Women’s Circus began in 1991 as a community arts project dedicated to using circus to work with survivors of violence in Melbourne, Australia. It has since expanded to include circus training, performance and outreach programs aimed at women and their communities. Steph Kehoe is the artistic director.
WC: Women’s Circus started as a project with survivors of violence. How has that history helped shape the organization, and how has it evolved since then?
SK: The work with women who were survivors of violence shaped the organization in terms of all of the practices and processes , and in terms of the kind of work that was being made and our history still informs the ways that we work and the kind of work that we make. Because of the group that started the circus, there was a focus on making sure that the work created was owned by them content-wise. These women were survivors of trauma, so the artists and trainers working them wanted to make sure that the work and the process wouldn’t be triggering for them, and indeed hoped it might even alleviate some of those triggers.
To this day, although we don’t exclusively work with survivors, we still try to maintain a real culture of consultation and ownership of the work among the participants, and we foreground the personal. We’re not trying to train elite aerialists, we are using circus and performance with women in a community setting. Many of the women we work with do become very good, semi-professional or even professional, but that is not our primary aim. Our primary aim is to use circus and theatres as a means of allowing women to come into contact with their strength, playfulness, and creative and physical potential.
It was and is an all-female environment. Since sadly most violence against women is perpetrated by men, just the fact of it being a female-only space can be quite important for women who have experienced violence. Female-only creative and training spaces are very rare. We also do things like starting and ending in a circle and checking in with people about their process. These kinds of processes are normal in community work but are not always standard in circus training, so this makes us quite unique.
WC: What do you think is special about what circus can offer people, and particularly women?
SK: You are so connected to your body, in a culture and a time when we are not very connected to our bodies. Circus puts you right back to where you were as a child, when you don’t think about movement, you don’t think about the acquisition of skills or abilities, your body just does. And fails and learns and fails and learns. And does it in a playful and safe way. That is what is wonderful about circus as an art form.
For women, whether they are survivors of violence or just survivors of patriarchy, it is important just being in an environment where bodies aren’t objectified but rather are being used in whatever way you want to use them. It is a different relationship to your body to the sadly dysfunctional one that most women are still growing up with. Through this sort of training you are kind of celebrating what your body can do, whatever its shape, whatever its age. We have a woman who is still training with us who I believe is in her 60’s. She has been at the circus since the very beginning and can still do amazing things.
Because of the variety of circus skills that exist, you don’t need to have a particular body. You can have a variety of bodies, rhythms, energies, concentration types and learning styles, and you’ll find your place and you’ll find something in circus that works for you. This is different from the rest of the world where there is a type of woman or a type of body that we value. Circus and physical theatre are broad enough that every woman can find her place.
SK: What’s important about feminism now is that it allows people to find their own definition and their own manifestation. For me that’s really important. How I express my feminism might be really different from how someone else does, and that’s fine and that’s what women need to allow one another and also what the feminist movement needs to allow.
In terms of the organization, feminism means putting women and women’s stories, bodies, issues and concerns at the center of our practice and project. Though we also do work with children and with families in our outreach projects, the core of the performance and training company is female only.
It is also about how we work. One of our core values is empathy, and to me that’s a really important part of a feminist approach to being and working. Empathy is a really powerful thing, not just a soft option. If you are really profoundly empathetic to one another it is hard to oppress someone else. So we put that forward in the way that trainers work with the participants, in the way that I as a director work with people in the show and the way we work with one another as staff.
On one level the contemporary definition of feminism is really complex and on another it is really simple – there remain inequities of power and opportunity experienced by women and feminism is a movement addressing these.
WC: Do you have any examples of where empathy has come into play in teaching or in creating performances?
SK: For the trainers, many of them are professional performers or highly trained teachers who work with other circus organizations. They are very physically capable and physically skilled, and have spent a huge amount of time in their lives honing their skills and their bodies. When they work at the Women’s Circus they are working with women who don’t want to be elite circus artists. They have to put themselves in the shoes of these women who are coming straight from work, who have probably sat down all day at a day job. So they can’t teach in a way where they are just imposing another system. It means having an awareness of who you are working with and coming up with systems that will work for them.
WC: What about access and inclusion as goals? How do you make circus accessible and what are the challenges in doing this?
SK: In terms of our aims around inclusion, they are done strategically one by one. So we have a broad aim of making our organization accessible across age, cultural backgrounds, ability levels, special needs etc. We want to be as inclusive as possible, and our way of doing that is to work little bracket by little bracket. Once we feel like we have a process of working with one target group, then we keep that process going and focus our energies on another target group.
Most recently we have focused on deaf and hearing-impaired women. We are training a deaf trainer, so we will have in-house a trainer who is herself deaf and can lead the classes. Until she is trained we’re working with interpreters and we’ve had a program that works only with deaf and hearing-impaired women.
In terms of general inclusion, we’re now also trying to broaden our membership to include women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, because we tend not to have women from those backgrounds joining the organization for a variety of reasons.
The best way of helping us learn processes is to tell us what your access needs are and we will work with them. If anyone does approach us and tells us they would like to join but they would have various requirements, then we try to work with that. We may not have the process currently in place, but our policy is that if someone tells us what their access needs are we will do our very best to meet those needs.
WC: You have recently initiated the Somewhere, Now project which uses dance, music, storytelling, theatre and circus to work with newly arrived, refugee and asylum seeker communities. Can you tell us a little bit more about that project?
SK: We started the research and consultation with service providers last year, just trying to understand the realities of those women’s lives and what might be appropriate, useful and interesting to them. Because although we are Women’s Circus and circus is the primary art form that we work with, we are a performing arts organization and sometimes our projects are more theatre-based, and we use a lot of music as well. We wanted to make that clear to service providers that we weren’t necessarily suggesting we were going to do aerials with these women since that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate.
The first stage was just consultation. Then we did a number of one-off engagements at service providers, giving a basic playful introduction to some of the work we do. Since April we’ve had a session at the circus that I’m working on with another artist who does forum theatre and storytelling techniques, and a musician as well. We’re slowly building a group.
It is a slow process to bring those women to the organization and make it accessible and possible for them. These are women for whom getting public transport can be challenging, who may have only recently arrived in Australia, and who are bringing their own survivor stories with them in different ways. They have huge financial impediments to doing anything in this country until they get residential status, which is taking a terribly long time in Australia these days.
What we are doing with these women is really beautiful though. We’re doing a lot of music, working with the music from their countries. That was an aim of this project, to not make it like ‘we the white artists will teach you our ways’ but rather that it is really a meeting of women and sharing of skills. We will show them some things we know, and they will show us some things they know. It is the beginning of the process but it is really moving.
WC: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your work?
SK: We are just starting a consultation process to see what a show for our 25th anniversary next year might look like. I had participants answer a series of questions about why the organization was still important. One of the women’s answers really moved me and summed up why the organization is important. She said that until she came to the Women’s Circus she was never able to put herself first. Coming to the Women’s Circus really encouraged her to make herself, her body, her pleasure, her fun and her learning a priority. Now she trains regularly with us and she is a beautiful aerialist, mover and performer.
It’s a fun place. Sometimes when you talk about this work we sound so serious and heavy. But actually it is a circus-based, physical theatre-based arts organization, so really it’s a playground, a playground filled with women. When we talk about why we are doing it we are in a different mode, but when we are actually doing it we’re just having a huge amount of fun working together, creating together in a really unique space.
Please visit the Women’s Circus website to find out more.
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