Circus Oz: From The Ground Up
As the name suggests, Circus Oz take pride on taking a very Australian-centric show around the world. Co-CEO and Artistic Director Mike Finch says that their latest production, From the Ground Up, plays on the idea of what it means to be Australian and what unites us. This year, there are two Indigenous performers starring in the show. “For us it’s about diversity and difference,” Finch explains, “we’re not looking for a homogeneous group of performers; in fact it’s almost the opposite. We want much diversity to achieve things that are seemingly impossible, like putting nine people onto one push bike, or building a flying trapeze act out of clowns, or doing triple somersaults off a seesaw. They’re all dangerous things that can only be achieved by collaboration between different people.”
Circus Oz is run by a trio of executives, and Finch’s role is to be in charge of casting, as well as directing and putting the show together. “But we work as a collaborative effort,” he says, “and that filters down through the whole company.” The performers are multi-talented and use every aspect of their creative talents in the show. Finch’s job is essentially “to sort of herd the cattle”.
The way in which a Circus Oz show is created can seem quite chaotic. “There’s no script when we start, nor is there a musical score,” Finch says. “All of the performers play a bit of music, two of them are actually riggers and the rest are acrobats, jugglers, actors or dancers and we literally create the show from scratch”. So it’s easy to see where the name for their latest show came from.
The show’s title resonates in more than one way, Finch explains. “This year we’re very happy to be getting a new home base for ourselves in Collingwood, and we’re literally building that ‘from the ground up’, so part of the inspiration for the show is the inclination of building and constructing something new.” The team currently works in a small, draughty drill hall in Port Melbourne. “The new space promises twice the floor space and ceiling height, and a second big room to do all the crazy, risky, impulsive, spontaneous, rope-swinging, stunt-jumping, explosive, life-affirming things we want to do.”
After finishing their last show Steampowered around two months ago, the crew have been in what they call ‘the laboratory process’, which involves creating new work with new performers, before going into rehearsal mode. The will show then continue to evolve for the next two years.
“What we have right now is raw material and new ideas for the show,” says Finch excitedly. “One of the benefits of creating a show with new performers and devising it over time is that even after the first performance, we have a director watching who makes notes on the show every night, and we adapt the performance after each show. Once we’ve been on the road for a few months we have a show that’s evolved a lot.”
From the Ground Up’s premier season kicks off in Melbourne with a four-week running time in a heated big top. The following four months will be spent touring the country, but will be performed in smaller venues. “We fit all of our acts in these small theatres,” says Finch says, “even our trapezes, which is a lot of fun.”
An important element of the Australian tour is the two weeks they spend in a remote Indigenous community, where they will perform free shows for the locals. This year will be particularly exciting due to the two Indigenous performers that are a part of the ensemble. “We’re really looking forward to having Indigenous kids see these guys up on stage with us,” Finch says. He believes it’s good for the kids to have role models that are an alternative to acting and sport. “This part of the tour is a very important part of what we do, politically.”
Once the Australian stint is complete, the show is scheduled to do a four-week in New York on 42nd Street before launching into a further four weeks touring America. These shows are often sold out before the team arrives.
While the themes of each new show differ, Circus Oz team always ensure they produce a very ‘Australian’ show. If a joke is successful in a home-grown audience, it will always be kept in with the hope of exposing the Aussie sense of humour to the world. “I personally love it when the Americans see [Australian humour] in our show,” says Finch. He impersonates an American’s reaction to hearing an Australian joke for the first time: “Oh, there’s more culture out there!”
Experience has shown that people really respond to Australian elements in their shows. “We have a lot of kangaroo costumes,” says Finch. His performers are understandably hesitant to tour Australia in these costumes for fear of coming off as cheesy. “No, no we’ll leave the kangaroos out for our shows in Australia,” says Finch, laughing. “We’ll do it in New York though, they love the kangaroos!”
Finch has been working for Circus Oz for 15 years, and firmly believes it’s the best job in the world. “It’s hard to imagine a better job, he says. “[Working for] an iconic company like Circus Oz, for me is a bit like being offered a job working for the Rolling Stones or The Beatles. I should take a break soon, but I’m sort of addicted to it.”
BY MEGAN HANSON
From the Ground Up takes place Under the Big Top at Birrarung Marr from Wednesday June 20 until Sunday July 15.