Monday, 4 June 2012

Circus to Save the World

Reg Bolton was an Australian doctor of social circus. His PhD Why circus work is an important addition to understanding how uniquely suited our Craft is suited to help young people develop into healthy human beings.
The following article is a keynote speech he held in Sarasota, Florida, USA for the American Youth Circus Organization in 2001.
You can find this and more of Reg's articles and thoughts here


Circus to save the world


Some people think that Circus in a Suitcase was my first book, but when I was an undergraduate student, I wrote a much more significant book. It was called 'Several Ways to Save the World', but unfortunately I lost it, and that's probably the root cause of all the trouble we're in now. So we'll have to start again from scratch.

Mike Moloney, who is an Australian who pioneered Circus work in Belfast, told me a wonderful story. There's a Women's Jail in Belfast, as well as the Men's. You are aware of the troubles in Belfast, with all the shootings and revenge shootings. Lots of men in jail, but few women. I think only about twenty and Mike Moloney was in there doing Theatre. He wanted to do some Circus as well, and he actually rigged a trapeze in the central courtyard of the Women's Jail. They were all invited to have a go at it. One or two of them had a go, and one stayed with it. A nineteen-year-old girl, and she started learning all the moves, and she started swinging. One by one, the other women gave up their alternative rest breaks to come and watch this one girl just swinging on the trapeze, just getting further each day, more fluid and more bird like. And he said the effect on that jail, on these incarcerated women was just miraculous; their spirits just soared every time this one girl sailed through the air.

We all know this magic can happen, and that's just one example. And yet, every one of us has experienced people saying, "Oh well, it's only Circus!" It's unbelievable. They say "You're just clowning around". I've had this all my life, and people say it's so shallow, so tawdry. Well, I've got a theory about that as well. In brief, it's about the Surface of Circus. Think about the Circus and the surfaces. You take an ordinary field. One day it's grass next day it's sawdust, and then it's grass again, it's gone. Our 'cathedral' here is skin-deep, then it's the real world outside. What do you see of the performers? You see the surface, you see the leotard, the sequins, the clown's face-paint, and that's all. Then, when it's gone, all you see is the poster, peeling off the wall, it's just the surface.
Do we want them to see beyond the surface? Or are we quite happy to let them think what they want to think? I say that because I'm fed up with saying, "There's a lot more to it than you think. This is really deep." They say "Oh Yeah," and yawn. They don't want to know. We don't have to tell them. We just have to make the surface pretty brilliant, and just leave it at that.
Now, one of your famous philosophers, and writers, Ernest Hemingway said, "The Circus is the only spectacle I know of, that when you are watching it, has the quality of a truly happy dream". I often thought it's a bit mundane, a bit banal, it's not like 'May all Your Days be Circus Days' and 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. "Has the quality of a truly happy dream…" The more I thought about it the more I realized he's got it absolutely spot on. Because think of the unhappy dreams. Think of nightmares. Think of the symbols that you get in dreams. As Jung's theory of the collective unconscious suggests, we all seem to have the same sort of dreams. When we were sitting out here last night, watching the Circus, we saw some of the things on this list of absolute nightmare phobias.
Fear of falling. We saw them up there, but they didn't fall.
Fear of exposure (being out in the middle with everybody looking at you). It's what we do.
Fear of meeting wild animals. People do that on our behalf. They don't get eaten. Well, apart from my friend Geoffrey Lennon, who's now officially a half-assed lion trainer. The lion's bit his bum a week ago Saturday. Geoffrey Lennon, I dedicate this short talk to you.
Fear of unstable ground. Have you ever been in an earthquake, or felt tremors? It's weird. Yet here are people standing on rolling globes, and teeter boards.

