Mike Finch

He began his career at Circus Oz in a work experience capacity making coffee in 1992. Five years later, he returned as Artistic Director and co-CEO. Before the premiere of Circus Oz: Barely Contained in Melbourne, Anna Lozynski interviewed Mike Finch about how he, together with co-director Derek Ives and a dozen circus performers have created Barely Contained Larrikinism, Barely Contained Chaos, Barely Contained Muscle, Barely Contained Exhuberance.
 


Mike FinchWhat can the audience expect to take away from Circus Oz: Barely Contained?
A reminder of what  can happen when a small group of diverse, yet co-operative people set their minds and bodies to the task of making something dangerous, spectacular and funny. Hopefully the audience takes away a sense of possibilities, laughter in the face of death, the joy of irreverence, and faith in the power of human co-operation.
 
Why did you decide to call the piece as you have?
Circus Oz is hard to contain. Our performers have spectacular skills, but they’re also very cheeky. The show barely fits on the stage, and the personalities of the people involved are not insignificant, so the name works on many levels.
 
What inspired the ballroom setting for the show?
The basic premise of the show is an inevitable fall from formality to chaos. Some people have talked about the Global Financial Crisis and the collapse of capitalism. Others have talked about how no matter how dressed up one gets, someone still has to sweep up the empty bottles and old popcorn at the end. We wanted to explore the flip between the elegance of a candlelit ballroom, and the dusty raucous carnival midway. A change of lighting takes us from moody to garish, from red velvet to raw concrete. In some ways many of the acts explore what happens when things do not go to plan, or someone turns the lights up too bright. We also wanted to remove a tuxedo or two, and hang from a chandelier.
 
There are several new performers forming the 2009 cast. What motivated the expansion of the cast?
There are a dozen members in our cast. We always like to have an equal number of men and women on stage. Seven of our performers finished up at the end of our last tour, to make way for seven new performers. There is an annual cycle, with creative development and rehearsal at the same time each year, March to May followed by our home-town Melbourne Big Top season in June/July. For this season, we head-hunted seven of Australia’s best circus performers and circus musicians, including three ex-members of Circus Oz who have returned to the fold. The veterans are Carl Polke (Musician), Chris Lewis (Musical Director) and Mel Fyfe (Strongwoman and Acrobat). The new recruits are Shannon Barnett (Trombonist), Tom Flanagan (A human powerhouse tumbler), Eli Green (hilarious street performer and hula-hoopist,), and Emma J Hawkins (a short-statured dancer, singer, stilt-walker and newly trained Acrobat).
 
What have you learned from directing this piece?
I am actually co-directing with Derek Ives, founding member of both Brisbane’s Rock’n’Roll Circus and Melbourne’s Candy Butchers. Derek is an old friend, and I am having a great time collaborating with someone who has thought about circus for most of his life, but has not directed a Circus Oz before. We’re making some interesting new stuff. It’s possible to keep learning forever.
 
How do you manage the rehearsal schedule for such a show?
With the help of an incredible crew of people, including the multi-skilled performers and our stage crew, especially our amazing stage manager Cath Hedge. The challenge with scheduling a circus rehearsal, especially one with group acts and multi-disciplinary performers, is the complex interplay of training, safety, availability clashes and stamina. For example, does half the tap-dance duo have to get on a trapeze with the riggers and bear the weight of two other people before lifting half a tonne of acrobats on her legs before or after she practices her bass guitar riff with the band? It gets a bit tricky. The only solution really is a group of experienced people who can see problems before they happen and laugh in the face of ambiguity.
 
What have the performers found most challenging about this work?
The performers and stage crew are doing incredibly precise and physically painful work, but making it look hilarious, partially improvised and funny. That is always the challenge for our kind of circus. For this particular show the greatest challenge has been working out how to put so many group acts into a running order without wearing anyone out!
{xtypo_quote_right}Theatre is in danger of continually rarifying itself to death, black boxes, audiences sitting in silence, inward-looking references, language, focused demographics of audiences{/xtypo_quote_right}  
What attracts you to the circus world having worked in theatre, as a busker and having directed short films?
Theatre is in danger of continually rarifying itself to death, black boxes, audiences sitting in silence, inward-looking references, language, focused demographics of audiences. All these are strengths as an exploratory art, but also inherent weaknesses when it comes to unifying and connecting a wider community of people. Most ‘serious’ theatre I see in Australia makes me ask “Who is the audience?”

In terms of busking of the circus/comedic circle-show variety, it is usually a solitary pursuit. The thing I LOVE about a street audience is that it’s incredibly democratic, the audience can walk away when they want, and it’s a totally mixed diverse crowd. Anyone could be on that street just as you start your show.

Film is obviously great in terms of a permanently recorded medium, but at one point in my life I decided that I could come back to directing film as an old man, but would never be able to come back to performing circus.  I concentrated training as an acrobat and physical comedian in my twenties and have never regretted it.

What makes you passionate about Circus Oz specifically?
Circus (and particularly Circus Oz) is spectacular, raw, real and funny. It works at lots of different levels simultaneously. Kids love it and adults ‘read’ it. One does not need an expensively acquired education to appreciate it. It’s collaborative, devised, like being part of a dangerous but irreverent ‘gang’. It transcends all language barriers. And unlike ballet or classical music, or even acting, it’s one of the last art forms still ‘owned’ by the performers themselves.
 
Tell us about your history as a circus performer?
I started training in Bathurst in 1990 as a juggler and acrobat, including a number of years of training with a fellow student Inthasone Phetsiriseng, a Laotian acrobat who trained at The Moscow Circus School and helped found the Lao National Circus. I co-founded a company called Precarious that eventually created Circus Monoxide, a contemporary circus partially inspired by Circus Oz. It toured in a converted Double-Decker bus, with bunks upstairs, and an office and kitchen downstairs, and a show which folded off the side.
 
What do you now know that you wish you had discovered at the beginning of your career?
That less is often more. That a group of friends doing something they believe in passionately is rare.  Trust is not easily earned. One should live each day like it’s one’s last.


Circus Oz: Barely Contained opens June 17, 2009 at Birrarung Marr. Tickets are on sale now through Ticketmaster.

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