At the British Juggling Convention in Perth Scotland last year I had the great pleasure of meeting Peter Duncan. His story is a great example of how Juggling and Circus can be incredible tools for helping communities and the members in them.
Hi Peter could you tell us shout the work you’ve been doing in the last years as a circus trainer and now a circus trainer of trainers?
-“I’m Peter Duncan and I’m the outreach worker for Circus Eruption. More than 20 years ago we were looking at play and the importance of play in children’s lives. I think if play is missing it’s a real problem for young people and the community. In Wales we have a project called “First Claim” and it says that children have the first claim on a society’s resources and children’s first claim is always to play and if people don’t play it’s a real deprivation to them and the community. In the summer there was lots of play provision and for children labelled “disabled” there was play provision too but in the winter there was nothing. Several of us from a social work course set up a circus, because we thought it’d be a very good vehicle for integration.
So that’s been going on for more than twenty years and it’s called Circus Eruption and it gives children confidence and competence and then they are more motivated to learn. They see themselves not as disabled but able and they put on shows and carnivals and teach others so it’s proved a great idea. There is now a big social circus movement in Europe, as people probably know, so we use circus for lots of different settings.
We were given some money from a charity called Children in Need so we’re working with refugees and asylum seekers to teach circus language and using the money for that. We were working with trauma bereaved children, to look at being happy and feeling confident after some traumatic incidents. We’re working with young people that like to commit offenses. Looking at things that give you an adrenaline rush when taking risks and how you can do that in managed risks and risk benefit analysis rather than nicking cars and crashing them and being chased by the police. So lots of people are looking at circus in very different ways. I think it is a great vehicle for all kinds of things.
In Wales they passed a policy in 2013 on physical literacy that learning to move is as important as learning to read and write. So lots of us approached the government and said that if this is true then getting children to move is critical. They don’t all do sports so getting children to play, and play with their bodies and learn movement and body management and locomotion and learning to play and enjoy being in their bodies, would set a lifelong trend and it seemed unlikely to be in competitive sports like rugby here in Wales. So we were looking at circus so we have pilot schemes that are training Physical Education teachers, who already know about body mechanics and physicality, and teaching them enough circus skills so they can integrate circus into the school curriculum. It’s been very successful and they are now training students to do that so I’m very interested in how you get circus professionals and elite circus performers to be good at training and breaking down their art to engage people. How you get teachers with their teaching skills to use circus to engage people in physical literacy and the uses of circus in social settings. If there’s a problem, drugs or health or obesity or lack of confidence or children not feeling resilient and able to move skills, whether you could design circus programs to suit that. We’ve had 4 years, so I’ve done 40 different circus projects.
Play is obviously an important part of this work as you mentioned the rights of children to play and what about teenagers and youth that have a hard time being able to more and play. What is your approach with working with these children?
I have a whole range of approaches. One is to just be a bit weird, a bit of weirdness is really good and they come over to find out what you are doing. So I do some tricks with corks, some dexterity tricks, some balancing plastic bags and I do some things that are really strange and they would come over and engage. They like playing, once you get past the front and the hardness and the kind of social stuff, particularly for boys with taking risks and being seen as the one that had a go.
What is cool? It’s cool to be stupid in school. So getting people to play you need to open them up and play is intrinsically self-motivated, no goals. So you play not to pass an exam just to play. So just getting people into a space that’s very playful, where they can try stuff out, is really good.
The PE teachers said if you were learning rugby and you had a hundred kicks at the goal to score a conversion you would get bored – especially if it’s raining. However a hundred goes at spinning a plate and nearly getting it, and a group of ten people where everyone is nearly getting it, and then encouraging each other you can create a space where it’s OK to play. So I tend to use some easy wins like feather balancing, plate spinning, juggling with scarves, and then offer some challenges especially for teenagers – unicycling, rolabola, stilt walking, human pyramids. Once you have done these you then engage them in some more challenging things.
And then say YES. Can we do this? Yes. Can we do this on our scooters? Yes. Can I have a go at that. Yeah you can. Can we do that on fire. Yes we can sort that out. So giving them some yes’s so they can explore stuff, even if they can’t do it, they’ve had a look at it and had a go and they can see themselves as able and they see themselves as actors in their own lives as opposed to passive recipients. Actors able to make changes for themselves, for their bodies, with their education and in their community.
Circus becomes an excuse to work on many different themes.
