The joy of circus
At the age of 30, Dea Birkett (Politics and Philosophy 1981) ran away to the circus. She recounts her adventures, explains why we all need this art form in our lives and shares her top circus picks.
Dea, you've had a wonderfully rich career, but let's rewind to your student days - what are some of your favourite Edinburgh memories?
Being a student at Edinburgh was the most exciting time. It was the late 1970s, with protests and power cuts. Big outside politics punctuated my years as a politics and philosophy student.
It was as a student I discovered a love of travel, and how important it would become to defining my career. Because of the excellent Scottish tradition of having a broad education, I had to choose one subject outside of my degree. I randomly picked African History, knowing nothing about it, nor knowing that it was taught by the inspirational Dr Christopher Fyfe.
I remember they were scheduled at 9am; Christopher said he did this deliberately to deter dabblers and shirkers. Taking these classes changed where I went next. I did a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, was a student in Ibadan, Nigeria, and discovered that difference and movement enthralled me.
What else have you been up to?
My other love was writing. While in Edinburgh, I began to contribute to The Scotsman newspaper. I combined this with my background in African history and thrill of movement by following in the footsteps of Victorian woman traveller Mary Kingsley, and writing about her and other 19th century women travellers. This became my first book, 'Spinsters Abroad'. It did, as they say, "unexpectedly well". So I began to write more about myself travelling, and less about the travellers of others, in Jella. 'A Woman at Sea', about my time as a member of crew on board one of the last Elder Dempster vessels working the West African route. None of this would have happened without those 9am lectures with Christopher Fyfe.
I began to write for the Guardian newspaper, becoming a regular feature writer and columnist. One day, I was with my three young children visiting an exhibition when we were thrown out on the grounds of my youngest being too noisy. He had shouted "Monster!" at a statue that looked very much like, well … a monster. They threw out the wrong family. I wrote a piece about it in the Guardian. That led to the foundation of Kids in Museums, which soon became an independent charity working with museums nationwide to better include and welcome all families. I was the first Director.
What made you want to become a circus performer and how did you find the experience?
As a child, I remember the circus pitching up at the end of our street. Like many, it was the first and for many years the only live performance I saw. That image of the wondrous travelling players, who transformed the shabby park each year, lingered.
After I had my first child, I knew, if I were ever going to be part of that travelling show, I had to do it then before too late. So, aged 30, I ran away to the circus. I adored the international community – Moroccan tumblers, Chinese acrobats, Ukrainian hula hoop girl … and the way in which we trusted each other every day with our lives.
It was and is an extraordinary place, full of cross cultural understanding. After leaving the circus as a performer, I remained part of that community. When the opportunity came up in 2018 to celebrate 250 years since the first circus, I knew I had to seize it. Shakespeare400 was ringing in our ears. If they can do it for Shakespeare, I thought, we can do it for circus. It has a few more feathers and is so much more fun.
Can you tell us more about Circus250 and what your role entails?
I established and became Ringmaster of Circus250. This involves co-ordinating over 250 events that are happening UK and Ireland wide to celebrate the anniversary. Ringmasters are both MCs and executive producers – public facing and inward looking. I do a bit of both. We have events at national museums such as the V&A and Science Museum, in theatres, in archives, libraries and, of course, circuses themselves – both contemporary and traditional. Sir Peter Blake, one of the many artists inspired by circus, has designed our logo (pictured).
One of the main aims of Circus250 is to unearth and demonstrate the circus that lies at the heart of our culture. It isn’t only found in circus performance, but in literature (from Angela Carter’s Night at the Circus to Dr Seuss), film (from Fellini to The Greatest Showman), design, fashion (Vivienne Westwood’s last catwalk show was circus themed) and more. It is part of our culture, embedded it in, even if we don’t know it.
And what are some of the challenges for circus and those working in circus today?
The challenge today is to recognise circus as an art form, alongside dance, theatre and opera. More people go to see circus each week than opera, yet it doesn’t get the same profile and isn’t treated as seriously. Why not? It is a fabulous, live, visceral, sensual, expert form of expression, which engages every one of our emotions and senses. We cry, we laugh, we gasp, we put our fingers over our eyes. What other art form makes us feel all those things? What other art form can we smell, taste and feel as well as see? My hope for Circus250 is that the joy of circus in all its many forms is brought to everyone, both as audience and participant. We all need a little circus in our lives.
Thinking about your own experiences, what advice would you pass on to current students?
If the job you want doesn’t exist, invent it. You don’t have to decide when you’re 20 what you’re going to be doing when you’re 40. Experiment. You never regret trying and failing, only not trying.
Dea's circus picks
Circus250: Art of the Show National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin 9 June – 14 October 2018
A ground-breaking exhibition exploring artists’ responses to the circus, accompanied by a programme of events.
An immersive experience in a working circus artiste's 11-foot 1970s caravan, touring the UK and Ireland in 2018. Watch out for the giant Sir Peter Blake designed logo on the side.
Astley’s Astounding Adventures New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme 7 – 28 July 2018
World premiere of original play telling the story of Philip Astley, the international impresario who invented circus.
Circus! Show of Shows Weston Park Museum, Sheffield 25 July – 4 November 2018
A major new exhibition to mark the 250th anniversary chronicling the development of circus in the UK and exploring its social and cultural impact over the past two centuries.
Pride Circus Night Circomedia, Bristol 5 July 2018
Showcasing talented LGBT+ circus artists from around the globe for Circus250.
Lost in Translation Circus: The Hogwallops Chapelfield Summer Circus, Norwich 13 July 2018
Norwich’s very own "good old fashioned contemporary circus" troupe bring colourful, loud and funny dramatisation of the domestic adventures of a chaotic family.
Carnival of Colours 2018 Derry, Northern Ireland 1-2 September
A Big Top Tent and Paddy Bloomer’s Barn host a celebratory Circus250 festival.
The Blackpool Tower Week of Circus Blackpool Tower Circus and Promenade 9 – 15 July 2018
A whole week of circus activity to celebrate Circus250 including The Blackpool Tower Circus Parade with artists, performers and schools taking part in a one-off parade along Blackpool’s Promenade.
The Exploded Circus Touring England in 2018 All-female contemporary circus company Mimbre’s brand new show developed for the Circus250 celebrations.
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