With its roots embedded in the thriving bohemian and nomadic local arts scene, the origins of Brisbane’s (Queensland, Australia) contemporary circus sector dates as far back as the early 1980’s. The company that led the Brisbane sector to where it is today, Rock n Roll Circus, evolved from a series of street theatre and community theatre projects led by local collectives, The Popular Theatre Troupe and Street Arts Theatre. In order to understand the trajectory of the local circus sector at the time and Rock n Roll Circus’s trajectory, it is important to note that the Bjelke-Peterson government that held office from 1968-87 in Queensland was an extremely conservative, anti-socialist and Christian style of leadership. The impact this had on the city’s arts and culture and social structure created a need and a reaction from the arts sector and community which influenced a social ideology of radical reaction and political activism. Fortunately, although the State Government was incredibly restrictive for Brisbane artists, the Federal Government was the antithesis. In Challenging the Centre- Two decades of Political Theatre, Steve Capelin describes the philosophy and politics of the Popular Theatre troupe and the opportunities that they had under the Federal Whitlam Government and which in essence was the catalyst for a local circus sector emerging:
“The philosophy of the Popular Theatre Troupe set it apart from most other theatre groups at that time, in that there was a definite political motivation involved in mounting each of its productions. Because of the cultural vision of the Australia Council’s funding policies in the wake of the Whitlam expansion, we were enabled to say what we thought should be said about social and political issues which we considered important. We didn’t have to make box office the choice-determining concern that it was amongst bourgeois theatre companies. Context ruled.” (Capelin, 1995, p.46)
With this artistic freedom, a strong and inclusive artistic community was established in the Brisbane suburb of West End. Street Arts Theatre held a similar ethos and it wasn’t long before the two companies were working alongside each other. Street Arts Theatre had already established a connection to the artform of circus and saw it at as an essential part of community performance:
“Street Art’s founding members brought with them a belief in circus as an effective, all inclusive popular form of performance. Their own skills – influenced by Reg Bolton of Suitcase Circus fame, originally from the U.K. and now resident in Australia, and the New Circus and comedy movement centre in Melbourne- were combined with their desire to explore new popular theatre forms.” (Capelin, 2004, p.104)
Founded by Pauline and Dennis Peel, 1983 saw the first project for Street Arts Theatre, which also happened to be the first Community Circus Festival, held in Musgrave Park, West End. The festival was well attended and saw performances from artists who would go on to become icons of both the local and national contemporary circus sector, forming companies that would go on to influence the identity of the artform. The process of the festival began to shape the culture of the arts community across the country and how this project in particular produced the seed of what would later go on to become Rock n Roll Circus as Capelin explains:
“Here people who were to become key players in Street Arts had their first taste of community theatre. Tony Hannon, eccentric clown and whistle player later involved in community arts in Adelaide; Meg Kanowski, clown, comedian, writer, performer, director and company stalwart; Phil Davidson, acrobat and performer; Peter Stewart, musician, performer later musical director with the company; Derek Ives, schoolboy juggler, unicyclist and circus natural who has since worked with Rock ‘ n’ Roll Circus and Circus Oz to mention but a few. All were part of the first Thrills’n’Spills Community Circus troupe which emerged from this project.” (Capelin, 2004, p.104)
Over the next three or so years, Thrills n Spills Circus went on to create five more shows in this type of format, with an eclectic cast of amateur acrobats, community theatre artists and local musicians. They performed their work in parks, gardens, shopping malls and community halls, whatever space was available at the time. At this stage, the work was predominantly ground based in its circus skills so did not require the technical specifications of aerial apparatus, making it less complicated to find suitable venues. In an interview with Antonella Casella, she described her involvement with Street Arts Theatre and the Thrills n Spills Circus show that would be the catalyst for Rock n Roll Circus forming:
“The project had quite a long process and I think I arrived there about half way through that process. It all culminated in a show called Rock n Roll Circus at the Realto Theatre in 1986. There was about 60 people in it, it was one of those massive community shows. It was basically this incredible community of young and emerging people who wanted to work in political activism or theatre and do it in a new way that was different from the traditional theatre model. Natalie Diborg and Donna Close from the FFFC came up for a week to train us and Natalie ended up staying for the rest of the process and ended up being in the show, so we had a Fruit Fly in the show.”(Interview Antonella Casella June 2016)
Casella described the show as highly political in its content, driven by the participants responding to the issues the community of West End was facing at that time. The mid to late 80’s saw a boom in property development around West End and the site for Expo 88 was being developed which brought up issues of gentrification and housing affordability. Two years after that first show titled, Rock n Roll Circus, the company with the same name would soon officially form and begin to forge itself into an alternative and artistically risky collective. Casella recalls that their connections to the national sector were developing as early as 1988, when they brought in Circus Oz artist Robyn Laurie as a guest director:
“In 1988 is when it became a professional troupe which was myself, Derek Ives, Chris Wright, Lisa Small and the musician Cery McCoy. We worked with those visual artists again on the first show as a professional collective which again was called ”Rock n Roll Circus” which was just an entertainment show. We brought Robyn Laurie up to direct that and it was very much in the vein of a Circus Oz show. In fact after we completed the very first community show with Street Arts in 1986, we had an afternoon after party at Pauline and Denis Peel’s place and they showed us a video of Circus Oz, I think they were trying to inspire us and show us what was already out there. So we didn’t re-invent the wheel in QLD but we were most certainly inspired by what Oz were doing and had created.” (Interview Antonella Casella June 2016)
