Circus250 - The Year of Circus... #50DaysToGo

Circus250 - The Year of the Circus

Handstand for Hope - Lost in Translation circus at the Natural History Museum, launching Circus250.JPG
Handstand for Hope - Lost in Translation circus at the Natural History Museum, launching Circus250
Dea Birkett - Ringmaster - The Homecoming - Newcastle-under-Lyme

by Dea Birkett, Ringmaster of Circus250. Email

When we launched Circus250 last January, exactly 250 years to the day after the very first circus in 1768, we did so with a Handstand for Hope. Artists from Lost in Translation circus created a four-metre high handstand under Hope, the giant blue whale hanging in the magnificent Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. This extraordinary act was watched by new Secretary of State for Culture, Matt Hancock. It was his first day in post and the very first cultural event he attended.

It was a good omen for the year ahead. Since then, there have been over 500 Circus250 performances and events UK and Ireland-wide. The Circus250 Caravan has travelled over 2800 miles appearing at festivals and events where circus wouldn’t regularly feature. There have been 16 major exhibitions, ten conferences and six circus conventions. Over 400 features have appeared about Circus250 in the press. Reuters, the Associated Press and BBC4 have all made films about Circus250 and The Economist chose it as one of their ten highlights of 2018, alongside Trump and cyber crime. Equity declared it a ‘Year of Circus’ and set up a circus working group for performers. Actors from Simon Callow (descendent of a clown and bareback rider) to Sir Tony Robinson endorsed circus as influential on their acting careers. Artists such as Sir Peter Blake contributed circus work and talked about the inspiration they found from the ring. Theatre departments at universities including Lancaster, Sheffield, Staffordshire and Birkbeck, have hosted discussions, debates and displays. Circus has ventured into arenas and to audiences that would not have considered or experienced it before. 

Circus didn’t begin in bigtops, but in buildings such as the ones these events have taken place in. Philip and Patty Astley, who drew out the first circus ring on the South Bank of the Thames in 1768 and filled it with astonishing acts, quickly moved from open marshes to wooden amphitheatres which they built themselves. Astley was nicknamed Amphi-Astley. So it’s fitting that 2018 has seen the return of circus into theatres. Contemporary female company Mimbre’s Exploded Circus was made for theatres and has toured across the country. Classical circus Cirque Berserk has also appeared in theatres nationwide, including London’s Harold Pinter. 

Once you put circus onto a proscenium stage, the audience sees it through different eyes. Hand balancers and knife throwers are treading the same boards as actors playing King Lear and Estragon. This new perspective on circus as an artform is long overdue. Joseph Grimaldi, 18th century inventor of the white-faced clown, never set foot in a circus. He only ever played in theatres.

In theatres, audiences are different, too, inevitably less diverse than those who go to a big top pitched in the local park. Settling into the stalls is far less accessible, in any sense of the word, than sitting ringside. One outcome of Circus250 has been to diversify both circus and theatre audiences, by introducing them to each other.

This remarkable anniversary has seen circus venture into a wide range of new venues and before many audiences. Not only theatres, but museums, libraries, festivals and schools have hosted circus events. Exhibitions have been held at the Royal Academy of the West of England, Sheffield Museums, Tyne and Wear Museums, Bristol Museum, Norfolk Museums and Somerset House among others. The Southbank Centre staged a Circus250 Takeover weekend where everything in the building was circus related. A tribute to the Astleys, whose first 1768 circus was only a few hundred yards away, was performed on Saturday night with Grand Indian Circus performers. The Science Museum held a late opening on the Science of Circus. When Cambridge Science Centre held a celebrity opening for its renovation, it chose circus as its theme, including the science of candyfloss.                      

It’s 50 days to go until the end of this extraordinary celebratory year. There’s much remaining to be part of and see. We still have hope.

Follow @circus250 #50DaysToGo and check out all the events and performances to come at 

Date Published: 03 December 2018
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