Children often dream of running away to the circus. But that fantasy actually became a reality for Jessica Connell at the age of 14 when she joined the renowned Flying Fruit Fly Circus, one of the world’s leading performing arts companies for youth aged eight to 18. For Jessica, it wasn’t so much a case of running away (the circus is based in her hometown of Albury Wodonga) as finding her purpose – a purpose which she has been pursuing for the past 14 years in circus productions across Australia and around the world.
“I was a very creative child and with the aid of all of my siblings (there’s seven in my family), we were always making plays and dancing,” she said.
“And then when I was about 14, I was lucky that my family moved back to Albury-Wodonga, where the Flying Fruit Fly Circus is based.
“My dad knew about the circus already, he had played a large part in its creation 40 years ago, and he just saw in me that I kind of needed something like that … something that was creative, physical.
“The Flying Fruit Fly Circus is very professional, so I was very lucky that they took me on board. The training was full on from day one, I trained five days a week, and we’d go on tours for up to a month or two months, with our (school) teachers coming on the road.
“I was always energetic and creative and physical and looking for something. It gave me purpose, which is probably why I fell in love with it so quickly.
“And it gives you a sense of community that I still experience now in this troupe I’m working with. They’re your family as well as your work colleagues. You go through a lot together. So it’s very special, and I think even if I stopped in the next five, ten years, this world will always be a part of me, because of the community it creates.”
Aside from learning the ropes with the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, where she specialised in hula hoops and aerials, Jessica also completed a Diploma in circus arts at the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne.
In 2011, Jessica landed a full-time contract with Circa Contemporary Circus, a Brisbane-based performance company at the forefront of the new wave of contemporary Australian circus.
Circa itself was formed in 2004 and has toured the world with its ensemble of exceptional, multi-skilled circus artists, performing in 40 countries across six continents to over one million people.
For the then 19-year-old, it was a dream come true.
“I had seen Circa perform (over the years) and I just loved their work. They could express something that I didn’t fully understand and couldn’t communicate in words, but there was something special, for me, in what they did. There was a very human connection from the artists.
“I also loved the fact that they did a little bit of everything because, at that time in my training, that's how I was training. I was doing a little bit of everything and loving everything.
“So I think from a young age that company was something I aspired to and then I was lucky enough at 19 to get a full-time contract, and I have been there for almost nine years now.
“I love my job, and I feel so lucky to have it. I get to travel; I get to perform, I get to create. It's also quite demanding, and I don't think I could ever have imagined (as a 14-year-old) what it would actually entail, but ultimately I feel very lucky to be doing this.”
Performing with Circa has taken Jessica all over the world to places including London, Berlin and South America.
This month it will also see her travel to Newcastle, with Circa set to bring its critically acclaimed production, Peepshow, to the Civic Theatre for one special night of acrobatic entertainment on Friday, September 13.
Touted by one UK critic as “one of the most entertaining, unbelievable things you will ever see”, Peepshow takes audiences on a journey to “see the world from the other side of the mirror”.
Circa’s Peepshow literally turns cabaret on its head, with a seductive dance through the hall of mirrors that is your imagination as the show lurches from the thrillingly acrobatic to the comically playful.
Combining some of the finest acrobatic talents on the planet under the direction of circus visionary Yaron Lifschitz, Peepshow creates a playfully exhilarating ride into the beautifully bizarre recesses of your mind.
“This show was created about a year ago now by Circa, and it’s an ensemble,” Jessica said.
“We’re seven acrobats, and we created the show with Yaron Lifschitz and Olivia McDonald, our associate director.
“The idea behind the show was about being seen and seeing, and if you’re being watched, how does that affect what you wear, how you move, how you talk and how other people see you.
“The show was created in two parts. The first part is kind of, in our own way, almost a German cabaret, and then the second part we take it into a new world, almost like a nightclub. Most of the acts were made with this inspiration, with this idea behind them of these two halves and these two concepts.
“I think often our work is quite abstract. We don’t try to tell a story. Instead, we try to convey an idea, an emotion, and we let the audience perceive this idea and take what they want from it.”
The way the members of Circa’s ensemble cast convey those ideas is quite spectacular indeed, complete with teetering towers of balanced bodies, extreme bending and devilishly precarious aerials.
Jessica’s specialist hula-hooping skills make an appearance of course, with the ensemble coming together for both group manoeuvres and individual acts.
“We’re an ensemble of seven, and we work very heavily together, which is one of the things I love about both this show and this company,” she said.
“We work heavily in acrobatics together, so we all do a little bit of group acrobatics, whether that be building towers or pyramids, or doing an act we call ‘toss the girl’, which is a release acrobatic act.
“But then we also support one another. In our solo acts, we’ve worked very hard to integrate other people. For instance, I do hula hoops, but the whole ensemble is often on stage with me within my hula hoop act. Billie Wilson-Coffey also does tissue (aerial acrobatics), and the ensemble supports her in that act as well. And then there’s all sorts of things, cigar box juggling, aerial hoops, cord or rope. There’s a very large variety in this show.”
VARIETY AT CIVIC THEATRE
In the next few months alone there’s everything from classic Shakespearean theatre to a hilarious comedy roadshow, as well as a play about the scandalous and surreal life of Salvador Dali. Earlier in the year, the historic Newcastle theatre played host to a range of different genres and styles, from the sounds of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to the songs and stories of Australia’s indigenous peoples, as well the frighteningly funny and seriously silly Revolting Rhymes originally dreamed up by much-loved children’s author Roald Dahl.
In the forward to the official Season 2019 brochure, Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said this year’s program was designed “to entertain, challenge and inspire”.
