For the last 25 years, Circus Oz have been carrying (and, if the start of their show is anything to go by, probably burning) the flag for contemporary circus in Australia. The merry band of Aussie acrobats-come-musical-satirical-comedians are currently strutting their utterly unique stuff on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. Tom Bowtell asked Mike Finch, now the artistic director of the company, about circus life, larrikins and why a member of the company gets fired every night.
Mike Finch was an acrobat, and a juggler, and a performer before he moved over to the directing side of things. His special skill was juggling the unjugglable: “It was so cool to be able to make people laugh and happy by doing something that made me laugh and made me happy.” Mike is now the artistic director of Circus Oz – Australia’s biggest and most influential contemporary circus. “I guess Circus Oz is the instigator of a lot of the contemporary circus stuff in Australia. In 1978 it emerged out of another couple of companies working in the 70s. It was one of the first companies in the world to call itself a circus but get rid of the animals, mix it all up with comedy, rock and roll and contemporary satire and move away from the traditional sawdust shows. All the technical excellence is still there – but this other stuff is too.”
"Circus Oz was the first circus to get rid of the animals and mix it up with comedy, politics and Rock And Roll”
Whereas the world’s other major circus players – Cirque Eloize and Cirque Du Soleil – tend to produce new shows around specific themes, even incorporating plots, Circus Oz adopt a far more organic – or, to use Mike’s Aussie-ism, “knock about” – approach. “The show’s constantly evolving. Our show in London is similar to the one we took to New York. It’s similar to that, but it’s already evolved – there are already about three acts that are brand new. The show’s totally different from the last one we took to London. We work in geological time, we’re constantly in a state of flux.” So how are acts selected? Do circus members simply get bored of riding bare-back of fire-swallowing robotic aardvarks? “It’s very democratic, it comes from a balance of safety. And also from us wanting it to be sh*t hot.”
[At this point Mike takes time out from outlining the policy of his circus to have a chat about the semantics of sh*t hot.]
“Do you use the term sh*t hot? We were just discussing it today and weren’t sure if it’s just an Aussie term. It just means good. We want the show to be on good form, but we also want it all to be slick – we want to balance sh*t hot with innovative. So we might come up with a whole new idea and then we’ll incorporate it into the show, without doing a whole new thing. The performers stay the same most of the time – it’s like a rock band writing new material and mixing it up with their old stuff at concerts.”
One of the things which makes this fluid kind of production both possible and successful is the versatility, in all meanings of the word, of Circus Oz’ core team of 12 performers: “Our music evolves alongside the acts and is performed by the performers – there’s a really nice organic connection. I mean Matt-who-gets-shot-out-of-a-cannon also plays the guitar and the sax and the clarinet.” Mike doesn’t specify if this happens all at once, but I suspect that it probably does.
This multi-skilled element has, in Mike’s opinion, become one of the hallmarks of modern Australian circus. “Yeah, I guess it’s a combination of punk and fringe with multi-skilled performers and live music. I also reckon that there’s an underlying level of irreverence and larrikin humour which you might not find in some other contemporary circus acts around the world.”
There certainly appears to be something of a gulf between the earnestly artistic approach of some of the French and Canadian circuses on the circuit, and Circus Oz’s larrikin antics. Mike admits that he sees circus as straddling the camps of high art and popular entertainment: “it’s definitely somewhere in-between the two. It’s like all forms of popular culture like pop music and graphic art: it’s a serious art form but it’s also actively trying to engage an audience – our show literally doesn’t work if no-one turns up, but you can imagine that some black-box theatre or performance art can almost exist without one. For us the audience is the final member of the creative team: it’s like a rock band – it needs that. So for us it’s entertainment crossed with art – and at the same time trying to subvert that! Circus is one of the last art forms where the performers themselves are controlling the artform and exactly what the audience gets. The performers in a circus ring aren’t mediated in the way that recorded singers or movie stars are. The performer still has primacy in the circus which, for a performer, is pretty exciting.” And for an artistic director, methinks.
