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Send in the Clowns

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As the joke goes, I ran away from the circus. My family own and run a travelling circus, something I was born into and grew up in. Summers were spent travelling around Ireland in a caravan, hanging out with acrobats and elephants. But as the nerd of the family, I loved school, was the first to go to college and eventually landed a job as a journalist. Most of the family is still in the circus business though, and the older I get the more I realise how influential growing up on a circus has been.
Here are five things show business has taught me about living a non-show business life…

1. The show does indeed go on

I pride myself on being relatively calm under pressure. At the best of times, I kind of love it. This definitely comes from the amazing “the show must go on” mentality that is hard-wired into every circus person. It doesn’t matter what catastrophe has befallen us, no matter what, come rain or shine, there absolutely will be a performance at 5pm.
I’ve been roped into clown acts and dance routines, stood in a metal ball while motorbikes whizzed around my head and made dozens of bags of candy floss at record speeds, all due to some last minute panic. When it’s crunch time, everybody works as one. The circus is one big family – literally for me, as my uncles, aunts, cousins are all in the business – and figuratively for all the artists who spend the year with us. To make it work, collaboration is key. There are always tricky personalities and reality TV show-worthy drama, but no one wants to see an excited four-year old turned away, so no one panics or freaks out. Deep down, they know with an eerie certainty that there will be a performance. There’s something incredibly reassuring about knowing that, no matter what, things will continue. No one is irreplaceable, nothing is unfixable, and the show goes on.

2. Nothing is as glamorous as it seems ever

It takes a hell of a lot of practice, rope burns, bruises, sweat and tears to fly though the air with the greatest of ease. That beautiful trapeze artist (in our case, my aunt) trains for hours a day, and has the bruises to prove it. As soon as the show is over, she changes out of her gorgeous sparkly costume and throws on some wellies and a big coat and is out there wrapping up her gear. In a way, it’s kind of like magazine journalism – it’s seen as glamorous and fun, and though it’s both of those things, there’s a lot schlepping going on behind the scenes.
I remember the dancers transforming before my eyes, arriving backstage wearing clogs, dressing gowns and shower caps to protect their hair and costumes, removing all their mud-splattered layers to reveal the colourful glittering outfit below. Behind the scenes it’s frantic: Jugglers rehearsing, ponies making their way in and out, artists testing gear and clowns testing gags. I loved watching the show – in a year I’d watch the same performances hundreds of times – but I also loved the buzz and banter backstage, of getting everything ready and prepped. Holes in fishnet tights are manically sewn up at break-neck speed, hairpieces are whipped on and off, cannon man helmets are lost and found, and a dance routine can be finalised seconds before the curtain is pulled back. It can be both nerve-wracking and exhilarating.
This is so much like magazine-making. Like ducks on a pond, my favourite mags arrive with seemingly effortless regularity every month, filled with gorgeous and inspiring content. But backstage – or in production – there were challenging shoots, late night sub-editing sessions, frantic problem-solving and a lot of tea.

3. Attention to detail matters

The beautiful, sparkling, sequin-encrusted circus costumes took my mum hours and hours to make. She would measure each dancer, draw out every design and stay up until the wee hours sewing each stone on by hand. Headpieces were made from scratch, and each dancer had a personalised costume in co-ordinating colours.

The results ware incredible – the leotards glisten, glean and catch all the light, giving each performer a touch of magic. But mum’s hard work and single-minded dedication left an indelible impression. Every time I see someone making something beautiful, I can’t help but wonder about the hard work that went into creating it. It’s part of the reason I love photography, and why I adore working on Image Interiors & Living and meeting other craftspeople who, like my mum, pour so much love and passion into everything they make.

4. Double-jobbing is key

In the circus, nothing, and no one, is what they seem. The juggler in the first half is the clown in the second. My mum would don her top hat and coat tails for her role as ring mistress, and then switch to a t-shirt to sell popcorn and candy floss at the shop during the interval. The show is a small, compact operation so everyone has to get stuck in and do as much as they can. You could go from showing people to their seats to spinning hula-hoops to selling light-up souvenirs or walking the high wire, all in the space of an hour. It was liberating to know that you could chop and change so freely, hectic as it was. Circus life never stands still, so people are always up-skilling, learning new acts, updating their routine, refining their craft. It taught me not to be afraid to try new things, that there was value in being versatile, and that you can learn something new whenever you want, you just need to be prepared to put the time in.  

5. Home is anywhere

People would often look at me curiously when I said I was going “home” for Christmas or the holidays, as home was wherever the circus, and my mum, happened to be. It could be Blanchardstown one week and Tralee the next. I got to know the ins and outs of Irish Rail and Bus Eireann very well as I crisscrossed the country to get to the show. But more than anything, I learned that you can create a home anywhere. A few comforts, warmth, and some personal touches – my mum loved pictures, even though she had to painstakingly pack them away every time we travelled – meant that we could be at home at the side of a road or in the middle of a field. I think it explains why I love to nest so, so much, and, of course, why I love working on such an awesome interiors magazine.

By Nathalie Marquez Courtney

@nathaliemc 

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