Feature Article Vol. III, No. 8

Britain’s Academy of Circus Arts Immerses Students

in All Aspects of Circus Life

by Chris Barltrop


In 1993, Martin Burton – Zippo the Clown and founder of the then-fledgling Zippo’s Circus – needed a trapeze act to add to his programme.

He called up an equally newly-founded circus training school, and a young lady duly appeared at his big top.  “Show me your act”, said Martin.  “OK,” she replied, “but who’s going to rig my trapeze?”  “Circus artistes do their own rigging,” he answered.  “‘But I don’t know how”, she confessed.

Needless to say, the young lady didn’t get the job, but Martin Burton decided then and there that  if new performers were to be of any use to traditional circus, he’d better start his own school to teach them what they needed to know—rigging and all!

And so, the Academy of Circus Arts began.  There was no search for fixed training premises; Zippo’s Circus had no permanent base for itself at that time.  Instead, unlike any other professional training school but entirely in keeping with the nomadic ethos of the travelling show, the newly-founded Academy was to be mobile, working under a big top of its own.  For their tuition, building up and pulling down would be part of their training; so would performing before the public alongside their tutors, helping one another out by operating the sound system and lights, making their own costumes, announcing one another’s routines in and out of the ring

What this means is that they learn about circus life by experience.  “A travelling show has no use for people who can’t help themselves,”  says Martin Burton.  The students live in bunk-rooms fitted out as basic accommodation.  Being a great performer is just one aspect.  Circus directors aren’t going to book anyone who can’t deal with circus life – hooking up your own power line, carrying your own water, and keeping a costume immaculate in spite of muddy grounds.

Burton is proud that, for the past 21 years, the circus school he founded has turned out “real circus people”– what American circuses would call ‘troupers’, ready to cope with their daily trials and tribulations and still smile through three shows a day.  “They’re completely employable.” he says, flashing a smile himself.  “Our graduates have worked with Soleil, at London’s ‘Millennium Dome’, at the Monte Carlo Festival.  Some have gone on to teach, and several have founded their own successful shows.”

Successful indeed!  Among former ACA students is Nell Gifford, founder of Britain’s innovatively theatrical Gifford’s Circus, and also Americans Blaze Birge and David Jones, prize-winners themselves at Monte Carlo before returning to California to start up their own show, the Flynn Creek Circus. Other graduates have found work with shows all over Europe and the US, under big tops large and small and in contemporary-style stage circuses.

ACA stands out from other professional circus training shools because it doesn’t have a fixed base.  Running costs are partly met through “gala” bookings, where the school sets up its tent and, after the bulk of time has been given over to student training, gives public performances for a day or two before moving on.  Hard work for everyone, but it means tuition fees can be kept to a minimum.   It also means that, from day one of their course, the students are working towards and then presenting public performances.  “It’s akin to an apprenticeship,” says Martin Burton.  “Any pro will tell you that one performance teaches you as much as half-a-dozen lessons!”  And because this is a day-in-day-out, on-site regime for just under five months, the intensity of the work results in faster and more fully-absorbed learning.

Of course, all students learn how to set up their own equipment, and how to use and maintain it with safety.  Everyone is encouraged to try a wide range of disciplines – for example, trampoline, comedy, tight-wire and acrobatics.  There are group classes from the start in dance, tumbling, juggling and aerial work, and as the course progresses students choose their preferred skills and develop them into acts.  The final part of the course is of professional development and involves honing performance skills, working towards a showcase performance to an invited audience of circus directors and bookers.

Right now is the time to apply.  ACA’s next course begins at the start of May 2015 (so the new students will truly be First-of-Mays!) and runs until mid-September.  There’s a minimum age requirement of 18 years.    The school looks for potential to be developed, so although good health is essential to meet with the demands of the training and the circus life-style, applicants aren’t required to have existing circus or performance skills.  Where applicants live outside the UK and an audition isn’t practical, ACA is happy to assess by video, but even then, it’s a demonstration of current skills that’s called for—the school doesn’t expect people to show a complete circus act in advance!

There’s lots more information, as well as links to download application forms, on the Academy of Circus Arts website www.academycircusarts.co.uk   “ACA has changed many people’s lives.”  says Martin Burton.  “I hope some of your readers will want to join up and discover how.”


Chris Barltrop