“There is something inherently Australian in that it’s all a bit knockabout and we just can’t take ourselves too seriously”
Despite his admission of ribald mickey-taking of some of the more poe-faced circus institutions, Finch confirms that he and Circus Oz enjoy cordial relations with the other leading troupes such as Cirque Eloize and Cirque Du Soleil. “Ah yeah – we get on well. We’ve had people who’ve worked for Circus Oz who have gone to work for Cirque Eloize before coming back to work for us again. There’s so much in common between the performers at an offstage level and any sort of onstage differences are philosophical or aesthetic. The actual craft is what binds us all together: even the most traditional sawdust and tigers performer and the most avant-garde French performer will have callouses in common – these technical things are the glue which holds the international circus community together and there’s very little antagonism between them. It’s like musicians: some are rock and roll musicians, some are jazz and some are punk but they can all sit down and talk about chords – the differences become stimulating”.
While the companies may have a great deal in common, there is one aspect of Circus Oz which makes it stand out: it is a fair dinkum Aussie company and the others aren’t. How, apart from the general larrikin-osity of the show, does this Aussie-ness manifest itself? “Well we never sit down and say ‘OK guys, how are we going to make ourselves more Australian?’ We never get in Kangaroos or anything, but what tends to happen is that we work with Australians, people who live here, and we try to reflect Australian society and have people from a range of cultural backgrounds. But there is something inherently Australian in that it’s all a bit knockabout and we just can’t take ourselves too seriously, and just the accents that pour out when we talk are so silly. I think what happens is that we cook the show in Australia: we do a third of our touring to country Australian tours – we go to tiny towns of twenty or thirty thousand people and squeeze the whole show into a small village hall, but you listen to an audience response – an audience of real outback Australians – and so you tweak and develop the show and you end up with a product that’s intrinsically Australian. I think that in the face of global media and mass-produced images – most of them from North America – that it’s really important in terms of cultural diversity that messages still come from somewhere. In your case it’s that something can still really feel Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish, or Northern and it’s important that people feel they’re from somewhere, and aren’t just part of this global lump of culture.”
While he now has erudite and well-developed views about the cultural and social importance of what he does, Mike didn’t always dream of being a circus star and fell into the business in an appropriately roundabout way. “I spent quite a while just pretty much thrashing around. I’ve got a pretty short attention span so I thought about going into advertising because they only ever do things which are short! Then I went to an open day at uni and saw this bloke juggling on a hill and someone told me that there was a degree in performance arts and I was like ‘you’re sh*tting me! you can do that at Uni?’ So I signed up for that course and from then on I was pretty much hooked.”
“I’ve got a pretty short attention span so I thought about going into advertising because they only ever do things which are short”
During the ten years he has been with the company, Mike has seen Circus Oz evolve into a globally respected institution. “There have been some great performances. We had a season in Korea which was fantastic – we were in this state-of-the-art theatre in downtown Seoul that was completely amazing – and outside was this vibrant Korean society. So there we were with this knockabout Aussie show performing to a full house of Koreans.” In order to make Circus Oz accessible, the performers translate the show into the native tongue of wherever they are “yeah, it’s pretty interesting – we learn the language phonetically – and it’s often a really dodgy translation and a lot of the laughs come from our terrible mispronunciations. But it’s important for us to do the language stuff – we’ve performed the show in more than 20 languages.” Other performances which are clearly of considerable importance to Mike are those the company gave in the Australian desert to Aboriginal audiences “Those were amazing. We did one tour with a DC 9 [an aeroplane] with the whole company in the plane and we’d lay the mat out in the desert and do the whole show to an audience of only a couple of hundred people. I love that sense of variety of scale – you're doing the Royal Festival Hall one minute, Broadway the next and a little town called Turkey Creek near Melbourne the next.