“Season 2019 offers works to entertain, challenge and inspire you, with a compelling mixture of dance, drama, comedy, physical theatre, puppetry, cabaret and storytelling on offer,” she said in the program.
“The Newcastle community embraces and thrives upon the arts in all forms and Civic Theatre takes great pride and pleasure in providing audiences with access to high-quality travelling and local productions.”
Civic Theatre Manager Leonie Wallace said incorporating a wide mix of performances into the schedule each season ensured it would appeal to as many people as possible.
“The main objective of any season is to bring people of all ages, background and experiences together and to curate a season that is socially and culturally relevant.”
“In 2019, we’ve presented a varied and stimulating season, which has been very well received by both our subscribers and those who may be new to the Civic Theatre,” she said.
“In addition to the touring product, we have worked with local artists to showcase the best of homegrown talent, including Goori Dooki, a co-production with Ngarrama, and the return of the highly-acclaimed company, Stray Dogs, with its upcoming production of Dali, Hallucinogenic Toreador.”
With the official 2019 program preparing to draw to a close in November, Leonie has been working hard to finalise the line-up of performances for next year. While the details remain under wraps for now, Leonie said there would be plenty to look forward to when the program is revealed in coming months.
“We are so excited to be launching the 2020 season in November, but I’m afraid my lips are sealed. However, I can promise exciting times ahead for the theatre,” she said.
“As the City of Newcastle evolves into a global city, the Civic Theatre will be a focal point of culture, continuing to present, promote and produce a diversity of programs of the highest quality.”
Before then, however, audiences still have a number of opportunities to experience shows that typify the variety on offer each year at the Civic Theatre.
Following on from Circa’s Peepshow performance on September 13, the theatre will welcome the renowned Bell Shakespeare company to the stage when they present Much Ado About Nothing as part of their 2019 national tour.
“As Australia’s national theatre company, our commitment is to make our work available to all Australians, including those outside capital cities,” Bell Shakespeare’s Executive Director Gill Perkins said.
“Our national tour is one of the most important things we do in pursuit of this mission.”
The highly regarded theatre company was founded by Newcastle-born visionary John Bell in 1990, with the aim of producing the plays of William Shakespeare in a way that was relevant and exciting to Australian audiences.
For this year’s national tour, which kicked off in July, the company is exploring Shakespeare’s timeless comic gem Much Ado About Nothing.
The classic Shakespearean play is a saucy and razor-sharp battle of wits between the bickering Beatrice and Benedick who wield words as weapons, their banter betraying their love and loathing of each other.
However, Claudio is quickly seduced by envy, and this idyllic world threatens to come tumbling down as he humiliates Hero. Beatrice and Benedick must join forces to defend true love – even if they can’t recognise it in themselves.
Directed by James Evans, this contemporary production is a powerful exploration of the struggle for identity and self-knowledge in a male-dominated world.
Zindzi Okenyo stars as Beatrice, with Duncan Ragg as Benedick. They will be joined on stage by Vivienne Awosoga, Danny Ball, Marissa Bennett, Mandy Bishop, Will McDonald, Suzanne Pereira, Paul Reichstein and David Whitney.
After directing Bell Shakespeare’s national tour of Julius Caesar in 2018, James Evans was thrilled to take the reins of the 2019 tour as well.
“Much Ado About Nothing is the original ‘from hate to love’ romantic comedy that we’ve seen repeated in films and plays since Shakespeare’s time,” he said.
“But beneath its sparkling wit and hilarious characters, there is a dark conflict that drives this play to the edge of tragedy.
“The story flips from uproarious comedy to utter heartbreak in an instant, and then back again. That is the genius of Shakespeare and why this play is one of my absolute favourites.”
Much Ado About Nothing will make 27 stops on its national tour, hitting the stage in Newcastle on Thursday, October 3.
From a 16th century classic to a far more modern interpretation of comedy, the Civic Theatre’s official season will continue on Saturday, October 5, with the Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase.
Presenting the Festival’s funniest acts in one hilarious night of entertainment, The Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase Tour will be tearing up the freeways of Australia for the seventh year in a row to bring the crème de la crème of the 2019 Festival to Newcastle.
Expertly curated and lovingly presented, the Showcase will feature some of the Festival’s hottest acts live on stage for an incredible two hours of hard-hitting laughter.
While the line-up of comedians involved in the show is still under wraps, the Showcase is sure to include a strong mix of veteran favourites, international stars, and some of the freshest emerging talents on the Australian comedy scene.
From the side-splitting to the surreal, the Civic Theatre’s 2019 season will draw to a close in November with a run of five performances of Dali: Hallucinogenic Toreador, presented by Newcastle’s own Stray Dogs Theatre.
The Company was formed in Newcastle in 1995 by playwright Carl Caulfield and his wife, director Felicity Biggins, to help fill the void left by the demise of the Hunter Valley Theatre Company.
Carl’s latest production uses the scandalous and surreal life of Salvador Dali to ask questions about art and fame.
Outrageous, flamboyant and often on the edge of sanity, Dali considered himself a genius, but was this just a mask to hide his fear? The obsessions and neuroses that drove his art and life – grasshoppers, melting clocks, crutches, telephones and doubles – also expose his shameful secrets and raise disturbing questions about his legacy.
As surreal and provocative as a Dali masterpiece, the play promises a wild, joyous and moving journey into Dali’s strange and fascinating world, with performances scheduled at the Civic Theatre Playhouse on November 15, 16, 20, 22 and 23.
For more information about all the 2019 Season productions, and to stay up-to-date with what else is on offer at the Civic Theatre throughout the year, visit www.civictheatrenewcastle.com.au
First: Photo by Pedro Greig
Second: Photo by Andy Phillipson
Third: Zindzi Okenyo plays Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Pierre Toussaint.