Case study #4 “The Circus Drop Zone”

Running Laughter House Entertainment means many things to me. As a performer first and foremost, it gives me the opportunity to take the pick of the bunch when it comes to gigs coming through the door. If I like the sound of a particular festival or event or if I have done it in previous years and know that I will enjoy it, or if I can see that I would be the exact fit for the gig, or if I know that the work load is particularly high for a certain gig and don’t feel that I can ask another act to do that – I take the gig!

Almost all of the installations that Laughter House have are performance based. Always entertaining but we have one which is not performance based – The Circus Drop Zone. About 7 years ago we built a freestanding tripod 6 metre high aerial rig for a show called “Live it!” that we premiered at The Hoopla Festival in Darling Harbour and then toured down the South Coast. The show came and went and we all moved on but the rig remained and whilst trying to work out where to keep everything in my shed one day, we realized that we had quite an asset! We could literally set the rig up anywhere (enough space withstanding) and either stage a trapeze, silks, lyra, rope show or have an open circus workshop where members of the public – under the guidance of trained, professional, insured trainers – can literally have a go at trapeze!  And low, The Circus Drop Zone was born! 2 – 3 trainers with circus equipment and a trapeze that all fit in a ute and can travel anywhere in Australia. It takes 45 mins to set up and 30 to take down and here’s the best bit – introduces children and adults alike to a world of different, challenging, fun, infuriating, healthy, non-competitive and genuinely uplifting tasks.

I have to be honest with you, my first love is performing and tents! My ideal gig is where I get to put up one of our mini Spiegeltents in a beautiful location and then spend a couple of days performing to packed houses of multi-generational families. If I could do that every day of my life, I would die an extremely happy man! As I mentioned earlier though, every so often, we get a gig where the hours are long and the benevolent side of me shines and I take one for the team. Last weekend was one such day with a grueling 5.15am start to get to Chatswood from Kiama via Corrimal to be fully set up by 9am and ready to start by 10 am. The day then finished at 4pm but having been to this gig before, I knew that the breaks that we should take were not going to happen as the sheer volume of punters at the gig, desperate to participate in something that was A. free and B. fun was going to mean that we wouldn’t get a break! 6 hours of teaching children aged 4 – 40 how to do anything from unicycling, juggling, diabolo, plate-spinning, hula-hoop, devil sticks and of course trapeze.

The way it works is that we normally have two trainers. One of them (the most patient, most skilled and probably the most qualified) takes the aerial rig and the other takes everything else! On this occasion, I was the “everything else” guy! We had an eerily quiet start. Our spot was on top of a raised garden which was very picturesque really and actually felt like we were a little bit too separated from the main festival which filled the streets below us. After a very quiet 45 mins, well completely quiet actually – we had nobody – I realized that the parade was happening and that everyone was watching that. Within minutes of that finishing, we were swamped. 50% of my job is trying to flit effortlessly/patiently between eager children trying to master in seconds what has taken me years to perfect and 50% prop management. By which I mean circumnavigating the space trying to put used props back into relevant piles and retrieve juggling balls and scarves from the bushes. Meanwhile my long-suffering partner hoists another 9 year old onto the trapeze and returns them to the ground a hero! And then it happened. One of those moments that sticks in your mind but you don’t quite understand why yet. One of those moments that you find yourself idly thinking about on the drive on the way home. One of those moments that three days later is still niggling away at the back of your conscience.

A young (maybe 10 year old) boy with glasses, a subtle air of intelligence and intrigue called Franklin walked up to me holding a unicycle and said “can you show me how to do this please?”

To give you a little context, juggling and unicycling are  – my thing. I’m 45 now so have slowed a little but in my day, I was good! At the tender age of 13 my life took a very different direction. I had been an average student who scored average marks until I discovered music. My parents had taken me out of the primary school that I was in as they thought – probably quite rightly – that it wasn’t really as good as it should be. From there I went to a very strange school which from memory was called Squirrels – which even now seems an implausible name- where I lasted about a year before my parents realized that it was run by complete nut jobs.

