The original members of the Women's Circus identified as survivors of sexual or family violence. Founder Donna Jackson brought them together at the Footscray Community Arts Centre for something like an experiment. "Those women were functioning all in their heads," she told Maggie Journal. "They seemed to have rejected their bodies." Through circus arts, she hoped to anchor them, to bring them back to their flesh and bones.
Women's Circus, 1991, Footscray Community Arts Centre
In 1991, the idea of a women-only circus was genuinely radical. Circus arts involve great physical strength and the traditional model involved women being held or supported by male performers. In Footscray, in this nascent arts organisation, women held and supported each other. The therapy that the Women's Circus offered extended beyond a physical practice: it offered profound social connection, with both therapeutic and political aims.
The initial objectives of the Women's Circus were:
- * To reaffirm women's control over their bodies
- * To build self-esteem through physical and performance work
- * To allow women to set their own personal goals for development
- * To create a safe, non-competitive environment to work in to enable women of different ages, abilities, shapes and sizes to come together and create a theatre event of a very high standard
- * To communicate feminist ideas in an entertaining and intelligent fashion
Over the last 25 years, the structure of the organisation has matured and expanded but its fundamental values have not. It strives to be a safe place for women to challenge themselves and learn how to rely on each other.
The many faces of a female circus artist
The Women's Circus left the Footscray Community Arts Centre in 2006, moving to the Drill Hall in Barkly Street, West Footscray, where it became a fully-incorporated membership organisation. While some members have been there since its inception, each year new Victorian women decide to join the Circus. Ranging from 18 to 70 years of age, Circus members come from all walks of life – from white-collar professionals to refugees.
"We have members who have literally been in every show we've ever done," says Devon Taylor, currently Executive Director of the Women's Circus. "None of our members are necessarily professional circus artists, they may be scientists or teachers by day and aerialists and acrobats by night. This is something that they do because maybe it brings them joy, or it brings them connection to themselves and to community."
Women's Circus, 'The Maids', 2016. Photo by Marie Watt.
Devon recounts the story of an Iranian woman who came to the Women's Circus through a partnership program with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. On a bridging visa, unable to work, the Circus gave her a purposeful use of time and allowed her to connect with women from the broader community. For others, like Franca Stadler, the Circus has become a community for life. "One of the great things that comes out of the Women's Circus is that people end up discovering their passion and end up becoming show riggers or circus trainers. Franca came to the circus in 1995 and is now our Resident Trainer and Head Rigger. She has directed shows, and delivers most of our social circus workshops."
"There is something powerful about making the commitment, having the discipline to show up to a class every week and know that you are part of something."
Breaking down barriers to the big top
From humble roots, the Women's Circus has evolved over time into a complex organism; less radical but with a far greater reach.
Almost 200 women come through the building for training each week and the Circus connects with the wider community through workshops and other creative partnerships. Over the last 25 years, the Women's Circus has mounted more than thirty large-scale productions and toured internationally to China and France. It has received multiple awards, including Creative Victoria's Great Partnership Award for 'The Perfect Moment' Extended Schools Residency Project, while developing its own residency program to support independent artists.
Through each of these channels, the Women's Circus attempts to build social cohesion and community. "We've been pioneers of a model called social circus, which didn't really exist in 1991. It's now very much a developing pedagogical approach to working with communities, which is the idea of using circus and play and games as a tool for positive change within communities. It's used a lot with kids, but applies well with women and other marginalised groups," Devon explains.
The Women's Circus takes its skills and passion out into the community through creative workshops, while striving to be as inclusive as possible in its own programming and development. Transgender and gender diverse people have been welcomed into its ranks and a recent program has increased participation pathways for members of the Deaf community.
Women's Circus, 'SOAR', 2013. Photo by Veronica T.
The Circus worked with a young Deaf woman over the course of twelve months to develop her as a Circus Trainer. After delivering several workshops with deaf and hard-of-hearing participants, the Women's Circus partnered with Westside Circus to deliver an eight-week program at the Furlong Park School for Deaf Children. "Because we had funding for Mija, we were able to send her along at no cost to Westside Circus," Devon explains, which gave the students access to a native Auslan user.
Next year, the Women's Circus hopes to launch Groundwork, a program designed to support female artists with physical disabilities and generate broader conversations around inclusion and identity. Devon is also in talks with an aerialist that has low-vision, in the hopes of replicating the Deaf trainer model for women with vision impairment. At the same time, the Circus will extend its mentorship program, Still I Rise, designed to help emerging circus artists to develop shows for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and will welcome up to six artists into their training space through their residency program, A Room of One's Own.
The objective is to break down as many barriers as possible; to help women see how much they are truly capable of. It is about acceptance, inclusion and empowerment for women from all walks of life.
For Devon, the Women's Circus is a great nexus of the personal, professional and political. "It's an important organisation, it's a vital organisation, it gives me the ability not only to do my job, but to learn from everyone around me, and to make my own mark," she says. In this sense, though twenty five years have passed, some things have never changed.
Women's Circus celebrates their 25th Anniversary in November 2016 by presenting a powerful adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (22-27 November) and it's herstory (17 November – 10 December), an exhibition of photographic archives, oral and written stories and memorabilia at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.
Women's Circus is supported by Creative Victoria through the Organisations Investment Program (OIP).