- Tell us more about yourself. What do you do and how long you’ve been working in this industry?
I’m a visual artist who at the age of 28 started a circus career. This began after I did a trapeze class for total beginners. It was on 4 May 1994, 25 years ago.
I now own a circus, Let’s Circus, with my husband Steve. My roles span the business and include: tent master, truck driver, rigger, costume and graphic designer, business manager, candyfloss maker, and circus performer. On stage I will either act as a Ringmaster or as a meet and greet artist, welcoming people to the circus. I do some character work and street theatre too.
- Who did you want to be when you were a kid?
As an 8-year-old, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. As a teenager, I wanted to be a gamekeeper in Africa (where I grew up), with an anti-poacher gun and a cheetah as a companion. And failing that, I wanted to be a stuntman inspired by Calamity Jane.
- What was your ‘punch in the stomach’ or when did you first realise that this is going to become your career?
I knew that I was going to do it… on my first touch of the trapeze. Within 4 months I was performing and within a year I was running it as a parallel profession. Being paid was a bonus at the beginning so I bought some fancy cultery. Then the circus slowly took over my life. I still have the cutlery.
- What were the 3 biggest obstacles in pursuit of your career?
- Initially my skill level. I was a beginner and had to develop my skills. Though I still got job offers that I had to turn down (i.e. being part of a knife-throwing act with Duffy’s Circus)
- The market for an aerialist. I was living in Belfast, where I used to get random gigs and I was too old (33 at the time) to join projects such as the Millenium Dome. The only option was to create work for myself, (and others) – so I started building my business from very early on.
- The training space. When I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in 2000 there was no circus community and no place where to train. Gradually I helped to develop one and then in 2009, I founded a circus school, Circus Central, ostensibly as a place for youth and community circus.
- Where do you find inspiration?
I don’t really have a muse or a creative model. As an artist, I’m quite independent in my ideas, of which I have too many. I follow my instincts with a degree of determination, meaning that I get quite a lot done. As a result, I now own a circus.
I’m, however, curious about circus history. And I recognise that originality is something that in the modern era we often feel we have, but actually, much of what has been done before is a precursor to our bright ideas. Circus has always been at the forefront of theatrical innovation and, as tastes change, we also need ways to set it within the mode and times.
- What challenges do you face in this industry as a ‘50+ artist’?
As my circus business grew I found that I was getting more office-bound. This meant that my acrobatic and trapeze performance became increasingly replaced by ringmaster and hosting roles.
At the end of my 40s, I was running a youth circus, The Five Ring Circus, and had developed a persona “Madame La Bonche.” In some ways she was the “mother of the circus” and I would take this character on and off the stage to support the youth. Nowadays I perform as Madame when I greet my circus audiences, at the tent and at corporate events.
I also have a candy floss character called “Flossie”. She doesn’t suffer fools either. I think that mature artists have an advantage, especially if they are a bit of a polymath. Because they can find interesting and often oblique approaches when connecting with a wide range of people.
I don’t see discrimination in the industry as I am not asking for permission to do my thing. If I wanted to be performing trapeze – I could and I would. My former aerial partners are still doing so. Granted it would take some training, but I have the advantage of having the muscle memory.
Though changing to roles which are less physically demanding is something that many performers choose. It can be a challenge – as a mute performer to find one with a voice.
- What advice would you give someone who is about to start their career but is being told that it’s ‘too late’?
If you don’t try, you can only blame yourself. In any case, we all start with a challenge of not being able to do it, especially in the circus! Age is only an obstacle if you expect your body to work as if you were a 20-year-old or a 10-year-old girl.
The circus is very individual and your niche will be individual also. Go, find it! It’s not only about physiology but about determination and curiosity too.
- Do you have any idols and if so, who and why?
No, not really. I never have set people up to emulate. As a teenager, I had wildlife posters on the wall, not rock stars! I’m impressed by people who simply follow their star. Humans can be amazing.
- What’s your life motto?
I’d have to make one up, which I did for my youth circus. Basically, it revolves around the notion of setting everyone a place at the table and making sure that all are welcome to share the food. I believe that none of us are the same, yet we aren’t that different either.
I celebrate difference, uniqueness and at the same time loathe discrimination. We’re not the same and life isn’t always fair. But we should all have a chance to make our way through life in companionship and trust that our efforts will bear fruit. No matter where we start.
I suppose that boils down to ‘Follow your star and share your good fortune’.
- You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?
Orange and shocking pink, two-tone crayon. It’s a bit retro and a bit loud. It breaks a few rules and it’s not that calm.
Helen loves taking Magpie Circus to extraordinary places such as picturesque islands of Scotland. Find out more about how she does it and how she deals with (sometimes not so) glamorous role of a Tent Master on Let’s circus website.