How not to run a circus.

My friends tell me im a unrealistic reckless optimists.

What’s the worst that could happen? I ask them.

You could die. They would say.

An over exaggeration, I would scoff back at them, after all I am a circus performer and therefor immortal.

By late summer 2021 there seemed to be a light at the end of the covid tunnel 

Armed with reckless optimism, and a belief we were over the worst of the plague, we threw our selves into producing Winter Circus, our 3 weeks of 27 shows in our big top in the city centre of Belfast.

However the light at the end of the tunnel was actually an oncoming train of variants.

Our company is called Tumble Circus, we are based out of Belfast. We have our own big top and have toured national and international. We are loud, funny and political, our favourite quote is “Tumble Circus are like the Belfast Circus du Soleil if Circus du Circus Soleil was hit by a bus.”

The company is run by myself Ken Fanning, Tina Segner and Oonagh Desire. For the last 6 years we have been touring as an ensemble of 5, but for Winter Circus we draft in a 3 more performer, one of them been Tina’s 7 year old son. 

In the Autumn of 2021 it seem covid was in retreat, Belfast was opening up, people were going to pubs and theatres, mask were disappearing, most people had been vaccinated and there was a general feeling of we have beaten this covid.

Listing to the media was confusing.  According to what you believed and what you read the plague was conquered, nearly over, or never happened. It seemed useless to make predictions. But our prediction was ‘sure it will be grand’.

We decided to go-ahead with our Winter Circus season and for a while it was looking like it was going to be grand.

We had produced Winter Circus for 5 years, it was always epic, always stressful, but we alway managed to pull it off, we had done all the mistakes, made all the reverent connection and knew all the short cuts. Our Winter Circus had become a regular fixture of the Belfast Christmas vibe, ticket sales and attendees had increased ever year, it was a dead cert.

We even had plan in place for covid. We had successfully toured an outdoor show all summer and navigated the covid rule and regulation around covid and had a good understanding of what we would need to do. And it looked like covid was on the way out, it looked like it was all going to be light touch regulation, It looked like it was going to be grand. We were very wrong. 

The b movie horror show that was Omicron  ( covid the return ) started to kick in early November.

By this stage we had finalised our budget, performer were contracted, rehearsal were booked, funding was allocated, marketing had started, and tickets were selling, in fact ticket were selling faster than ever before.

But the news was bad, a new variant was spreed across Europe and talk of new restrictions and new lock down started circulating.

There was this claustrophobic feeling like the walls are closing in on us and it would only be a matter of time and we would be squashed by the plagued and forced to cancel the season.

All our conversations revolved around covid and the govements reaction. The conversations would go around in circles with people adding bit of information they have heard or read or believe, like a crazy over loaded merry go round thats moaned and groaned under the pressure until it fall apart.

I felt I was falling apart, stress on top of stress. 

The good feeling of normal returning was sliding out the back door while the anxiety of covid came gatecrashing in.

Old feeling started re-emerging.

Just leaving the house became an immense challenge.

I feared the unmasked who seemed to stalk the reduced section of my local super market and were always flanked by diseased coughing kids. I never knew if i would  make it home alive. The radio crackles on about impending apocalypse. 

The rich were building rockets to fly their mates to Planet B, while the rest of us would be left behind infected with covid 88 to fight over the corps of the last poler bear.

As omicron spread rapidly across Europe, governments reacted, venues were closing, circuses were cancelling, artist were sent home. It was begging to look like lockdown all over again. It was the end of the world but not one were it exploded in epic Hollywood fashion, it was one were we all sat on our sofa in apathetic surrendered and watched Netflix.  Ceasar fiddle while Rome burned, we all watched Tiger King.

I didn’t sleep well, I would wake up at night catastrophizing, the wheels were coming of the vehicle. 

Little disasters hit us. A few days before our first day of rehearsal Tina tested positive for Covid. We had all been in close contact with her, but none of us tested positives we became nervous around each other.  

When you are responsibly for the group you have to act in a way to protect the group. 

We studied the government restriction and follow them as best we could, being cavalier about covid was unhelpful. Thankful everyone we work with was onboard with doing things as safely as possible.

Not everyone in our community was so accommodating, we got angry mail from audience member, put out that they would have to show covid passport to enter the big top, “…. i thought you were an archaist circus” to which I explained if we did not follow the government guidelines we would not be able to run our event and next year if the government let us we will go back to being more anarchist. To be fair angry email were very few. We did have to deal with a lot of last minute cancellations. Show would be sold out and then the day before the show people would send us message saying they had contract Covid and looking refunds. We had waiting list and most cancellation got filled, but it took a-lot of per show time to manage the box office.

Our front of house was run by Helen who did the work of 3 people, they were running the venue, manning volunteers, filling the oil heaters, helping at box office, seating people, and we even put them in the show. I know they struggled and this upset us as knowing that someone who we have employed was been totally stressed by the amount of work. We were naive about how much pressure this season would be. We jumped into Winter Circus full of reckless optimism, pulling and stretching all our resources to breaking point. Dreaming epic is great, but the problem is doing epic can often break people.

