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Circus performers entertain audiences with displays of skills, such as acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking and aerial work on trapezes and high wires. Other performers include clowns, mime artists, fire eaters, sword swallowers, dancers and actors.
They devise original routines based on one or more skills and promote them to different employers. The work involves spending a great deal of time rehearsing and keeping fit. To hold the interest of audiences and keep acts fresh and exciting, performers spend time devising and rehearsing new movements and routines. Most circus performers are also involved in teaching circus skills.
There are no set working hours, and evening and weekend work is common. Performers work indoors and outdoors in venues ranging from 'big tops' to theatres and arts centres. Some performers do a lot of travelling, sometimes overseas.
Earnings may range from £50 to £300 a show for part-time or occasional circus performers, but vary as many performers work freelance. Well-established performers may earn up to £30,000 a year.
A circus performer should:
- be highly skilled in their chosen performance area
- be physically fit and agile, with lots of stamina
- be co-ordinated, with excellent timing
- be a confident show person
- be self-disciplined and committed to practice and rehearsals
- enjoy performing in front of audiences.
Opportunities for work range from traditional 'big top' travelling circuses to staged circus shows, stage musicals, theatrical plays, cabarets, corporate events, and music, arts and community festivals. Competition for jobs is intense. Work is usually short-term or seasonal contracts. There are opportunities to work overseas.
There are no formal entry requirements to become a circus performer, although a circus performer will need a high level of ability in at least one circus act. Classes in gymnastics and modern dance provide a good background for learning circus skills.
The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant to this area of work.
There are a number of full-time accredited courses available, from foundation to degree level. There are also short, part-time and introductory courses available in a range of circus skills.
Circus training centres offer various professional development courses aimed at circus professionals wishing to enhance their range of skills and to improve their acts.
There is no formal promotion structure for circus performers. Performers wanting to progress to more prestigious work with better pay need to spend time establishing their reputations, developing routines and learning new skills. Some circus performers move on to direct performances or lead their own group of performers.
What is the work like?
Circus performers entertain audiences with displays of skills, such as acrobatics, juggling, stilt walking and aerial work on trapezes and high wires. Other performers include clowns, mime artists, fire performers, sword swallowers, dancers and actors.
They perform at a range of events and venues, including:
- traditional 'big top' circuses
- festivals and other outdoor events
- musicals and other theatrical performances
- street theatre
- corporate events such as trade shows
- cabarets and nightclubs.
Some performers specialise in a particular skill whilst others base their act around a number of different skills. While some perform solo, others work together in groups. Performers are usually responsible for producing, creating and promoting their acts to different employers. This means finding places to rehearse, sourcing equipment, organising publicity and creating videos or DVDs.
It is essential for most performers to keep up a high degree of physical fitness, and there is an element of risk involved in most acts. Performers must train and practise regularly, and follow strict health and safety requirements to minimise the risk of injury.
To hold the interest of audiences and keep acts fresh and exciting, performers spend time devising and rehearsing new movements and routines. They usually tailor their act to suit different venues and audiences and acts can be performed in a traditional or contemporary style.
Most circus performers are also involved in teaching circus skills. Teaching opportunities range from evening classes for adults and children's weekend workshops to outreach work, working with disadvantaged communities.
Hours and environment
There are no set hours for circus performers. As well as giving daytime and evening performances, they spend a great deal of time keeping fit, practising and attending auditions and classes. Weekend work is common.
Performers work indoors and outdoors, in venues such as 'big tops', theatres, arts centres, community halls and outdoor festivals.
Some circus performers, especially those working with touring circuses or theatrical companies, do a great deal of travelling, sometimes overseas, spending only a night or two in each place. They may stay in bed and breakfast accommodation, caravans or motorhomes.
Depending on the act, a circus performer's clothing can range from relaxed sports attire to elaborate stage costumes. Some performers wear specialist grip shoes and safety equipment, such as harnesses.
Salary and other benefits
These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.
Most circus performers work freelance, receiving a fee for each performance or contract. Performers who work with circus companies should expect to earn equity minimum wages for performers.
- Part-time or occasional circus performers may earn between £50 and £300 a show.
- Experienced circus performers may earn the annual equivalent of between £12,000 and £20,000 a year.
- A small number of well-established circus performers may earn up to £30,000 a year.
