Why Australian circus, street performers flock to Europe in winter

Tamara Campbell dressed as Kiki Bitovabitsch at the Kazador at Black Beach Kiama for the KISS Arts Festival this weekend. Picture: Georgia Matts
Tamara Campbell dressed as Kiki Bitovabitsch at the Kazador at Black Beach Kiama for the KISS Arts Festival this weekend. Picture: Georgia Matts

Aside from joining Circus Oz or Cirque du Soleil, where do street performers go to forge their name in the business? Europe in summer. DESIREE SAVAGE speaks to locals who are, have or about to do it.

Australian actors wanting to make it big in film and television often head to the illustrious La-La Land for pilot season. Budding comedians flock to RAW Comedy events, with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival often dubbed as a trade show by stand-ups.

But where do circus and street performers go to forge their name in the business? Europe in the summertime.

Arts and culture festivals are rampant around Europe, combining many forms of art, music, cuisine and dance. They are starting to infiltrate Australia’s very sporty culture but their presence is quite minuscule compared to the other side of the world.

For circus artists and street performers to really get noticed in the industry, making a pilgrimage to Europe during our winter months is quite the norm.

Hula-hoop and aerial performer Shona Conacher turning tricks in Globe Lane, Wollongong. Picture: Robert Peet

Hula-hoop and aerial performer Shona Conacher turning tricks in Globe Lane, Wollongong. Picture: Robert Peet

Circus Monoxide’s Shona Conacher, 23, is making the trek for the first time. Her solo show is a mix of light comedic banter with daring hula tricks with a dramatic finale.

“Probably since I left school it’s something that’s been on my brain and haven’t had the guts to do it up until this point,” she said. “I’ve done little bits and pieces but I’m kind of throwing myself in the deep end.”

The hula-hoop specialist has been saving her pennies for a four-month journey which many people she knows have embarked before her.

The plan is to begin in the UK to “get in the groove” before starting the festival circuit. The biggest thing on her bucket list is to perform at London’s Covent Garden, what she said it often the pinnacle for many.

“It’s probably one of the most famous street spots in the world. So it’d be really lovely to do my street show there if I can,” Conacher said.

At the time she spoke to the Illawarra Mercury, Conacher was still waiting to hear back from many festival organisers about the status of her applications.

Picture: Georgia Matts

Picture: Georgia Matts

One festival which was locked in was spending a month at the Edinburgh Fringe. She explained each morning your name goes into a draw to determine the time and venue you would perform at –hoping it doesn’t rain. 

“It’s a little bit different for every festival,” she said. “Some of them they pay you to go to the festival, and then you also do your shows and [put your hat out for cash] at the end.”.

Conacher has also booked some paid gigs along the way but said it was more about gaining experience and making contacts.

“I’ve been told that on your first trip to Europe ... you should expect not to make money, on your second trip expect to maybe break even, and on your third trip you might make money,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have one of those jobs that means I don’t have to stay in one place … If I really enjoy it, it’s just another feather in my hat.”

Last year was around 250,000 people which is almost the population of Wollongong. It’s every festival ever rolled into one.

Corey Pickett

Corey Pickett, 25, now spends nine months of the year based in London. The unicyclist/juggler/cabaret performer travelled to the UK four years ago and said he loved his first jaunt so much he decided to hang around longer than planned.

“The only thing I ever wanted in my life was to live as a performer,” he said. “Since making the leap to Europe I was able to open up the global market for myself. Last year, through a UK company I performed twice in China and the year before I was performing in Egypt.”

Corey Picket entertains outside Saint Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. The performer spends nine months of the year in the UK and Europe, the rest at home in the Illawarra. Picture: Supplied

Corey Picket entertains outside Saint Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. The performer spends nine months of the year in the UK and Europe, the rest at home in the Illawarra. Picture: Supplied

Pickett said the European circuit is so diverse, all with different audiences – while everyone has an “enormous” appreciation for the arts. His favourite festivals to perform at are polar opposites Glastonbury and the Lainsuojattomat Theatre Festival in Finland.

“Glastonbury because of its size, it is the biggest festival of the performing arts in the world,” he said.

“I think last year was around 250,000 people which is almost the population of Wollongong. It’s every festival ever rolled into one.

“The other is a tiny festival in the little town of Pori in Finland. It’s a lovely theatre festival that runs over a week and the audience are small, but they really appreciate that you’ve come to perform for them.”

This will be the first year since 1996 that co-founder of Kiama’s KISS Arts Festival, Tamara Campbell, will not be leaving our dreary winter.

Definitely you have to go there ... and be seen to gain a reputation and grow a reputation that allows you to get work.

Tamara Campbell

The reason is not for losing the passion, but rather not to disrupt her daughter’s first year of high school and have a break after a busy summer at home.

“Definitely you have to go there and work and be seen to gain a reputation and grow a reputation that allows you to get work,” the woman also known as Kiki Bittovabitsch said. 

“If you just sat here trying to get gigs on email, that doesn’t work.

“In the street performing community ... there has always been people going for as long as I can remember.”

Campbell studied acting and physical theatre at home and in America, but wanted to forge her own destiny so began working around London and Europe on original projects.

“I was never built to do someone else’s script,” she said. “I always made my own and worked on my own stuff.”

The first festival Campbell remembers performing at was with a trio called La Pamplemousse at the Edmonton Street Performance Festival in Canada. It was here the decision was made to branch out of group settings and be a one-woman show.

2018 National Folk Festival Canberra. Street Performer at the Festival. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

2018 National Folk Festival Canberra. Street Performer at the Festival. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

“It was amazing. I don't know how we got accepted … But I met some [female performers] who were an incredible influence on me as an artist,” she recalls. “When I started, solo females were not very common and so it was really great to see some women working and what kind of shows women were doing.”

Today, 27 different countries are featured in Campbell’s resume, the physical performer often tweaking the dialogue of her shows to include the native language.

“Nearly every town has its own little festival, or big festival. I’ve worked in Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Japanese, I even learnt a bit of Slovenian once. So I’ve learnt my share in a number of languages,” she said. 

“I tend to find you learn parts of your show in a certain language and then you mess around in English because a lot of the time they do understand you.”

One of the most beautiful festivals she has ever worked at has been at the Kleines Fest im de Grossen Garten, in Hannover, Germany. 

Tamara Campbell with her tennis racquet in Kiama. Picture: Georgia Matts

Tamara Campbell with her tennis racquet in Kiama. Picture: Georgia Matts

The three-week event is spread out across 26 stages around a manicured garden. Only around 3000 patrons are let in each evening to wander and watch the shows.

Back home, Campbell believes the street arts festival scene is growing, partly she said, in response to what she calls “a less social world”.

“I think people feel a bit disconnected these days – everything happens so fast, everything happens online and I think the rising number of events is almost a rebellion against that or fitting a need for people to go out and hang out together,” she said.

“It’s changed a lot in 20 years here and I’m really proud of that change too. I think it’s a really important thing for Australia and for bringing communities together to laugh and play and have fun.”