Circus as a Tool for Social Change

Katrina Cornwell, Women's Circus

“For people who have found that they don’t always have agency over their bodies – people across the gender spectrum – circus can be a really lovely space for them to learn how to reclaim it, surrounded by positive people and support.”

Circus can be a powerful tool for positive personal and social change, says Devon Taylor.

“For people who have found that they don’t always have agency over their bodies – people across the gender spectrum – circus can be a really lovely space for them to learn how to reclaim it, surrounded by positive people and support.”

Devon is the Executive Director of Women’s Circus, which began as a project at Footscray Community Arts Centre in 1991. It evolved into its own entity and now trains hundreds of women in circus and performance arts each week. Alongside professional artist development programs, it is part of a tradition known as social circus – using circus as a tool for positive change.

“Our emphasis is on the potential of the human body. It’s not just about achieving high goals, it’s also about the attempt and support.

“We work with women who wouldn’t usually engage with our programs, who can’t because of barriers. They might be financial barriers, cultural barriers, patriarchal barriers. A lot of it is about building self-confidence and reclaiming your body.”

Circus has some unique advantages when it comes to fostering positive change within communities.

“It’s fun and it’s playful. It’s also non-verbal in many ways, it can transcend language barriers that might be present among recent immigrants. It requires deep trust, and it’s intense risk-taking. You cannot do that on your own. It’s about bringing people together, accessing creativity, physically, and having permission to do that.”

Of course, there are also shows: an annual cabaret that provides opportunity for people to perform and celebrate the circus. Every third year they go all out with a much larger show, artistically rigorous and part of a bigger festival.

Photograph of a circus performance in a large warehouse space
A Women's Circus performance at the Nepal Australia Community Circus Day.
Photograph by Sean Paris

“Our shows have 30-40 women performing in them, 20 behind the scenes and another 20 volunteering. They’re huge. A lot of the women who perform on stage may never have done so before in their life. We create opportunities for emerging artists to work alongside those who are established in the creation of the work.”

That mentoring and professional development of artists is the other side of what Women’s Circus does. For the Community Fellows Program, Devon brought in Katrina Cornwell to undertake an evaluation of the programs that are run for women with disabilities.

“Katrina is one of the artists we work with on a regular basis, she has a background in research and performance – she was a natural fit for this work. The nature of the non-profit sector, especially in the arts, is that it’s all small teams that are under-resourced. If she hadn’t been able to jump onto this project, there’s no way we could have managed.”

Since 2014 the circus has been expanding its work for women with disabilities, particularly its professional programs, in order to support emerging artists and to learn from them. Programs have included masterclasses and residencies, and skills exchanges with Weave Movement Theatre, a physical performance ensemble for people with disabilities.

One thing that became apparent through evaluation was the need for an inclusive, professional ensemble of their own, which is now in development.

“There’s an interesting tension between those two things: we’re inclusive, but we’re also bringing together people who are specifically interested in how very different bodies interact. In how that informs what they make and how they make it.”

The evaluation was completed with academic mentoring from Professor Katrina McFerran (Melbourne Conservatorium of Music). A journal article will distribute the results of Women’s Circus’ programs further, and forge stronger links between academics and one of the country’s leading feminist circus organisations.

“I think it will help to position us as leaders in this sector with an audience that maybe wouldn’t always know about us. Now, when students go to study social circus, we’ll be there as something that they look at.”

Professor McFerran said that the project was an excellent opportunity to connect research and practice.

“It helped me to ensure that my research is grounded in the reality of what is possible, and what is needed in the community. It was rewarding to work with Katrina, who is such an experienced and engaged artist. She really helped to deepen my understanding of what is influencing people working in the field.”

The Community Fellowship also helped to develop Katrina Cornwell as a researcher, and allowed Women’s Circus to test and get feedback on an evaluation methodology that will allow them to better understand other programs. Devon says that there is no shortage of other ideas she has for further research.

“I’ve got a zillion different projects in my brain that I’d love to work on with universities. Women’s Circus is a 28-year-old organisation that is pretty unique and does a lot of good work. I want to find a way to leverage that out to the sector. This should be the next evolution in the conversation.”

Banner image: Marie Watt