I think that’s amazing. I 100% support you in that decision, and I’d like to do whatever I can to help you.
If you’re able to go to a vocational circus school, do that. That’s hands-down the best way to acquire the relevant and necessary skills you’ll need. But I appreciate that you might not want to do that or you might not be able to do that. So if you’re unable to dedicate your entire life to running away and joining the circus, I have some advice for you. It’s not perfect advice, and I’m unable to encompass all the facets and angles of becoming a performer and what that requires, but I’ll do my best.
If you’re someone who’s been doing acro or circus for a while and wants to take their first steps on stage, or someone who has been doing it for a while and wants to improve as a performer, then this article is for you. This advice is just as useful for the person who wants to start performing for fun as it is for the person who wants to increase their skills or the person who maybe wants to take a shot at becoming a full time performer.
This is a longer read than the other things I’ve written, so buckle in.
It’s Simple Supply & Demand, Except it’s Not That Simple
There are a lot of steps you’ll have to take before you get to a point where someone is asking you to perform for them, so chronologically this advice is completely in the wrong place, but it’s important and I think it deserves to be first. It would be remiss of me not to include this:
If someone is asking you to perform for them, someone is asking you to provide a service for them – a highly skilled, specific, niche service. If that someone doesn’t want to pay you for your service, then really take time to decide whether or not you should do it.
There are times when it’s fine to work for free: for a friend or for a charity you strongly believe in and want to support, among other reasons. But if someone is profiting from your work and you’re not seeing anything for it? Fuck that. You are being exploited.
If an event has a cover charge for guests but the event organizer ‘has no money’ to pay performers and you are being asked to work for free because ‘it will be great exposure’, fuck that. You are being exploited. Someone is profiting off your free labor. If they are asking you to perform, it’s because they think you will add value to whatever their event is. Don’t add value to someone else’s event for nothing in return.
If they say they don’t have a budget to pay the performers, then direct them to a better accountant and tell them to sort their budget out. They somehow managed to find a budget for bar staff, venue hire, maybe food, a DJ, lights, a bouncer, but not the performers? You are being exploited.
There are only so many performing jobs in the world at any one time, and there are most likely more performers than jobs. This means that there is going to be competition for those jobs. Whenever there is more supply (performers) than demand (performance jobs) you’re likely to create a race to the bottom for prices.
Because whoever is contacting you is probably shopping around to find the person who’ll do it for the lowest fee, or even for free. Don’t be that person. If you take one of those jobs for free, you are directly taking food from the mouth of another artist because. Hyperbolic, but I stand by it. When supply is higher than demand, which it absolutely is, it’s so easy for prices to bottom out to the lowest bid. Don’t be a part of that.
Know your worth.
What you do is impressive and you worked hard to be able to do what you do, and you deserve to be paid for that.
It’s nearly impossible for me to give you an accurate ‘lowest acceptable fee’, because it’s going to be different for everyone depending on what city you’re in, discipline you do, gig you’re doing and a myriad of other factors. We have a minimum that we’ve decided for ourselves, but our minimum is absolutely not going to be relevant to you.
Our quote can vary by thousands of dollars depending on what we’re being asked to do, who we’re being asked to do it for and where we’re being asked to do it. It’s something you’ll have to arrive at yourself, and you’ll need to use your best judgement as to whether it’s fair or not.
If in doubt, reach out to performers in your city or the city you’re being asked to go to and check in with them what an acceptable minimum is. We’ve told our minimum fee to all our friends who perform Hand to Hand in London because if we all have the same minimum, no one gets undercut and no one gets ripped off.
Entrance: Stage Left
With that out of the way, here’s some contradictory advice: do whatever you can to get on stage. Performing on stage is a skill just like anything else, and you’re going to need exposure to it in order to get better at it. At first, you’ve just got to get on stage and get good at being on stage.
My advice would be to try to create or find opportunities to practice being on stage and performing in front of an audience.
My immediate, low-effort, high-reward suggestion would be to look in your community for other people who are interested in performing and see if there’s enough of you to organize a ‘scratch night’.
A scratch night is an informal show where people can perform new material in front of an audience to gather feedback or performance experience. It’s a hugely helpful tool in any artist’s arsenal and is very easy to set up.
If there’s only a couple of you interested, you could come to a communal consensus that once a month you’ll use the last 20 minutes of your community’s jam to let people show something they’ve been working on. The people at the jam will be your audience. Simple.