Look up your Jung and your Freud, and you'll find all the symbols in dreams - ropes, knives, ladders, fire ….. They recur in dreams all the time. Yet these are the things we live with. It's what we do.
And finally, let's look at clowns and how close clowns are to our dreams. Dreams of humiliation. Dreams of being with a big boss, with whom you have no power, dreams of being chased. Dreams of wearing the wrong clothes. How was it when we were seven years old, and we were wearing the untrendy gear? How deeply humiliating that was. Clowns always wear the wrong clothes. Dreams of making a social mistake, like using the wrong knife and fork, yet clowns do it compulsively. They have this total and irrevocable inability to get things right.
Circus takes us into our worst dreams, yet act after act gives us a happy ending.
Circus as a Metaphor. You know how they say "We don't need a circus in this school, it's a Circus already, Ho, ho, ho." Don't you hate that? "'This company is a Circus. We've got a lot of clowns around here". I've looked this up. It seems it is an American who first used this expression "This company runs like a three ring circus" This is meant to be derogatory! If only!
If only a company could run like a Circus. If only the boss could one day announce the most astonishing and unlikely policy or agenda like "Now we are going to….." and then he steps aside… and then they do it.! If only …..
If only a company had a multi-cultural policy that they really believed in, and if they didn't have people of other nations, they'd invent them! We invent them. If we haven't got foreigners…. What was the name of the Flying Act here last night? 'The Flying Gabianos'. Sounds multi-cultural to me. So if we haven't got them, we invent them.
If only, if only this company could lift its entire staff, its building, and all its operations over night, and go to another place and perform for a whole new clientele, that's what we do. They call themselves a Circus. They've got no business. If only, in a company, every single employee did the thing they were good at, and did it well - did it so well that you could truly believe that no human being has ever done it that well before. Imagine that in a company. That's what we do in the Circus. And imagine that with every single product that they put out, the public stands up and claps. And they've got the cheek to call themselves a Circus.
My theme is Circus to Save the World. Easy enough. Well, it can be. Circus is essentially generous, it's giving, it's caring and it's co-operative. What do we see in the world of cut-throat business out there? Competition, aggression, predation, annihilation.
Consumption, there's a funny thing. We hardly consume anything. We put up our tent, we do our business and we go away. When I think of consumption, I think of the golf courses that eat Hawaii, I think of office buildings dominating our cities, I think of jet-skis, I think of off-road vehicles. When I think of consumption, and of things that consume, I think of cancer, fire and locusts. They are the only things that used to consume when I was a boy, and now we're all urged to be consumers. Buy thankfully WE are not, we're essentially givers rather than takers.
Now, as you know I'm always interviewing people, and the question I most often ask is 'Why is Circus Good for Young People?' Another famous American philosopher, Whitney Houston, has summed it up "I believe that children are out future". Well, children are in trouble now. You don't know you are. I'm an old bloke, and maybe old blokes have always said this about children; but I think there's more of a threat to children now than there ever has been. Children are the most resilient, adaptable and wonderful people but, there is a pincer movement, there is a conspiracy against the culture of children. There is a cultural genocide going on. You know how we are always looking back, saying, "How could we let that happen? Slavery, women not having the vote, wiping out indigenous peoples. How could we have let that happen?" At the time it seemed the right thing to do. What are we going to see when we look back here? We're going to look at consumption, and we're going to look at the genocide of childhood. And who are the perpetrators? I'll tell you who they are - the Media , they are being used but they're also doing it, TV companies, film companies. Shoe manufacturers! Insurance companies. They take down playgrounds. They don't let you actually have any fun. You've got computers, sport OWNERS, and that's before you even bring in the pornography and the drug cartels that see children as a very nice market or product.
OK Here's the answer. I'm in the home straight now.
My view of what childhood should be (and I was lucky, I had a great one).
These are the four things that every child needs to do, and people are stopping them from doing it.
Take Risks.
Jessica (Hentoff) has a lovely thing she wrote in her publicity.
Something like -
"You fall down in order to learn how to stay on your feet". You cannot actually learn anything without taking risks. It's up to us to make sure they're not really taking risks. But the kids, once a day, have got to have their hearts in their mouths. There's a fellow in New Zealand, called Peter Birlie, who talks about the 'vertigo moment'. If you don't get that vertigo moment… Watch kids at the funfair. They go straight for the scariest, upside down, up and down things. Kids actually need a vertigo moment. Little babies need to be thrown in the air and held upside down, and swung around. Everybody needs it. We've stopped it. It's stopped happening. They don't even do it at school. They take down the swings. They don't jump from trees. They're mollycoddled in this cotton-wool existence. This is the insurance companies part in the conspiracy; and what happens? All these vertigo moments that you didn't have, you still need. So you hit adolescence; the hormones kick in, and you make up for lost time. You go for every risk you can. And that's why so many people are stealing cars, shooting up drugs and everything else. I think it's a direct cause and effect.

