Breathing life back into the circus

Living

IN HER ELEMENT Dea Birkett is happiest when she’s working with the circus.

Writer Dea Birkett on running away to the circus at 60 and her new post-Covid show

Interview
Anton McNulty

WHEN journalist and writer Dea Birkett turned 60 in 2018, she packed her bags to ran away to the circus.
“It was a big decision, as Kevin [her husband, Kevin Toolis] said, it was not a good pension plan,” the Surrey native laughed. “People said ‘That is crazy, it’s a time when you are not supposed to be running around; it’s when you settled down and retire’. I wanted to be the opposite. I ran away … again.”
For this was not the first time Dea had run away to join the circus. When she was in her late 20s, she joined a circus in Italy as an ‘elephant girl’. After a number of years, and after realising that the only older female in the ring was her elephant Julia who was 53, she decided to say goodbye to the circus.
She went onto become a very successful writer, journalist and broadcaster – but the lure of the big top remained strong in her heart.
“When I got older, I thought ‘Where was I the most happiest?’, and it was in the circus,” she told The Mayo News, speaking from her home on Achill Island.
“Like everyone, you have this dream in the back of your head that you would love to run away to the circus, and I never grew out of that dream. I always loved live performances, and every time the circus would come to the Sandybanks in Achill it was magical.
“I would look out my window and see them building up the big top. A piece of grass would be transformed into this magical world with lights and acrobats and jugglers and clowns. The circus comes and transforms a place into this wondrous world, and a few days later it’s gone, like a dream that never happened. I always loved that about the circus. I wanted to be part of that magical world.”

Lockdown inspiration
No longer an ‘elephant girl’, Dea has founded circus-production company Circus250, and now acts as ringmaster and creates and produces her own shows.
Despite its infancy, the circus company has been very successful. Its last show, ‘StrongWomen Science’ toured all over Ireland and the UK. It also had a two-week stint at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival in February 2020.
‘StrongWomen Science’ featured two former engineers-turned-circus-performers, Aoife Raleigh and Maria Corcoran, and combined the wonder of science with magical circus performances.
The show was cut short because of Covid-19. Like most people in the performing arts, Dea thought the show would be back on the road within a few months.
“When you look back we thought it would be temporary … but then there was the slow realisation that we were not going to be able to perform for quite some time. It has been an exhausting year for performers who haven’t been able to perform.”
That exhaustion has moulded the concept of her next show, ‘Breathe’ – a 30-minute, outdoor circus show with Aoife and Maria in the lead roles.
“It is a post-Covid show. We are all exhausted and worn out, and the show reflects on what we are feeling at the moment. We all need to have a recovery period to take a breath, to sit back and get our strength back up, so we can go into the world again.
“It also reflects what’s happening with the ecology in the world with climate change. The world is getting exhausted. We need to give it a rest and ourselves a rest so we can recover again and go on to do our own tricks in life whatever they might be.
“The two performers, Aoife and Maria, they start off doing their outstanding tricks, but do them more and more and more until they get absolutely exhausted and they cannot do them anymore. They are literally exhausted. But with the energy coming from the audience and from the earth, they will be able to do all their tricks again,” she explained.

Achill Circus festival
The show recently was the successful Mayo recipient of the Bank of Ireland ‘Begin Together’ arts fund and Dea is also delighted to announce that funding has also been secured from the Arts Council for the first-ever circus festival on Achill this summer called Circus Sorcas.
Dea describes her shows as ‘circus with purpose’ in that they have the traditional fun and excitement of the circus as well as added theatre and depth.
“We have been really lucky in a very difficult year to be able to create and develop two new and exciting things coming from the island. It is different from the traditional circus; there is no tent, it takes place outside. We have the circus elements but we have added a depth so it reflects people’s lives today – what people are happy about, what they are worried about and their concerns. There is dance and a lot of clowning about in it, but there is more theatre than in the tradition big top that turns up.”
An exact date for the outdoor festival has yet to be announced, due to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding restrictions, but the aim is to hold it in June, when the weather should allow them to perform the premier of ‘Breathe’, as well as ‘StrongWomen Science’ and some other shows.
Having not been able to perform to audiences for almost a year now, Dea says that she and the performers are itching to be back in front of a crowd.
“We live for an audience. The audience is our lifeblood. We need them. We were in the Theatre Royal in Waterford just before Christmas for a live streaming event. We put on ‘StrongWomen Science’ in a huge theatre with absolutely nobody in it. There is nothing like a live audience to give you energy and enthusiam and passion. Without them it is not the same.”