What is circus for me? I have no clue. I never ask myself this question. I don’t find it particularly interesting. Or I find the conversation we’re having here interesting, but it’s not something that I spend my days thinking about.

When I grew up I always said I hated circus, until at one point I ended up juggling. I didn’t make the connection to circus at all. Juggling was juggling and then there was circus; they were really separate things.

And so I feel that I do circus almost as a default: I just happen to fit into that term. I just happen to keep making work, keep practicing my discipline, and I keep fitting into this bubble of circus – so it’s somewhere I ended up rather than a position I looked for.

What I find really interesting about circus in its pure form, compared to dance or theatre, is that you don’t need to pretend anything. When you do circus you’re doing clear actions. If I do five balls I’m doing five balls; I don’t need to add anything on top of it for it to be expressive.

I started to get really disturbed by the circus narrative. I used to use this example of a person who comes on stage dressed as a postman: they have their little postbag, and at one moment they take out a letter, but actually it’s a juggling ball, so they start juggling and then at the end they put it back in, and they’ve done their job. The whole function of the narrative was to find a reason for the person to juggle, but actually what they wanted to do was to juggle in the first place. So I feel a lot of circus artists search for this excuse or for something to justify them being there, but actually what they want to do is to show all the hours and all the hair pulled and all the sweat and tears, all that work, and to make something expressive, to create something themselves.

I’ve had a few interesting experiences creating with circus; one was the realisation of why I was doing it in the first place. I realised that I did circus so people could see me. Before I started juggling I had no real special skills: I wasn’t really good at sport, I wasn’t interested in studying. But once I found circus suddenly people saw me, and that kind of fed me somehow. It gave me something to stand on, let’s say.

At one point I was creating this show called Fragments of a Mind, and it was supposed to be about a man living inside his own head. So I created it by making a square room, and I just had this guy in this room with one song and his balls, and the idea is he’s there for a really, really, really long time. And I started making it and at some point realised that I’d never spent more than 20 minutes in that room before I have to get out, and so how could I understand the character’s experience.

And so I created a little experiment where I locked myself in the studio for 24 hours, in my square room, and tried to improvise for 24 hours straight, listening to this one song on repeat. What I wanted to do was set up a camera and a livestream; then maybe there’d be someone watching, maybe no one, but I wouldn’t know. In the end the livestream didn’t work out, but we decided, Fuck it, we’ll just put a camera in there anyway, and I’ll lock myself in that room and come back in a day with a shovel and scrape me out.

After a few hours I realised that it didn’t make any sense to do most of my routine: no one was watching me, so who was I doing it for? The whole thing broke down. It was better to just organise the balls on the floor than stress myself out trying to do my most elaborate routine, my most beautiful routine, because why would I do it in this situation? And then I realised I do it to get this feedback from the audience. It totally jolted me and made me ask myself why I was doing this, and how my narrative could really support my discipline rather than just be there as an excuse for me to show off all my great tricks.

That was a very humbling moment. I got rid of 90% of my material and stripped it down to the really simple stuff. The whole experience was really enlightening.

Another interesting experience I had was when I started to ask myself how I knew I liked a performance. Going to shows, I started to sit there and to try to just listen to myself, listen to my body, and listen to my mind. After a while I realised that when I reacted to things that was an indicator – not of like or not like – but of engagement. After that I started to say, Well, what if I create shows where I just try to make people react to them?

I got an artistic residency in Denmark where I had ten days, and they supplied everything I needed to conduct an experiment. So I got two different audience groups coming every day and watching my material.

After the first five days I realised that I was really trying to please these people – I wanted them to have a good time, and I wanted them to laugh and experience it in the best way rather than actually find out real information about what I was doing. And so for the second half of this residency we completely broke it down and started just showing one moment and asking people, OK, how did you react to this one moment?

And then we’d twist something a little and change one moment slightly, and ask them again how they reacted. So instead of trying to put on a story or performance we just wanted to know how our systems were working and how the audience reacted to them.

And then once I had these tools I could create whatever I wanted within this frame. It was kind of a search for real knowledge about what I’m doing. By reducing it and really refining it – looking at how an audience reacts to a single moment – I started to get what I thought was real knowledge, and then my toolbox started to grow and I could apply this understanding wherever I wanted.


Darragh McLoughlin is an artistic director of Squarehead Productions. The above is an edited transcript of the presentation he gave at the First Encounter at KASK in Ghent.