An ex-tentboy goes to the circus.
Former circus lackey Shea Evans discovers strange things at the discotheque show Velvet and reflects on what its like to behind the curtain of a circus and back again.
After attending Velvet, the discotheque circus which until very recently occupied civic park, I was left with a very strange feeling of déjà vu that agitated me physically. Outside in the night air, when the show had ended and the crowd was streaming back into the park, I felt no cold. The chill of the evening had no effect on me because I was preoccupied with my strange feeling, with my memories of working and living in The Great Moscow Circus.
It is very odd indeed, to have lived the circus life and to return to normal society. It is even odder to attend a circus as part of the crowd after living the nomadic life of a stagehanding tentboy. I’m not sure that I can accurately describe what this feels like, but it would not be too incorrect to say that it is like standing barefoot on hot asphalt while your whole body itches. I think I only saw about half of the performance, which was excellent and masterfully executed, I was as intrigued by their tent and set up as I was their acrobatics and singing. The tent was not a true tent, by my circus standards anyway, it was a spiegeltent. My girlfriend and brother who accompanied me were not impressed when I pointed this out, both of them gave me a dry look that said: man, are you for real? There are many distinct differences between traditional circus tents and spiegeltents, and it is a very snobby and elitist thing to notice and let bother you, but I couldn’t help myself.
It felt as if I had walked into my house and found all the furniture rearranged and a strange family asking me what I was doing in their lounge room, it was very confusing.
The discomfort arose, I think, from being on the other side of things rather than the side I was used to. Watching the stagehands, I felt naturally inclined to run up and help them deliver and check props. And when I noticed one of the lighting guys running to fix a fallen part of the set, I had to restrain myself from leaping out of my chair and sprinting over to assist. I was in the audience, not the crew, but in my heart and in my head I was still part of the team. It felt as if I had walked into my house and found all the furniture rearranged and a strange family asking me what I was doing in their lounge room, it was very confusing. Also confusing was how I felt watching the ushers seat people before the start of the show, I was concerned that they weren’t doing it properly and wanted to go and help them with it. When I used to usher people into our show, it was often into a seating bank that held more people than this entire tent. I would fly up and down it, my feet hardly touching the wooden boards, and with my hands a blur I’d set sometimes huge numbers of tickets on seats for people. I’d know without looking, most of the time, where I’d already sat people and which seats were free. But these guys were looking around as if they weren’t sure of where to put the crowd at all. Not that it mattered, in the end everybody got a seat and enjoyed an amazing performance, but I could not shake the overwhelming desire to help.
A few different times during the show I found myself noticing things with my stagehand’s eye that told me what was coming next. At the end of one act, the lights turned abruptly off for punctuating effect. Instinctively and without control my eyes snapped to the ceiling, making sure that the weighted descending line was coming down in a smooth manner. Sure enough, a weighted line appeared and was lowered. With the same ocular reflex I snapped back to the stage to make sure the stagehands were on time with the Lyra, which is a large suspended hoop that an aerial gymnast performs on, and there they were. I whispered to my girlfriend next to me and said, “they’re going to raise a Lyra, when the lights come on you’ll see a beautiful woman in a leotard posing next to a hoop.” When the lights returned and she saw this, she asked me how it was that I could see all of that happening in the inky darkness. Stagehand eyes, it’s a real thing.
When you work as part of a show, you are sharply distinct from the crowd. The crowd is different every time, but you are always the same. They are there to see something, and you are there to show them. If we liken a circus show to a painting that people flock to view, then you are one of the deft brushstrokes and they are just hungry eyes. To be the hungry eyes after you have actually been the paint, it’s unlike anything else. For one thing, you feel as if you are seeing the painting in a different way to all the other people around you. You feel as if you can see each individual stroke and flourish of the brush, and you can tell where a heavy brush has been used and where a light brush has been used. You find it difficult to just look at the painting and enjoy it for being a quality piece of art because you can see through the painting and know exactly how it was made. You used to be part of a similar painting and you loved it, why did you tear yourself from it? Was it the right decision? Should you go back? Take a deep breath, then another, and another. Close your eyes, keep breathing, everything is going to be fine.
“Unadulterated fabulousness, liberally sprinkled with sequins and wrapped up in a thumping disco soundtrack,” this is how the City Arts Hub described Velvet. And it’s true, it was at least all of those things, as a performance it could not be faulted. Marcia Hines was there, and you know she wouldn’t be involved with anything less than A-grade, but I still felt that something was missing. I realised, a while later, that what was missing was missing from inside myself, not from the show. Like it or not I was part of that world in memory only, and sitting through a quality show like Velvet served only to scream that fact in my face. I wish it was still in town so I could go see it again, and I wish that I could have run away with it like I did my first circus. I wish a lot of things, but most of all I wish that I could sit through a night like that and not feel such impossible longing. It will be okay though, I swear I did enjoy myself a great deal. Life, that eternal show, must go on, and even though there are no circus tents for me to build anymore, there are, at least, plenty of clowns to laugh at.
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