If The Three Stooges decided to multiply and create a circus company, it would probably end up being a lot like Circus Oz. The Australian company was founded in 1977, and its most recent show, “Cranked Up,” was inspired by the iconic "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper" photo. The Celebrity Series present Circus Oz at Boston’s Shubert Theatre February 19–23. We spoke to Ed Boyle, one of the Artistic Directors, about the challenges of taking the show on tour and what sets Circus Oz apart from other circus companies.
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What compelled you to join Circus Oz? Personally, I was a performer as an acrobat, and I have the utmost respect and fascination with people who can story-tell using their bodies. That’s why I joined. It’s a very collaborative process. People use their skills or sets of ideas to try to help people.
One of the calling cards of the show is its “Australian humor.” What exactly is Australian humor? (Laughs) I’m not sure, I think because I live it. We had a comment last night about the performance... One of the comments was, “There’s no cynicism!” It’s so much fun and it’s not at anyone’s expense. There’s a sense of joy when a performer achieves something fantastic.
When you’re casting the show or replacing someone, what kind of qualities do you look for, other than the ability to do all the stunts? It’s actually really challenging because it depends on body type—we try to represent different characters and different shapes. Gender, because we like to have a gender balance between men and women. Sometimes it’s hard to swap out like for like. But it also comes down to the nature of the process, the joy [the performers] have, and that they crave to create work. That’s really important. There is an amazing pool of very talented performers that have previously worked with us. Circus Oz fosters individual careers, as opposed to just individual acts. If for whatever reason we have to replace someone in the show, we don’t just recast their act. It becomes a whole new reality.
Was the decision not to use animals in the show born out of social justice reasons—concern for the safety and well-being of animals used in circuses—or a desire to think outside the box and change up the idea of what a circus performance is? No one was fast enough to catch any animals (laughs). I think it’s a combination. The social justice aspect, very much so. Thirty years ago, the originals who started the social justice group in the ’70s were writing political theatre. People pay more attention to you when you’re hanging upside down from the ceiling than just ranting on the street. Other than the animals, we draw very heavily from the traditions of the circus. And our performers are just like animals (laughs).
You guys have a Big Top tent down in Australia that you perform in. How does the show change when you’re performing in a venue like the Shubert Theatre in Boston? In the tent, it’s a performance in the round and you can see everyone else reacting on the other side. So the thing I love is that everyone shares the same sense of humanity. Every time you get in the theatre, it’s in the dark and we’re on the stage, so we really work on breaking down that convention [of separation]. Before the show starts, all of the artists are going up to people, sitting in their chairs, juggling people’s handbags, trying to create that Big Top world in the auditorium of the theatre. We try to break down that fourth wall barrier. It is a challenge. I do love it though, playing with the conventions. When you’re watching a movie, you’re in the dark and you can just sit there and let the performers do the work, but this changes that transaction.
Are audience members ever uncomfortable with that? I can’t speak for everyone, but kids love it. They love seeing people change roles. And if you see the kids laugh, the parents will laugh. Discomfort is an interesting tool and it contextualizes people’s experience. In many ways the audience is the show.
Anything else you’d like to add for people who are unfamiliar with the production? We have two indigenous people in the show, and when we do shows in Australia we always acknowledge the original owners of the land and of the country that we’re in. The reactions are interesting—we got a huge round of applause when Mark, our MC, said that the other night. It’s a very important part of the show, and coming from Australia, our country’s such a work in progress. We’re still putting the building blocks together. It’s interesting how that resonates in America. We want to spread the message that everyone is welcome.