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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!

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. 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 theatre and music. 

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 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 to 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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