For over 30 years, Circomedia has provided a space where students and performers can explore the possibilities of circus and physical theatre to devise innovative and boundary-pushing work.
We started out as the UK’s first full-time circus school, Fool Time, becoming Circomedia in 1994. Since then we have attracted students from all over the world. Our students are driven by their determination to combine circus skills with physical theatre and creativity.
“Circomedia is a place that inspires you and challenges you to create diverse work.”
– Iona Stewart, BA graduate 2018
When it comes to our approach to education, we believe that minds and personalities need developing as much as physical fitness. That’s why we nurture our students to take an imaginative and innovative approach to training. We encourage all our students to devise original and creative work that challenges and inspires. For a more detailed history of Circomedia and circus in Bristol, continue reading below.
On 1st April 1986 (April Fools Day) the performer-teacher Jonathon Kay began a weekend workshop at a former church hall in St Paul’s, Bristol. This was the first teaching session of Fool Time which, five months later, became Britain’s first permanent full-time school for professional circus training. Whilst this might be the start of Fool Time, it’s not the start of our story.
During the 1960s there had been a growing interest in variety, circus and fairground from artists in other fields, most notably in theatre, Performance Art and contemporary music. The counter-culture was recycling emblems and images of the past and re-casting them in modern contexts. This reimagined nostalgia was an inspiring contrast to the rapidly increasing sophistication of electronic media in the 1960s and 70s.
Theatre groups such as The People Show, Welfare State and Lumiere & Son had roots in the happenings and Performance Art of the 1960s whilst other companies took influence from iconic French theatre teacher Jacques Lecoq, like Cunning Stunts and Kaboodle. More than any other company at that time, Kaboodle incorporated more accomplished circus skills, either in theatre street performances such as The Mission Show (1978) or more ambitiously with the narrative in their production of the Chinese legend Monkey (1978). Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the visit of Le Grand Magique Circus to London’s Roundhouse were also key events for the emergence of British alternative circus in the early seventies.
In this period the commercial circuses were a closed world to most outsiders and did not provide any access to training. Throughout the early 1980s there were calls for there to be a permanent full-time circus school in Britain and in 1985, an entrepreneur called Richard Ward provided an answer. Ward had experience in building restoration and an interest in juggling. He’d identified a suitable building in St Paul’s, Bristol, in which such a school could exist and he invited Franki Anderson of Kaboodle to put together a course and a team of teachers. Circomedia co-founder Bim Mason, who had worked with Anderson in the late seventies and who’d completed a two-year course at Lecoq’s school, was invited in May 1986 to teach mask, mime and acrobatics. A local juggling teacher (and founder of Butterfingers) Nicky Bee was also invited, as were Guy Dartnell and John Lee who taught theatre, improvisation and clown. Visiting teachers included Barry Grantham and Olly Crick who both taught Commedia dell Arte, Jonathon Graham who taught acrobatics and Sue Broadway who taught trapeze. In the early years, Anderson taught tightwire as well as the Fool classes.
The staff and students of Fool Time shared an ideology that stood in opposition to and challenged the mainstream political and social consensuses of the day. This radical perspective extended to mainstream circus, which was vilified for its use of animals. The shared sense of ideology and purpose was enhanced by the intense sense of togetherness resulting from the Fool training, which in some cases bordered on personal therapy as individuals confrunted their fears and were challenged to break free of artificial identities. Further bonding was enabled by weekly sessions in group devising and presentations, something Circomedia retains to this day. This method was derived from Lecoq’s emphasis on the performer as a creator of their own work. At Circomedia we hold on to this approach to artist development. Like Lecoq, we aim not just to give students what they need for the existing artistic environment but to equip them to create their own blend of circus and theatre for the future. This means taking some leadership in establishing artistic criteria and laying down principals but also encouraging students to challenge, think for themselves and take their own initiatives; to find their own way rather than being moulded into fodder for the big commercial companies which, in any case, are looking for originality as much as high skill.
Interest in aerial techniques was growing fast during the late 1980s but logistical constraints meant the skills could not be passed on as easily as juggling or acrobatics. One of the UK’s most prominent aerial teachers, Circomedia co-founder Helen Crocker, was invited to teach at Fool Time. She had worked as a performer with Cunning Stunts, Ra Ra Zoo and Circus Senso and because she’d directed large scale works for National Centre for Circus Arts (then Circus Space) Crocker was asked to direct Dreams Of Flying, Fool Time’s ambitious piece of aerial-theatre. Dreams Of Flying was a major shift for Fool Time, away from narrative, humour and audience contact and towards strong images, recurring themes and a more urban, contemporary feel. When, in 1991, Franki Anderson resigned as Course Director of the main one-year course, Helen Crocker was invited to take over. She introduced more rigorous training in physical technique and moved away from the idea of performance as healing self-expression towards one that could take on wider themes.