Maybe that grows over time and you get more people performing, and 20 minutes is no longer enough, and you add a little 45-minute show onto the end of the jam. Before you know it: boom, a monthly performance opportunity for you and everyone else who’s interested.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘a stage’ is something specific. You don’t need lights, or a curtain or tiered seating. You don’t need anything fancy. You need a floor and an audience. You can create that anywhere.
Other suggestions would be to look for ‘open mic’ nights in your area and see if they’d be open to you performing there. Check that the ceilings are high enough. You won’t get paid for these, but don’t go in there waving Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal’ in their faces and quoting me – these events are adding value to you, not the other way around. They’re giving you an opportunity to gain experience in front of an audience. You’re going into these events with the understanding that you’re performing for free, in exchange for experience and practice.
This sounds remarkably similar to what I said not to do, but the difference is that you went to them looking for experience – you weren’t approached by someone asking you to take experience in lieu of payment.
Go and take classes in dance/theatre/improv. Like I said earlier, being a performer is a skill all in itself and it’s one that requires cultivation. It’s not enough to just go on stage and throw some tricks and wait for the applause to roll in.
Being a performer is about connecting with an audience and drawing them in, it’s not about who can do the most Icarian front tucks in a row. In the three years of circus school, we do dance, movement, clown, theatre and improv classes, and exercises to grow that skill set and become more than just a trick machine.
Google ‘contact improv/modern dance/contemporary dance/ballet/improv/clown/theatre classes near me’ and get yo’ ass to some classes. It is going to be such a helpful tool for your development.
It can be scary, and it can be hard. You’re maybe going wayoutside your comfort zone, but that’s kind of the point. You have to throw caution to the wind and leave your embarrassment at the door.
Maybe take a shot or two before attending, just to lose some of those inhibitions. (Note: Don’t do that.)
If you are a man who has never gone to a dance / movement class before, this will likely be the most embarrassing and difficult learning experience you will have as an adult. But it’s probably going to be one of the most important on your journey to becoming a performer.
In 2016 Isis and I auditioned for Cirque du Soleil, and during the audition (to no one’s surprise) there were theatre and movement exercises. This audition was the first time I ever felt truly comfortable to let go and just go all in without (nearly) any embarrassment or feelings of holding back.
Now, keep in mind I’d been doing these kind of exercises for 11 years at that point. It took me 11 years to get comfortable doing these kind of exercises. I attribute some of this to my repressed-English-middle-class-existence, but I think it’s not a unique experience.
I think leaping into things like this is a bigger challenge for straight men than for women (potentially marking the first time being a heterosexual man has been a hindrance). So if you’re a lady (who might’ve already done some kind of dance as a kid) reading this and wanting to involve your straight, male acro partner in something like this, be kind.
It might seem like a little, easy thing for you, but I guarantee for your partner who came to acro from the gym or from a competitive sport, it is going to be very far outside his comfort zone. But like I said, that’s kind of the point. Just be considerate, mindful, and supportive if your partner expresses hesitation.
Teamwork Makes The Dreamwork
I’m making an assumption here that you, the reader, is doing Hand to Hand / Partner Acrobatics.
I think you need a permanent partner to make this work. It’s going to be extremely hard to ‘pick up and perform’ on stage the same way you’re able to ‘pick up and play’ at a Jam for a myriad of reasons.
There’s the logistical problems of scheduling rehearsals and performances, there’s the acrobatic and performance problems that come with working with brand new partners. You have to have someone who’s committed not only to you and your partnership, but to what you’re both trying to accomplish.
You and your partner need to have a conversation about your goals, individual and as a partnership, and how you plan on and expect to achieve them. You need to make sure you’re on the same page, about what kind of acts or shows you want to do, whether you want to do this full time, as supplementary income, or just for fun, and how many times a week and for how long you’re willing to train to achieve your goals.
Performing as a duo is as much a business partnership as it is a relationship; constant, open communication is a must. Especially when you’re first starting. You don’t want to throw all your eggs and dreams into the basket of someone who’s planning to move across the country in six months time. Just as you wouldn’t want to go all in with someone who’s only half in.
Your dreams, goals and aspirations have to be similar and how you plan on getting there should be too.
In the End, It’s Worth It
Starting your journey to becoming a performer is going to be difficult and fraught with self-doubt and complications.
You might think you’re too old (hint: you’re probably not), you might think you’re not good enough (hint: you probably are) and you might be embarrassed and afraid to put yourself out there and subject yourself to what can feel like judgement, but (hint:) it’s worth it.
It’s worth it for you – for the feeling you’ll get when you finally put something in front of an audience that you’re proud of, something that is made up of months or years of your hard work and something that you’re passionate about above all else.