Vicki Amedume has worked in circus for more than 20 years and is the founder of Upswing, a circus company based at Rich Mix in East London, in addition to this she has recently been working on Peter Pan in Scarlet (New Vic / Oxford Playhouse) as the Aerial Director. Female Arts’ Amie Taylor interviewed her to find out a little more about her work, women in circus and the current production.
AT: Morning Vicki, thanks for speaking to Female Arts today. It would be great if we could start with you telling us a little about yourself and how you came to specialise in aerial work…
VA: I got in to circus in my 20s, I was studying pharmacology at University, following a year of engineering, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, then I started doing circus recreationally, and fell in love with it. When I graduated, rather than going on and doing a Phd, as had always been my plan; I wanted to work in science, my ambition was to win a Nobel Prize, instead, I ran away with the circus.
AT: Amazing, so who did you train with?
VA: I trained with a company called Exponential, who were based in Leeds and they were an all women circus company, radical feminist, really exciting. I toured with them over a summer. I’d only been training for about six months, which isn’t very long in the circus world, but while on tour with them I learnt how to put up the rig and hand the equipment; it was really old school, everybody mucked in.
AT: Which brings me on to my next question, at Female Arts we know there are various problems and barriers for women working in theatre, but I’m wondering if there’s the same kind of gender disparity in circus, or if it’s a bit different?
VA: Well it’s really interesting. When I first started circus in the UK, it was a really marginal art form, and we know when things are on the edge, people who don’t fit in to boxes congregate, so circus was very liberal, left wing, full of people that didn’t want to live traditional lives. But over the past 20 years it’s become much more popular, much more recognised, which is fantastic, but I think that changes the heart of the art form - it’s more commercial, there’s more money involved etc and that shifts the way the industry works. When I first started there were lots and lots of female led companies, like Exponential and Skinning the Cat, it was very female dominated, I think this was because aerial was the predominant form and it tended to be female performers that then got more established and set up their companies, making a similar journey to my own. I think now the industry has become more professionalised, we see a lot of the big shows that are touring internationally tending to be quite male dominated. I think that will change, I think it will rebalance. There are still a lot of really strong females in the industry producing, directing and running companies.
AT: It is interesting those things we see happening when work is pushed on to that commercial plain. It’s the same in theatre, across the fringe we see lots of women doing incredible things, then you look to the bigger houses and they’re not there in quite the same way, it’s frustrating. Moving on, you now have your own company called Upswing, tell us a little bit about your company, your manifesto and what you do…
VA: So I started Upswing about 10 years ago. I’d been a performer for about 10 years by then, and had got to the stage where I had my own ideas and wanted to explore different areas of the practise that I was getting to in the commercial work I was doing a the time. I think as well, at the time, I was probably, at that time, one of two black women working in the industry at the time. We got together, and though we didn’t talk about it a lot, I think we both had the sense that we wanted to take control of our own identities. There wasn’t a lot of work at that time that we felt connected with, or that we felt connected with us culturally, we’d both grown up in London in multi-cultural areas, and the work at that time still had a very strong European aesthetic, and it didn’t say anything to us.
AT: Do you feel that that’s something that’s changing now?
VA: I think it is something that’s changing, especially with the commercialisation of circus, it’s beginning to realise that popular culture is a great place to connect with. If you want to create a big show and make lots of money, you need to connect to what’s popular. Which I think is great, because as much as I see circus as a powerful, creative vehicle to express myself and explore ideas, but at the heart of it, it started out as a populist form of entertainment, and I’d be really upset if circus became really high-brow and disconnected itself from its roots.
AT: You’re currently the aerial director of Peter Pan in Scarlet, which is touring at the moment. How has the journey been so far?
VE: It’s been a really exciting journey, this is the first time anyone has ever tried to stage Peter Pan in Scarlet and if you’ve ever read the novel, it’s a difficult book - it travels to all of these different places in the blink of an eye. It would make an excellent movie, but theatrically it’s more of a challenge, we’ve had to find a way of putting it on its feet which keeps the magic but also translates to theatre. The director Theresa Heskins, has done an amazing job of turning the book in to a script that’s bought to life primarily by the actors, they make everything live, it’s really exciting to work in that way, and coming from a circus background I’m quite a control freak [they laugh] so what we’ve done is given the actors a tool kit of things to allow them to, under Theresa’s guidance, create this world. Then I’ve been designing the aerial to add the magic - the flight scenes to Neverland had to be aerial sequences. And the aerial work is a language that lives within the show and we’ve worked very hard to make it part of the narrative and not set pieces.
AT: Thank you so much for talking today, it sounds like it’s going to be a fabulous show.
Peter Pan in Scarlet is at the New Vic until 8th Aug 2016
It is then at The Oxford Playhouse from 12th August - 4th September
You can follow Vicki’s company on Twitter: @VickiatUpswing
Interview © @AmieAmieTay