Scotland business

Modern circus means business when it comes to putting on a show

Image copyright Piet-Hein Out
Image caption Trapeze and aerial performers are among the star performers at Zippos circus

It uses enough electricity to run a small town, is run by "a feudal lord" and relies on a team of drivers, welders, tent hands, mechanics and a PR operation, as well as performers.

The Business Scotland programme has been looking behind the magic of the big top at the business realities of running a circus.

It is just an hour before the matinee at Zippos Circus and to all appearances this is a traditional big top with music and the smell of candy floss heavy in the air. But in fact, the tent is made of high-quality fireproof plastic, not cotton, and the music is played from a computer.

The people who run the circus say while they want to celebrate their heritage they also want to make use of what technology can offer.

But none of that is important to the children who are beginning to arrive for the show.

"I want to see the clowns," says one of them "because they're always funny, throwing cakes at each other."

The man keeping a careful eye out to see that everything is on track is the ringmaster Norman Barrett, who was born and bred into the circus. He is immaculately turned out in a red coat and glossy top hat. His genial front-of-house manner has been polished over more than 60 years in the business.

Travelling village

"I'm passionate about it, I just love what I do," he says.

"It's exacting, it's hard at times but you get a lot of pleasure doing it."

Before the show, he meets and greets the public, makes sure that the props are all ready and during the performance itself he keeps an eye on everything and ad libs to smooth over or deal with anything that might go wrong.

"I'm a salesman in a shop," he explains. "You go in to buy a blue suit, but if they haven't got the right blue suit, he finishes up by selling you a grey suit. I'm selling a product, my product is the circus."

But to achieve the glitz of the show in the big top, a complicated business is being run behind the scenes.

Just a short distance from the tent, parked in a circle, are caravans and heavy lorries. For the 23 people performing in the ring, there is a team of about 70 supporting them.

"This is a travelling feudal village," says Martin Burton, founder and director of Zippos circus.

Image copyright Piet-Hein Out
Image caption Norman Barrett has honed his ringmaster skills over a 60-year career

"I am the feudal lord," he continues. "They (the performers) come to me with their problems and their problems are many and varied.

"I've sorted out people's pension schemes, I've sorted out people's relationship problems, taken them to hospital, taken them back from hospital, I've buried their parents - I've done all sorts of things.

"That is my role as far as the artists are concerned. In return, I expect them to give their time and expertise to the show in the circus ring."

Keeping everything on the road are a dozen HGV trucks and two generators, one to run and one as a back-up. Most of the things that are used here in the circus have to be made specially, like the lorries or the trapeze, and that means there is a crew including welders, woodworkers and electricians.

Mr Burton adds: "It's a big, big machine, particularly with regard to logistics, to moving all these trucks, all these vehicles."

Running a business which is constantly on the move has its challenges. Audiences differ from place to place and that can be difficult for, among others, the publicity team.

Novel approach

In Peterhead, for instance, they always make sure they have a Russian speaker in the ticket booth who can speak to any Russians pitching up to be in the audience.

Mr Burton also has a novel approach to problem solving.

"We used to plan ahead," he says. "We had planning meetings and planning meetings and planning meetings and then at the last minute, everything would change.

"Then one day I had one of those eureka moments, and I said we are never going to have another planning meeting because we always change at the last minute. So what we are going to do is every senior staff member is going to be taught crisis management."

He says his staff can make three decisions in under a minute.

Image copyright Piet-Hein Out
Image caption The Zippos circus ring is packed with modern technology
Image copyright Piet-Hein Out
Image caption Strongman proves the circus is not just about the clowns and acrobats

"I have spoken to businessmen who look amazed and say, 'Well, in my company that would take six months to make those three decisions'. Yes, well, learn how to do it. If there's a problem, solve it."

But in contrast to this kind of traditional travelling circus, in Scotland and elsewhere a different kind of circus has been developing.

"It is taking traditional circus arts and putting it into theatre," says Jennifer Patterson, an aerial dance artist and artistic director of All Or Nothing Dance Theatre.

"It's actually using tricks to tell a story rather than looking at the spectacular tricks that they do in traditional circus."

She points to groups like Cirque Du Soleil which have made a successful business of contemporary circus.

But at the moment in Scotland, making a living from using circus skills is not easy and she says you have to work "outside your comfort zone" and be "versatile".

Physical theatre

She has worked in straight theatre shows, cabaret and teaching. Up until now, one of the brakes on what is still a small sector has been the lack of space dedicated to circus skills.

The Briggait in Glasgow used to be the city's old fish market but has been redeveloped to include artists' studios and other workspace. In part of it, an old Victorian warehouse with creamy tiled walls, a trapeze and other ropes are hung from the beams.

This space is already being used for aerial and other classes and a number of companies have come up with a collective plan to develop it further as a centre to support circus, dance, physical theatre, street arts, trapeze and aerial performance.

"It will become a locus for artists in circus and other art forms from all over the world," says David Cook, chief executive of Wasps Artists' Studios, a charity that provides affordable workspace.

"Talented circus artists and street artists will stay in Scotland who might otherwise leave."

Image copyright Stuart Crawford
Image caption Traditional circus arts are being given a modern twist in the hope that talented performers will stay in Scotland
Image copyright Stuart crawford
Image caption The Commonwealth Youth Circus will be touring Scotland over the next few weeks

And if contemporary circus develops further in Scotland, there are those who believe it could bring money into the country.

Jennifer Patterson points to a growth in festivals and the use of circus skills in things like Edinburgh's Hogmanay and Christmas events.

"Slowly with the skills building up in Scotland," she says "Scottish companies can be used for events like this."

"There's a lot of success within the theatre world, companies like the National Theatre of Scotland with Black Watch. There's no reason why Scottish contemporary circus companies can't build their work to that level, especially as it's non verbal so it's much easier to tour to foreign countries."

Circus skills will have a higher profile over the next few weeks as the Commonwealth Youth Circus will be touring Scotland with a section of the Queen's baton relay.

The idea has been to train young people up over the course of a year and showcase what the country has to offer.

Keep working

"It's all about perseverance, dedication and self-improvement," says 24-year-old William Borrell.

Before coming to the Commonwealth Youth Circus, William studied business and says he sees lessons for that area of life in juggling.

"If you apply the same kind of lessons that I've learnt through juggling, with perseverance and dedication and time and effort and love, if you keep working at something then eventually you'll get to a point where it works."

He says he is approaching the youth circus as a "springboard" to a future that he hopes will include making a living using circus skills in some way. For the moment though he is developing his "product".

"You can be a performer, you can be a teacher, you can be an events organiser, you can have a gym.

"You could be an agency and manage people and acts and promote them, so there are lots of opportunities and I'm trying to find which aspect of it I think I'm most suited to."

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