I arrived at Bristol Downs for my week with Billy Smart’s Circus, sleeping bag in hand, with absolutely no idea what to expect. All I had to go on were two brief conversations with the Circus Director Tony Hopkins, in which he reassuringly told me that it was fine for me to come but that he had no idea where I would sleep.
I was greeted at the entrance by Gaze, a striking denim eyed, laid back youngster from Budapest who showed me to my room in the ‘Bunk Wagon’ which is like a long terraced caravan with a bed, a cupboard and a sink hidden behind each door. This was a turn up for the books as I had been expecting to be sleeping on the clown’s floor. My fellow bunk wagon inhabitants were the ‘tent workers’ or ‘boys’ as Gaze calls them; these are the guys, mostly from Eastern Europe, who to take care of the manual work around the site, mainly repairs, maintenance and construction. The ‘artists’ (circus performers) all have their own caravans that are linked up to water and electricity; they are cosy and well equipped – some even with dogs.
I was then escorted into the Big Top and hit by that nostalgic sickly sweet smell of mulched grass and candy floss, and the tinkling of eerie circus music that I can’t help but associate with a blood thirsty Tim Curry in a retro clown suit. I was introduced to Eddie the Polish electrician, who doubles up as a popcorn seller during show time, Desi the hand balancer and Sammy whose rheumatism forced her early retirement from knife throwing! I am guided through the tent, past the audience and through the backstage curtain, only to bump straight into Alex the Aussie trapeze artist, all white teeth, rock hard flesh and sparkly shorts. I look around to discover that there are 3 more of them! I decide in that instant that I going to like it here.
On the first night I go out on the town with some performers from the Netherlands National circus that have come to visit and watch the show. I am overwhelmed by how interesting these people are and spend my time drinking too much beer and syphoning insights from Daniel the Dutch clown, Adelita the Mexican dancer who gets swung round by her hair (at 70 mph!) and Don the Moroccan acrobat who swings under the belly of galloping horses.
I learn quickly that there are two main types of circuses – The Family Circus: very traditional circuses that have often been going for generations with each family member rotating in to perform multiple acts throughout the show – and circuses with independent artist’s, each with their own acts and equipment, who are drafted in by a Circus Director to perform for a season. Billy Smart’s circus now falls into the latter category, although there are some family acts in the show, such as the Romanian acrobat troupe and the father and daughter clown/ hand balancer duo from the famous Victor Hugo Cardinali family in Portugal; a circus that has every animal you can think of, including 12 white lions.
Circus life is riddled with politics. There is a strict hierarchy, according to most people who are ‘from circus’ in which artists are at the top, musicians come second and the tent workers come next. This is especially a consideration when it comes to breeding. At the bottom are the ‘privates’, i.e. those who are not from circus families and are considered to be outsiders. A necessity, perhaps, to allow the circus families to remain undiluted so that the younger generations will continue the tradition of taking in and supporting their older family members once their bodies become too old for them to perform.
Over the course of the next week I watch the show 11 times, and do not tire of it. The show is exciting, slick and professional, with seven acts of tremendous skill and daring neatly woven together by Angelo the clown. At first I didn’t like the clown, he made me feel awkward and on edge, but as the week progresses I can’t help but admire his skill – the way he adapts his style to each audience, and the utter annihilation of both ego and inhibition required to get the laughs he feeds on. I like him more and more as the week progresses.
I spend my time flitting between the many colourful characters of the circus, Alex the new-age spiritual Fireman, Eddie the super-cool Swiss juggler, Craig the accountant turned trapeze artist (who used to work for Ernst & Young!), Sammy the knife thrower who made her first act with a pony at the age of 6, and Cosmin the professional gamer turned acrobat. My daily schedule becomes a familiar routine of watching the training sessions, eating lunch with different artists, interviewing, watching the show, and drinking. Lots of drinking.
On the third night I nervously agreed to accompany Eddie the Polish electrician and his right hand man, Przemek, to a night out in the Polish club in town. At this point I didn’t know these guys at all and communication was laboured to say the least, but the ‘yes man’ in me won through and I found myself sat in a dingy underground bar covered in Polish maps and flags. I was delivered four shots of strong Polish Vodka in a glass, told “Na zdrowie”, and instructed to down the contents in one. My look of horror was returned by Eddie’s reassurance of “What? It’s normal!” – for some reason this was enough to convince me and the night continued in this fashion until it became ‘normal’ for me too. I worry sometimes if my liver will see this year out.
Being in the circus is hard work. There are two shows everyday, and three on a Saturday. Most of the artists also train for up to three hours everyday and fitness/ strength must also be maintained. The circus is always on the move, staying in most towns for one week before moving on to the next town, requiring a weekly logistical dance of dismantling the big top, seating, rigging, lighting and bandstand – fine tuned so everyone plays their part and the process is as smooth as it can be before the convoy of caravans can set off for the next location. This means that days off are rare, if ever, and the schedule is gruelling. Either you love working here, like Alex the enthusiastic “If I ever decided to go on holiday –I would make sure it was to somewhere with a flying trapeze” flyer, or you are a bit disenchanted and look forward to the end of the nine month season where you will typically have a short break before joining a Christmas show to tide you through until the next season when the whole thing starts over again.
As I drove back home at the end of the week, full of cold and exhausted to my core I found myself moved by a confusing blend of joy and sadness; a roller coaster of emotion. For the first time in my journey so far I had truly felt like a stranger in another world, despite making some great friends, and the experience had taken every ounce of my energy.
The circus is a fascinating place and I have no idea how I am going to fit my experience into one chapter; I think I could write a whole book about it. The evolution of circus and its uncertain future, the lifestyle and how to marry this with the requirements of modern society, the question of animal circuses across Europe, the intricacies of it’s social hierarchy, the societal stigmas. If it’s anything like this post it’s going to be a loooooong chapter! Now that’s something to look forward to…