocational courses has brought some changes to the student make up, with most of the degree students coming from the UK and an additional few from the EU. “The increased importance given to contextual studies, reflective practice and practice-as-research demands a greater intellectual dimension to balance out the physical training” explains Mason. He has also noticed a slight shift towards students from more affluent backgrounds alongside an increase in ethnic diversity, plus a higher proportion of female students. The students taking up the vocational option tend to come from further afield, with the current intake hailing from USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico and Japan, as well as those UK stu- dents who aren’t eligible for the degree or who have used up their loan allocation on another course. One of the aims for the next two to three years is to increase student numbers by 50%,

both by accepting new students onto existing courses and with the es- tablishment of the MA. The latter will bring in a new type of student, as Mason says: “They will obviously have a more mature profile; again, most of those interested are women”. Student fees make up the bulk of Circo- media’s income – 60% – while 11% of fund 

ing comes from being an Arts Council England NPO, with another 4% from its position as one of Bristol City Coun- cil’s key arts providers. “The level of support from these two organisations, other than financial, is just as valuable and that is good from both of them” acknowledges Young. The remain- ing 25% comes from evening classes, programming and hires. One of the aims of the original business plan was to diversify the organisation’s income stream, particularly in regard to com- mercial activity – hiring out St Paul’s for weddings, corporate events and the like, taking advantage of Circomedia’s unique offer: the lure of a beautifully restored historic city centre space with added circus performers is an attrac- tive marketing tool. All this requires a careful balance alongside the needs of the students in a space where capacity is strictly limited, so this has been ad- dressed by taking on fewer events but those of a higher value. This pragmatic approach is working, as evidenced by the generation of a small surplus last year.

Also on Young’s amended business plan is offering more outreach community projects, harking back to the earlier work of the organisation. He’s keen to work with children in the areas around Circomedia’s two sites, particularly those who have limited life op- portunities – St Paul’s is in the top 10% most deprived areas on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation – using circus as an inspirational tool to provide those transformational experiences mentioned in the mission statement.

Alongside its teaching and per- formance activities, advocacy for cir- cus theatre in the UK is also now a fundamental part of Circomedia’s remit, which includes promoting Bristol as the UK’s circus city. “We’re part of the Bristol Circus Forum, whose key aim is to raise the profile of circus within the city, and to increase awareness outside of the city of the quantity and qual- ity of work that is happening here” says Young. Circomedia will also be contributing to the national steering committee for Circus 250 – the celebra- tion in 2018 of 250 years since Philip Astley first put on a show in a ring and founded modern circus, and which is intended to raise the profile of circus across the UK in a similar way to Shakespeare 400.

All these expanded activities require more space, and so it seems inevitable that Circomedia will need to grow physically. “In the long run we’ll need to find somewhere else, but we’re looking at least 15 years hence” says Young. “I don’t know if we could ever get the 7,200 square metres that the Ecolé Nationale de Cirque in Montreal has, but I am sure we will need more than the 1,200 or so that we have now”.

So what’s the vision for the organisation by the time its sixtieth birthday rolls around? Nic Young is expansive in his scope. “I would like to see us having fulfilled our mission statement, with the unique combination of circus education, circus theatre and circus community giving thousands of peo- ple new and exciting ways to discover and develop live performance. Not only would this be fantastic for those involved, but Circomedia’s influence would continue to reach far beyond its doors as the outcomes from those 60 years filter into the wider world. It’s ambitious, yes, but if you’re not ambi- tious, what’s the point?”

 

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