No Fit State

No Fit State

Circus of Subversion — Groundbreaking circus company No Fit State was born in a spirit of rebellion and still hasn't learned to behave.

No Fit State circus began as a crafty way for its founding members to escape the demoralising dole queues of the 1980s and stick two fingers up to the establishment at the same time, but today it is one of the world’s most exciting and forward thinking circus companies.

Before they bring their immersive circus installation Open House to Green Man Festival in Wales, Huck caught up with Ali Williams, Creative Director and one of the five founders, to ask if a rebellious spirit still beats at the heart of the company.

How did No Fit State begin? 
We started juggling when we were at University in Cardiff in the 1980s. By the time we graduated we were all facing the prospect of long term unemployment but we were pretty nifty jugglers. We started doing some busking on the streets of Cardiff to subsidise the infamous Giro that most of the UK youth were living off at that time. If we earned enough for a couple of pints at the end of the day we were happy.

At that point jugglers were a rare sight and people start offering to pay us to come and perform at their events. This coincided with Thatcher’s enterprise allowance scheme, designed to hide the true extent of youth unemployment and suddenly we were allowed to form a company and we received £4 a week more than our dole and didn’t have to queue up at the dole office once a fortnight. It also meant we could busk legally without being labelled as benefit cheats.

In those days there was plenty to be angry about (I know there still is) and we used circus as a tool to express ourselves and our political views. We’d often be found juggling on anti-Apartheid, anti-Poll Tax, anti-Trident, anti Thatcher, anti-Clause 28 and anti-anything demo’s.

Sounds like you turned circus into a tool of subversion?
We found circus as an artform perfectly aligned itself with the underground and an opportunity to live alternative lifestyles. While our traveller friends were being beaten up at the Battle of the Beanfield and laws were being passed to stop people gathering, we had a free hand to travel around the UK in our live in vehicles with a gang of self chosen friends, to put our tent up  in the best and most beautiful parks to perform our new brand of non-animal new circus.

We were free to travel, work and use our performance as a political tool (always under cover of a good joke, like any political satire!) We made shows about what we thought were soft issues but in 1988 Hounslow council banned us because our  environmental themed show  (The baddie was dumping chemicals in a wishing well and the pixies were revolting!) was considered too left wing for public consumption!

Is that spirit still at the heart of the company today? 
It’s hard to maintain such a strong political ethos as the organisation has grown up, and as we have grown up. Now we have more than a dozen core staff and employ up to 100 freelancers at any one moment so we can’t force everyone to share the same beliefs. We still have a strong ethical policy and we enforce things like who we will accept sponsorship from and what products we sell. It’s like this: we don’t sell coke to our audiences but we can’t stop our employees drinking it!

I still believe that to opt for a circus life style you have to carry a certain persona, you need to want to travel, live and work as a community and respect your co-workers. Personally I think that most circus is still outside of the mainstream and attracts the type of people that want to opt for a different lifestyle. Our shows may or may not be overtly political but during Open House we had a complaint because we wrote an improvised song about Vodaphone being Jammy Tax Dodgers! People are still complaining about us being overtly political which has to be a good thing.

What makes No Fit State unique?
We are unique in  many ways, for example we are the only UK contemporary circus that consistently tours in Big Top, and in the promenade style. We are the only company that delivers training for all ages alongside offering quality professional participatory performance as a regular part of our programme. We are also the only Welsh circus that is touring internationally with company members that have come through our in-house training programmes. We have a unique performance style.

How do you balance a respect for the traditions of the circus with a drive to innovate and push forward to new ground?
We do not think about the traditions of the circus while we are making new creations, we work with contemporary directors who use circus rather like a palette of colour an artist can draw on to make a picture. Our work extends beyond the traditional circus form and embraces all other physical disciplines and performance arts. We believe that circus does not need to be legitimised, explained or excused with narrative or metaphor within the performance. We work in partnership with a diverse range of creative collaborators to bring new momentum and fresh direction to our work. As creative directors we also spend time seeing other work, and being inspired by other art forms.

Why is it important to have a company that lives and breathes together as a community and how does that come through in your shows?
We try really hard to create the community that people can live in comfortably, be happy and have fun. Everyone works really hard to make the projects work and needs time and space to relax and blow off steam. We try and create this space by providing good food (for all the weird and wonderful allergies) and a good environment and social space. Being on tour is like being in a bubble away from the outside world and as I’ve said before only people who enjoy this lifestyle can exist in our company. We believe that this freedom and enjoyment of life (a life less normal) is transferred onto stage in a honest humanity and this helps to draw an audience in.

How does your creative process work?
Once we have decided on the project we are going to deliver, we assemble a creative team director, sometimes circus choreographer, designers (set and costume) and makers. Because of the nature of circus we make a lot of structural elements generally out of metal so our makers are genius metal workers, sculptors and welders. We then cast the performers; usually a mix of old and new depending on what skills we require.

We support emerging artists and trainees as well professionals from across the globe and people that have come through our own training programmes. All the performers contribute to the devising process though the show is ultimately directed. It’s easy to incorporate new skills into the framework as we see circus as a giant umbrella that covers all physical performance, from the traditional skills like trapeze through to the newer urban skills such a parkour and tricking.

What will you be performing at Green Man?
Open House is a really fun project. Directed by Orit Azaz, is it an immersive, ever-evolving large-scale circus installation where anything can happen and everything becomes an excuse for performance and spectacle. So, if ever you wanted to run away with circus then this is your chance. Without giving too much away the audience will get to see some spectacular circus, have a go at trying some out and quite possibly end up performing in a “happening”

Would you still recommend running away to join the circus?
Well you could probably earn a better living elsewhere but you’d have to search hard to find a job that was as exciting and creative that enabled you to travel for a living.

Catch No Fit State’s incredible Open House at Green Man Festival in Glanusk, Wales, August 14-17.