One other memorable performance, which fulfilled the company’s aims of providing entertainment while breaking down barriers came when Circus Oz was invited to perform in Israel. “There was a lot of discussion in the company as to whether we should go or not, and in the end we agreed to do the show in Israel if they also organised a performance for Palestinian refugees. That was amazing. We did the show in a courtyard in a Palestinian Refugee Camp and we were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of people crowded around. It was the first piece of entertainment they’d had for a very long time – I think since the camp had been formed.”
"We're committed to helping the underdog"
Such humanitarian performances, the cultural range of Circus Oz’s members and the satirical barbs which litter their show all underline the company’s ongoing commitment to matters of social justice “I think it was there from the beginning, in 1978 the original founding members – were a group of late-70s activist performers. They were interested in a range of things – Uranium mining in Australia, land rights for Aborigines and equality for women, and so the thread of humanitarian work was there from the start. ‘Social Justice and a good time for all’ is what we call it. At different times we associate ourselves with different causes at the moment we are speaking out against the current Government policy of detaining asylum seekers and immigrants – we pass a hat around at the end of our Australian shows to raise money for legal aid to refugees. Our politics will creep into the show sometimes – perhaps with a nudge and a wink and an off-the-cuff remark – but the company is very committed to helping out the underdog.”
Mike is adamant that the social justice element of the company is only effective if they have a show which is, shall we say, sh*t hot. perhaps the hottest of the Circus Oz's acts is their human cannonball, who has wowed audiences from Israel to Islington. “We’ve got this amazing performer at the moment – Matt Wilson – who’s an incredible allrounder. He’s a great singer and stuntman, it’s him who gets shot out of a cannon. He also disappears out of the ceiling of the tent doing a 9-metre stunt jump while singing a song.” Mike goes on to recount one occasion in New York where the performers wheeled the cannon into the back of the auditorium and fired the intrepid (insane) Mr Wilson over the audience and on to the stage: “He got fired straight down the centre of the stage and landed just in front of the drum kit. The great thing was that when he was sitting in the mouth of the cannon he could shake hands with the audience and have a chat.” Mike goes on to outline the other most eye-catching elements of the show: “the start's pretty good. We pretty much set everything on fire as the show opens– all of the performers and the gear and stuff – you can feel the heat in the back row. There's also a unique trapeze act which is performed entirely by cockatoos."
At this point I stop Mike – pointing out that much of the company’s reputation has been founded on their avoidance of using animals. “Nah mate – they’re people dressed as cockatoos! – it’s the whole cast dressed up as Sulpher Crested Cockatoos. We’re taking the mickey out the whole flying trapeze artist thing. One of the cockatoos is really fat and the whole thing collapses. My belief is that humans are plenty weird enough without having to drag animals into it. However, I don’t particularly have a problem with animals: I think it’s a matter of degrees. If you have a caged exotic animal that is made to do stuff that is degrading and odd, then I’d have a problem with that. However, I’ve always wanted to do an act where an Australian sheep dog rounds up three clowns dressed as sheep. A kelpie running around trying to round-up three idiots dressed in woolly jumpers and horns would be pretty funny – I think that’s totally different from making a Bengal Tiger leap through a burning hoop. We don’t use animals, we don’t intend to, but my guess is that over the next few years there’ll be some contemporary circus acts that do some pretty interesting stuff with animals.”
My final question, one which cuts to the very quick of contemporary circus and the world of performing arts as a whole, is whether or not Mike knows anyone who has run away from the circus to become and accountant… “Yeah! I think I do! There’s a bloke straight downstairs from me who started life in the circus when he was 10 years old. He’s a very funny performer and has one of the best trampoline acts I’ve ever seen. He joined Circus Oz and toured around the world for five or six years and then went off to uni to study business. He looks great in the suit, he talks the talk and he’s got it all sorted but every now and then he pulls out his trampoline act and just blows people away.”
So if anyone visiting a Melbourne bank and sees a blur of tumbling pinstripe followed by a double tuck with half pike and somersault, they’ll know exactly why.