We have invited our members to tell us a little more about themselves, their backgrounds, inspirations and thoughts on the exciting art forms of Street Arts, Circus and Spectacle in Ireland (and further afield)!
Dea Birkett, a former circus artiste, founded and is Ringmaster of Circus250, the UK and Ireland-wide celebration of 250 years of circus in 2018. An established broadcaster, Dea recently made Who Killed the Circus? for BBC World Service, an hour-long documentary on the end of Ringling Brothers circus. Circus Days, Circus Nights, an hour-long documentary for Channel4 on Dea’s experiences of circus work. Dea has introduced and edited Circus250 – the official brochure, documenting the history and current practice of circus in Ireland.
She is an award-winning writer and journalist, author of seven books including Serpent in Paradise and Off the Beaten Track. Three Centuries of Women Travellers. She is a contributor to the Guardian, Mail on Sunday and a wide range of publications on circus, as well as a regular commentator for the BBC and Irish radio stations. She is Creative Director of ManyRiversFilms, a BAFTA-winning film company, making challenging dramas and documentaries.
Can you describe your work?
As ringmaster, I organize, coordinate and promote events celebrating the 250th anniversary of circus this year. I also tour in the Circus250 Caravan with a short performance storytelling show – The Secret Life of a Circus Caravan. We have a maximum audience of five – it’s a small 11ft caravan that I lived in when a performer and still use.
How did you first get involved in Street Arts, Circus or Spectacle?
I ran away to join a traditional circus in Italy 25 years ago. I’d always wanted to since I was a child and never grew out of the dream. I retired from the ring when I was the oldest female in it, but never left the circus community. So, when the significant anniversary of 250 years of circus approached in 2018, I ran back to the circus to help coordinate the celebrations and events.
What is your earliest memory of experiencing Street Arts, Circus or Spectacle?
When I was a little girl I saw the circus parade past the end of my street. Within hours, the park where I played was transformed into a world of wondrous, exotic people and beasts. I saw men walking on stilts and wobbling on a high wire, clowns squelching, white horses teetering on their hind legs, and an elephant strolling around a sawdust ring. I longed to run my hand over the deep ridges of its trunk, to feel the rhythm of its stride, to be transformed into the shimmering lady who smiled down from its back. Then, the next day, the magical world was gone. There was nothing but swings and slides in the park. I thought it might have been a dream.
Can you identify a pivotal moment that transformed your work significantly?
When I set up Circus250, I was returning to the circus but not to performing – or so I thought. Then, when I was sitting in my caravan on Achill Island, recalling my performing days, I thought – I can tell that story as a performance. I didn’t think I would perform again, but here I am, on the road.
What other activities, creative or otherwise do you do that contribute to your work?
Writing. I think it’s underestimated how much writing influences or can form circus. I write everything out – then make it happen. I ‘plot’ it all. Of course, it doesn’t turn out like the words, but the words are the skeleton I hang everything on to, whether it’s a movement or a publicity campaign.
What was your first experience like of presenting work to an audience?
Terrifying – as I was on the back of an elephant for the first time as well.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to show work publicly for the first time?
There isn’t a magic clue, a key that unlocks all those fears. The only thing to do is to do it. There’s no other way. The worst that can happen is the audience won't roar with joy. But they can’t roar with joy at all if you don’t give them the opportunity.
Are you working towards any new projects at the moment?
Yes – StrongWomen Science with Aoife Raleigh and Maria Corcoran. (Aoife was an engineer now circus strong woman. Maria was an environmental scientist, now juggler and acrobat.) The show demonstrates science in a fun, accessible and enthralling way – using circus activities to illuminate scientific principles and ideas to children. It’s cheeky and fun. I love working on it. We premiere in November at the National Circus Festival.
Circus250 is also developing Patty’s Bees, another show which takes place inside a caravan. Patty was the wife of Philip Astley, the founder of circus 250 years ago. She founded circus too! She was also a phenomenal trick rider – her act was to ride around the ring smothered in a swarm of bees. In this short play for children, an actress plays Patty and the children in the audience are the bees, learning how the trick depends upon teamwork. All inside a caravan!
How do you feel about the street arts, circus and spectacle sector in Ireland right now?
Excited. Lots of really innovative things are happening. It will be interesting to see what emerges as a distinctive Irish form of street art and circus. Will it involve storytelling? Is it irreverent? What will Irish circus excel at?
What do you think is necessary for the art forms of street arts, circus and spectacle to develop and grow in Ireland?
To learn from the past, to be able to create fabulous new futures. You can’t invent if you don’t know what came before, as you just risk repeating it. In circus, I think it would help if Ireland found a distinctive voice, rather than just getting better at contemporary circus and producing more of it. There’s a wonderful opportunity to do it really differently here. I hope everyone grasps it.
What role/impact has the ISACS network had on your work to date?
I was on DELVE to Waterford Spraoi last year and it really opened my eyes to what was going on all over the country. It linked me up with people who I still value as advisers. ISACS is great at that.
What is the best comment you have ever received for your work?
That it brought joy. In a troubled world, joy is something we all need. Circus excels at bringing joy.
Finally, do you have any favourite tips or advice for emerging artists?
- Don’t disappear down a contemporary circus rabbit hole. See all sorts of different circus. See other things than circus. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
- Be a friend. Tell someone if their act isn’t working. I find it quite difficult to be a critical friend in circus, as some of the tricks are so difficult, and things I couldn’t possibly do, so how can I say it doesn’t work? But we all need critical input. Learn to give and receive it with enthusiasm and grace.
- Don’t get hung up on funding – or at least, Arts Council funding. We have been supported in StrongWomen Science – a circus show – by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Chemistry Society. It’s possible to get small amounts of money from all sorts of places.