It’s a great time to be Circus Oz. The company recently returned from a triumphant tour of the United States, with glowing reviews for their latest work, Cranked Up. The NY Times proclaimed, “who knew the circus could be like this?” while the NY Post praised their “cheeky humor that seems as indigenous to Australia as kangaroos.”
This year Circus Oz is celebrating its 35th anniversary and, thanks to $15 million provided by the Victorian Government, they are soon to take possession of their newly renovated home at the old Collingwood TAFE. And to top it off, former Federal Arts Minister, Simon Crean, recently announced the long awaited National Cultural Policy, which included a major funding boost for Circus Oz.
Of course, in between the accolades and the politicians handing them buckets of money, is a lot of extremely hard work by a lot of extremely hard working people. After 35 years with the company, no-one understands this better than the man who was there right at the start – founding member and all round Upside Down Guy, Tim Coldwell.
“Yeah well, money being thrown at you – I always have mixed feelings about that. It always comes with the sense that, we should be able to do all of that for nothing, we shouldn’t really need all of that.”
Coldwell is clearly a man of extensive abilities, and he’s grown adept at creating much out of very little. In the early days, it wasn’t uncommon for the 11 or 12 members of the fledgling company to take on numerous tasks. Driving trucks, putting up tents, front of house, box office, company administration were all in a days work – not to mention acrobatics, playing the tuba or performing on the high wire.
Right now, his sole focus is the renovations at the Collingwood TAFE. It’s a massive task, involving bureaucracy from a large range of stakeholders – Treasury, Arts Victoria, architects, architects consultants… the list goes on. When complete, the new venue will provide much needed additional rehearsal space, expanding the company’s capacity to develop new work and allowing them to build on their links with the community. But for a man used to making things happen, the slow grind of bureaucracy can be frustrating at times – “circus is generally the antithesis of that.”
Coldwell grew up in the late 60’s amidst the dawning of the protest movement in Australia. There was a growing social and cultural awareness amongst young people and the combination of popular music with politics and art triggered his interest in performing. He became increasingly immersed in the hippy counter-culture, and after a year of studying science at university, he dropped out. He followed a friend to Adelaide, spent another year doing odd jobs, and eventually enrolled in the drama course at Flinders University, where he became drawn to the notion of a “popular theatre” in all its forms – sport, religion, and of course, theatre. Circus seemed the perfect artform to explore those ideas.
In 1973 he witnessed a performance by radical French street artist, Philippe Petite, and became interested in the new wave circus (incidentally, on that same tour, Petite notoriously walked on a high-wire across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and gained infamy a year later for the “artistic crime of the century" – another high-wire walk, but this time between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center). In that same year, Coldwell attended the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin – Australia’s Woodstock – and found himself exposed to a culture and ideals that resonated.
He got his first taste of professional circus working as a tent-hand with Ashton’s Circus – driving trucks, putting up tents and setting up chairs. He even spent a few weeks as the ‘elephant boy’ – feeding the star elephant, shovelling shit and helping the trainer during performances.
Aspiring circus performers today have a number of avenues in which to pursue professional training, such as NICA (the National Institute for Circus Arts) in Prahran, or the Flying Fruit Fly Circus with whom Circus Oz have maintained a long standing relationship. But when Coldwell started out, there were no training courses or circus schools. “There were a couple of hippy juggling books but not much else.” The only way to learn, was by doing.
Travelling with a circus was hard work – long days were spent setting up the venue, performing the show, then packing the truck and driving a hundred miles to the next town, where the whole process was repeated the following day. But on weekends you would occasionally get to stay in the same place for a few days, and, if you were lucky, the high-wire net would be left up – this was his chance to learn and practice.
Many of the acts he worked with were experienced international performers, mostly from European circuses, on tour in Australia during their off-season. He took the opportunity to glean information whenever he could.
“This is how you learned about circus in Australia – you’d go and work really hard for a day, and if you were lucky and asked the right questions, someone would tell you a secret – it was kinda like that… they’d talk to you for 5 minutes and then go to their caravan and go to bed. It was like – secrets that you had to kind of extract from people.”
When a number of members from Ashton’s Circus broke away to form Circus Royale, Coldwell went with them. The breakaway circus provided opportunities that might have taken years to come by with the previous company – they took it in turns playing the Ring Master and the clowns… as well as driving trucks and putting up tents. “So it was a slightly better class of tent-hand gig.”
Eventually he broke away with a group of his own, forming the New Circus. Putting his experience fixing old vehicles to good use, they took to the road in a collection of second hand trucks and caravans, “kind of [a] travelling village thing – so it was very… sort of hippy thing.”
Looking for work for the new troupe, he phoned an old mate in Melbourne, John Pinder, founder of the legendary Last Laugh Comedy Club, and asked if they could come and play. Pinder obviously knew a good thing when he saw it – he paired them up with an aerial act that had already been performing at the club, and the resulting show ran for an astounding 8 months. The venue afforded them not only financial security for a while, but a space in which to hone their craft. They experimented with a high wire above the tables and guests would stare up at them while they ate their dinner. It was during this time, that one of Coldwell’s best known illusions was created.
“It was a crazy restaurant idea – we thought ‘what would be a great thing to do in here. A waiter walks up the wall and across the ceiling and down the other side.’ And that was it really.” The Upside Down Guy was born… at least in theory. Now, not for the first time, he just had to make it work. But make it work he did, and the character, in one form or another, has been a signature of the company ever since.
Eventually they teamed up with another circus troupe, Soap Box – the rock ‘n roll circus arm of the highly influential Pram Factory – to form “one big circus.” They sold the idea to Moomba and the Adelaide Festival under the rather grand company name of “Circus Australia” – an indication even then of their ambition for the new company. The show itself had the rather more down-to-earth title, “Circus Oz,” perhaps more befitting their knockabout, larrikin style – and that was the name that stuck.
For 35 years, Circus Oz has toured the world, performed to literally millions of people and built a global reputation for their uniquely Australian take on the circus genre. It is a great time to be Circus Oz. There have been numerous ups and downs with major milestones along the way, and as with any great illusion, they've got used to making the impossible look easy. But behind the scenes the hard work never stops.
Circus Oz 2013: Cranked Up
Season 19 June – 14 July 2013
Duration 2 hours (plus 20 minute interval)
Venue Circus Oz Big Top | Birrarung Marr, between Federation Square and Batman Avenue, Melbourne
Tickets $24 – $92 (on sale from Monday, 25 March 2013)
Bookings 136 100 and ticketmaster.com.au