It seem like a miracle when we got to opening night however there was no senses of we are on a circus adventure, reimagined Irish circus, invading the cultural heart of Belfast with our noise carny punk show, it was just trudging from one task to the next.

A huge part of me wanted the government to just close us down so I could just abandon all our plans and hide under a duvet.

Morally we struggled with what was the right thing to do. Maybe we should not trust the government and make our own call and cancel. 

The rumours were that omicron was not that dangerous, venues could stay open, but other countries were closing everything. 

It was so confusing. We went ahead with our show, putting in place all the covid procedures we could to keep our audiences and ourselves safe.

All cast and crew were asked to limit their social circle, we did not police this, but reminded them that if one person from the cast or crew got sick the show might have to stop. We asked other local performer to be on call should we have to replace cast member, some of these people got covid, meaning our back-up were no more. Everyone did lateral flow tests every morning, we has zero positives test for the whole run. 

Every morning I drank copious amount of comfort coffee dreading that my mobile phone would shake to life to tell me someone had been infected.

Physical we were not at our best, some of us had grown sough dough bellies, some of us came out of lockdown all guns blazing and injured ourselves, some of us were struggling with the mental health burdens of covid. All of our training spaces had shut during the lockdown, we had to improvised training space in parks front rooms and gardens. And then when the circus spaces did open we had to relearn a-lot of our skills, skills we would have been able to do without thought for over 20 years. It was a real effort to get into shape for the show and haunting my thought was the fear that i just didn’t have the stamina to finish a show let alone 26 of them.

Having a great village of circus people around you helps. People who belive in what you are doing and will drop everything to help, or do a favour.

Our circus crew are amazing, Angelique, Hnrk, Ali, Grant and Buckie have given generously their energy, skill and passion to our company, they are collaborated, inspiration and great friends. 

There is also the connection we make with our wider Belfast community, other arts groups, other artist, the council, our neighbours, local businesses and of course our audience.

I believe connection is the real work we do, sharing stories, creating empathy and finding commonality, but covid was like a wall that separated us form each other.

We have been told not to gather in groups, which by definition is what live events do.

Audiences were uneasy, people canceled, the ones that came were asked to wear mask, they had to see everyone else wear masks, and if some would not, audience were not at ease.

Our shows are loud and raucous, we invite heckling, do lots of call and response, we mix ourselves in with the audience and traditionally at the end of our Winter Show we get loads of the audience on stage and dance and party under fake snow. We had to take a lot of this out, the show was great and people had a wonderful time and the feed back was fantastic, but personally it felt like a watered down version of what we usually do. We had compromised our work in order to be able to conform with regulation.

What I missed most was normally at end of the show I would mix with the audiences and have chats, have photos taken with families and meet friends, but once the last act happened we locked ourselves away back stage, and usher got people to exit the big top in orderly social distances groups.

I was exhausted beyond fatigue from doing the shows. Under normal circumstance I would have found the shows challenging but not exhausting. I went from home to big top and home again, we never went to the pub or to a restaurant, avoided shops, visited no friends, no friends called over, at Christmas I stayed at home and did not see my Mum. 

I was tired and emotionally drained. Break downs stalking me like a gang of abusive drunk teenage boys on Saturday night, “so you think your hard enough”, they would shout, and I would shout back “Yea” but inside I was thinking “I’m not”

At one point 1 in 25 people in N. Ireland had Covid which meant that on average 6 audiences member would be infected per show. Were we part of the problem.

My head was melted, the voice in my skull screamed at me that what we were doing was wrong. We were running a super spreader event. This was zero craic.

All around us shows were closing because covid had infected their cast or crew making it impossible for them to continue. We were one of 3 shows in Belfast that managed to stay open over Christmas.

Audiences were so glad we had kept open, our friends congratulated us for making it happen, people were genuinely impressed that our messy circus had managed against the odd to stay open, stay covid free and sell out. We were heroes, only it didn’t feel like that, unless being a hero feels like paddling in a ever expanding river of stress gunk.

And then it was all over, once the last show finished we went straight into pulling down the big top. We loaded the last truck in the snow, this moment was satisfying. Ironically two of our crew tested positive on the last get out day, if this had happened during the run, it might have meant pulling the whole season. We didn’t feel clever or smug, we felt very lucky.

The mind is a funny thing, we are very bad at remembering what we went though when we were going through it. 

And in hindsight it often does not seem that bad, I wrote this to remind us what it was like, so our memory would not cheat us.

We swore a few times during this season that we would never do this anything like this again, it has scared us. 

I would often say to Tina “If we didn’t do it no one would”, but this year I knew why no one would. What I feared is that now we will never want to do anything like this again.

We might have lost the love to producing future ambitious circus projects. It should not be this hard, and should never be this hard again.

We believe that culture is a necessity and we believed that it is our job as circus artist to deliver culture.

It would have felt wrong to not bother, or even worse to do something half hearted. 

Sometimes there are moments in the big top when the magic of it captures your eye and you see it how children might, the exciting endless possibilities of it all. There were moment this season when that thought caught my imagination, but it came fleetingly and the burden of it all the covid crap crept in like a bleak winter rain cloud coving me in a heavy damp depression.