We are all storytellers

From the seminar “Circus as Outsider” at Subcase 2017.
The seminar was hosted by Baltic Nordic Circus Network.


We are all storytellers. We are all engaged in an “act of creation” of the “composition of our lives and our communities.”

Our identities and experiences are constantly shifting, and storytelling is how we make sense of it.

We take disparate pieces of our information and by placing them together into a narrative, we create a unified whole.

This allows us to understand our lives as coherent — and meaningful.

The term narrative identity has been coined as an internalised story you create about yourself, your culture and community.

It becomes a tool to use when we want people to understand us.

When a culture is formed it usually has primary, deeply embedded ‘master narratives’.

The narrative says where it came from, where it is going and how it should be organised.

When these narratives are accepted as authority without discussion or dissension it can lead to exclusion.

For example, even in the most progressive western societies, the dominant narrative often leaves queer and gay-identified individuals navigating through a world that regularly excludes their desires and experiences.

When Lina approached me to speak I thought long and hard about what to say and my thinking kept coming back to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I am going to talk about five narratives I often hear in relation to our sector that often go unexamined and indicate our attitude to inclusion.

1) That we are one art form

It seems strange that we have so few words to describe a fast-growing and multi-faceted field.

Is a lack of vocabulary holding us back, acting as a bottleneck? It may keep out many people who don’t realise that this one little word ‘circus’ serves as a front door to an expansive world.

As an artist I strongly resist the tendency that surfaces time and time again – to believe that we will somehow progress to a point where there is a ‘resolution’ of the identities and practices in our art form.

Contemporary dance suffered from similar problems until there came a recognition from a majority of practitioners that it was possible and probably necessary for artists to be allowed to continually defy established ideas.

I cannot think of other examples of any form that strive so hard to arrive at definitions.
Part of this may be because of our desire for credibility as an art form rather than a craft.

Of course the effort to define and the discourse it creates is absolutely necessary as long as discourse avoids becoming a series of rigid definitions.

2) A breed apart…we are the outsiders

The heroic story we tell ourselves, the pride we take in being the outsider are all often repeated elements of the circus story.  Circus as the feisty outsider has shaped the way circus relates to wider culture for years.

To run off and join the circus, that jokey cliché, has been a metaphor for the escape from normal life — The expression evokes a sense of abandoning the mundane and routine for something exciting – to live outside of society’s norms and expectations.

Transgressiveness has always been a commodity. Edginess has ‘cultural capital’ and is makes money!

Just look at the transformation of Justin Bieber from a clean-cut “boy next door” into the low slung pants, tattooed “bad boy,” suffusing his music with an urban contemporary vibe.
It is an attempt to connect himself with populist perceptions of “dangerous” black manhood.

We must recognise the origins of modern circuses around 250 years ago as commercial enterprises to exploit this very idea.

The Phillip Astley’s format for circus came at the time only two theatres in London were granted royal patents allowing them to produce ‘proper’ plays or text-based productions.

Licensing venues in this way, instead of having the desired effect of establishing ‘legitimate’ theatres and establishing text based theatrical entertainment as the leading artfom it served instead to cultivate a landscape where Astley’s circus became edgy, modern and fashionable; an integrated entertainment experience. Astley was clever about constantly evolving to present new spectacles to keep people coming in.  Astley created a sense of innovation and modernity. He attracted audiences who were excited by the cultivated avant-garde nature of circus as much as the physical risks the performers took.

Intense rivalry between circuses made use of this aesthetic, the flirtation with wild and exotic imagery – We are still, in a sense, responding to that. This kind of “identity capitalism” — has been problematic in circus’ past.

We talk about the mainstreaming of contemporary circus, the impact of commercialisation on circus as a haven for the different, but modern circus was founded on commercialism and the exploitation of difference.

3) The circus family, a unified international community

The circus community does contain people of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, genders.

There is also diversity at the heart of circus practice – a wide variety of skills and activities embraced – aerial arts, juggling, clowning, acrobatics, sideshows etc… often without words.

The ability of circus “to amaze and move audience  across  cultural and  language  barriers” must be the most overused statement in marketing brochures and funding applications.

However,  the romantic historical image of the Circus, the story told about our past –  as a space for the other; “a genuinely heterogeneous community; living and working together in harmony” – is disingenuous.

