Circus Performer

The Job and What's Involved

Circus performers entertain audiences with displays of skills like acrobatics, juggling, stilt-walking and aerial work on trapezes and high wires. Other popular acts include clowns, mime artists, fire eaters, sword swallowers and dancers.

They perform at a range of events, including:

  • Traditional 'big top' circuses.
  • Festivals and other outdoor events.
  • Musicals and other theatrical performances.
  • Street theatre and busking.
  • Corporate events.
  • Cabarets and nightclubs.

Some performers specialise in a particular skill, but others base their act around a number of different skills. While some perform alone, others work together in groups. Performers are usually responsible for producing, creating and promoting their acts to different employers. This means finding places to rehearse, sourcing equipment, organising publicity and creating videos or DVD's.

It is essential for most circus performers to keep up a high degree of physical fitness, and there is an element of risk involved in most acts. Performers must train and practise regularly, and follow health and safety requirements to minimise the risk of injury.

To hold the interest of audiences and keep acts fresh, new and exciting, performers spend time devising and rehearsing new movements and routines. They usually tailor their act to suit different venues and audiences.

Some circus performers, especially those working with touring circuses or theatrical companies, do a lot of travelling. This may involve spending only a night or two in each place before moving on to the next venue.

There are no set hours for circus performers. As well as giving daytime and evening performances, performers spend a great deal of time keeping fit, practising and attending auditions and classes. Weekend work is common.

Performers work indoors and outdoors, in venues like big tops, theatres, arts centres, community halls, parks, seafronts and shopping centres.

A great deal of travelling is involved, both in the UK and overseas. Performers may spend long periods away from home, staying in bed and breakfast accommodation, theatrical digs, caravans and motorhomes.

Performers wear comfortable clothing which allows them freedom of movement. Depending on the act and the venue, this can range from jogging bottoms and a T-shirt to elaborate stage costumes. Some performers wear specialist shoes which help them to grip. The use of safety equipment, such as harnesses, is common.

The starting salary for a circus performer in regular work may be around £10,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Some circus performers work with traditional 'big top' travelling circuses, but there are also opportunities to appear in large-scale, staged circus shows, outdoor festivals, New Year and other celebrations in major towns and cities, stage musicals such as Barnum, arts festivals, community festivals and cabarets. A small but increasing number of theatrical plays feature performers with circus skills, and there may also be opportunities for freelance workers to perform at corporate events, weddings and children's parties. Opportunities may be increasing slightly, but competition for jobs is still intense.

There are opportunities to work overseas and on cruise ships.

Networking is extremely important to find work, and many performers hear about opportunities through other performers and directors. Freelance performers may have agents who look for auditions and jobs on their behalf and negotiate fees in return for a percentage of their earnings. Some jobs are advertised on the Equity website and in The Stage magazine.

Education and Training

There are no formal entry requirements to become a circus performer. School or leisure classes in subjects like gymnastics and modern dance provide a good background for learning circus skills.

There are a number of specialist courses aimed at people interested in becoming professional circus performers:

  • The Circus Space offers a two-year Foundation degree in Circus Arts - successful students may audition for a place on the BA (Hons) degree in Circus Arts which takes an additional year to complete.
  • Circomedia offers a one-year professional training programme and a two-year BTEC National Diploma in Performance.
  • Circus Maniacs offers full-time professional circus training which may last from six months to three years.
  • Greentop Community Circus offers a 12-week, full-time Circus in Performance Foundation Course which is accredited through the Open College Network to Levels 2 and 3.
  • NoFit State Circus and Zippo's Academy offer training programmes allowing students to learn on the road while performing with a professional company.

These institutions and a number of others also offer a range of short, part-time and introductory courses, aimed at both adults and children. The Circus Development Agency website provides useful information on classes and short courses available to anyone who wants to try circus skills.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

A small number of universities offer two-year full-time higher national diplomas (HNDs) and Foundation degrees, and three-year full-time degrees and joint degrees in physical theatre.

Course entry requirements vary according to individual institutions and course levels. The usual entry requirements for a degree course are at least two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or a BTEC National Award in Performing Arts (Circus Skills). Candidates may be asked to provide a video of their performance work and to attend an audition and interview.

Circus performers with more than one skill are likely to find more opportunities for work. The circus schools listed above offer various courses aimed at circus professionals wishing to increase their range of skills and to improve their acts. The Circus Development Agency website lists other organisations offering short courses, workshops and masterclasses.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A circus performer should:

  • Be physically fit and agile.
  • Have a great deal of energy and stamina.
  • Have good timing and co-ordination.
  • Have a sense of showmanship and be able to hold the attention of the audience.
  • Be able to come up with original technical and creative ideas.
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time practising and rehearsing.
  • Have the confidence to attend auditions and deal with criticism and rejection.
  • Be able to adapt performances to different audiences and venues.
  • Be aware of health and safety regulations.
  • Be prepared to take controlled risks.
  • Have teamworking skills if working with others.
  • Have self-motivation and self-management skills.
  • Have drive and determination.

Your Long Term Prospects

There is no formal promotion structure for circus performers. Performers wanting to progress to more prestigious work with better pay must spend a long time establishing their reputations, developing routines and learning new skills.

For those working for one company long term, there may be the chance to be promoted to become a solo performer.

Some circus performers move on to direct performances, or lead their own group of performers. Most circus performers include an element of teaching in their work.

Get Further Information

The Academy of Circus Arts (Zippo's Academy),
Circus Headquarters, Enborne, Newbury RG20 0LD
Tel: 07050 282624

Circomedia, Centre for Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance,
Britannia Road, Kingswood, Bristol BS15 8DB
Tel: 0117 947 7288

Circus Development Agency, Ebeneser Annexe,
Charles Street, Cardiff CF10 2GA

Circus Maniacs, Office 8a, Kingswood Foundation,
Britannia Road, Kingswood, Bristol BS15 8DB
Tel: 0117 947 7042

The Circus Space, Coronet Street, London N1 6HD
Tel: 020 7613 4141

Equity, Guild House, Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2H 9EG
Tel:020 7379 6000

Greentop Community Circus Centre,
St Thomas' Church, Holywell Road,
Brightside, Sheffield S4 8AS
Tel: 0114 244 8828

NoFit State Circus, PO Box 238, Cardiff CF24 0XS
Tel: 029 2022 1330

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