The Circus Diaries is a wonderful oral history and photographic project documenting traditional Australian circus life from the 1920's to the present. Over the past three years I have travelled through much of Australia interviewing and photographing circus elders and families, and living with traditional circuses.

The Circus Diaries is a PhD project in partnership with The Australian Centre of Melbourne University and the Performing Arts Collection of the Arts Centre, Victoria.The Circus Diaries exhibition opened at the George Adams Gallery of the Arts Centre, 100 St. Kilda Rd, Melbourne, on May 18th, and ran till July 15th, 2007. The exhibition was an outcome from my Australian Circus Oral History PhD research and features photographs by Cal MacKinnon. To see some of Cal's contemporary images from The Circus Diaries exhibition, please click on the link to her website on the right.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dr Lemon At Last!!!!

Yes! Dr of Clowns. Or is that Clown Doctor? It's done and dusted, written and printed. And I am enjoying the recovery from Tough As Buggery: Traditional Australian Circus Community and Belonging.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I finally submitted my PhD thesis on 22 Dec 09. Can't believe it. Apologies to all I have not seen or been in contact with for far too long. Have been disappeared inside my laptop writing and editing and rewriting and re-editing. But the 100,000 words and numerous pics have gone off to be examined and I am released! Hallelujah! Next I must think about publishing....

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cirque du New Orleans

I'm packing my bags for New Orleans. I'm off to the American Popular Culture Association conference, to meet up with a grab bag of American circus researchers, and find out all about those three ring spectaculars. Might even get to see one if I'm lucky.. although time will be short.

Then I'm off to Las Vegas to visit my mates, Julie Macinnes (cellist and vocalist, ex-musical director of Circus Oz) and composer and pianist, Janine de Lorenzo, both musicians with KA by Cirque du Soleil. I'm gonna see what kinda show I could make if I had a budget of squillions and a whole casino to play in!

Then it's off to see another mate Patricia Murphy in Los Angeles.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Writing the Circus on Fire Mountain

Have just crawled back to Melbourne through the worst bushfires in history. Nearly 200 people are dead. Whole historic towns are razed. Forests gone.

A shattering end to an amazing week spent at the top of Mt Hotham, Victoria's highest mountain, and major snow scene - when it's snowing.

But here, in the middle of summer it is alpine meadows, green bush, and silvered trees. Swathes of mountains with dead trees from the last bushfires a few years ago.

I was participating in the Narrative Network writing retreat, with Boston professor, Cathy Riessman - fondly known as the 'grandmother of narrative research'.

Organised by Ruth Ballardie, who convenes the Narrative Network of Australia, the retreat was a fantastic 5 days of writing, laughing, walking, talking, reading and eating with women from as far afield as flooding north Queensland, and Chile. Then the fires broke out.... we watched from a distance. By Sunday morning the mountians were covered in smoke, and driving down the winding roads was eerie and worrying. Then through the smoke from the Myrtleford fires. Then through the smoke from the Kilmore fires. We all got home safely. We fared better than many..

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Circus Diaries Goes to Kalgoorlie

I presented a paper at the Cultural Studies Association of Australia conference, in the big dusty bowl of Kalgoorlie. I haven't been here since 1978, and my... it's changed! It's much more civilised, but still deeply fascinating. I watched the annual parade, featuring lolly throwing miners, belly dancing miners' wives, Scotty bands, bmx bandits (also throwing lollies) and the hugest bloody mining trucks you've ever seen. Two or three stories high, trying to maneouvre down the main street, past the light poles, and around the roundabouts. Thrilling. And I have an idea for my next research project.... Nearly got blinded by a flying lolly that felt like a rock when it hit my eyebrow. Big lump for two days. Who says sugar won't hurt you?

Here's an excerpt from my paper, delivered just before I skived off to tour the Questa Casa brothel - one of the last three brothels in town. Kalgoorlie used to be famous for its hard drinking and hard... well you know.. culture. Bureaucracy is closing this town down as much as it is circuses it seems...

Belonging and Survival: the future of family circuses in Australia.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a circus that came to town. Now it doesn’t. Not so much. It’s too far. The travel is too expensive. The council might ban the circus if it has dogs or ponies. Kids are too busy gaming on the web. Communities are isolated by online networking. Sharing time under a bigtop with family and friends, marvelling at the skill of artists who train for thirty years or more to entertain their audiences, pales when compared with the cybernetically enhanced feats of Lara Croft.

