First time at the FRINGE!
It had been a long-standing desire of mine to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, either as a performer or as a spectator, but the opportunity never presented itself until this summer. Katharine Kavanagh of the Circus Diaries put a call out for circus practitioners who might be interested in participating in a circus critic’s residency based at the festival called Circus Voices. I applied and was one of five granted a spot in this rare opportunity.
One of the most impressive aspects of the festival is its scope; it is immense. It holds the title of the largest arts festival in the world. Every August Scotland’s capital embraces performers, programmers, critics, and spectators from around the globe for an explosion of creative energy and performances. The wonderful world of the Fringe encompasses a range of performances from across the performing genres – theatre, comedy, dance, cabaret, variety, physical theatre, music, spoken word, and of course circus. Of these categories, comedy by far carries the most weight in the programmation. This notorious festival that prides itself on “defying the norm” takes place annually for roughly three weeks in the month of August for a complete citywide takeover. Last year (2017), it celebrated 70 years of existence with 53,232 performances from 3,398 shows in 300 venues.
Hence, every wall, fence, billboard, and verticle flat surface (that will permit it ) is lined with posters advertising performances at The Fringe. Artists, performers, and producers line the streets of Edinburgh passing out flyers to anyone who will take one. It is impossible to walk down the street without taking at least a handful of flyers while attending the fringe. Because of its sheer size and impressive volume, it is easy to get lost in the thousands of participants performing. At The Fringe, it’s all about exposure and the critics play a tremendous role with their reviews and star ratings.
Circus Voices schema
With the support of the Network of Independent Critics, Circus Futures and The Circus Diaries, this schema was the third edition of the Edinburgh Fringe #CircusVoices, but the fourth overall including the edition at the Bristol’s Biennial Circus Festival, Circus City. This project was initially inspired by the Upack The Arts programme, and Kavanagh continues carrying the torch toward the facilitation of meaningful exchange of knowledge and experience toward critical discussion and reflections on circus performance in cultural media. A focal point of the Circus Voices initiative is encouraging and involving circus practitioners of diverse backgrounds for the exchange and reflection on circus performance and to widen the industry optics. In terms of thinking about the circus community as a social ecology, critics are essential for establishing its sovereignty amongst the other more established and ‘serious’ performance forms.
The 2018 Fringe #circusvoices cohort of all female practitioners spanned transatlantic borders and comprised a wide range of circus experience and age. We lived, communed, reflected, discussed, and wrote together during our six days at the Fringe. Primarily focused on circus performances, Kavanagh programmed a variety of styles for the group to review. In total, I saw 13 shows during my short time at the festival — 10 scheduled for the group, three independently chosen. These shows included a wide range of genres, venues, and companies who had traveled from across the globe to participate in the festival.
As a group, from the free Fringe programmation, we had the opportunity to see two variety shows: the Matt Ricardo solo show,Mat Ricard vs. the World andDirty Tattooed Circus Bastards played by a father son duo, Circus Sonas. From circus, collectively, we sawEgg by Paper Doll Militia (USA);You & I by Casus Circus (Australia);Casting Off, Sharon Burgess Production and A Good Catch (Australia);UniverSoul Circus: Hip Hop Under the Big Top by UniverSoul Circus (USA);Tabarnak by Cirque Alfonse (Canada);The Artist by Circo Aereo and Thom Monckton (New Zealand); andWireDo by Lumo Company (Finland). Independently, I went to see8 songs by Gandini Juggling (UK),Hot Brown Honey, by HBH and Briefs Factory (Australia);Sediment by Company 2 (Australia); andNotorious Strumpet & Dangerous Girl by Love is a Drug (Australia). It is evident that Australia had a strong presence at the Fringe.
Under the gentle guidance of Kavanagh, as a group, we discovered the etiquette, traditions, techniques, and practices of cultural critique as well as explored the range of mediums and approaches to show critique. After each show, the cohort participated in a group critique of each show we saw together. Initially, we discussed as a group our thoughts and reflections on the show we’d just seen. This later developed into videos of animated drawings, collections of photo expression, and Facebook chats. Main questions we addressed included: What constitutes meaningful circus critique? What “voice” is effective in circus critique? What are the professional standards of reviews? Based on reviewing past reviews, we discussed what was effective or not. Kavanagh always remained open to the inspirations and creative license of the group to develop their style, voice, and preferred medium for review. Individually, we were required to write two reviews during our week at the festival. She exposed us to a variety of mediums and platforms for reviewing shows. These included: the most common, writing, as well as alternative ways like video, poetry, drawing, blogs, photos, and Twitter. Examples of these are available on The Circus Diaries YouTube channel.
During this residency, Kavanagh organized the invaluable experience of meeting some of the artists from our list of shows. These included Hanna Moisala ofWireDo(Lumo Company) from Finland and Lachlan McAuley and Jesse Scott ofYou & I (Casus) from Australia. It is a privilege as a critic to have a sit down with the artists to discuss their process, intent, and experience with the show and the festival. In these moments, I was primarily fixated on the dramaturgical intent and decisions made around such intent. Specifically, when speaking with Casus, I had the opportunity to inquire about their dramaturgical choices and decision to make their homosexual relationship the subject of the show. They graciously offered a moment to grapple over their choices to present such an autobiographical piece. As homosexuality narratives are underrepresented on the circus stage, I questioned how this speaks to the queer community of circus as well as the general public. Based on our conversation, I gleaned their intent was to show the softer side of homosexuality in contrast to eroticized, testosterone charged narratives they claimed are typically portrayed on stage. Specific content of this behind the scenes was tweeted by Kavanagh and is available below the Circus Voices review of Casus,You & I.