Skills and personal qualities
A circus performer should be:
- highly skilled in their chosen performance area
- physically fit and agile, with lots of stamina
- co-ordinated, with excellent timing
- a confident show person
- original, creative and versatile
- self-disciplined and committed to practice and rehearsals
- aware of health and safety regulations
- prepared to take controlled physical risks
- able to work well in a team.
It is important to:
- have an interest in subjects such as gymnastics and dance
- enjoy performing in front of audiences.
Some circus performers work with traditional 'big top' travelling circuses, but there are also opportunities to appear in staged circus shows, stage musicals, theatrical plays, cabarets, and music, arts and community festivals. Corporate events and other private functions also offer opportunities. Competition for jobs is intense.
Many performers supplement their income through teaching classes and workshops at circus training centres.
Work is usually based on short-term or seasonal contracts. There are opportunities to work overseas.
Networking is extremely important to hear about opportunities and find work. Freelance performers may have agents who look for auditions and jobs on their behalf and negotiate fees in return for a percentage of their earnings. Some jobs are advertised on the Equity website and in The Stage magazine. The Circus Development Agency (CDA) lists job opportunities and audition information on its website.
There are no formal entry requirements, although a circus performer will need a high level of ability in at least one circus act. Classes in gymnastics and modern dance provide a good background for learning circus skills.
The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant to this area of work.
Circus skills can be acquired in several ways, including attending:
- part-time adult education classes
- weekend workshops and summer schools
- community circuses
- full-time professional courses.
Some college and university performing arts courses may include some forms of circus skills, alongside mime, dance and physical theatre. Check with providers for course content and entry requirements. Candidates may be asked to provide a video of their performance work and to attend an audition and interview.
There are a number of accredited full-time courses, including:
- Greentop Circus offers a 12-week foundation course in circus skills, accredited by the Open College Network to Level 3.
- Circomedia offers a one-year diploma course, a two-year foundation degree in contemporary circus and physical performance, and a two-year BTEC National Diploma in performance.
- The Circus Space offers a two-year foundation degree in circus arts. On completion, successful students may audition for a place on the BA (Hons) degree in circus arts, which takes a further year of study.
Circus Maniacs offers full-time professional circus training programmes, usually lasting from six months to three years, which are flexible and personally tailored.
These institutions, together with NoFit State Circus, offer short, part-time and introductory courses in a range of circus skills, aimed at both children and adults.
The CDA website provides useful information on circus training opportunities.
To work with children, performers involved in teaching need to undergo checks with the Criminal Records Bureau.
Circus performers with more than one skill are likely to find more opportunities for work. The circus training centres listed offer various professional development courses aimed at circus professionals wishing to enhance their range of skills and to improve their acts.
The Academy of Circus Arts offers training programmes that allow students aged 18 years or over to learn on the road, training and performing with a professional company over a period of six months. NoFit State Circus offers volunteer training placements for young people wishing to develop their circus or technical skills.
There is no formal promotion structure for circus performers. Performers wanting to progress to more prestigious work with better pay need to spend time establishing their reputations, developing routines and learning new skills.
Some circus performers move on to direct performances or lead their own group of performers.
The Academy of Circus Arts, Circus Headquarters, Enborne, Newbury, Berks RG20 0LD. 07774 608090. Website: www.zipposcircus.co.uk/aca/aca.htm
Circomedia, Britannia Road, Kingswood, Bristol BS15 8DB. 0117 947 7288. Website: www.circomedia.com
Circus Development Agency. 0207 096 0999. Website: www.circusarts.org.uk
Circus Friends Association of Great Britain (CFA). 01522 827296. Website: www.circusfriends.co.uk
The Circus Space, Coronet Street, London N1 6HD. 020 7729 9522. Website: www.thecircusspace.co.uk
Creative and Cultural Skills, Lafone House, The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 3HN. 020 7015 1800. Website: www.creative-choices.co.uk
Equity, Guild House, Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9EG. 020 7379 6000. Website: www.equity.org.uk
Greentop Circus Centre, Saint Thomas Building, 74 Holywell Road, Sheffield S4 8AS. 0114 244 8828. Website: www.greentop.org
NoFit State Circus, PO Box 238, Cardiff CF24 0XS. 029 2022 1330. Website: www.nofitstate.org