It’s November – or maybe even October – and the space I train in begins to fill with a different type of mood. Suddenly, music you haven’t heard since, wait, this time last year, fills the air. Many times. “Sorry” *apologetic forced slightly embarrassed smile* “is it okay if I just play my music again”. The answer I want to give is, of course, “no. It really is not okay to push me in a corner while you sashay about to Last Christmas. Again”. Of course, I smile understandingly. “Sure”.
This is a familiar tradition in the training space. A familiar exchange and one that is often talked about with knowing sighs, shakes of the head, and a rolling of the eyes. Christmas contract time. Huh. They suck but we’ve all got to do them, right? But I’m going to make a stand. A celebration of the Christmas contract gig. A stripping of self importance and a snatch of ordinary in an often reality starved universe. A feeling of being just a blink in someones evening. An opportunity to be humble, rub shoulders with the world and be, well, normal.
As artists/performers/ show makers/ circus theatre practitioners – whatever we call ourselves, it’s easy to get hung up on the art. We prance about as if what we do is somehow special; that somehow, being able to do a handstand, throw some objects in the air and catch them, or make a nice shape on a bit of rope sets us apart from the civilians taking up the space around us. Christmas contracts - with their glitter, smiles, cramped dressing rooms, and the smell of slightly overcooked food seeping into our pores – are sneered at. Frowned upon. Seen as possibly beneath us. “Oh, I’m just doing a Christmas contact – you know, pays the bills!”
Last night I was in a horrible mood. Work had gone badly, I was feeling like a bad father, and my wife and I were feeling a bit depressed at the dawning realization that maybe we couldn’t quite afford a winter sun honeymoon. 7.15 rolled around and I hopped on my scooter to go to work. At my Christmas contract gig. I arrive and the booker happens to be walking past. We have a chat about mopeds. I babble on for ages about how great they are. I should be a moped ambassador. He misses his Vespa he says. I go in to the venue, say hi to security and go into our pretty small but very friendly dressing room. Floria (my flyer) is already there and in make up. Ugo the compere is twiddling his cane and Pippa the Ripper is stretching on the floor. Hi, hi, hi. You seem a bit sad today says Ugo. I am a bit, I say. The other day we found out we grew up round the corner from each other near Shepherds Bush. Probably went to the same sweet shop.
Usually I’m mega chirpy but today I just go and warm up by myself to sort my brain out a bit. There isn’t really a proper warm up space so Floria and I have been using the space next to where all the waiters, first aid staff and security sit on their breaks. It’s constantly being passed through by people carrying trays of food or wine and we share the space with Pippa and the dancers.
I need a pee. There are only two toilets so I wait for one. There is a young waiter outside the loo. It’s his first shift and he seems pretty nervous. I like him. I warm up. Floria joins me. We go through the steps in the routine then warm up the tricks, same as every other night. A few of the staff watch us. I can see them whispering to each other. I feel half proud of the tricks we’ve just done and half like an idiot for having to do them in, essentially, someone elses space. We had a terrible gig last week so have put in some practice time since then and everything feels a lot more solid tonight. We get our 15 minute call from Richard, the guy who misses his Vespa. He is a lovely man. I get some water, Floria nips to the loo. The loo is an integral part of the pre-show ritual. A good PSP is essential before going on stage.
I ask another waiter how many are in tonight. About 1,000 he tells me. Last week we did a show to 2,000 people here. It’s a pretty great gig I think.
5 minutes to go and I have the lovely nerves I still get even after all these years. It’s my favourite and least favourite feeling. Excited and pumped but terrified. Floria and I combat the stress by trying to get the compere to introduce Pippathe Ripper as Peppa Pig. We do impressions of her falling over in a Peppa pig suit with a hula hoop lodged around her waist. It would be pretty funny we think. The dancers do a few last minute bits of checking their steps and taking the piss out of each other. They have the hardest job. 4 dances and three costume changes in 15 minutes.
Then we’re on. Bit of mooching about at the beginning to say hi to the crowd then a full on three minutes of joy. Dancing and lifting and chucking and balancing and applause and oohs and aahs and smiles and eye contact and silly faces and a bow. Most of the crowd watch. Some of them don’t. Then we’re done. Best show so far.
The stage manager opens our dressing room. I get changed, say bye to everyone and hop on my bike home. Done for the night.
So I have spent a large proportion of the last 10 years in rehearsal rooms. We bury our heads in the work and I love it. It’s intense, stressful at times, and incredibly rewarding. It is, however, easy to forget about the rest of the world and lose a sense of reality a bit. There is something about the backstage area of a Christmas contract that is a wonderful blast of reality. Jostle, food smells, queuing for a slightly skanky loo, warming up whilst dodging waiters, chatting to people who don’t do circus about first aid or telly or the food. It’s just normal. Sometimes, in our slightly crazy, extreme, ego clogged world of circus I miss normal. I miss it very much.
Without it, after all, what would we make shows about?