I am everybody’s most most intriguing friend. The most discussed. Why? Because I ran away with the circus. Everyone is proud to know someone who actually ran away with the circus. Of course, this brings up a lot of different images and stereotypes in people’s heads, depending on your nationality and your upbringing and what era you were born in. I spend a lot of time dispelling people’s ideas about what my life was like when I was on tour. So here it is, the truth laid out on paper, for the record.
To put this into context, between 2012 and 2014 I worked as an Assistant Producer with NoFit State. They’re pretty awesome, you should look them up, their work speaks for itself and I won’t try and do it justice by summarising it here. This article is not about the show, or the circus, this is about the touring lifestyle. In 2013 we toured a company of 50 people over 7 months around the UK performing 123 shows. These realities all relate to that experience.
Living in a caravan. There are moments when it is as romantic as you might imagine it to be. Parked on grass fields, walking barefoot between caravans, waking up to views of the ocean. A life outdoors in the never-ending glorious sunshine – a life of simplicity. But it is not always this idyllic. Not when you’re driving for 10 hours on the inside lane of the motorway at snail’s pace. Arriving at midnight, in the dark, with no electricity. The cold, the rain, the leaks, the mould. Caravan electrics failing. Driving with no break lights. The fear of being blown away inside your caravan in the gale force winds. Having to put wellies on to walk across the field for a pee in the middle of the night. Portaloos, day in day out. Cold showers. Living in carparks, next to highways, on rocks and on tarmac, in the eye of the public in your dressing gown. Having only 5m by 2m of private space. Which actually becomes this teeny, tiny, sacred place. And then you wake up in your own bed, in your own bedroom, draw the curtains and smile, because you can admire your view once more before it changes all over again.
A bewildering existence. Touring with children, a childminder, the boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-wives, dogs, cats and the penny farthing. Drinking tequila out of the bottle on plastic chairs in unknown cities. Eating bagels out in the cold at midnight. Dancing with fur coats and feather boas on top of the kitchen trailer. The circus girls doing handstands in the nearest local bank branch whilst trying to open bank accounts. Filling the office truck to the ceiling with beer. Contortionists in the radio studio. No day ever being the same. A moment at least once a day when you have to look twice and laugh, because what else can you do?
Everyone knowing very clearly at the start of tour what their personal limits are, and then proceeding to watch them being broken – re-defined, again and again – emotionally and physically stretched in ways they didn’t know were possible. Intense loneliness. Being constantly surrounded by people 24 hours of the day and never feeling more alone. A loneliness you can’t prepare yourself for. A self-doubt that is unavoidable when running on empty for such prolonged periods. A tremendous capacity to keep going. To get up each day, with the entire world on your shoulders, and keep fighting for something you’re pretty sure that you once believed in.
The relentlessness. Schedules that are simply unrelenting. Moving every fortnight. Long days. Long drives. Tent builds. Early mornings. Late nights. The box office phone that never stops ringing. The piles of receipts always there demanding to be processed. The washing machine that is still leaking. The oven that is broken and the performer that is broken too. And then show the to be put on, because the show must always go on. There are 500 eager faces waiting to be awed. A whole town full of anticipation. A whole world to create, and every night – a bunch of lives to be changed out there in the audience. So we go on, and on, and on, and on. For 7 months, until we cannot go on any longer. Then we stop, sleep for week, only to get back up and start planning the next year.
One day we tire of it, the endless cycle, the daily show cycle, the fortnightly touring cycle, the yearly cycle. So we step out of it, just as easily as we got swept up in it in the first place, and look back on it as if it was just a vivid dream. Where did it go? We wake up in the middle of the night with flashbacks. We drink beers with those who know and understand. Because they are family. They are a part of the most incredible family we have ever known. There is a bond with those who you toured with that is more powerful than you can get your head around, that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. A shared moment in time. A quiet knowing, that something wonderful and bizarre once happened, that no one else will ever really understand.