Wales

NoFit State Circus: How 'one more year' turned into 30

The founding members of NoFit State Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption The founding members of NoFit State. Clockwise from top left: Dave Id, Peter Gregory, Tom Rack, Ali Williams, Richie Turner

In 1986, five unemployed friends who loved to juggle introduced a new kind of circus to Cardiff.

Driven by a mantra of "one more year", it never occurred to founders Tom Rack, Ali Williams, Dave Id, Peter Gregory and Richie Turner that they could keep their company going for much longer.

Initially fuelled by the political climate of Thatcher's Britain, NoFit State Circus has now grown into one of the UK's longest-running contemporary circuses, celebrating its 30th birthday on 1 January.

"Everything escalated - it got a little bit out of control," said Tom Rack, now a creative director for the company.

Many of those early days were "so much of a haze," he said, so to help preserve those early memories, NoFit State has launched a new archive detailing their history.

Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption Ali and Richie (foreground) at a juggling workshop in the winter of 1983/4

The friends first began juggling together at university, in a juggling club run by film puppeteer Toby Philpott, famous for his work in films such as Return of the Jedi and The Dark Crystal.

"To have an official juggling club was a great excuse to get minibuses from the university so we could go to festivals, so we did a lot of that," said Mr Rack.

"We started street performing and doing little shows, so we might even get paid a little bit."

Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption Peter Gregory as a fire-breathing dragon, busking on Queen Street in Cardiff

The group taught themselves other skills including using unicycles, stilts and tumbling, making the most of skill-sharing opportunities at circus festivals where they met like-minded people from across the UK.

When university finished, instead of going their separate ways, the five friends decided "let's do this for a year, let's just have a go".

Image copyright NoFit State Circus

"As young people in the 1980s, we were coming out of university with no jobs in Thatcher's Britain, with terribly high unemployment," said creative director Ali Williams.

"We were going out on the streets to make a living really, just to top up our giro and earn enough for a few pints in the evenings."

The group signed up to Margaret Thatcher's Enterprise Allowance Scheme, each taking home £40 a week to help fund their circus business, along with help from family and friends.

Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption 1987 - winning the Welsh Community Business Award of £500

The friends decided to take their circus act in a relatively new direction, as a "political reaction" said Ms Williams.

"We wanted to do circus without animals, or red-nosed clowns, it was a political statement, so we had to use other things to make it interesting for the audience," she said.

NoFit State decided to mix circus with theatre, creating a new art form based on being "able to put on a great show, wrapped up in a narrative and a theatrical construct", said Mr Rack.

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Media captionNoFit State Circus performing 'A Wish Washes Whiter' in 1990. Video: Roger Williams/NoFit State Circus

This new style of circus was a global movement known as "nouveau cirque", focusing on human physical skill and narrative, that manifested differently in individual countries.

In the UK, new circus "involved the start of social and community circuses making circus skills available for people to learn, without any formal environment in which to perform", said Prof Ron Beadle, head of the UK & Ireland Circus Research Network.

"Reg Bolton's concept of circus in a suitcase inspired a lot of people, essentially it said that anyone could do circus," he said.

Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption The first tent - they began touring around the UK in the summers of the early 1990s, teaching and working in the community during each winter

So just how much was the development of this new art form in the UK a reaction to the politics of the time?

"To quite a large extent I think," said Toby Philpott, who has worked with NoFit State since its inception in his juggling club.

"High unemployment encouraged self-employment and creativity, if you were not content to live on the dole.

"There was solidarity in demonstrations, and many people had got tired of confronting the police and being accused of violence, so turning up in clown make-up to juggle at them was intended as a peaceful demo."

Image copyright Kiran Ridley
Image caption NoFit State performing ImMortal in 2002
Image copyright Mark Robson
Image caption Tabú in 2008

Since the early days in the 70s and 80s, new circus has become "established as an art form," said Mr Philpott.

This has changed its nature, with people "doing business plans and applying to the Lottery and the Arts Councils, before doing anything creative.

"In the 80s you just went out and did it. NoFit State had enormous talent and enthusiasm, no-one thought they had to be 'qualified' before they could do anything," he said.

Now, the performers in NoFit State live and work together, travelling in trucks, trailers and caravans across the country and the world.

The last five years have seen the circus's professional productions tour 15 different countries with audiences of more than 250,000 people.

Most recently, their Bianco show has been given a £24,000 grant from the Welsh government, allowing it to travel to New York in 2016.

Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption A circus workshop with the Trinity Asylum Seeker Project

The circus also hosts a variety of community, training and education projects, running weekly classes with refugees and asylum seekers in Adamsdown, as well as skills workshops with children from the gypsy, Roma and traveller communities in Cardiff.

Legacy

With the announcement of Ms Williams' departure from the company in its anniversary year, Tom Rack will be the "last man standing" of the five founders.

He hopes the company "can sustain another 30 to 50 years", continuing to tour internationally and work with communities back home, becoming "better, but not necessarily bigger, every year".

"I would never want to be a machine or a production company that just keeps pushing out shows, our shows have a heart and a soul and a spirit," he said.

Image copyright NoFit State Circus
Image caption 'Our shows have a heart and a soul and a spirit, and it comes from the collective' says Tom Rack (top left)

"I think that's really important, and it comes from the collective, from the people.

"We live together, we work together, we travel together, we make a show together and we take on the world together."

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