Bianco by NoFit State presented by Appetite. © Andrew Billington
'Run away to the circus'. An idea packed with promise. A metaphor to describe rebellion, adventure, a rejection of daily routine. Yet - there’s a hint of something comfortingly traditional in there too, isn't there? That’s the secret power of circus: at once radical, yet a fundamental part of our cultural heritage.
Convention-shattering or traditional, running away to join it has never held any attraction to me. Living in a trailer, travelling from muddy field to muddy field? No thanks. Don't like heights, don’t like Lycra, don’t like being chilly.
Yet twice in as many months, running away to the circus is exactly what I've done.
It’s all because of Philip Astley. Born in my hometown, Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1742, he had a difficult relationship with his cabinet-maker dad. So he ran away: not just to join the circus, but to invent it.
Well, first he ran away to join the army. Joining the cavalry, learning a new system of horse training and riding, becoming a decorated war hero. Eventually he opened his own riding school, inviting the public to watch his displays of horsemanship. He prototyped the 42-foot circus ring which is today used all over the world (it's been suggested that it was the perfect diameter to use centrifugal force to stay on the back of a horse). In his determination to capture the public's pennies and their applause he began to vary his equestrian displays, incorporating acrobats, clowns, music. The combination of a variety of acts performing in that particular ring became a distinctive art form. The circus as we know it today was born.
When I joined the New Vic ten years ago, there, on the 'Famous people from Staffordshire' Wikipedia page, I learned about Astley, and planned to do a show about him. When the National Theatre Studio introduced me to Frazer Flintham, I asked him to take on the challenge of writing it.
Then I heard about Circus250. A nationwide celebration taking place throughout 2018, marking that moment when Astley brought the elements together. Suddenly my plans for a show about Astley developed into something altogether more ambitious.
This chance to shine a light on Newcastle-under-Lyme, and to celebrate the creative relationships the New Vic and our Appetite programme have been developing, was supported by an Arts Council Ambition for Excellence award. It allowed us to develop the Circus Past, Present and Future programme. A host of projects and many inspiring partnerships will take place during this year of circus:
• a new, large scale show, LEXICON, created by NoFit State Circus in their new in-the-round auditorium, made here in Newcastle-under-Lyme before touring internationally including to Amiens and Avignon
• a professional development programme with the Roundhouse
• an outdoor community show with The Philip Astley Project
• hosting the National Youth Circus gathering
• an outdoor exhibition curated by the Victoria & Albert Museum
• a new installative piece of theatre
• a party-in-the-park for local families
• an associate artist scheme with seed funding to develop new projects
• a creative conference
• a new in-the-round show, Astley's Astounding Adventures, created by us at the New Vic, telling the story of the man himself.
That’s how I came to run away to the circus. First in NoFit State's Big Top, watching director Firenze Guidi and the team developing LEXICON. Then at NoFit State Circus's fully equipped base in Cardiff with our co-director Vicki Amedume, writer Frazer, a group of actors, circus artists and other creatives to develop Astley’s Astounding Adventures.
Our relationship with so many circus world partners is an inspiring, productive, often provocative one; at once professional development and a creative adventure. Plus, it’s afforded me the opportunity to do that thing I never dreamt I’d do: run away to the circus.
A confession, though. Instead of residing in a trailer, I stayed at the Premier Inn.
NoFit State, Bianco presented by Appetite © Andrew Billington