Feature Articles Vol. IV, No. 2

Mike Finch Talks About Circus Oz

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Circus Oz’s latest production But Wait. . . There’s More is another iteration of a remarkable circus ensemble that has lasted, unbroken for thirty-six years.  “There has never been a time,” artistic director Mike Finch points out, “when the entire ensemble has gone at one time (despite the numerous and continuous cast changes) The analogy is grandfather’s ax; it has had four new heads and five new handles but it’s the same ax.  We’ve never started completely from scratch.”   The current cast is made up  of three artists from the previous  show and three returning alumni from earlier productions.   There is, however,  quite a big turnover each time a new production is mounted, and finding new talent is “a pretty rigorous head hunting process.”

Making that process more difficult than usual is the requirement that every member of the ensemble must be  Australian, so it takes a long time to find the talent.  Regardless of that difficulty the company adheres to its core values.  There must be gender equality, the same number of men (usually six) as women.  The casting must also represent the country’s  ethnic diversity.  Complicating the issue even further,  everyone chosen must be multi-talented.  “We need musicians who can do acrobatics and to clown in some way or another,” and of course vice versa.

What ultimately makes it possible for the company to fulfill this mandate is that circus is booming in Australia.   There are more graduates coming out of NICA (the National Institute of Circus Arts), and there are  a lot of small independent shows, with four to six people in their casts.  It is important culturally that everyone who select is from Melbourne, because the cultural identity of the company grows out of its ensemble work, the performers are acting at the same time as they are doing acrobatics.  “That is crucial to us,” Finch continues.

The company has recently instituted a policy of running a two-year cycle which will be in place for the next six years, which means that a new show will be rehearsed and then tour during a two year cycle, after which another show will be put into production.  It is currently in its third such cycle.

But Wait . . . There’s More  started from a concept that Finch envisioned.  The title, he says, “has such a double meaning.  It’s a classic show business introduction that has been taken over by the commercial market in the form of various sales pitches to sell more and more.  “So the idea was a vaudeville troupe that has somehow been infected by this commercial virus like the bar code clowns.  That was where we started.  Some of those ideas were a kind of scaffolding to start with and then gradually as the show has evolved, we’ve taken away a lot of the scaffolding so the show is revealed.  We started off much edgier than it finally turned out.”

The cast was in rehearsal for this show for about eight weeks, although the design phase started a bit earlier.  “We launch each new show in our tent in Melbourne, where it is performed in the round.  The scenery was entirely inflatable, ultimately designed to look like the final image of a Looney Tunes sign off, ‘That’s all folks,’  It was created to look like a fading theatre that was falling apart, and by the end the whole thing sags and falls in on itself, deflated.”

Rehearsals  for the acrobats ran about eight hours a day.  The solo acts existed before hand,” Finch explains, “ but anything that involves two or more people was created especially for this show.  The flying troupe did not exist as a unit, so they all had to be trained.  Some had never done that before.  All the group acts are complex.  You could spend weeks just on a two minute segment, and the more comic and elusive and chaotic it appears on stage, the more it is tightly choreographed which chews up a massive amount of time.  One change can take an hour to be fully incorporated.  We have a constant incidence of  low-level injuries that require adjustments in the cast or the action, in part because we have no understudies or swings.”

This show’s director on tour, Debra Batton, is an alumnus, having been in the show years ago as a performer.  “I picked her up as my assistant with the idea that she would gradually take over the show as associate director.  I was in rehearsals as director, and she along side me all the time.  The plan was that she would know the show really well.  I consider this now to be her show.  I have stepped away from it.  So there is an evolution that has happened in this show that is quite clearly hers.  She checks with me on anything she wants to do, and I give her the go ahead.  She has created whole acts for this show since we started.  One of things about Circus Oz is that there is room for people to grow.  It is not a pyramid structure; it’s clearly an ensemble structure, and  ideas come from every level of the organization.  If any of the performers are not into an idea it is just easier to say, ‘do you have another idea?’  Ultimately it’s about empowering the artist.  Their ideas are scaffolding that is taken away when they can stand on their own.”

As the show was developed in rehearsals  ,Finch recalls, there used to be a lot more dialogue in the show and self-referential stuff.  We’ve just gradually culled that away.  It got a bit too much and self-indulgent and you lose sight of where the real circus is.”

The twelve member ensemble is all on full-time wages,  contracted for two years.

Finch himself  has now done sixteen shows with the company.  He sees  himself, he says, as “a curator or gardener,  not as an auteur.  I’m not Steven Spielberg creating a show and having it trickle down.  It starts from the ideas of twelve people.  Most of the shows are a satire of the idea of circus.  In each show there will be a series of numbers , an emcee and a band.  I actually think the interesting thing about this work is what happens between the ensemble and the short narrative within each act.  It’s like a piece of jazz music.  There’s the band through the whole thing, and then a series of riffs as each performer comes forward to play his solo.  The performer gets to put his or her  own voice into it. It is more like an underground cabaret than a classic circus. The play between ensemble and solo is what I find interesting.”

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 A Conversation with Nicole and Alana Feld

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The day before Ringling released its bombshell announcement concerning the future of elephants in the Greatest Show on Earth I spoke with Nicole and Alana Feld over the phone, and we talked about this year’s production Circus Xtreme.   Some of what they had to say then has taken on some new relevance as I write this a day after the release of that announcement and its attendant reaction in the media.

I asked if the show’s target audience had changed, because this year’s production seemed, while still  aimed at children, geared to a  more sophisticated audience than in the recent past.  Both women assured me that as always they were attempting to cater to kids and their parents, especially moms.  “Moms are the decision makers,” Nicole pointed out.  “We are moms ourselves, as you know.”  So they actually mirror the very demographic represented in their audience.  “We are Informed by our fellow moms.”

Now, although the demographic has not changed, the character of it has, as Alana astutely interjected.  Kids are growing up at a faster rate and consuming technology and special effects and visual effects more avidly than ever before, and they enjoy extreme videos  on You tube, so it is not a stretch to assume that their tastes and expectations have changed.

As always I was curious about the creative staff of this year’s production, and in particular the fact that there are three choreographers listed as collaborators.  It turns out the three worked on different aspects of the shows and with different groups of performers as well as participating in the integration of all the various elements.  There is a great deal of dancing, although of a different sort than in the past.  There are four boy dancers in the company, and while this is not ground breaking, the boys tend to be more acrobatic and incorporate a lot more tumbling into their movements than Broadway chorus boys.  In addition some of the “dance” also incorporates martial art moves like parkour.

Gemma Kirby, the female cannon ball, Nicole told me,  is a particular favorite of her young daughter. She has taken on the stature of a female superhero to the girls in the audience.  “So while my daughter likes to play Princess, she also likes to pretend she is a super hero.”  If she is representative of the young girls who come to the circus, that certainly suggests a change in the character of the show’s demographics.

The show also lists two different composers.  One writes the music for the acts and the other pens the songs sung by the ringmaster.  The lyricist Michael Himelstein has enjoyed a longer tenure than most of the composers.  That is because “he has a really fresh take on the circus year in and year out.”  In addition there are two men, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen, credited with writing the book for the show

Ironically, at the end of our conversation I asked if there was anything else they would like to announce or discuss.  They replied that there was nothing they were ready to say about future plans at that moment.  The next day came the startling announcement.  In retrospect I think there may have been a tinge of sadness in their reply.  I know they must feel as devastated as so many fans do as well.  They have always spoken of the elephants with great affection and a certainty (that now seems misplaced) that their elephants would always be a part of the Greatest Show on Earth.  So how can they feel anything but disappointment?