Friday, February 4, 2011


This week, I had the pleasure of visiting Circomedia, in Bristol, twice - first, with Greg and the kids, and then a second afternoon on my own.

Circomedia is my alma mater. I took the One-Year Foundation course in 1995-1996 - a full 15 years ago!! - a year which was, for me, transformative. It set me on an entirely different path for my life. Besides the invaluable coursework, the personal connections I formed there have been lasting and meaningful. I went back to visit for our 10-year reunion in 2006, and we're approaching our 15-year reunion this spring.

The school has grown tremendously since I was there. In 1995-1996, there were 16 of us full-time students, and a handful of evening / recreational classes, all located at their facility in Kingswood. In the last 15 years, Circomedia greatly expanded its Kingswood space - there are now about twice as many studios and twice as many offices - and opened up an entirely new building in the city center, at St. Paul's Church. The church is an extraordinary space, as you can see from this photo.

In the picture with me is Bim Mason, Circomedia's Artistic Director. Bim has been the head of Circomedia since its beginnings. He has now handed over the CEO title to someone else, but he remains deeply involved in all of the workings of the school, and now he has more time to teach again. When I was there, he was our Performance teacher, coaxing us through a LeCoq-based curriculum including mask work and clowning. Bim is a brilliant artist and teacher, and I have greatly appreciated the mentoring role he has taken for me as I've formed my own circus school.

When I arrived at Circomedia today, the 2nd-year degree students were in the middle of their usual Friday performances. Every week, they set up a space complete with lights, sound, backdrop and videocamera, and a number of them present original pieces. At this time, mid-year, the 2nd-years are building their Performance Portfolios, which means that every two weeks they have to present a new piece. After all of this is done, they'll spend the last part of the academic year focusing on one of those pieces to more fully develop.

The students who presented today were lovely to watch. While the pieces were unpolished, they were full of effort and ingenuity. The audience of other students was terrifically supportive, and volunteer stage techs kept it all moving quickly. I was delighted to see some new trapeze transitions, some fun juggling-performance ideas, some impressive character work and the first aerial act I've ever witnessed utilizing piles of gardening soil. :) ah, it's all about experimentation.

Circomedia has about 50 students enrolled in its 2-year degree program, and another 30 students in the BTEC (highschool equivalent). The most notable thing about the school, however, is its mission. Bim will say that Circomedia is not a circus school. It is a physical theatre school, fostering the development of artists, with circus arts as a medium. He considers this a very different approach than schools which aim to train technical circus performers.

It remains, as it was when I was there, a place where students can thrive when they come with an open mind. They have to be willing to try lots of different things, to find out who they are going to become. Performers focused on developing a world-class 7-minute act aren't that well suited to the exploratory environment that Circomedia creates. And Bim really wants to prepare artists to work in the world, to create art that speaks to people. Some Circomedia graduates end up in circuses, but many others end up creating their own theater companies, or bringing their artistic insights to other realms.

When Greg was with me, I offered to have him speak to the students about his work, and Cirque du Soleil. Here they are in Studio 2, listening to Greg wax philosophical about creativity in juggling, and working for the biggest circus company in the world. They seemed to be appreciative listeners, and I was thrilled that we could share this with them.

I will be back in Bristol in just a couple of months for our student reunion. I can't wait!

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