Recently, I went to the circus for the first time. My parents never seemed to be very keen on the circus and my wife’s lingering memory of her one childhood visit was of mangy, ill treated tigers cowering in cages. However, when you’ve got three kids, it’s half term and Living Social are being generous- needs must!
Anyway, quite unexpectedly, I had a great time. Not only was it thoroughly entertaining, it was actually an instructive experience in artistic etiquette.
First off, I was taken aback by the level of skill on display. From the tired looking clown, whose feigned ineptitude enabled him to hoodwink 5 audience members into an absolutely brilliant piece of comic theatre halfway through (totally at their expense) to the Dynamite Riders trio who hurtled around a metal globe on their motorbikes at about a million miles an hour, these were exceptionally gifted performers who’d clearly given their lives to mastering their crafts.
But there was a joy and humility about the whole thing that was remarkable. My 7 year old was welcomed on the door by a friendly steward who turned out half an hour later to be a member of Trio Zetsimekov who were one of the main acts (doing this crazy thing with curtains, poise and an intimidating level of upper body strength). One half of Las Chicas Morales, the duo that kicked the show off by scaling and descending interlocking ramps while standing on enormous globes, painted the kids’ faces in the interval. Chico Rico, the clown, personally saw you out at the end.
Here was something truly unusual- extraordinary skill without any hint of celebrity or ego. And they were clearly having a whale of a time. The Bulgarian duo who performed all manner of gravity defying acrobatics upon ‘the wheel of death’ entered and exited beaming from ear to ear and gave every indication that they felt that it was a genuine privilege to be there. (To put this in perspective, the whole thing was in a tatty big top in a car park at Merry Hill Shopping Centre. All I can say, if you are not familiar with ‘Merry Hell’, is that this would not have been the most prestigious leg of the tour!)
It was remarkable, but I found it quite chastening too. I know that I’ve performed a number of gigs in quite the opposite manner. Perhaps the crowd was a little small, the sound system wasn’t quite up to scratch, the promoter was a bit unhelpful. For whatever reason, I know that at times I’ve performed with a grumpy functionality and have acted before and after my performance with an aloofness that demonstrated that I’d bought a very twisted view of the role of the artist. The artist as one who is there to be served. The main event. The one whose name is on the flyer. Who people have come to see. Paid to see. Someone incredibly special. What’s funny is that I’ve even felt this way sometimes when my name wasn’t on the flyer, there was no admittance fee and nobody had actually come to see me anyway!
Gandeys Circus troupe reminded me of something. The artist is essentially a servant. We have been gifted with talents and skills and hopefully we’ve put time and effort into nurturing these gifts but we are there to serve not to be served. This may involve providing entertainment, it may involve providing a challenge. In fact our service may be to make our audience feel decidedly uncomfortable, but we are there for them. Therefore, we should always do it with joy and humility.
The models in most of our fields will be demanding, self serving egotists and we must be under no illusions- they will affect us. As we follow Christ in our art, we must not then just concern ourselves with our content, but also with our manner. I want to serve audiences with at least the same level of joy and humility as Gandeys Circus.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.