15 July 2014
Last year, my partner Thomas Hinz and I presented the findings of our two-year research, Developing Community Circus in Aotearoa New Zealand, at an international seminar on social circus evaluation at Tampere University in Finland.
This research project, funded by the Lottery Community Sector Research Fund, actually took six years from idea to completion.
The need for research was evident among community circus providers but it took time to find the right researcher and the support.
The canvas was pretty blank so we took a broad approach, including an international literature review, an online survey, four programme evaluations, a workshop and interviews with circus experts.
Our first publication in 2011 coincided with the launch of best practice guidelines from both Cirque du Soleil in Canada and the Effective Circus Project in Finland.
Standing on the international stage
I was a bit concerned about standing on an international stage beside doctorates or studies with ten times our budget. So it was a huge relief to arrive in Finland to hear that international groups applaud and are referencing the work. Cirque du Soleil has published the research in its online library, and a summary of our talk has been published in the Finnish seminar publication and an Italian juggling magazine.
The research results confirmed what we knew: circus is an innovative and creative way to engage people on the fringes of society; it can impact at individual, group and community level; and partnerships are key to its success.
Like many arts projects, there are pockets of passionate people in New Zealand making it happen who need to be supported. There is also an opportunity to grow and build circus locally, regionally and nationally.
We gathered statistics because we thought that’s what funders wanted. For example, 79% of audiences attending our show, Circolina’s Leap, said it had changed their attitudes towards disabled people.
Validity of story-based evaluation methods
We also learned the validity of using story-based evaluation methods – visual and participatory methods that actively involve the participants. We applaud funders like the Making A Difference team at the Ministry of Social Development for recognising these methods.
We’ve always said an indicator of success in our projects will be in the unexpected. That has to be in the doors opened and the relationships formed through this research.
There’s a real momentum of study globally that we can draw on. We’ve now joined the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association and will be attending their Circus Futures Forum in October. We’ll be sharing what we learn from this forum with our own New Zealand forum.
The research gave us a list of relevant issues to address as a sector and we’re looking forward to having that conversation.
Frances Kelliher is Project Developer, Circability Trust. You can read the research documents published on Circability Trust's website.