The odds are mounting against traditional circuses in Australia. Circus fortunes mirror those of the communities through which they travel, and in which they perform, and like the broader community they are facing numerous financial and environmental challenges. However, they are also facing other challenges unique to circus culture. Drought is driving up the price of animal feed, and affecting rural audiences’ ability to afford tickets. Rising fuel prices are making long haul travel less feasible. Urban, regional and industrial development is swallowing up traditional sites, leaving circuses to put up their big tops on marginal lands further and further from their audience base. High-density residential developments are causing conflict with residents over issues of noise, privacy and perceived animal smells.

Changing attitudes in some areas towards performing animals is creating conflict, and occasionally the banning of circuses in council areas, restricting access to audiences, and creating vast areas through which they must travel without earning income. Competition for the entertainment dollar is contributing to dwindling audience numbers. Spiralling insurance costs and conflicting federal, state and council regulations are creating an expensive bureaucratic maze out of which some circuses cannot find their way.

All these changes and attitudes take their toll on this unique culture. Three of Australia’s largest and most popular traditional circuses closed during the past ten years. Can those remaining survive into the future? Should they survive? And if so, how?

Traditional circuses are perhaps the oldest, non-indigenous, mobile community in Australia. However the term ‘mobile community’ is a contemporary concept, and traditional circuses is more aptly described as a nomadic culture – not the aimlessly wandering tribes of anthropological fancy, or the disturbingly unsettled of medical discourse, but a deep culture with history, traditions, genealogy and identity framed by constant and necessary movement. There is much we can learn about community from this extraordinary culture, and much it can offer in the debate about ‘belonging’ – a concept too often argued in terms of ‘place’............
Thanks to Julia Horncastle for making everyone's time in Kalgoorlie so fabulous, and to the CSAA for proving that culture is also rich outside our cities..

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jonaas comes to Melbourne University

Back at Melbourne Uni I presented a piece about the marvelous and enigmatic Jonaas Zalinskas - Lithuanian circus strongman and dental trapeze artist.

The conference, called Identity and Its Discontents featured Ghassan Hage and Tony Birch discussing Palestinian / Israeli, and Aboriginal identities.

I presented a piece based on a series of photos I took of Jonaas at his caravan on a property in northern New South Wales. The photos focused on Jonaas's art works made from thousands of keys and cupie dolls. I asked questions about the disjuncture between his performed identity as the circus strongman, still to the fore even at the age of 90 or so, and his private, unknown but glimpsed identity as an elderly man living without his circus, in a caravan with no amenities.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Circus Diaries in London

I brought the Australian circus to London, presenting a paper for the British Australian Studies Association conference at Royal Holloway University. Here's a snippet of my paper, about the challenges facing traditional circuses in Australia:

Traditional circus in Australia: Survival in a Strange land

"There’s no bloody travelling circuses now! They’re all hangin' round the cities! They’re all scared to have animals! Which I don’t friggin' blame 'em! With all the bullshit and the rules and that!!"
Lindsay Perry, ex-Sole Bros Circus

In the past 20 years contemporary circus and sideshow have become areas of burgeoning audience interest in the west. Over this same period traditional circuses in Australia have faced greater changes and challenges than ever before, and are finding survival a risky business.

Since the early 1990s, three of Australia’s longest running and most popular circuses – Ashton’s, Sole’s and Alberto’s – have closed. Operating without the benefit of government or philanthropic support, and without development or production budgets, traditional circuses eek an existence playing out an historic role whilst searching for a modern identity. Whilst contemporary circus artists perform a cultural fantasy of circus freaks and misfits, traditional circus families perform conservative identities, fighting the continuing social misconception that traditional circus people are criminals, vagrants and women of loose morals.

In entering the big top of a traditional Australian circus today, one witnesses a spectacle that has not changed dramatically from a hundred years ago - a string of acts performed in a small arena, linked by a ringmaster or ring-mistress, with acts highlighting physical or animal skill. Many circuses still travel from town to town or site to site following routes laid down by great, great grandfathers. They still erect ‘big tops’ and depend on ‘bums on seats’ to ‘make a buck’. The circus is still the same beast it has always been, performing its moves with strict ritual, discipline and routine.

However, traditional circuses are far more than just their show. They are a complex nomadic culture, embodying deep traditions handed down through many generations. And like many nomadic groups across the world, they are facing major challenges to their ongoing culture. In this paper I examine some of the changes affecting this unique community...............

Oh and there were some lovely photos - but not on my camera. Other people were presenting their research on areas of Australian popular culture, including circus academic, Peta Tait.