It was much easier to understand why my parents removed me from that school and  enrolled me (with the help of my grand parents money) in a very eccentric school called Hill House. The School was run by an eccentric Colonel who had competed in the 100 metres for Great Britain in the Olympics back in the day. The school was located in the centre of London behind Harrods and was made up of diplomat children, obscenely rich children of arms traders and the like and the Prince and Princess of Brunei who also attended the school! Strange as it was, the school was excellent and their sports and music facilities were second to none. The motto of the school was “ a child’s mind is a fire to be kindled not a vessel to be filled” which at the time didn’t make much sense but now makes so much sense that it makes me shed a tear! In my first week there, we were led into our compulsory music class, into the music room and offered any instrument in the orchestra to “have a go at.” “Take your pick” we were told and in typical, impractical fashion, I chose The French Horn and The Double Bass! I loved it! I was good at it! I was genuinely encouraged to excel at it! My success was celebrated in front of my peers, my parents and the whole school. For the first time I really felt as if I had found something that I was going to be better at than most others. Something that I would continue to enjoy getting better at for the foreseeable future. A career? Academically I stayed about the same, neither good nor bad, but musically, I raced ahead completing grade 5 in Double bass and grade 7 in French horn within 2 years. My time at Hill House was at an end and I managed to get a full music scholarship to my next school to further pursue my passion. Eccentric and strange as Hill House was, it was run by people with genuine passion. I look back at my music teacher (who incidentally was the son of the Colonel and who now runs the school) and we all thought that he was bonkers. He would get so carried away conducting music that he would sway and throw his arms around, his eyes would almost bulge out of his head as he lived and breathed every note, every chord, every harmony. He had a passion that was so great that he couldn’t disguise it and be true to it or himself at the same time. It took over his body to such an extent that the class would titter and giggle and call him names because we genuinely thought he had lost it. I now understand what that was and am filled with awe that he didn’t care what he looked like, he was in the moment and loving it!

My next school looked great on paper. It was a boarding school which I had convinced myself was what I wanted to do and the music department was run by a French Horn teacher! What could be more perfect? Unfortunately, the same French Horn teacher was also the head of the cadets – a kind of enforced army training part of the school where we literally had to dress up in army gear and run around in the woods playing soldiers. I hated it. I really couldn’t believe that I was being asked to do this? What self respecting individual would choose to lie face down in the mud in the pissing rain on an all night exersise while some pompous thug with an overinflated sense of importance screamed at you, threw rocks at you when he could see you moving and fired blanks above your head as a punishment? As I write this now, once again I am filled with disbelief that you are allowed to do that to a 13 year old. Needless to say, I started to resent the man. He was so far removed from what I thought a music teacher was. Our lessons were so mind numbingly dull and regimented that I just lost interest. My previous school’s motto of “a child’s mind is a fire to be kindled not a vessel to be filled” was the exact opposite of how I felt here. I basically dropped out of the music program, eliciting concern as to my future tenure at the school, having won a full music scholarship, if I wasn’t going to play, neither were they! I discovered punk, both the music but the ethos. It appealed to my innate sense of fairness and earned respect rather than the “respect” that my army music teacher demanded from us ‘un’earned. I lasted just under a year when I was called – along with my parents – into the Head Masters room and told that I was a very troubled child and that we – my family, including my sister who had nothing to do with this, were to attend a family counseling session with a phychiatrist of their choosing and once we had done that, they would consider my place at the school. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well. The only other thing that had pricked my interest at the school was acting, I had managed to get the leading role in the school production and it basically kept me going. As their next punishment they told me (the night before) that I wasn’t going to be allowed to perform in the school production, which also means that they had planned that in advance as someone else filled my role somehow already knowing all of their lines. I was then given the option to “turn in” all of my punk clothes and wear my school uniform all day everyday or leave the school. I think that they knew what my answer would be and I was heartened by my parent’s support for my decision. I then went to another school in London for just under a year before walking out of school aged 15 and refused to go back.

In my mind, the schooling system had failed me miserably. I was never an excellent student, my grades were always middle of the road, but I had been gifted a wonderful thing by “the system” in music and theatre, only to have it taken away again by the system. Ironic but to this day I still feel the anguish and confusion that I did at the time. The only difference being that at the time I had little or no idea of what was going on whereas now I have a little more understanding. As a result, I became lost, lack-lustre, nihilistic, depressed even. I remember being asked what I wanted to do with my life by my parents at that point and in all seriousness I turned to them and said that I was content to just be homeless, maybe live under a bridge begging for my food! I can’t begin to imagine how disturbing that must have been to hear from a child that 1 and a half years prior had been to full of talent and optimism.

