At the beginning of July, CircusWorks, the UK Youth Circus Network, launched an online community event for learning, listening, debating, researching and inspiring the youth circus community to find a way forward in a post-covid world. I attended the Un-Conference last week for the first time and wanted to bring this event to the attention of the wider circus community, as I believe that the format CircusWorks has invented serves as a great example for community outreach during times when physical contact is limited. Un-Conference runs weekly until August 28th and closes with a gala show on September 3rd. I asked the Un-Conference’s producer and master mind, Lynn Carroll, Director of CircusWorks, about this initiative.
Was this conference planned as a real life conference before COVID-19 and you then transferred it online or was this curated for the specific reason to connect with your community during a time of quarantine?
We had plans to hold a conference in February 2021. Our previous conference was held at Circomedia, Bristol in October 2019, and was really successful. When COVID hit, we contacted all of the UK youth circuses on our database and did an Impact Survey, which we managed to get to the Arts Councils and government prior to emergency funding being allocated. The information was really useful for them to make a case for supporting the sector and also gave us a basis to bid for funding for the Un-Conference. It was clear people needed support – not only financial but social and emotional. We felt confident we could achieve this, and that our previous conferences were a good model to meet this need. We just needed to work out how to put it online!
What has been your goal with Un-Conference?
Our aim is to bring people together so they feel connected and part of something bigger. The main aim of our usual conference is to provide training, knowledge and community; we want to evidence the benefits of youth circus and to give youth circus practitioners the message that the job they do is really valuable and necessary. Once the lockdown happened this seemed more important than ever. Many practitioners had lost confidence and were questioning their choice of career. We wanted to show there was a support network available to them, and a place that they can access advice and learn more about their practice.
Is this conference only available to CircusWorks members?
The Un-Conference is available to everyone. It is aimed at the UK sector, but we have guests from all over the world. With up to eight sessions every week there is something of interest wherever you are from. For instance, last week we had a session with all of the UK arts councils to discuss funding, but at the same time there was a talk on Deep Democracy by the fantastic Steven Desanghere in Belgium, a rigging workshop by Steve Santos in the US, and a Flow Arts session by Jules from Performers Without Borders.
Is the recordings of the sessions available to the public?
At the moment the recordings are available to conference attendees and to CircusWorks members; membership is open to anyone, and is as little as £3 a month for a supporter, so in that sense yes, anyone can access them, and all of the other resources from the sessions.
How many people/organizations have attended so far?
We’ve had 118 people from 73 organizations and 11 countries so far!
What has been your community’s feedback?
Overwhelmingly positive! The platform allows an informality which is difficult to achieve in usual Zoom calls. People can move freely throughout the spaces, and it’s possible to see which room people are in, so they can find friends or colleagues. We do a ‘Jamboard’ evaluation each week and have some great quotes:
“Lockdown has been a heartbreaking journey of watching young people regress. The ideas that have come from this conference have given me hope. Circus unconference has given me hope for the future of circus. Now more than ever I see circus as an invaluable art form that is essential to the lives of these young people. It has been a phenomenal opportunity to learn. Thank you.”
“We’re making space to draw on hundreds of years of collective insight between us, a true wealth of experience “
“This conference allows a fantastic degree of connectivity in this weirdly unconnected discombobulated world.”
“The conference is brilliant, well done for getting it running”
Are you planning to extend it/repeat it in the fall?
Hopefully everyone will be back in class and off their computers by September! It has been really popular though, so we will see how we go. Perhaps we will go to once a month instead of once a week.
Tell us about your choice of programming. Who have been your speakers? How do you choose your topics?
The program is designed to inspire, inform and support the youth circus community. Since lockdown I’ve been in lots of meetings where the main topic is COVID. Although of course this needs to be given space for discussion, I also wanted to create space where people could rediscover the joy of circus and their reason for doing it. I didn’t want discussions to disappear into what felt like a black hole, with so many unknowns. It is an important topic and people do need information and support to help them reopen, so we created a specific space within the platform, the Phoenix room, which is devoted to this subjects of risk assessments, reopening plans, financial support & insurance etc. All of the other rooms are generally ’non-covid’ spaces where we can look at pedagogy, philosophy, education, research, models for learning, funding, professional development, skills and act creation.
We have had so many amazing speakers! Most of them are people who I have worked with over the years (I’ve been around a while!) or people I have met at conferences. The CRITAC group for ENC in Montreal have been very generous, with Dean Kriellaars, Adam Decker and Emmanuel Bochud and Jean Paul Richard presenting for us. Steven Desanghere from Belgium is a fantastic facilitator and has been really popular. Steven Santos and Emily Scherb also join us from the US, and Jill Maglio from CircusAid presented at 2:00 am in Bali! Then we have lots of great UK presenters as well.
One advantage of lockdown has been that usually very busy people have been more available, so we have been able to ask some great artists such as Sean Gandini, Lina from Mimbre and Charlie from from Barely Methodical Troupe to run workshops for us. In all over the two months, we will have had over 60 presenters.
The topics are chosen in a variety of ways. I may have seen them delivered elsewhere and wanted to bring them to the UK, or they may be chosen in response to current issues. We have also extensively surveyed our sector over the past couple of years, so we were aware of skills and knowledge gaps.
Logistically it is so much easier and cost effective to book people for an online event. It takes an hour or two out of their time, rather than being a major trip. We did have to turn this around quite quickly as well using the emergency funding from Arts Council England, and we could book people on short notice which wouldn’t have been possible if they were attending in person.
Do you attract the same audience with this online program that you usually have with your real life events or has this format opened up new opportunities/networks for you?
Many of our regulars from previous events have been coming along, but we have also been able to invite our friends from Europe and further afield. It’s so lovely seeing people’s faces as they turn up each week and welcoming them in. We have also had people come along who haven’t been able to attend previously, due to geography, finances or disability.
It has also given us the opportunity for more regular contact with our global friends. We have representatives of AYCO (American Youth Circus Organization) and EYCO (European Youth Circus Organization) coming along regularly.
What online platform do you use?
We use a platform called Qiqochat, which is a wraparound for Zoom. It provides a series of zoom rooms which can be customized. We’ve built a whole conference building. People arrive in the Lobby and get an induction, where they can see the program on the notepad for that room. Then they can move around the other rooms as they wish. We have a main speaking hall called the Firetoys Hall (named after our sponsor). Then we have the Lounge, for informal discussions. The Phoenix room, I mentioned before, is for all topics COVID related. Then there’s the playground, where we program workshops, and more physical activities. We then have the Coffee pot (BYO) cafe, where you can sit and have tea and sympathy with the lovely Sarah. There’s the Library, where we put lots of resources- shows to see, books to read, links to follow. There’s the Brief Encounter for small meetings, and a Diary room, and a shop. Finally there’s TWO after conference pubs, the Jugglers Arms and the Clowns Head. We are holding a raffle in one this week, and will have a Pledge Auction next week.
The COVID-19 crisis has hit the circus sector hard, and many organizations are not eligible for government support. CircusWorks is using the Un-Conference as a place to fundraise via their #saveyouthcircus campaign,so they can provide funding to organizations, enabling them to reopen and ensuring that circus training is available to young people who may not be able to afford to attend without support.