THE WOMEN’S CIRCUS

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The Westsider wanted to find out if there was anywhere in the inner-west that women could go to learn and practice circus skills alongside other women. Well there is – and Executive Director Devon Taylor was kind enough to tell us all about it.

Q:  How did the woman’s circus start?

It started in 1991, so we turn 25 next year. It began as a community project at the Footscray Community Arts Centre and was started by a woman named Donna Jackson, who was an artist and theatre maker at the time. Then we grew to move out of that space in 2006 to our current location at the Drill Hall which is next to Whitten Oval.  We share a big space with another arts organisation called the Snuff Puppets, and we are supported through that space by the Maribyrnong City Council. We’ve been in that space for almost 10 years.

Q: How about yourself, how did you become involved?

I production managed the last major membership show in 2013, and I have a background in theatre and business. I’m currently employed as the executive director with a really small team. We’ve got an artistic director, a training manager, an office manager and a finance manager. In total we are 2.3 people, and I’m the closest to full time. We also have approximately 15 to 20 casual circus performers, trainers and artists on staff.

Q: What in your personal background that lead you here?

I studied theatre, and also operated my own business for many years. I guess that combination of a creative practice, as well as administrative knowledge of how to manage staff, books, cash flow and funding applications, lead me this role. Prior, I had been working at Regional Arts Victoria which is the key state of advocacy body for regional arts.

Q: Why a Circus?

It started as a space for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, so that’s kind of juxtaposition of the inherit strength that you need to perform the circus skills. Certainly the sort of stereotypes, busting down those myths, that’s the strength of a woman’s body.

Q: So it’s like a safe house?

I think being away from ‘male gaze’, is a really important thing. We’re never counsellors or psychologists, we are using a creative practice to provide a space for women to explore their own story and work out their trauma or anything like that. It’s a non-verbal space too, so you can come together regardless of cultural background and the capacity to communicate, which is still something that holds us through. We used to be exclusively for women who identified as a survivor of sexual or domestic violence. We are still a women only space, though it’s probably 1 in 3 of those women who personally identify with trauma, so we now work with lots of different communities of women.

Q: So any woman can attend?

You come along, train and do classes with us, so probably our core business is our training program. We run classes that can be for anyone as long as you identify as a woman, and you don’t have to be able to do anything. We’ve got all sorts of different classes, and it’s about the attempt rather than getting it perfectly right. It’s not that you come to us and say “I need help to get away from my partner”, but it may be a space where you allow yourself to have time to do what you want to do. There is a quote that we have from one of our last community development days, where we were working on our next show. The woman said, “Until I started going to the circus, I’d never given myself permission to do anything just for me”. She always prioritised everyone else, her family or her job. Making a space where she could really do something for herself was really important and validating.

Q: How do you deal with the problems you see coming in?

We have systems in place to support, and our trainers are very professional. They’ve been working in this area for some time, and we have a number of different strategies in place. People have different problems and we have different services that we suggest they go speak with.

Q: What kind of physical activities are learned?

If you’ve never trained and you come to us to take some classes, we have a program called new women’s program, and it is something quite different. You might learn how to do hula-hooping, and juggling, and some of the aero stuff. You might even do trapeze, swings or things like acro-balance. Acro-balance is when people are standing on each other and making pyramids. The new women’s program is also around a bit of culture, climbing and tumbling. It is very much about body base practice with an emphasis on circus. Right now we run around 14 adult classes, and 3 young women’s classes for 12 to 17 year olds.

Q: How much does it cost?

We have a 9 week term, which is currently $290 for full fee, and $255 for concession. We do have a scholarship program that’s available, because obviously financial barriers are very real for some people, and we try to find ways to subsidise the cost where we can.

Q: Is this a once a week thing?

One 2 hour session, once a week is quite normal. The thing about circus is that it’s high risk, and it’s a more expensive sport.  Our ratio of students to trainers is 6 to 1 for safety. We also do an artistic program and a lot of not for profit community work as well. Our organisation has around 150 to 160 members, and to train with us you have to be a member.

Q: Do your trainers have qualification?

Some do, but the whole circus landscape has changed dramatically since 25 years ago. We have circus trainers who have been with us for almost 25 years that started as participants and performers. There aren’t really programs for teachers of circus, it is very much around skill acquisition and experience.

Q: How intense can the training be?

It can get quiet intense! We have a couple of advanced classes and those women are outstanding. We also have an open training time on Sundays, where our members can come in to use the space. The bulk of our membership are scientists, teachers or bus drivers by a day, and go do circus training and act in their own time. It’s not the same as an elite training institute, where people can go hard all day, every day. That’s what sort of set us apart, as our women choose to train, because they want to keep growing, and also a community of women having a good time. The big part of it is the community, and like I said we have training members who’ve been with us for 20 years that have performed in every show.

Q: So where does the performance generally happen?

They happen all over the place, but mostly in the west. The last one was at our venue, but it does depend on who is the artistic director for the show. The next show we are planning is for our 25th anniversary, and it will be at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.

Q: What are some of the inspirations for the performances?

The women in the programs are quite often the source of inspiration. We have done a lot of talking about different themes based around what it means to be part of the circus, so it’s often through games and exercises that we come up our ideas. Often it’s about unspoken or silenced stories of women, that may have been twisted by society and need to be addressed.

Q:  Are there plans to train/perform outside of the western suburbs?

We have plans to open training programs in the northern suburbs for the first time. Some programs are in development to support female artists in their own work, through our artistic spaces, props and costume. Ultimately the west is our home, and we don’t plan on moving.  Our performances are quite large, and we are always looking for spaces to be able to get our message across.

Women’s Circus operates from Drill Hall, 395 Barkly St (cnr Gordon Street) in West Footscray. For more information about joining or participation, go to www.womenscircus.org.au or call 9687 3665.

Photos by Marie Watt

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