It is. And I think play is really important and I do lots of work on play. I only work on circus 2 days a week. Three days a week I’m a Children’s Rights worker giving children a voice and democracy in schools and citizenship and participation and inclusion. So I see circus not only as a vehicle both internally, for people’s bodies and mechanics and health, but also for their emotional and mental well-being. Also, within the community, seeing yourself as someone who is able. I couldn’t do that beforehand – now I’m able to do it. WE put on a show, WE taught others. Maybe we did make some other changes as well. So I see it as an agent of change and, as I’m not completely familiar with all the areas I work in, I work with other professionals – drugs workers, health workers, mental health workers, housing officers. I work with them to design projects to suit their needs and then they take it forward for transferability of attitudes and skills.
Is there a particular group of children and youths that find circus especially useful?
NIEETS. In the UK – Not In Education, Employment or Training. So all young people that don’t have anything tend to be very disengaged, they are out of their benefit system, they tend to sofa surf. You’ve got sixteen or seventeen year olds at home with no money and they get on people’s nerves, and they sofa surf. So they’re young people who have very challenging views and feel that education’s not for them. They are very fragile learners and easily give up. Once you get them in it, and enjoying it, they really really get into it and very quickly learn skills and they can see it as a potential way of earning money and certainly as a way of enjoying themselves and impressing their peers.
Could they be motivated to do any sort of work afterwards?
We recently worked in a place called The Foyer, which is where they house young people. It’s sets of blocks of flats around an atrium, a central courtyard and we were deliberately playing in the courtyard to make lots of noise. Young people were waking up and looking out of their flats at us and then they came down and started to play with the circus kit – then they were walking on stilts. We were working with the education workers, talking about how they didn’t get much out of school. Actually these young people came down three days in a now and played at the circus and we got them into life skills and independence and learning to become more independent. We also got them into some more vocational training and it came out of just being a noisy circus at the bottom of your flats – coming out to see what was going on then having a laugh and then starting to progress from that to reflecting on learning and challenging yourself Being determined and building on your successes and what you needed to be independent – maybe I should enrol in some life skills courses – maybe I need to start looking at some employment – maybe I should start engaging on some vocational courses. So we moved them from being in bed a lot to actively looking at vocational courses. Took about ten weeks.
So it’s not just a great project written on a piece of paper, you really have a good way of getting hold of the people that need it the most.
One of the things that we do at the end of a set is to reflect with the participants, and others around who are important to them, about what’s happened. So for example in a primary school of ten and eleven year olds we did ten weeks and they learned loads of skills and then friends and family and neighbours came and saw the show. When the show finished all the participants stood behind the
stage and wrote down all the things they learned that weren’t circus and the audiences gave a one-word description of the show – AMAZING, AWESOME, INSPIRING, ENTHUSING, INCREDIBLE… and the young people came back and said we learned to work in a team, to be determined to learn from our mistakes, to take small steps, to keep trying. They had about a dozen skills and when they stopped we said that they were really good and pleased that they had learned them in the circus BUT they would be really good for carrying on in the school. The head teacher of the school said these skills – being determined, to keep trying, learning from your mistakes, having a positive attitude – would be really good for when they moved to the secondary school. One of the parents stood up and said that they were really good skills to have in your life. So we very explicitly look at what is transferable from the circus into other areas of people’s lives.
Do you have any anything else you’d like to share?
We work with CRUISE which is a trauma bereavement charity in the UK and we work with their counsellors. Young people that have lost a parent are very sad and everyone at home is very sad and there is a lot of legal and financial and traumatic things going on as well. The children have a difficult time at home and often also at school. They kind of don’t think they should be happy any more because it’s disrespectful of the parent who has died. We worked with the counsellors to design a circus day. In the morning the young people came and we said have a go, try, help each other and be safe and have fun. After having done two hours of circus we stopped and sat in a circle and talked about that. the young people were OK with having a go and trying and being safe and looking after each other but when it came to having fun lots of them started crying because they felt disloyal to a dead parent. We worked with the counsellors to talk about that. Their surviving parent came at lunch time and in the afternoon the children taught their parents circus. We had a mother that lost her partner in a trauma and she had four children between six and twelve. She was really exhausted and felt that she couldn’t do this, she couldn’t play with her children. We went with a counsellor and had a cup of tea and said it’s really important that your children see you laughing and playing and she came in and all four of the children played with her and taught her circus skills and they took photos and they made a certificate and they worked with the councillor to say – “we’re really sorry that all this difficult stuff happened but actually your family needs to move forward and these photos and this day might be part of that”. You do have to deal with all the money and the
legal stuff but actually playing with your children and being and learning and laughing together is so critical to their healing and development and it was really a significant day for our circus. Anything else?
Yes. Say Yes. Can you do this? You go “Yes I can do that”. “I can run a workshop” and you get on the internet, you phone people, you network people and you have a go and occupy all the space. Circus is a really valuable tool for people. People need to spread it out and create opportunities, to play and learn circus.
Anthony and Peter at the British Juggling Convention in Perth Scotland 2016