The Continuing Adventures of Doktor Circus!

A superfluous image of Christopher Lee to give you a sense of who Doctor Circus thinks he is!

So as some of you may know I have recently jumped from the philosophy of art to the burgeoning new range of interdisciplinary research named Circus Studies. Circus studies is a field born out of the practice of developing social inclusion and well-being via training in a variety of circus arts. This can involve young people, marginalised groups, people with disabilities, older people or anyone who is looking for a way to express themselves and become more involved in a community.

My own experience with the field began in such a way. I had just finished my Ph.D. and moved to Galway to be with my partner. I was unemployed, in a new city and feeling direction-less and disappointed with the academic world. I’ve written a little about this elsewhere on the blog (see here) but two things helped me to claw my way out of this slump. The first was The Little Cinema, the second was answering an ad from the Galway Volunteer centre to be a newsletter writer for Galway Community Circus. I started off writing a monthly newsletter for the group and got so enthused and amazed by the work that they did that I felt I needed to get more involved, fortunately soon after I began with them they started looking for a jobbridge intern. I applied, did the best interview I could, shit my pants with nerves a bit, then got the job! Soon after I started Ulla, the circus director, asked about my academic experience. My internship was as a marketing/PR administrator but Ulla wanted me to feel fulfilled and like I was working to my full potential (quick aside, this appears to be a central philosophy among ALL circus folk; the idea that if you can do something you should and the circus will find a place for it. If you can juggle, you’ll become a juggler. If you can’t juggle but you can sing, they’ll have you singing while a juggler juggler. If you can’t do either but are good with your hands they’ll get you designing and making props, costumes and sets for the shows. If you can’t do any of the above they’ll get you writing a newsletter. But back to my main point) So Ulla saw I had all this experience in academic research and she said to me “Why don’t you do a community impact study?” I said “Sure! What’s a community impact study?” She had no idea, and neither did I. But we knew it would be good for the circus (for which you should probably read as a delicate blend of community/project/family) so if it was good for the circus we’d do it. I spent a few weeks learning what they were and then went over the idea with Ulla. After a series of lengthy debates on a variety of public transport ahe said go for it! Six months later the study was complete, over 75 people were interviewed by me or the volunteer team I had acquired through NUIG. We had acres of data and a lot of exciting results. It took a while for me to finally finish it (more on that later) but when I finally assembled the complete study it came in at 140 pages of statistical analysis, conceptual elucidation and practical commentary. I was a bit blown away, as was Ulla. It was one of these things where we just get chipping away at the project but never really realising how big a project it was. The final analysis showed a resounding support for the circus from its members, staff and community. It is a positive, optimistic and enlightening document that reveals how even the smallest amounts of positivity and kindness grow and multiply in the kind of safe and nourishing environment that the circus is.

During the study I noticed that there was very little research done on the emotional impact of circus training on young people. In attempt to fill this gap, I conducted a separate study examining the emotional effects on youth circus on people aged between 5-21 years. This paper, entitled “Measuring Happiness – Eudaimonia and Youth Circus”, was my first real step into Circus studies. I tried to use Aristotle’s eudaimonia as a rubric for understanding how circus brings about an increase in reported feelings of positive well-being. This wasn’t easy and if I could do it again I’d get Dr. Brendan Rooney in from day one, as it was I just collapsed on his door at the end of the study looking for help with the statistical analysis. You see I’d asked participants how they felt about circus (in a variety of interesting and well-worded questions) But the thing was they all felt great. They looked forward to it, they enjoyed it and they felt better afterwards! This was an issue cause if there’s no significant difference in reported feelings then we can’t get a measure (or something like that) It was also difficult because how did we know that circus made them feel this way and that they weren’t just super happy joyful people that would have felt the same way after karate or scouts or drama club. Well it was a doozy and while we didn’t answer the problem fully we were, through the ingenuity of Dr Brendy, to come up with a solid statistical report that showed that when people DIDN’T do circus they DIDN’T feel as good as when they did. It was great. Brendan rocks. So I presented versions of the paper at Angela Ruskin University, Cambridge as part of their invited speakers series, in the National University of Ireland, Galway as part of their ECHO seminar series and finally at the Effective Circus seminar in the University of Tampere, Finland.

Tampere was life changing. I’ve been to conferences before but generally they left me feeling hollow and dull. Tampere was quite the opposite, at breakfast the first morning I was recognised and invited to join excited academics from around the world who knew about my work and wanted to have big excited chats. There were lots of circus artists who also researched but there were also people like me who weren’t officially performers but just loved the field and wanted to study it for all its brilliance (aside; yes I’ve done a bit of clowning #strongman #venacava but until I’ve earned a red nose I will not self-identify #clownpoliticsisntalaughingmatter) A big bunch of us bonded very quickly and we walked around Tampere in the snow like primary school kids on a day out. It was glorious. Everyone came from a different world, they had a different angle but we all knew one thing for sure and that is that circus is more than what we think. We haven’t cracked the egg yet. Something is going on, circus training, workshops and classes, days out and potential careers are effecting people in a special way, a positive way. And it is definitely worth more study.

Since Tampere, I haven’t been able to do as much research work on circus as I want as I’ve been doing a lot of film-making including a great circus dvd which is available for only €7!!

But I did manage to do an independent evaluation of the La Bonche Family project which was an interdicsiplinary, transmaterial circus project conducted by Helen Averly and the La Bonche Family circus. The evaluation centred on a series of interviews with the performers and administrators of the project as well as the wealth of research and documents produced by the project. Details of it can be found here:

But now, well in a few hours, I’m getting up at stupid o’clock to fly to Newcastle for the day to take part in the first meeting of the UK and Ireland’s first circus research network. I’m very excited. The organiser’s invited me to this (YES! Actually invited me to something!!) based on the work I’ve done over the last year. On top of that I’ve been invited to represent Galway Community Circus at the Caravan circus conference in Brussels at the end of the month. I’ll be moderating two panels with speakers from all over the world.
I’ll write again after one or both of these events and keep you up to date with all the continuing adventures of Stephen J Cadwell… Dr Circus!

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