As a group, we had the unique opportunity to witness seasoned critics discuss the shows from all backgrounds from the Network of Independent Critics (NIC). They were founded with the intent “to champion quality arts coverage outside of the mainstream presses. Launched at Edinburgh Fringe 2016”.The mission of NIC is “to widen the coverage of niche interest and emerging work across the amorphous field of performance based arts and entertainment, by offering support to independent writers focused in these areas”.We lived with some of these working professional critics (primarily theatre) at the Fringe. As such, we were exposed to the rhythm and professionalism of critic culture. Some of the “pros” were seeing up to 5 shows a day and cranking out reviews daily for every show. The Fringe is a working goldmine of opportunity for critics to cultivate and hone their skills. Most of the critics are not paid, but the NIC makes it possible by offering financial support to it members.
Seasoned critics with little exposure to circus lack a deep understanding of the circus form — it’s histories, disciplines, techniques, codes, and traditions — to effectively critique the dramaturgical choices, contextualize the performance amongst other productions, and/or to conduct meaningful interviews with embodied performance.
While participating as a ‘critic” at the festival, it became increasingly apparent that circus needs circus critics, not just theatre or dance critics. I do believe emerging circus critics have much to learn from the experience and framework of critical traditions and frameworks of cultural media. However, circus — like any other performance genre– carries its own specificities. Understanding these specificities is crucial to effectively critique circus performances. This project speaks to this need. Kavanagh states,“The project evolved as I realized that the scales of circus discourse need to tip…most public discussions around circus come from those outside the practice. This reinforces a cycle of uninformed or one-sided perceptions of what circus is today. The more that the voices of those working within the field can be amplified, the better a wider public understanding can develop. It’s also important for circus practitioners looking to develop their own work to have an accessible resource that contextualizes other work in the field.”
I agree with Kavanagh’s assessment. Recruiting and training critics from within the circus ecology seems logical as they carry an inherent understanding of the circus form. While I would not qualify myself as a seasoned theatre critic, I am a seasoned circus body. I believe my experience offers fertile ground to critically examine circus. Seasoned critics with little exposure to circus lack a deep understanding of the circus form — it’s histories, disciplines, techniques, codes, and traditions — to effectively critique the dramaturgical choices, contextualize the performance amongst other productions, and/or to conduct meaningful interviews with embodied performance.
The Circus Voices scheme is dynamic in the sense that each cycle has been modulated to integrate feedback from its participants. Kavanagh explains,“it’s a flexible model with some well-established elements and some less successful strategies that have been trialed and discarded. I also incorporated some of the most successful elements from the scheme into my teaching on the Performance Review & Analysis module at the National Centre for Circus Arts last year, with the discoveries of students there also feeding the ongoing development of the programme.” The Circus Voices initiative offers a mobile platform for facilitating such a programme at festivals across the globe. My question is why not have this initiative populate circus festivals globally? Circus needs more circus voices.
On the last day of our residency, the group attended a panel discussion at Fringe Central,Damn Everything but the Circus organized and moderated by Vee Smith. The panel consisted of players from different continents (US, Brasil, and the UK) and a range of perspectives (artist, programmer, educator) – Ade Berry (Jacksons Lane), Ruth Juliet Wikler (Boom Arts), and Adilso Machado (CIRCAR Artes do Corpo). The central question for discussion was, why bring other forms (dance, theatre, art, etc.) to circus? This question served as the springboard for interesting and sometimes charged discussions about the bodies that are participating, their ability to communicate beyond just the skill, and approaches to creation. It was clear that there are drastic regional differences regarding other forms (dance and theatre) and the climate of circus communities across different continent. Berry of Jacksons Lane also fueled a reflection on the marginal presence of circus amongst the other art forms like that of dance, music, comedy, and theatre at the Fringe, and the continued challenge to be acknowledged.
Best in Show!
To wrap it up, of the thousands of shows and hundreds of venues at the Fringe, the prize, for my favorite of The 2018 Fringe and also an all-time top five personal favorite, goes to Australia’sHot Brown Honey (HBH).This fast-paced, non-stop, sexy, hilarious show played by an all-female cast is a must see for everyone. It checked off all my boxes. As an explosion of color, culture, and controversy, this performance is an outstanding example that entertainment and socially conscious work are not mutually exclusive. HBH explodes and interrogates stereotypes with truth and social commentary. These ladies do not just offer a space to reflect and debate but call the audience to action and flip the script on stereotypes and fetishization of the marginalized, racialized, colonized, traumatized black female body. This multidisciplinary cabaret-style show that included dance, poetry, comedy, burlesque, song, and hip-hop was not programmed as a circus or even acrobatic show, but it did include circus performances of hula hoops and straps. Visit The Circus Diaries website to see my visual (alternative) review of the show!
Overall this experience was one of kind. I felt privileged to share this week of exploring and learning about critic culture and working with peers looking to develop a meaningful critical voice to genuinely serve our circus community. Coming from an academic and practitioner background, this schema provides a framework for developing a lens specifically for critiquing shows and to develop my critic voice. It offered a safe space for a range of opportunities to develop our critical voices that integrated moments of discussion, reflection, and writing. Because of this unique opportunity, I acquired a baseline of skill to develop a critical practice that specifically gears toward circus critique. Moving forward, I will always fall back on this experience as the foundation for my circus critic practice.
Photos courtesy of Edinburgh Fringe Festival