What do we do in the Circus? We give them risks. We swing them upside down, we chuck them around. Or they chuck themselves around. We give them risk.
The second thing every child needs. They need to show off. Every child needs to show off. "Hey Mum, look at me! Hey Dad, I can do this!" They need to do that. Sure they still do it, but there's more and more conformity. They don't show off.
I'm talking about showing off the best you can possibly be, in a controlled and safe environment, so people go "Yay! You are the goods!" Children need that, and what else do we do in Circus but that? You never say at the end of a Circus "You lost, the other team won." No. You won. You won every show. You won nearly every training. So that's another thing we're doing in Circus.

The third one, that every child needs; Trusting and touching. They both mean the same thing to me. I don't say "Fight for the right to touch", but perhaps I should; the right to touch and be touched. , Look at baby animals, every mammal spends time rolling over each other, and adult animals, cattle, sheep etc, they love to brush against each other as they're moving along. We don't. We separate things. We put children in shoes as soon as possible. They don't touch they earth, they don't touch each other, they don't touch us, we're not allowed to touch them. It is so phoney. So what do we do in Circus? "You hold that, you hold there," we bend down, we lift them up, we push them, we twist them. They jump up on us. The number of Children's Circuses I've seen where I'll be busy talking to the trainers, and suddenly, Wham! the trainers are suddenly covered in children, who use them as climbing frames. To me that is so wholesome, and so natural, and you don't often see that with the 'coach' in the basketball team, you know, they come in and give him a big cuddle. Maybe they should. But what you performers did last night, which is so beautiful to watch, is the way that you're holding each other, and lifting each other and depending on each other. You're learning a much more trustful way to look at the world.
So we've had the risking, the showing off, the trusting.
Here's the last thing all children have to do. They have to Dream. They have to have their dreams and to aspire. And they do. But what do they aspire to now? A Nintendo game machine, getting to the next level. Or the shoes, or the basket ball cards. All these things that children often are obsessed about, and hassling their parents about, and causing domestic strife about, are getting dumped on them by advertisers. They still do, deep down, dream to climb up to there, walk across there, or swing round there. Most people in the world will say, "Don't do that. Don't do that, I'll buy you a packet of basket-ball cards if you don't do that! Here we're doing the exact opposite. We're saying, "Yes, do it, please do it!" That's the fourth thing. We're actually allowing people to dream, and we're making their dreams come true.
OK, finally, the story about my plumber. You see, where I live in Perth, I've got this house, with a garden, and a swimming pool which is now a pond where we've got frogs. Here's the shed where I keep all my gear. I needed a tap for the hosepipe in the garden. So I called this plumber, and he came in with his bag of tools, and I said I want it down there, on the outside wall. Anyway, he looked up, and there are all the unicycles hanging up, in the shed, and he said "Wow! Are you in show-business." I said "Yes, sort of, but is there enough water pressure to reach down here and get this tap going?" He said "Oh gee, I always wanted to be in show-business" "Yes", I said, "and I want a really strong tap, because I've got bad garden habits, and I tend to yank that hose, and I don't want it coming off." He said "I'm so jealous. I wish I could be in Show-business". I felt like saying "Get outa here and send me someone who really wants to be a plumber!"
I didn't book him again, but the next plumber I got was fantastic. He loved plumbing. He's got me down on my hand and knees, looking in that dirty little cupboard under the sink, enthusing about the new flange he has put on the u-bend. "Oh yes," I'd say, totally inspired, "What a u-bend, what a flange!"
That man's my plumber! He has accidentally or deliberately slipped into what I accidentally or deliberately slipped in to, that is 'The Designer Life'. I think most of you have the recipe already, (I know Dave Finnigan's got it),
"You know what you like, you know what you're good at, and that's all you do.." The phone never stops ringing. Everybody wants you. Because you're the one who likes what you do, you know what you like, and you're good at it.

So if you like it, and you're no good at it - don't touch it.
If you're good at it, but you don't like it - don't touch it.
Just think yourself blessed that you're not like most people out there, who don't like it, and they're no good at it. Yet that's what they do. It's so sad.
So you're the blessed ones. You're the angels. They say that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind"- but now there's us. We've got the opportunities, and we've got the responsibilities. Yes, we can save the world. We can save the world by living the designer life, and by spreading the idea.
Some people say the Circus is the "Other", the mysterious, the weird stuff. That's what most people say about the Circus. Well, let them, they're jealous of everything they do. We won't tease them, we'll entertain them, and we'll make them feel better. Don't be intimidated by anything they say. They are so jealous of us.
We are astonishingly, incredibly lucky.

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