In the late 70s, former Flinders University drama student Tim Coldwell co–founded Circus Oz, an animal–free rock ‘n’ roll circus that would set the blueprint for raucous Fringe–style circuses decades later.
Coldwell, who once walked on a highwire from the Adelaide Festival Centre across the River Torrens, says he’s not surprised these kinds of circuses are now the norm, especially at Fringe festivals around Australia. “It’s great that so many different groups and shows are finding an audience,” Coldwell says. “I don’t know that I would have predicted the growth of the Fringe, but certainly the change in style of the circus.” Coldwell studied drama at Flinders University before he ran away to join the circus – Ashton Circus to be exact, then, a few years later, Circus Royale. After forming New Circus in the late 70s, he returned to Melbourne and co-founded Circus Oz in 1978, with Adelaide Festival an early booking for the emerging circus. Since then, Circus Oz has performed in 27 countries and five continents with the New York Times gushing in 2012: “Who knew the circus could be like this?” The new Adelaide-bound Circus Oz show, simply titled TWENTYSIXTEEN, was devised this year and will be performed during 2016 but Coldwell says there is no single message in the show about 2016. “It is, I guess, Circus Oz as we are in 2016, and about the idea that we move with the times but keep going. The show in 2016 is different from the show in 2015 and 2017, but is still very much Circus Oz,” he says. “It’s important to me that the show keeps going and changing rather than being a static production that runs for a year or two. “There was a bit of ‘back to basics’ about it; I didn’t want a single message, or to try to make all the individuals and characters fit a particular theme or story,” says Coldwell, who co-ordinated the show. “I wanted to put on a show that showed the best of all the individuals in the group, incorporated their personalities and art, and continued a 38-year tradition of joyous, funny, and breathtaking entertainment for everybody but with ideas and art and real connection with a very broad audience. “For me it’s about seeing what the performers can do, what sort of characters they perform, what ideas they have and then looking for what can be added to that and how those things can be directed to get the best and most interesting acts. Sometimes it’s bringing a performer and their material together with a musician or a musical feel; sometimes another character; sometimes it’s about bringing out a story. The idea, which I think is consistent with Circus Oz over most of its time, is a group of different people coming together to create a show that is more than the sum of its parts.” A few years ago, Circus Oz moved into their new digs at the old Collingwood TAFE in Melbourne. “It’s now possible to rehearse the whole show all together in one place, not just separate bits of it,” he says. “It’s much easier to set things up, especially rigging, and it’s great not having to spend so much time fixing up the old space.” What does Coldwell remember about his River Torrens high-wire walk? “I have done a couple of big wire walks since, but not for quite a while and quite possibly never again – I may help others in the quest. It was the biggest thing I’ve done; quite an intense experience of skill, mind control (of fear) and danger. Just a pity it was not well documented because it was suddenly in the dark. It was part of a big pantomimestyle event on the river, with an FM radio simulcast soundtrack and Ernie Dingo doing a commentary.” Circus Oz TWENTYSIXTEEN Thebarton Theatre Saturday, July 30 to Sunday, July 31 circusoz.com Photos: Rob Blackburn