The Invisible Circus

The Circus is all about illusion, the allure stems from the mystique. There is a danger that by divulging too many secrets the magic will disappear. So writing about The Invisible Circus is paradoxical, a bit like having to show someone a dandelion in your hands, knowing that when you open them, the wind will blow it away.

Although many Bristolians know that The Invisible Circus is there, not many know how or why. To clarify: they are a creative collective that perform in previously disused buildings that they have regenerated. In 2005, in a move to ‘go official’, they established a sister company, Artspace Lifespace, to help them sustain the buildings they use, fund their performances, and provide creative facilities for the community by providing a more stable financial structure for their work. They are currently based at The Island (Bridewell, Silver Street). On a smaller scale, the political and social structure within The Invisible Circus is less clear: something of an anomaly. Imagine a world where The Man doesn’t exist, where an order is formed because it actually makes sense, where there are no set rules because no one has ever really tried to break them, where people are proactive because they believe in what they are doing, and where there are no permanent job titles but everyone works hard. This is the world of The Invisible Circus and this is anarchy: no governing body, and personal freedom. This does not, however, automatically mean chaos, and neither does it mean that they all have Mohawks. At The Invisible Circus people do not abuse the lack of government because they understand the importance of personal responsibility. Their motivation for developing this arrangement can be questioned, however, and when stripped down it could be seen as nothing more than an ornate megaphone through which they get to shout – there is a fine line between narcissism and performance after all. This cynicism is clearly not held by the countless volunteers involved in the Circus but given the esoteric, cliquey nature of the group they have to expect misinterpretation from outsiders – such is the nature of this flamboyantly shy beast.

Whilst there is no true central figure of authority, The Invisible Circus realises that there has to be a degree of organisation – creating events such as Carny Ville (their biggest annual performance) requires meticulous attention to detail and planning. As such there is a loose hierarchy within the group, they have representatives for each (for want of a better word) department and at the top is their main spokesperson, the man who started the invisible ball rolling and invited everyone along to kick it with him: Doug Francis. Whilst Doug is not an ultimate figure of authority, the rest of the Circus recognise that at times it’s more effective to have one voice to speak through. Doug is omnipresent and obviously respected – a bit like Aslan but with smaller paws.

In order to make their unique system work, The Invisible Circus has adapted and improved their methods over the years, resulting in some idiosyncratic but seemingly effective traditions. When Venue sat in on a meeting concerning plans for this year’s Carny Ville, all seemed impossibly harmonious, everyone was fair and everyone was constructive – when someone wanted to speak they raised their hand. Make no mistake, this is not utopia. It’s easy to romanticise, to imagine them all wandering around with bluebirds above their heads, giving each other congratulatory pats on the back and then walking off into the sunset every evening. This is unrealistic. Of course there are personal differences – people shout – the company has changed dramatically over recent years and issues about their political and financial structure have led to personal clashes. But over time, they are working out their inimitable way to deal with such issues. Such a unique structure could only work with similarly unique people. There are the core members who live, breath and work for the Circus and are paid (more as a gesture than a pocket-filler) for the work they do throughout the year, and there are also countless other part-time and casual volunteers. Most people begrudge going to work despite being remunerated adequately for their efforts but in The Invisible Circus, this is not the case.

People from all walks of life have ended up there and The Invisible Circus is, or has included, (not exclusively) – doctors, nurses, shop workers, artists, green activists, film makers and of course, performers. Some people are there for ‘life’, some people come and go, but, according to Doug, you can’t, in the truest sense of the word, get fired because you weren’t really hired. You are there because you choose to be. The Invisible Circus has been based in the UK since 2002 but prior to that spent a decade as a travelling street performance group touring Europe and forming friendships and collaborative partnerships with those that they met. They are like a magnet, attracting iron filings of energy and ideas everywhere they go.

