An Interview with Tumble Circus

– Tom Munday

Tumble Circus was kick-started by Tina Segner, AKA Tina Machina, and Kenneth Fall twenty years ago. Hailing from Sweden and Ireland respectively, the two performers met and followed their dreams. Today, their circus company is one of the world’s most respected and ingenious acts. Tumble provides a fun experience comprised of high-skill circus acts (trapeze, hoops etc.), theatre, and comedy fused together perfectly. Known to cause controversy, their shows tell shocking stories about social and political issues worth discussing with mass audiences.

Their outdoor and big-top shows pull us into their upside-down/inside-out universes. These whirlwind shows, performed across the world, have earned several awards including Best Circus Show at 2012’s Adelaide Fringe Festival. Their latest show, Damn the Circus, crafts an extensive diatribe about modern performance, the performer lifestyle, and the struggles of the circus industry. Their description says it all: “In her crown of sequins and sawdust, youth will perish, talent will bleed and yet we love her so.” I chatted to the group, breaking up via dodgy reception between Perth and the South West, about the lifestyle, their new show, and the thrill of one of entertainment’s toughest disciplines.

When did you realise you wanted to become circus performers?

Ken: Well, when I learned it was so much fun! [laughs] I realised it when I was going through Spain and saw a bunch of circus performers there and really liked the way they lived – travelling around, doing all that physical stuff. That was the life for me, I thought.

Tina: I realised quite late. I was about 20, I’m originally Swedish, and was supposed to go the university but then took a year out to travel. I came to Ireland and met a bunch of circus performers there. I just really love it, they had a training space and they showed me what to do. They showed me how to get on a trapeze and do a couple of tricks. I totally struggled on it but as I came down I decided this is what I want to do. I then started researching circus schools and different possibilities. Then went to circus school and ditched all my university plans.

How did Tumble Circus first come together?

Tina: We were both jugglers, myself and Ken – we founded Tumble Circus and the ones running it now as well. We met twenty years ago in Dublin. He was doing street shows and we hooked up together. We then went to circus school together and from then on it’s all happened quite organically. There was never a moment when where we just decided, like when we actually spoke about it, it just happened. We started training together and we got work then it just formed.

We’re all from Belfast. The Tumble Circus is based in Belfast so that’s where we live. Ursula has always been a musician. We all did a show together a few years ago, and then, when we put this new show together Damn the Circus – which we put together two years ago – we wanted to work with a musician, and with someone else. We were talking to her about it and we all realised we were at the same point in life and that we would work really well together. The creativity between us has been really great.

What can expect from your new show, Damn the Circus? How does it stand out from your previous shows?

Tina: You can expect lots of circus and a lot of laughter. Some fighting and quite a lot of arguments but all fun. I think this is our best show so far. You can expect to be taken on a roller coaster ride! Some audiences go: “This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen but it was amazing and it was great!”. You never know what the next act is going to be, you can never go: “Oh, I saw that coming” you can always go, “Whoa, didn’t expect that! Oh, I didn’t expect that either!”. So it’s really great.

I think this show is a little but more mature. Well, maybe we are more mature because we are getting older as well and getting more and more experience. Being three people makes a difference because this time we’re working with live music and each one of us has a real sense of control. Ursula, she’s not just in the background she very much at the centre of it. We all have our parts.

What narrative and thematic aspects do you lean towards conveying through your work?

Ken: When we talk about politics, we…we do a lot of street theatre as well, outdoor theatre where we tour around doing our circus stuff with a big outdoor circus rig and stuff. Our street stuff is much more political because I find that I don’t really like doing political stuff all the time because it feels like you’re preaching to the converted. People see the show, they understand it’s got political topics, and will only go to it if they agree with it. While on the street it’s a much more exciting dynamic so when talking about politics there it can be really, really great. When we do the political stuff, we try to push a certain agenda onto the audience. In some shows, we get the audience to vote on killing a child and we trick them into actually voting for the child to be killed. It’s about democracy and the idea that you are voting over this one person.

Your saying, “It’s democracy therefore this person must die”. We also talk about religion in general, like how people can be pushed into believing things they don’t necessarily really believe. They get caught up in the moments, in the zeitgeist, and in the media. We talk about all sorts of things including politics. We love doing that, more so in the streets. We live in Belfast, and so politics is always a major topic there. Obviously, politics isn’t everything. In our theatre work, it’s more the politics of the idea of being alternative and being able to have a lifestyle like the ‘normal’. It comes though in the work but we’re not pushing it.

You’ve toured solidly across the globe, what are some of the highlights of your touring experience?

Tina: Our favourite experience was when we won best circus show with This is What We Do For A Living at Adelaide Fringe. Another one was when we were performing in Iceland, we did a week of shows in Iceland and that was pretty spectacular that was great being there because I’d never been there. Also, performing in my hometown two years ago with a show, in Sweden, and then doing shows in the middle of nowhere. So many of friends turned up and that was really good. Most importantly, touring with my nine-month-old son. He’s nine months now and he is with us, and he’s been coming with us on tour for the last half of the year.

Your latest show is a meta-textual analysis of the performer’s lifestyle and the public’s perception of circus entertainment, how do you see circus performing evolving over the next few years?

Ken: Well, circus is very evolved. I live in Europe so we tour a lot through France and in France circus has been a big art form since the 1980s. You see shows their called circuses and you’re wondering: “Where the hell is the circus?! It can become very conceptual. So, where is it going? We’ve seen circuses in Australia that really shook up the circus industry. It’s very, very un-Australian. The circus is very contemporary, very sound-staged, very theatre movement and I think it’s wonderful.

Where do I see it going? There are a lot of new companies coming out of Australia. The new, young punks are very excited and sport their own sort of aesthetic and their own forms, which its really great. So, I have no idea where it’s going to go. I know it’s exciting because there’s a lot of them now. A lot of young performers coming from institutions like NICA (National Institute of Circus Arts) that are all highly skilled. Australia has got some very highly skilled performers and also starting to get a really high skill of critical thinking people looking at their work and sort of going: “Why am I doing this? What’s it about?” That’s exciting as well. I think that’s the new direction because it has mostly just been physical but now they’re a bit more intellectual about the work. They’re really thinking about it like: “Where does it fit? Why am I doing it? What am I saying?” I think it’s becoming more like that. The tricky thing is finding an audience, that’s the hard thing for those younger companies.

Which talent do you reserve for parties? Do you often get requests?

Tina: [laughs] No, I don’t. Well, we do have some competitions quite often and at the most random moments. Normally when I’m on tour, when I’m away on holidays or if we’re away on tour as well if we go sightseeing or if we see something nice, we do, instead of just taking a selfie we do handstand photos so we just take pictures of ourselves in the most weird places for our collection.

Damn the Circus is currently playing at Fringe World 2015. Get your tickets here.

Photo credit: Tumble Circus

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