During the latter period of Fool Time’s history (1986-93) Richard Ward attempted to secure better premises and a more secure financial position. He had used his family home to secure bank loans but faced an uphill struggle persuading the Arts Council to fund anything but short term community projects because they didn’t classify circus as an art from and did not fund any training schools. It was only after one of many financial crises that the Arts Council agreed to a limited amount of core funding. Ward found Fool Time a new home in a derelict Victorian school in Kingswood, on the edge of Bristol. Large amounts of funding were applied for, partly to the Arts Council but mainly to the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, a precursor to the National Lottery. All looked hopefull and in 1992 classes began at the new site while a Physical Theatre course was held at St Paul’s. This hope however was short lived as unforeseen costs mounted and funders pulled out. Finally, at a crucial funding meeting in April 1993, Fool Time was passed over and insolvency seemed imminent. Frantic attempts were made far and wide to try and find benefactors or other sources of income but it proved impossible to raise the amount needed. Fool Time was forced to close with teachers being asked to work without pay for the last few months.
Despite Fool Time’s relatively short life, its influence and legacy were significant. It achieved a worldwide reputation and became a centre for contemporary circus in Britain. As well as the 300 students who did the three month or one year courses, thousands of people benfited from the evening classes, children’s classes, summer schools and invited teachers almost every weekend. A large proportion of the teachers at National Centre and the future Circomedia were trained at Fool Time, including Rod Laver, Julie Thornton, Flick Fernando and Mark Moreau. Significantly, through its lobbying and publicity campaigns, Fool Time had forced a rethink at the Arts Council, which since 1940 had refused to include circus within its brief.
Despite the difficulties of the final year, the course itself was considered a great success by staff and students alike and with applications still coming in, Bim Mason and Helen Crocker decided to launch a new organisation. Most of Fool Time’s assets had been sold off to pay debtors but a few items remained and there was a database of contacts. During a train journey with John Fox of Welfare State, the name Circamedia was chosen and later ammended to Circomedia, implying that circus activities were the media, the vehicle for delivering art, much in the same way as dance technique is used not just as a visually pleasing end in itself but to convery mood, concept and stories.
After a twelve month interval the new organisation opened its doors in September 1994 with twelve students. The aim was to provide continuity with what had already been developed and to be clear that what was on offer was an emphasis on performance, creativity and the integration of theatre with circus technique: ‘a theatre school for circus performers and a circus school for actors’, as a publicity stated.
From the beginning we decided to focus on the main one-year professional course. Weekend courses and evening classes were financially unpredictable in the early days and so didn’t become part of the Circomedia programme until more recently. Our primary concern at that time was to continue to develop the artform mainly through education but also through encouraging the creation of new work. To this end we adapted the full company name to ‘Centre for Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance’. The idea of a centre, rather than a school, was one in which professional companies would be able to research, rehearse, design and make work alongside our education programmes. Today, this takes the form of Artist In Residence schemes and the support we provide to graduates, giving them access to space and resources at no cost.
The Arts Council restructure of 2000 removed the regional variations in policy that had blocked Circomedia getting any regular funding during the Fool Time years. It also adopted a more positive approach to circus, street theatre and carnival. The perceptions of what could be considered culture were widening and the incoming Labour government of 1997 were keen to endorse what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘democratisation of art’. All these changes made for a more positive environment in which Circomedia could thrive. Circomedia received its first significant funding from Arts Council England in 2002 and is now a Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO). The first intake for the Level 3 BTEC course, which linked youth circus and outreach programmes with full-time education began in 2005 and a few years later Circomedia’s one year course grew into a fully accredited two year Foundtion Degree in partnership with Bath Spa University. A third top-up year was added in 2014 allowing students to achieve a full BA (Hons) in Contemporary Circus with Physical Theatre and in 2017 Circomedia launched the world’s first postgraduate Masters Degree in Directing Circus.
The long awaited financial support allowed Circomedia to return to St Paul’s in the heart of Bristol and with help from the Church’s Conservation Trust we moved into a renovated church in Portland Square.
Nowadays Circomedia is a much larger organisation with many strings to its bow. As well as delivering the full-time courses, our Portland Square site hosts many professional touring shows, caters for weddings and events and is home to our Youth Circus and adult classes programme. Circomedia also plays an active role in local community projects and contributes to the global development and understanding of circus.
So what does the future hold for Circomedia? Well, we’re currently in talks to develop a purpose-built facility at the Bottleyard Studios in south Bristol. If plans go ahead, it would see Circomedia creating the largest centre for circus in the UK and would allow us to expand our provision in all areas. We are working with architetcs, the council and community leaders to develop a creative hub that will benefit the surrounding area, as well as current and future Circomedia students and our staff.
We’ve come a long way since April Fools Day 1984 but we reckon we can still push ourselves a little bit further.
What do we mean by physical theatre?
Physical theatre is about imagination and play. It uses the body as a means of expression – the raw material through which you make theatre. Through your body’s physicality, you can express emotion or ideas that can’t be summed up with words or dialogue. In physical theatre, you have the chance to bring together what is normally kept apart: popular and esoteric; physical and cerebral; high and low art; local and global; play and structure.