Just at the end of my time at my last school I met my future Brother in Law. I had been skulking around our local parks at night trying my hardest to look like some homeless punk – yes that really was the look I was trying to cultivate – when I met Danny. He had taken the same bus to school that I had taken – albeit to different schools – and he was a punk as well. He is 3 years my senior and at the time I looked up to him. His brother really was a punk and hung out with all kinds of interesting people and I was completely in awe of him. We went to the pub, hung out with other punks, went to squat parties and tried our hardest to look like we fitted in. One summer evening as we lay around in the park drinking cheap cider, a group of his brother’s friends joined us and started fire-twirling. Danny jumped up and began to juggle, which I had never seen him do. It was like at that moment, a switch was flicked in my head. I had to learn how to do that. Danny obliged and within a day I was furiously juggling. In fact, I didn’t really stop, it had got under my skin so much that most spare minutes of the day were spent throwing and catching. My parents noticed the obvious change in my personality, my enthusiasm and general level of happiness and to their eternal credit decided to encourage this new found zest for life. I am sure that not every parent would have been to supportive – my father admits that the best years of his life were spent at university and he was devastated that I seemed so ambivalent towards my education, my mother on the other hand I think had secretly had a very similar experience at school and understood what I was going through a little more. Be that as it may, they supported me whole-heartedly and unquestioningly.

A circus came to town, “Circus Burlesque” in fact was the name. My parents found the advert in the paper and booked us tickets for the show. I took my girlfriend with us and will never forget the moment that I walked into the tent. The smell of grass starting to rot. The smell of the canvas, the red tinted lights picking out the sparkle in their eyes. The show was fabulous with just the right amount of skill mixed with  irreverence. The thing that I remember the most about it though was how happy they were. They clearly took their jobs very seriously and performed with aplomb but I could just tell that they were brimming over with happiness and pride in what they were doing. Like it really was what they were supposed to be doing with their lives. Unmistakable.

I was back the next day! My mother had noticed that they advertised circus classes for anyone to attend during the day. She signed me up and dropped me off the next day where I was taught the basics of juggling with juggling clubs (I had only managed balls up until then) and the unicycle. I was the only one there! They were a little surprised to see me to be honest but super obliging and a little taken aback by my enthusiasm. I imagine that they knew at that point that I was hooked. That this was the correct thing for me to be doing. It seems stupid and childish to say it out loud but at that moment, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. This was to be my career, I could not have been more certain about it! My 2 hour workshop came to an end and my mother dutifully picked me up. As I said goodbye, they said that they didn’t think that there was anybody coming tomorrow either and maybe if I wanted to, I could come tomorrow and maybe I could stay for a little longer… I think I was there for 5 hours that day and by the end of that time, I could juggle 3 clubs and ride a unicycle.

I digress!

What I saw on Saturday in Franklin’s eyes I recognized in a flash. He was fairly ordinary, of average intelligence. He was a normal enough Chinese kid, growing up in Northern Sydney. I’m sure his parents love him dearly and want the best for him, maybe a career in law or medicine? 99% of kids his age see the unicycle on the floor, think how cool it would be to ride one, try for 3 minutes and give up. Franklin listened intently from the word go. I have a schpeel that I give outlining 3 basic things that they have to remember. Most kids are so eager to get onto the unicycle that they don’t hear a word and I spend the entire speech trying to prevent them from attempting the mount the unicycle until I have finished talking. Franklin listened. To every word. Intently. I then spent the usual 5 or so minutes helping him to try and put into actions what I had explained to him earlier, waiting for him to give up and move on. Well he didn’t. In fact after about 20 minutes of one on one training to which he responded incredibly well, I became aware of the other children around me trying to hula-hoop or juggle un assisted. I quickly realized that his mother was also quite surprised by his dogged enthusiasm so enlisted her to help so that I could focus on other children.  Getting her to hold his hand as he progressed from riding a metre or two to 5 then 10 metres by the end of the day. He was hooked.

As the last few children put their stuff away and drifted off, I turned to see Franklin and his mother riding, falling, riding and falling, talking, laughing, getting frustrated together and glowing. Radiating passion. He was so hooked.

30 years on from the moment that I discovered my path in life, I wonder what Franklin will end up doing? Most likely he will get a degree in Medicine or Law and good luck to him if he does. But just imagine if, like me, that Saturday opened a door to a world that he had never even imagined before. A world that made everything suddenly make sense. A world where just the day before, everything had seemed impossible and now anything seemed possible. Just imagine if that moment steered Franklin away from a downward spiral of misunderstanding, frustrated hopes or misguided decisions? The school systems these days are much better at realizing when kids don’t fit in or when their message is falling on deaf ears, some even have things like circus as part of their curriculum but what I had underestimated when I created The Circus Drop Zone was that I could reach out to thousands of these children and with no competitive peer pressure, no targets to meet and a relaxed supportive environment, could possibly give another little me the support to follow their dream.

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