Clowning around

12 October 2009

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Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is one of the top ten phobias in the world. Clowns are big, loud and have somewhat creepy painted faces that are so abrupt that many people develop a fear of them from an early age.

But it’s not all bad news for clown-haters; there’s a new circus in town.  And it doesn’t involve clowns.  Or a whip-cracking lion tamer.

Circus performer Tessa Waters explains the new form of physical theatre as “just a normal person on stage going about the clown way.”

Waters moved to Melbourne after studying theatre in Queensland.  She says although Brisbane has a great community of artists, Melbourne has both the community and the culture – making it the best place to be for people who want to work in the performing arts. Her first show at the 2006 Melbourne Fringe Festival, Baggage, was a kids show for grown ups, exploring the emotional baggage that we all carry.

This year, she found inspiration in archives of women’s magazines and 1950s photos to bring us her new show, How to be a Lady.

In her high-energy performance, Waters plays a girl who is feeling a little trashy, and tries to change her life by doing yoga, detoxing and listening to an instructive cassette on etiquette for girls.

“Circus is very physical,” she says. “It’s all about play, imagination and audience interaction.”

And may I add, it’s hilarious.  

The Age gave her show four out of five stars, with the reviewer Helen Razer saying: “In the instant our heroine emerges from a nimbus of vodka, cheap perfume and despair, I was fairly smitten.”

But the circus as we know it began to lose popularity in the 1960s and 1970s as audiences became more interested in other forms of entertainment such as film, television and music. Back then, circus audiences were passive, looking in to the ring for entertainment.

Now, the performer turns to the audience for inspiration, making the viewers increasingly powerful in shaping the show.

“You might do a movement that makes someone giggle, so you might do it again. The show gets shaped very much by the audiences – you can have totally a different show every night,” Waters says.

Maria Rizzo, the marketing and communications executive at the National Institute of Circus Art (NICA), thinks the Melbourne Fringe Festival is helping circus become popular again.

“By including circus as a category, the Melbourne Fringe Festival is helping to raise awareness of the art form for people who may not have considered it as an entertainment option previously,” she says.

And although circus has been a popular source of entertainment for centuries, Rizzo says it has evolved as people’s tastes in entertainment have become more sophisticated.

NICA was established in 1995 after a study commissioned by Swinburne University of Technology identified growing market opportunities and a strong demand for circus arts. Today, there are more than 60 students across three year levels.


Playspace director Alan Clay is another seasoned ‘clown’. After performing throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand, he moved to Australia to establish his Playspace studio in Sydney. He says the art form has been undergoing a “rejuvenation” process in the past few years, and is now about revealing the real person behind the performer, instead of hiding behind the make-up.

“Society wants everyone to be normal but clowns have to let go of those inhibitions and learn not to be self-conscious,” he says.

Rizzo also credits circus’ increasing popularity to the financial crisis.

“The Circus seems like a good place to go at the moment to make us happy,” she says.

“There is no doubt that people are finding the going tough at the moment. It is these tough economic times that audiences seek uplifting entertainment and demand value for money.”

And the Melbourne Fringe Festival is providing that, with some of the circus shows starting from just $10.

Many of NICA’s graduates go on to perform at the Fringe Festival, including Skye Gellman, one of this year’s favourites.

His show won the Best Circus Award in 2007, and the Village Award for ‘most outstanding production’ at the Melbourne Fringe last year. Gellman has been performing “circus tricks” for 15 years.  All of which, he says, is for childhood sweetheart.

“We would share car rides to circus school together after primary school. Soon after, she left the circus school and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

But after moving to Melbourne for “greater opportunities”, Gellman found himself homeless for almost two years.

“During that time, I would make shows in abandoned buildings with my friends and we began to create our own style. This lifestyle created a depression which I fed with things, and I found myself hiding things from different people.”

The intimate show, Asleep in a Secret, explores Gellman’s secrets and how they drove him “very close to the edge.”

He believes Australia has a high demand for circus arts because the country has volved differently to the rest of the world.

“I think Australian circus performers have defined themselves with their elevated level of artistry in their acts. So instead of copying an old circus act, they create and direct their own work.”

So the clowns have gone.  And so have the stinky animals.

You won’t see a colourful big top-tent at this year’s Fringe Festival. As Gellman explains, instead of music, lights, costumes, makeup, sequins and red noses to “dress-up” the act, performers have striped everything back to make the art raw.

Although there won’t be any death-defying trapeze acts, you will still be inspired. And shocked.

The new circus is introducing us to young up-and-coming performers with fresh ideas and even fresher tricks.

And no cheesy Ring Master that will leave you cringing.

The ‘clowns’ are endlessly enthusiastic, and itching to have fun with you.  So no need to worry, coulrophobiacs!

Florencia Liguori is a final-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe Univeristy. Her blog is called Fashion Gal.