If you look into circus’ past,  even though  performers may have willingly participated, the display and representation of ethnicity, gender and disability was often designed to reinforce existing cultural stereotypes and normative values.

So where are we now?  We are most definitely an international community.

I can walk into any circus training space in the world and understand the social functions of that space and I will probably have friends and connections in common.

But even though we are international that does not equate to being inclusive.

The idealised image of the circus troupe as a model of community and collective endeavour is repeated constantly, but then the majority of the work that I have encountered does not come close to reflecting the diversity that exists in our society.

Are we as a community welcoming to those who do not understand how things are done?

As we formalise education and training pathways and distribution networks are we in danger of creating an echo chamber that reinforces and perpetuates only what that confirms what we already value?

When we huddle with those most like us we limit the space of other voices and other ideas.

A friend who is a Black Lives Matter activist told me that the purpose of her networks was to foster black solidarity – not for changing white people’s minds.  She is involved in creating an important, empowering space for black voices to be heard, but the resulting polarisation can create its own problems.

In the context of globalisation, simple group identities are more problematic AND more appealing than ever, as is evidenced by the seductive simplicity of arguments put forward by those seeking power.

“Make America Great” – is articulated in a particular way to appeal to a particular identity. It implicitly and not so implicitly references religion and ethnicity. The Christian America, that was once great, but is now threatened by those ‘others’ who play identity politics.

What implicit messages do we communicate about our community if we use this idea of collectivism and community but don’t reflect the communities we exist within.

4) That we can separate the work that we make from the context it grows out of

I’m going to adjust the statement I just made.

Circus does not reflect exact proportions of different groups within our populations, but it does provide a pretty close reflection of how these groups are represented across power structures.

Our societies does not have many black people or many women in positions of power.  It does not have nor allows for a well-integrated disabled community.  So at the moment in circus; our work, our educational spaces, our networks are pretty good reflection of the power structures in the wider world.

It highlights to me that we also need to move beyond the idea that it is enough to have difference represented on stage. The idea of inclusiveness needs to permeate into the power structures that govern and guide the sector.  Only then will it become a core part of the function of our community.

5) That inclusion is not the concern of the individual artist

As an artist it is important to recognise that no choices are neutral.

I remember being challenged on my casting choices for one particular piece of work.  I was the first piece I’d made that had an all-white cast.

Older women in their 50s and 60s. I was challenged on the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast, even though it was all female and consisted of a generation not regularly seen on circus stages.

It was also surprising as none of the other work on tour at that time in our region had ethnically diverse casts. There is the expectation as a visible minority that I would take on the work that really everyone should be doing.

Should I be?  Why do I say that?

As an artist is it really your responsibility to include everyone? What does that even mean?

There is some argument to be made around freedom of artistic choice – Is this political correctness?
How much should we change our behaviour in order to avoid moving towards inclusion? And how worried should we be about what we might lose in doing so?

The idea that when people are constantly policing one another for not being politically correct, stifles creativity is one I hear often.

For many reasons, some of which are visible and for many that are not, I personally feel compelled to create space for other identities.

This is just my opinion.  My opinion is that surely one of the roles of an artist is to assess how we live now and pose questions and alternatives.

Diversity in our society is a fact.

I often think of a conversation on an international fellowship I was part of, in which we were each asked to speak briefly about our sense of cultural identity.

It revealed again to me just how complex and layered every individual’s sense of cultural identity is.

People spoke of geography, history, family lives, of class, of art and of the music they loved as constituting their senses of cultural self. What emerged was a complex and varied approach to the question, which highlighted how delicate the notion of cultural identity is.

We all make choices about who we work with, who we invite on to the platforms and nothing will change without the conscious action.

You don’t get out of the echo chamber by accident.  Unconscious choices or inaction can only maintain things as they are.

You may think things are fine as they are.  I would have to respectfully disagree.

In wrapping up I feel like I have ranged across this topic of inclusiveness and how the stories we accept as the way things are need to be challenged.

So my last thought goes back to the statement:

Diversity in our society is a fact.  Inclusion is a choice.

If you are in a position of power and do not use some of that power to change the narrative.  Well, that is your choice.

Thank You!