Reading Contemporary Circus with Circademic Franziska Trapp - CircusTalk

Circus News

Reading Contemporary Circus with Circademic Franziska Trapp

Dr. Franziska Trapp is a researcher at the University of Münster who founded theZirkus|Wissenschaft research project, a project which seeks to combine academic researcher with circus studies. On the forefront of circus studies in Germany, Trapp has organized two international conferences and has worked for various circus productions such as the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain and Cirque Bouffon and successfully completed the Certificate en dramaturgie circassienne (CNAC and ESAC). We asked Trapp to tell us about her dissertation,  and her other circus-based projects, all of which tend to overlap in her mission to extend the world of circus studies to practitioners, academics and fans.

Kim Campbell: Please describe the nature of your research and how it led you to organize the UpSideDown Conference and book?

Dr. Franziska Trapp: My dissertation, entitled  Reading Contemporary Circus,is developing a model to analyze representations of contemporary circus in its historical and cultural context for the first time. It provides a dramaturgy of contemporary circus which, despite the diversity of representations, reveals generalizable characteristics of the genre. The core of my argumentation is based on the assumption that circus performances are readable as cultural texts. Therefore, I am approaching circus through the lens of semiotics, cultural poetics, dance and theatre studies.

Photo courtesy of Christian Trick

But this is only my specific focus! The academic approaches to circus are as diverse as the genre itself: historians are doing research on circus history and its predecessors. Through the lens of anthropology and sociology, the social structures, mobility and life of the artists become the focus. Education science is interested in the teaching methods of circus schools. Circus movements are analysed by neuroscientists, physicians, and dance and sport studies. Economics focuses on the institutional development of the genre. Circus performances are explored by theatre and literary studies.

Thus, in order to be able to do circus research, it is important to establish a network among academics from various disciplines. This is why I founded the research project Zirkus| Wissenschaft at the University of Muenster (Germany) in which I organise biennial international conferences in collaboration with German circus institutions. The first conference in 2015 was dedicated to the topic of  Semiotics of the circus. The second conference  UpSideDown  focused on the analysis of space and circus. It was the starting point for the  UpSideDown – Graphic Novel  which provides the key messages and ongoing discussions in words and pictures that were captured during the conference in real time by a graphic recorder.KC: 

KC: What was the purpose of the UpSideDown book? What was the response to it?

FT: The interdisciplinarity, internationality and strong relation to practice make circus research an extremely thrilling field. But at the same time, it is quite challenging to maintain communication among people from very diverse backgrounds with very different intentions and views of the world. How is it possible to give artists, professionals and spectators a possibility to get a first glimpse into the academic discourses surrounding circus? TheUpSideDown – Graphic Novel  is my response to this question. The graphic novel is not “easy” to read– in the sense, that it breaks down the core arguments of the discussions on a short list. It is rather a piece of art with which you have to spend several hours in order to find your way through it. And this is my intention. I want this novel to be placed on the bedside table of everyone working in the field of circus in order to browse through it over and over again in order to be able to turn one’s head upsidedown. So far, the response on this novel has been overwhelming, which might be due to the fact that this kind of conference documentation is quite exceptional in both worlds – the world of circus and the world of academia.

KC: Can you tell us about your banner loaning program? Who can use it and what is its purpose?

FT: The reason why I invited a graphic recorder was to maintain communication among spectators, artists, professionals and researchers. While the graphic novel is created for home use, the  UpSideDown-Traveling Exhibition,  which provides the graphic recordings on truck tarpaulin, is ready to travel throughout the world to enrich circus festivals or conferences with a space for discussions on circus arts. It can be used as a decoration for  site fences, surrounding a festival, and raising the public’s interest. Fixed at the entrance or waiting area of a festival, it could also benefit as a doorway to the world of circus. Surrounding the professional area, it can contribute to initiate talks and discussions. Presented as an individual exhibition it invites the audience to enter into the discourse on circus arts. Thereby the public has the possibility to not only enjoy the colourful statements and pictures, but also to get deeper information on the discussions and talks related to the topic ‘Circus and Space‘.

KC: Circus artists and academics seem like unlikely colleagues but there is a real trend to combine the two currently. What do you think the impetus is for this collaboration and how do you think it will affect circus in the long run?

Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Zimmermann

FT: I see two different trends to combine circus artists and academics. Firstly, due to the current call for circus dramaturges and interest in circus dramaturgy, academics are invited to enter the circus world. Secondly, due to the emerging presence of artistic research, artists enter academia by being considered as researchers.

TheUpSideDown- Traveling Exhibition  however is interested in creating a threshold space for both groups in order to start discussions which include both trends (in order to overcome prejudices that consider circus only as a colorful, unconventional chaotic space and academia as the opponent conservative, with a rational and uncreative space.) This pigeonhole thinking does neither the circus nor academia justice. Luckily, I currently notice an increasing openness on both sides.

I think that academic research on circus will strongly affect circus in the long run. We just have to take a look at our neighboring art forms theatre and dance, that  have entered in to academia over the last few decades. The mere presence of a genre in academic discussions is going to increase the value given to circus by society. The academic findings furthermore support the mediation between the circus and society and serve to educate and reduce resentments. Not just with regard to circus’ reputation but also concerning circus practice I see a big relevance of academic findings that allow for the optimization of processes–for example, in the medical treatment of circus artists, the curriculum of circus schools, and processes of professionalization.

Artist Andreas Gärtner. Photo courtesy of Franzi Kreis

Coming back to my research focus, the knowledge of the structures and procedures of contemporary circus performances provides the basis for conscious decisions in the creation process. It opens up the possibility of a foundation and further development of existing feedback-methods such as DASARTS (a method for cross-disciplinary artistic practice developed at the University of Amsterdam) that it currently often used within the circus scene. And last, there is the possibility to develop a circus-specific feedback method based on the reading of work-in-progress-presentations that can be used during artist residencies. This transfer of my PhD into the creation process is going to be further elaborated on this summer in the frame of the project ‘Circus Dramaturgy on the Border between Art and Academia’, in which an academic masterclass is combined with the artist residency of the Tall Tales Company, working on their new creation ‘Square One’. There is going to be a film documentary about our project and the emerging feedback method that can be accessed by all practicians – we will keep you updated via Zirkus|Wissenschaft

But not only academic research on circus has the potential to affect the scene, but also the inclusion of circus into research has an impact on academia.Circus in research offers a lot of potential for academic discourse not only with regard to the genres itself, but also concerning questions that are currently discussed in the humanities. I am hereby thinking of political questions such as gender and nationality but also about discussions concerning the status and relevance of art, the relation between reality and fiction etc. Both worlds, the circus and academia would profit from intense exchanges.

For these reasons: Let’s cross the borders between art and academia and turn our heads upsidedown!

The Graphic Novel and the Exhibition are available via

Feature photo courtesy of Elisabeth Zimmermann
Kim Campbell
Writer -USA
Kim Campbell has written about circus for CircusTalk.News, Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. They are the former editor of CircusTalk.News, American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where they write about circus, theatre, arts and culture. Kim is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.
Thanks for reading CircusTalk.News.
Support us by registering or subscribing!
To continue reading this article you must be logged in.
Register or login to unlock 2 free articles per month.

Do you have a story to share? Submit your news story, article or press release.

Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell has written about circus for CircusTalk.News, Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. They are the former editor of CircusTalk.News, American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where they write about circus, theatre, arts and culture. Kim is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.