Casella moved on from the company in 1989, and from then Rock n Roll Circus saw various artists transition through the company, each bringing their own spin on the creative process and aesthetic of the work. Artists such as Kareena Oates, Stephen Brown, Anna Yen, Sharon Weston, Rudi Mineur, Mat Wilson and Annabel Lions joined the company alongside long-time company artists Derek Ives and Azaria Universe. Many of these artists had short periods of being involved or were in and out of the company. Rudi Mineur joined the company in 1992 and describes the creative process as one that was both independent and restrictive, inasmuch that in being a mostly group led artistic process, not having an assigned leader or Artistic Director meant that the progression for creating work was often slower in its development:
“The work was very political and beyond anything I had done before. The company was run as a collective, we made decisions as a group, no one was ”the boss”. We made work based on the skills we were training but not necessarily in an act-driven way, we were more so driven by our creative ideas which we then applied to the circus skills to create content. Training was focused around a creative idea, it was group driven. Not act driven- skill driven in some ways. We never really had a slap stick act, a handstand act, a juggling act, like most companies did back then. We had endless company meetings with long conversations, no one was the boss. And although that had its benefits, it was often difficult to make any decision.” (Interview Rudi Mineur June 2015)
Freelance director Gail Kelly created a work “The Dark” with the collective a short time before that instrumental change of a permanent artistic director was to occur, during her interview with me she described the creative processes that Rock n Roll Circus were utilising at that time when the collective were yet again at a stage where they were shifting in their artistic ideology and creation process:
“The Dark explored concepts of horror and schlock as well as looking into the deep subconscious of the human and the dark side of our inner thoughts and feelings. And for a director, the process at that stage with Rock n Roll at that point was divine. You would probably never get that kind of process again. We took a year to make ‘The Dark’, we had many creative development sessions and my way of working is to really work with the performers and find out what they want to do, what they can and can’t do. What’s the creation here? What is your challenge as an artist?” (Interview Gail Kelly November 2015)
Operating with an autonomous collective style structure allowed the company the freedom to explore a multitude of artistic styles and methods for creating their work. However as is often the case with independent companies, the level of burn out for the artists was high and so they eventually went on to seek out a full-time artistic director. Changing course completely, they then went on to form a not for profit structure with a formal board and in turn made the appointment of Yaron Liftshitz as Artistic Director. Liftshitz went on to eventually completely re-brand the artistic ideology of the company towards a more minimalistic aesthetic with a choreographic circus style of physical language, an emergence of contemporary dance inspired movements and aesthetics arrived within the company. This artistic shift was met with some unrest within the sector.
In the early stages of Liftshitz’s artistic direction, the work held an essence of the former artistic signature that the Rock n Roll Circus ensemble had developed, however that shifted rapidly towards a new aesthetic that was to differ vastly from the original company. The company morphed and shifted in its artistic purpose and structure many times over the period of 1988 to 2004. A complete re-branding in 2004 including a name change occurred. In many ways Liftshitz’s artistic direction, and his re-organisation of the artistic ideology can be seen to have gradually re-territorialised Rock n Roll Circus to become what is now known as Circa. In thinking in this way we could acknowledge that within the foundations of Rock n Roll Circus there already existed something that was to become larger and wider reaching than their original company structure, that Rock n Roll Circus, in employing an Artistic Director, unleashed a new trajectory.
Presently there are very little to no remnants of Rock n Roll Circus recognisable within Circa. The rapid growth of the company has seen its historical foundations all but invisible to those who are not aware of its origins. Sadly, due to the independent nature of the company and its existence being prior to the digital era, there is little presence of Rock n Roll Circus online.
Casella notes that she sees the influence of Rock n Roll Circus in the work of Briefs Factory: “I wasn’t around Brisbane for the evolution of Briefs, but when I first saw it, I saw Rock n Roll Circus in there. I saw the accessibility, the celebration of diversity, the strong desire to celebrate difference. I felt you could really see the origins of circus in Brisbane in that show.”
The importance of the company is still felt across the Australian contemporary circus industry with artists such as the late, great Derek Ives, Antonella Casella, Rudi Mineur and Anna Yen branching out to collaborate and create work that sees their influence and legacy threaded across the sector.
Note: This article is derived from a larger and more detailed body of work undertaken for my doctoral research titled “Bodies, Spatiality and Temporality in Australian Contemporary Circus.”
Feature photo courtesy of Bretski Parker; Rock n Roll Circus, Realto Theatre 1994.
References Capelin, S. (Ed.). (1995). Challenging the Centre: Two Decades of Political Theatre. Playlab Press. Casella. A. (2016) Interview for doctoral research with Kristy Seymour. Griffith University, Gold Coast Australia Kelly. G. (2015) Interview for doctoral research with Kristy Seymour. Griffith University, Gold Coast Australia Mineur. R. (2015) Interview for doctoral research with Kristy Seymour. Griffith University, Gold Coast Australia