Damn the Circus: A circus performer’s life is a balancing act

Ken Fanning’s and Tina Segner’s new show is about trying to stay in love with circus despite hardship and despite having amicably fallen out of love with each other, says Caomhan Keane

THE frustrations and hardships of being a circus performer are explored by the award-winning Tumble Circus in ‘Damn the Circus’, which begins a two-month, nationwide tour in Cork’s Half Moon Theatre this week. With trapeze, hula-hoops, juggling, acrobatics and musical comedy, it’s a tale about the dream and the reality, and the three performers’ struggles to stay in love with the art-form, despite poor pay and public indifference.

“Circus changed all our lives,” Ken Fanning says. “It gave me direction. I was 21 and bumming around Europe, living in Amsterdam, with anarchistic squatters and punks. They were like ‘we don’t need society, we don’t need money, we can make it on the street’.” Juggling was his gateway to other forms of circus and soon he was addicted, training on a FAS circus scheme when he returned to Dublin.

While plying his trade on Grafton Street, Fanning saw an attractive, blond Swede with two juggling bats protruding out of her backpack. “I taught her how to pass-juggle, something she never thought she could master, and then invited her down to our warehouse to check out our equipment.” One swing on the trapeze and Tina Segner became infected with the circus bug, writing to her parents that she wasn’t coming home as planned, but was heading off to Bristol with Ken, her now boyfriend, to study the art-form and hone their skills.

“I’d hitchhiked from Sweden to Ireland in search of adventure,” Tina says, “and now I own a big top, three trapeze rings and a warehouse full of rigging.”

After graduating, she and Ken returned to Ireland, determined to do something different, “circus that was not just light-hearted entertainment, but that would make a stir”.

Damn the Circus: A circus performer’s life is a balancing act

Their profane, occasionally blasphemous and political work means they are inundated with complaints, with the guards called to one of their performances, as recently as last week.

“It was in Castleblaney,” Ken says, “and they hadn’t seen the show, despite programming it. We warned them that we spoke about sexuality and religion and they said that was grand.

“So we did it and, lo and behold, people got offended. Because we don’t have the tradition of street theatre here, people believe that it has to be child-friendly. Street theatre doesn’t have to be just about having a good time.

“It’s about making you think about things, as well, an opportunity to make a statement in front of a broad, diverse bunch of people, not like in the theatre, where it’s a largely a middle-class, white audience.

“We performed that exact same show at a festival in Denmark the week before, in a suburb where we didn’t see one white face. We are still receiving e-mails praising our work. One woman in particular, a Syrian refugee, not two weeks in the country, said to me: ‘I am so happy that my daughter actually got to see a woman performing on a stage’. But in Castleblaney they just didn’t get it.”

While Tina and Ken split up years ago, their shared passion for the work ensures that they continue to work together. “I felt we hadn’t finished off what we were supposed to do,” says Tina. “We were pioneering an alternative kind of circus that no-one else was doing and we were excited by that. It was hard for a while, but we just needed to get over ourselves. When arguments happen, it’s usually because we are tired or because a show hasn’t gone well. And because we know exactly how to piss each other off, we have to be sensitive of each other’s needs.”

While Ursula Burns, the comedy harpist joining Tumble Circus for this show, didn’t run away to join the circus, she did find an escape from the ‘Troubles’ when she joined the Belfast Community Circus. “We made everything from scratch,” she says, recalling the cash-strapped beginnings of the now legendary troupe.

“When I was learning to walk on stilts, they were made out of bean cans. But I grew up on the Falls Road and it was a real antidote to what was going on at home. In those dark times, the circus was a colour and light. You didn’t ask anyone what side they were from, it didn’t matter.” Working on ‘Damn the Circus’ is the first time she has worked on a circus project since she was 17, a fact that is tinged with sadness, as her mentor, Mike Moloney, died in an accident at his home in April (a tribute was held, to mark his achievements, in the Whitla Hall, Queens University, last week).

“He brought community circus to Ireland,” she says, “and he recognised what it meant to me, as a young person, to be involved. So it feels profound, and quite strange, for the universe to bring me back together with the community at this time.”


22nd & 23rd October | Half Moon Theatre, Cork | corkoperahouse.ie

25th October | Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda | droichead.com

1st November | Balor Theatre, Ballybofey | balorartscentre.com

8th November | Civic Theatre, Dublin | civictheatre.ie

9th November | Helix Theatre, Dublin | thehelix.ie

15th November | Theatre Royal, Waterford | theatreroyal.ie

21st & 22nd November | Black Box, Galway | tht.ie

5th & 6th December | Axis Theatre, Dublin | axis-ballymun.ie



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