Circus – where it all began.

When going to a traditional circus in a big top, or seeing more contemporary circus acts at a festival or theatre, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the concept of ‘circus’ performance, in some form, didn’t exist! 

But like all good things, they had to start somewhere! 

acrobats-78047_1920So where did the concept of circus performance all begin?

It began, way back in the 1700’s with a man called Philip Astley. In 1788 the concept of courtiers had dwindled and the birth of theatre was well underway.

Theatres were cropping up left right and centre, but for Philip Astely, he wanted more than traditional theatre, and took his love of horses and broke out of the theatre walls by combining his horsemanship, and desire for something new, to begin a movement which would grow and develop into what we now today as ‘The Circus’

In 1768 he roped off a circle and displayed his skills on horseback, performing tricks and wowing the crowds who gathered. He established a successful art form in a relatively short period of time.

Imagine the scene, it’s the mid 1700s the industrial revolution isn’t even on the horizon and one man and his horse stand, in a roped off circle shouting ‘Roll up and witness the most incredible, the most outstanding, the most unbelievable ….’

And as they say, the rest is history!

sergio-souza-x7-YccVlYQQ-unsplashSo what happened next? 

As the novelty of just watching tricks on horse back wore off, Astley then begun hiring tightrope walkers, jugglers and clowns to fill the gaps in between the trick riding on horses – and thus the circus format as we know it was born.

His new format for ‘theatre’ which had evolved into circus was met with pleasure and delight as people were hungry for new art forms, these shows became accessible to anyone who could get to the circus ring, meaning you didn’t have to be rich to experience the circus.

As the popularity of the circus grew, the role of the ring master developed, becoming a focal point of the circus experience.

Just as we see today with modern technology – it develops and changes with the demands of those who consume it, so did the art of circus in the 19th century.

Circus became popular with all sectors of society, and as new acts were dreamed up and tested out, if the audience response was good – a new act was added to the wonderful variety you see in the big top today! 

A few fun circus facts! Strictly Dumb Prancing at Wimbourne

  • The invention of the circus tent made travelling circus far easier. 
  • Philip Astley performed in a structure called The Royal Tent at Liverpool as early as 1788 but auctioned off the materials at the end of the season. He then performed on subsequent visits to Liverpool at the Theatre Royal.
  • In 1927 the soviet government opened a ‘state college for circus and variety acts’, during this time choreographers and gymnastic acts were introduced – creating a new type of circus performance. These developments informed the progression of what we now see in more contemporary circus acts.
  • Until the 1980’s travelling circus’ still had animals as part of their performance, it wasn’t until some councils across the Uk begun to ban such acts, that the landscape of animals involved in circus changed.

Further reading. 

Short History of the Circus. 

Teaching resources for circus topic.

If you would like to talk to us more about how we can bring a circus workshop to your school, do contact us.

We can bring the circus topic to life, or introduce it as part of sports week, writing week or a healthy eating day, we have plenty of experience integrating a workshop into curriculum planning.

For ideas as to how it may fit in, this blog may be of interest.