Circus Theatre: An Oxymoron?

Convener(s): Mark Morreau  

Participants: Sharon Kean, Naomi O’Kelly, Catriona James, Neil Keating, Lynn Gardner, Gigi, Jo Hammet, Roisin Stimpson, Matilda Leyser, Leslie Coosens, Zoe Cobb, Liz Chen,

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Brief Summary and Conclusion (this is all you need to read!)

Is CircusTheatre an Oxymoron? A contradiction in terms? Can circus and theatre co-exist in the same show or meld seamlessly into a piece of performance. 

CircusTheatre as a label is still useful for producers and audiences, but the word “theatre” no longer needs to be tagged on to “circus” in order to instil legitimacy. Circus Performers working in theatre need to have better theatrical (performative) skills. This needs to be addressed in their training. Theatre practitioners need to have better knowledge of the technical aspects of circus: skills and rigging to utilise circus’ potential, otherwise they act as magpies, just grabbing the shiny bits.



We started by discussing the term “Circus Theatre. As a term, it had a historical usefulness for giving legitimacy for circus shows/companies who were trying to add narrative to their “tricks”. Now that circus has gained respectability as a legitimate art form, it’s no longer necessary to add the word “theatre” in order to gain respect (or funding). However, the term “Circus Theatre” is still useful for funding and promotional purposes. Companies call themselves “Circus Theatre” companies as an indication of the style of their work, for example “SoandSo CircusTheatre” and “Acrojou CircusTheatre”. 

However, the purpose of our convention was not to discuss the label, but to ask whether the art forms “circus” and “theatre” are compatible with each other, whether one can incorporate circus seamlessly into theatre as a narrative element, or whether you can add narrative to circus without destroying the innate theatricality of the discrete circus act.

Gerry Cottle insists that there is enough theatricality in circus without needing to add additional theatre to it. We asked if that was true… that the act is the act: a story in itself. Does it need to have theatre added to it?

The discussion kicked off with as assertion that “circus” and “theatre” are not compatible: Circus is a real art form, where the performer is genuinely doing the skills, actually risking their life live on stage. Theatre, on the other hand, depends on suspension of disbelief: imagine this man is a Danish prince, there’s the castle, there’s the mountain. The real and the imaginary will collide. Things can go wrong, and often end up very badly.\ 

Mimbre’s show at LIMF 2010 was put forward as a good example of skill and theatre co-existing well in a story of friendship.

There was a suggestion that Circus Theatre often falls down because the circus performers have spent their training on learning their technical skills, and have not gained sufficient performance skills to be convincing actors.

Better performance training is necessary for circus artists.

It was asserted that in order to add performance onto the skill then the skill needed to be totally ingrained into the muscle memory of the performer so that the performer could concentrate on performing rather than doing the tricks.

The Australian company Circa was cited as an example where a theatrical show was created by stripping away all the performative elements from the acrobatic disciplines of the performers. The less “theatre” they did the more the audience saw in their show. The audience were able to use their own imaginations and saw their own stories in the work.

It was suggested that “legitimate” theatre had a magpie approach to disciplines such as puppetry and circus: that they would swoop in and grab the shiny bits for their shows. Circus was thus in danger of giving bits of itself away cheaply. Warhorse was cited as an example of how “legitimate” theatre had properly embraced puppetry to create a show, eschewing the magpie temptation. The National Theatre attempted to do this with a production of The Birds in about 2003 that was not really a success. Some believed that it set the “cause” of Circus Theatre back.

We asked if Producers understood what Circus (or Circus Theatre) is. Do Producers, directors and choreographers need to understand the skills and other elements of circus (rigging, safety) in order for them to realise circus’ potential in their theatre shows?  The Circus Space has been running some cross-fertilisation projects. Directors and choreographers need to be familiar with the vocabulary of circus, the range of circus skills, the potential of each skill and its limitations. They need to be able to understand and incorporate these skills rather than being in awe of them.

We asked how you get your show off the ground, whether Circus Theatre was a new thing (no!), whether it should just be called “theatre”, or indeed why does it matter what it’s called?

Examples were cited where the (bad) theatre of a show had ruined the (good) circus elements of it (and vice versa).

Some of the non-performative elements of circus (the rigging, for example) had their own drama, and did not need to be hidden from the audience. 

We asked if other places were better than Britain at integrating Circus and Theatre. Canada and Europe, especially France with its touring infrastructure, were cited as examples.



There have been shows where Circus and Theatre have been seamlessly integrated, but these have been far and few between, and they’ve come from Circus practitioners who wanted to rise above the tricks. These attempts have often been let down by poor performance skills from circus performers, or poor understanding of the potential or needs of the circus skills from theatre practioners.

These issues can be addressed by:

  • Circus Training institutions improving the performance training element of their courses.
  • Giving opportunities for theatre practioners – directors, producers and technical staff – to learn more about circus skills in order to increase their vocabulary and understand the potential use of circus skills in their productions.