In an outback gold-mining town in Western Australia, a small boy in a small school stays behind when all the other kids have left for the day. I ask him "are you in detention?" "No", he says, "I've got stay behind to do self-esteem" !
In another West Australian School, 400 miles further south, in high-timber country, there's another small school. In this one, any child can join the School Circus. If you come top in a spelling test, you can stand on the desk and take a bow. The whole class applauds. The word 'self-esteem' is never used. It is not needed.
Circus is magic. That short sentence is not a banner, not a headline, not even a cliché. It is a fact, one which has inspired me to spend over 20 years pursuing the magicians, visiting the sacred sites, uncovering some secrets, learning the rites and weaving spells of my own for many thousands of people. But there is nothing dark, sinister or deceptive about Circus magic. In Circus you achieve the 'impossible' not through trickery but by very hard work, by respecting and following your teacher, by taking on personal responsibility, by supporting your colleagues, and by aspiring to the ultimate.
I have been teaching Circus Skills, mostly to children, since 1977, when I opened Britain's first Summer Circus School in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I have become the expert at teaching 'Lesson One', and every day I still thrill to the cry of "Look Reg, I can do it!"
Elsewhere* I have explained the philosophy and rationale of Suitcase Circus - the 'Why' of Recreational Circus. Here I'd like to cover some of the 'How'.
The key to our system is the 13-skill 'Circus Success Certificate', with the Bronze, Silver and Gold levels. In formal and informal classes, the charts are on the wall, so students can see the progressions. The skills are: Acrobatics, Stilts, Juggling, Tightrope, Trapeze, Devil Stick, Diabolo, Spinning, Unicycling, Performer, Clown, Circus Hand and (for younger students) Circus Kid.
Examples - 'Acrobatics Bronze': Forward Roll, Backward Roll, Cartwheel, Headstand, Sitting on Shoulders, Bendback. ( all well executed)
'Unicycle Silver': Ride a Figure 8, 10 Bunny-Hops, Running Mount, Idle 10 times (left and right), 10m backwards, Ride High Uni.
'Stilts Gold': Juggle on stilts, Jump Rope, Headstand, Splits, Lift and carry a partner.
Our teaching situations include:
The Perth YMCA Circus School which, before the building was lost, had 650 students weekly, from Pre-school to Seniors, beginners to advanced, juggling to aerial. All except the advanced classes worked through the levels - bronze, silver and gold. Once you've reached gold, you know you're good! Most participants attended once a week, although we also held week-end master-classes and we were developing full-time vocational courses.
With lots of classes in Gymnastics and Basic Circus Skills, the school also ran specialised classes in Acrobatics, Trapeze, Unicycling and Juggling. In addition, classes were offered in dance, art, music, design, magic, yoga, and didgeridu ( a traditional Aboriginal wind instrument).
Although that 'once and future Circus School' is now a Cricket Pavilion, we are embarked on a new exciting adventure with the YMCA. We are working on a national, to become an international, Recreational Circus Curriculum. This programme, with full training, teaching techniques, safety procedures, and resources including books, wall charts, videos and certificates will be available for use in recreational centres, schools etc everywhere.
Central Desert Aboriginal Communities These are tiny, remote townships with names like Tjirrkarli, Tjurkurla, Warakurna and Milyirrtjarra. I am privileged to get frequent invitations to visit these reserved lands. Luckily the languages and culture of these peoples have survived, and the Education Department, administered from the Capital, a thousand miles away, respects this and the search is out for non-invasive cultural input from the dominant white community. Suitcase Circus seems to fit the bill. Verbal communication is almost irrelevant. Faced with a unicycle, stilts or a mini-tramp, the local children and I are speaking the same unspoken language - "How do you do it?"
They learn fast - really fast. Their bodies are tougher, and though I can't talk about a higher pain threshold, there is certainly a higher whingeing threshold. If a child had a spectacular fall, the first response is laughter. Concern only comes in if the victim doesn't laugh quite as much as the others. But most impressive is the instinctive mode of learning by copying. There's no written tradition for making a boomerang. Young man watches old man. It's the same with juggling. There's no point in me talking ad nauseam about trajectory, rhythm, synchronicity, patterns. Instead, I juggle, we both laugh a lot, then they juggle.