They have been at their current base for the past two years. The Island consists of the old fire station, magistrates’ courts and the police station (including CID offices). It’s a massive complex slap bang in the middle of the city centre, somewhere that people walk past every day but rarely notice. To the Circus it’s a maternal base for their ventures, and it’s called The Island for a very good reason – despite being in such close proximity to the world of shiny consumerism, ideologically it is oceans away. Given its history, some aspects of the buildings are wholly sinister. Upstairs in the old CID offices there are still labels on the guns racks, the corridors are full of echoes that originate from unknown sounds and the big lift shaft that dissects the building is now in a state of dubious disrepair. The cells below the magistrates’ court are small and dark, the external rooms be-decked with barbed wire like tinsel from Christmas with Black Peter. Allegedly, so dire were the conditions in this building there was a complete overhaul of Britain’s jails following an inspection of Bridewell. This history of cruelty juxtaposes with its current benevolent atmosphere – despite its dark past, it is now full of light and this is something that constantly attracts interest from outsiders. When Venue visited, a drama for CBeebies was being filmed and amongst many other events, there was the teaming-with-teens ‘Skins’ party earlier this year.

But The Island, although full of potential, eats money. Ticket prices for this year’s Carny Ville are even higher than before, something that has lead punters to question exactly where their cash is going. Doug’s response is that “this show is well worth £20, it’s actually worth a lot more: we offer a massive spectacular that’s like having a weekend at a festival crammed into one night. The performers and crew involved are amazingly skilled and dedicated to their art…they donate their services to Carny Ville for free to raise funds and support the Invisible Circus cause”. He observes that “people see tickets selling and drinks flowing and imagine we are sitting on a gold mine, whereas it’s more like a black hole where time and money are poured in and beauty and laughter occasionally pop out”. Yes, at Carny Ville, The Invisible Circus take a lot, but they have to spend a lot. For example, cast your mind back to when we all lived in a freezer last winter – the electricity costs alone to keep the buildings at The Island safe enough to work in were chillingly massive: over £30,000. “We are basically running on empty after three years graft, so this Carny Ville is our last chance to attempt to raise some funds for the next mission, whatever that is”. Aware of the common misconceptions about their financial situation, The Invisible Circus are taking the rumour bull by the horns: the theme of the next Carny Ville is a parody of corporate culture and the restrictions that are implicated with excessive financial control.

But once again, developers are starting to bang on the gates of The Island. Even Aslan isn’t sure if this is their final scene there: “We have said that before and been proved wrong so we would rather not say! It’s hard to tell what will happen, if the youth project that is meant to be buying the place has its funding cut then who knows? As it is we were meant to lose the venue here in May and it was extended to October, now we wait to see what the new government announces before we can answer this question for sure. I hope not!” What they are sure of, however, is having a much needed break: “We really need a break to evaluate and absorb the mad journey of the past five years and figure out how to go forward from here. We are a big family now with a lot of stuff so we potentially need a new production base, we more or less had to keep doing shows here at The Island just to cover ongoing costs, but we need to stop productions and work on all the background chaos. We have come a long way…from some crazies throwing on cabarets in squatted buildings to a full scale production company with over two hundred cast and crew putting on extravaganzas like Carny Ville. We need time to reflect and digest.”

As usual they will have to find an ear and play by it. The sad thing is many of the buildings that they were forced out of due to ‘impending’ development still lie empty and are going to waste, desperate again for the life and passion the Circus bought. The Invisible Circus have got to where they are today by holding on to what they deem important: sharing a love of, or a need for performance and creativity, bringing this to communities and using local spaces as logically and effectively as is possible. Standing in the sunshine at The Island on the first day of the set build for this year’s Carny Ville, watching the first piece of scaffolding go up, it becomes clear that it’s imperative to appreciate life the way they do – do something good, and do it now. The rest, in every sense of the word, will follow.

Published in Venue ( a now defunct magazine) yonks ago, so no link. I’m not sure they even had PDFs back then either.