Sylvia - Roadmap to the Circus
What do you do for a living?
I am a circus artist. That would be the more general term, more specifically I am an aerialist, a trapeze artist ... and for the most specificity, a duo trapeze flyer. I also do contortion as my secondary discipline, which means you could also call me a contortionist. Also I make our costumes and work on commission for other artists, so I'm a costumer or a costume designer also. What does a day at your job look like?
This really depends on whether we're in the run of a show, or between contracts. During an extended run, a day at my job would be centered around one or two performances, (possibly three but not all that often.) For most shows we arrive at the theater two or three hours prior to show time. My first step is to do my show makeup which takes about half an hour. Then I start my warmup, which is one and a half to two hours of stretching and handstands. I want to finish this about 20-30 min before our act. Then I change into my costume, and prepare with my husband (also my trapeze partner). This is when we discuss what variations we want to do in the routine, and get ourselves in the right mental space to perform. This is also when we put rosin on, which is what we use to make our hands sticky for grip during the routine. Our actual act is about five and a half minutes long, but depending on the show we might also be doing opening, closing, a second act (a version of my contortion act for instance), assisting in other acts and cues, or maybe doing character work or group numbers throughout the show. The work that I do off contract or during a break includes training three to four times per week, making new costumes both for us and for other artists, and helping make trapeze bars or other similar equipment for ourselves and/or to sell to other artists or schools.
What path did you take to get here?
I started taking circus classes (in a recreational capacity) when I was eight years old. I kept taking these once-weekly classes for eight years, and had worked my way up into a youth performance ensemble. At 16, I left to take private contortion lessons with a coach in Skokie, IL. It was at this time that I met Sam, who is now my husband and partner, and we started training together to develop our trapeze act. After training together for two years we started booking our act for international circus festivals, which have a competitive element but, perhaps more importantly, function as trade shows for this industry. We competed in seven of these festivals, winning awards, building our network, and being seen by producers and agents who then started booking us for other contracts.
What are the challenges of your job?
Common to all gig based careers, I would say the lack of job security can definitely be a challenge, really highlighted this year with the pandemic shutting down all the shows. We usually book one to two years out, and maybe fill in gaps in a more short-term capacity, but this year really showed us that things we thought were certain can still change if we have a global disaster.
The other challenge I’d like to mention is that because we travel for a living we are away from family a lot, especially during holidays which tend to be our high season in Germany.
What are the blessings of your job?
We get to do what we love for a living! We get to spread joy to audiences around the world, and in doing so we get to travel to places we would otherwise never be able to visit. We get to work with artists from around the world and therefore make friends from around the world.
What 3 characteristics would someone have to possess or develop to do your job well?
I’m going to answer based on what I think it takes not specifically to do trapeze, but to be in the circus industry, which are:
Dedication, Creativity, and Adaptability
The ability to cope with constant changes of location and company, but also to find a path through a life where plans can change, and you can be asked to come up with solutions or make changes to what you are doing.
What 3 steps would you tell someone to take now to start on their journey to doing what you do?
This gets into one of the major barriers for entry into circus arts, which is that you can’t expect to start making money right away ... in fact you have to pour in a substantial amount of time and energy before you do. So maybe:
1. Start training now. Make sure you do this safely. Depending on your background when you’re starting you might want to look for group classes, or a private coach.
2. Once you have a good vocabulary of skills, start developing an act. I would say focus first on creating one act, as polished as you can make it (knowing of course that as you continue to develop you can always make changes.) We did this on our own, but many artists also choose to work with a coach, choreographer or director for this. At this point you’ll also be wanting to think about costuming your act and putting together some promotional materials. Get some good footage of your act (ideally in front of an audience although it might seem like a catch 22) or do a photo shoot with a professional photographer who has taken pictures of other similar types of artists before so they will understand lighting and shutter speed requirements.
3. Hopefully by this point you have been building a network of contacts in the industry (a coach, mentor, director, or choreographer should also help with this) so you can let those people know you are available. You might apply to festivals, where often having a reference helps a lot in getting in. Basically, you are looking for that first contract to get it all started.