When Penny Lowther advertised a meeting in Nov of 2000, to see if there was any interest in starting an older women’s circus in Wollongong. I was about to turn 40 and my mother had just died but the pull to run away with the circus was as strong as ever. We believed that we could do it without really understanding what was involved. None of us had circus experience. All we knew at that first meeting was that there was interest out there in the community for a women’s circus—our first gig was tentatively booked, young women were going to be part of it and we would work out the rest.
In the early years, we relied heavily on Circus Monoxide for space, trainers and equipment. This worked well for both groups. It gave Monoxide performers a steady income to add to their touring and performance expenses, while WOW benefited enormously from their expertise, shared equipment, space and exposure to circus culture. I was impressed by the gender equality and respect for the diversity amongst the performers. Everyone seemed to have a place if they were willing to work hard at their craft, and pull their weight in all aspects of circus life and performing.
Early on I struggled to find a character I wanted to portray. I was a reluctant Bathing Belle, discovering that a life of sensible shoes did not lend my feet to perfectly pointed toes and my 40 year old body did not bend as easily as it once had. Still, I tried everything, I enjoyed the skill of object manipulation, the spectacle of fire twirling, the height of stilts and the strength of women’s bodies in acro-balance. But it was clowning that terrified me. Growing up with 5 brothers, I had missed out on playing with dolls and dress ups. From my intense fear in Angela De Castro’s clowning intensive when told to go out there and be funny, to the absolute delight of Drew Fairley’s Soiree workshops, I gradually learnt to relax, play and enjoy the drama games. But I had still not found a character that fitted well with who I was or what it was that I wanted to say.
My first “Aha!” moment was as a creep performing with Drew Fairley at the Vault Cabaret. I could relate to the outsider role. Clowning gradually took over from the more physical classes and this suited my ageing body. Combining the personal, political, social and environmental aspects of women’s stories felt right. Whether as a protesting chook past her egg-laying years or a fish struggling to survive in the depleted Murray-Darling river system, these were important and relevant stories I could tell. I felt at home performing for International Women’s Day as a suffragette, telling my mother’s story as a washer woman and enjoying the focus and power of being a Ring Mistress Mime.
Circus WOW has gone through many changes since that first meeting at Fireworks café in Austinmer, a dozen hopefuls deciding to start a women’s circus in Wollongong. WOW has moved on from those heady first years, performing at IPAC and Diving for Girls, regular stints at Viva la Gong, the Bubbles Ball and the Illawarra Folk Festival amongst others. My hobby has lasted 20 years. Circus WOW has taught me how to play and have fun. Dressing up in everything from a chicken, Amelia Earhart, a Forest Faerie and Ring Mistress was great fun. These days I content myself with clowning, my greatest fear has become a great joy. Through WOW, I have met amazing and inspiring women—performers, trainers and members with many becoming friends.
Those who took on voluntary roles on the WOW committee were often overworked and underappreciated. WOW often skated close to the edge of unsustainability. Without the generosity and expertise of volunteer committee members, trainers, members, family, friends, and the Illawarra community, Circus WOW would not have survived. As we head towards 20 years of joy, discovery, pain and struggle, WOW can rightly look back proudly on the many performances, shows and celebrations of women really doing it for themselves.