When it comes to performing, there are cultural obligations of who should and should not 'show-off' or star in public. I can't begin to understand their subtleties of male/female and young/elder status. However, what we are doing with Suitcase Circus is so different - so funny - so odd, that the normal rules are suspended. All sorts of people take part in our show, and anyone can be applauded or laughed at. It sometimes seems to me that during our stay with them, we all seem to be living in a parallel universe.
The School Residency More and more schools are contacting us for an extended 'Suitcase Circus' project. Typically we start with a show for the whole school which introduces us, and the Circus techniques we use. More important, but seldom noticed, is the way it introduces us to the teachers. They begin to understand the power of this set of tools. They see again what we should see every day on children's faces - JOY and WONDER! The teachers begin to see us as colleagues rather than outsiders.
Incidentally, do you in the States suffer from the word "incursion" in this context? It used to be that a class trip to the zoo was an "outing", and the puppet show in the assembly hall was a "school visit". The outing has become an "excursion", and, incredibly, with no reference to the dictionary, the visit of Suitcase Circus and others is deemed an "incursion"! Look it up. It's "a hostile invasion". It's Saddam Hussein, Ghengis Khan stuff! It's rape and pillage! A Pre-school teacher recently phoned and asked if I was available for an incursion next week. I said "Do you have any virgins?" "Pardon?" "How about Thursday?".
Once we get started with our once a week lessons with every child in the school, the teachers are impressed how the Circus skills are so varied as to give every child a chance to excel at something. There's the boy who can cross his legs behind his head, the girl who finds an uncanny knack for spinning plates. Mutual respect pervades the whole school. The smallest Grade One kid is suddenly in great demand as top-mounter in human pyramids. Parents seek me out to say their child has never enjoyed school so much.
Generally we work towards a product, a Big Big Show. Yes, the show features every child in the school. Each class take a different topic, or a Circus Story, and interprets it differently. What could be more gruelling than a "display" of every skill of every child? We all love to watch our own child do a forward roll, but could we sit through the other four hundred!
No, our Big Big Show is a Variety Show, when you never know what's coming next. Here are some of the themes of our next extravaganza:
The Con Colleano Story. (Did you know Con was from an Aboriginal Australian family?)
Giovanni The Juggler. The 16th Century folk tale sometimes called "The Clown of God"
Chinese Circus. In traditional costume and make-up.
Space Circus. Magical fluorescent effects in ultra-violet light.
Going to the Zoo. The youngest students take on animal roles.
CircOlympics. Circus as Sport.
Jack and the Beanstalk. A traditional folk tale enhanced with stilts, rope-climbing, harp-riding (a unicycle), and a chicken that lays golden juggling balls.
Visual Harmonies. Classical music and Opera interpreted visually with juggling, diabolos and hoop spinning.
Clowns. Old and new routines.
Suitcase Circus Credo
We are the same vintage as Circus Oz and Big Apple, not much younger than the Pickle Family, and older than Cirque du Soleil. We have remained small by choice. We celebrate smallness. From our occasional Circus Schools, our courses, our books and videos, from our chance meetings with thousands of children all over the world, individuals go on to be wonderful! Many become wonderful in Circus. Some start their own companies. Lots don't. But they change. For one short time in their lives they touched the sky, they did the impossible, they smiled and a crowd applauded. That moment stays with them. I like to think that after performing in a Circus, however small, however local, the world looks different. From now on, if you work at it, if you can be in a family or a group where people support each other, then absolutely anything is achievable.
'New Circus' by Reg Bolton ISBN 0 90333 1 9 37 3
pub. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, London 1987
'Circus in a Suitcase' by Reg Bolton 1983, 87, 95,
pub Suitcase Circus, available from The Circus Shop.
'Laugh Makers' vol 13. No 2 1995
'Australasian Drama Review' October 1999
'Pro-Circus' through 1997, 1998
both available from The Circus Shop.