Zoe founded CirqueScape after retiring from international performing. Her touring career spanned more than a decade and saw her ice skating, juggling, and aerial dancing across six continents. Her guest blog posts will give an insight into her experiences over the years. You can check out her performance background at www.zoebaldock.biz
Opening night nerves
If there’s one thing that growing up in a competitive sport prepares you for, it’s high pressure situations. By their nature, most competitive sports are seasonal, so you spend an entire year gearing up to the big event. You get one shot, and if you blow it then you won’t get another shot for another year. Or maybe four, if you have Olympic dreams.
Performance sports tend to have a slightly different vibe. It’s fairly rare for one performance to be a turning point for your career; a be-all-and-end-all moment. The main exceptions are opening nights or performances that you know are being watched by someone of particular significance. Talent scouts, or family members… or the prime minister of Samoa…
The Magic Circus of Samoa has a long history in the islands, and the owner of the circus had built up a strong relationship with local authorities. In Apia, the circus was pitched just a short stroll away from the government buildings. One afternoon shortly before opening night I wandered into the kitchen tent to grab a coffee. I said hello in passing to a man who was sitting with the boss at one of the long vinyl-covered tables that we all ate our meals together at.
Later on, the boss asked me (with that ever-present twinkle in his eye) if I knew who I had said hello to earlier. It turned out my casual greeting had been directed towards the prime minister of Samoa. In fact, he was something of a regular visitor while we were pitched in town. He was our guest of honour on opening night, seated front row centre with a huge smile on his face throughout the show.
Of course, it wasn’t just his presence that made opening night nerve-wracking. The first public performance of a show is your opportunity to prove that the bosses made the right decision in hiring you. The chances are your act still isn’t fully committed to muscle memory, and the energy that a crowd brings can induce a huge adrenaline rush. Imagine trying to recite your favourite poem while on a rollercoaster… sensory overload!
Rehearsal protocols are, in many ways, a reflection of human psychology. The more unfamiliar things we’re dealing with at one time, the more likely we are to be overwhelmed and unable to cope. Performing a show for the first time, you want the only “new” thing to be the presence of an audience. In an ideal world you’d rehearse your show with the exact props you’ll be using (rather than a replica). Final run-throughs should be with the same lighting and sound design as will be used for the performance.
This is more important than you might think. If a juggler is suddenly blinded by a light that wasn’t used during rehearsals it can have a huge impact on their performance. If an aerialist is blasted unexpectedly by sound from a heavy-bass speaker right near their head, this could dangerously distract them from their act. Both of these things have happened to me during shows. Neither with serious consequences, thankfully. But both experiences highlighted to me the importance of limiting the unexpected as far as possible.
Anxiety kicks in
The day of opening a show is usually one fraught with adrenaline and last-minute fixes. Sometimes the worry of getting things wrong will keep performers awake the night before. I remember a sleepless night before a show in Germany because I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to control the 5ft span wings that were part of my costume. But that’s another story for another time.
The gates to the circus opened, and the public started wandering into the big top to take their seats. Being a small circus, everyone was assigned duties during the show. Several of my colleagues were tasked with walkabout sales of popcorn, candy floss, and inflatable toys. My duty, aside from when I was on stage for my act, was chief spotlight operator. This meant that my pre-show perch was up on the sound and light platform, with a prime view of the goings-on in the tent. I remember sitting on that platform, taking in the smell of popcorn as the bleacher seats around me slowly filled up with excited families.
My act was in the later stages of the second half of the show, and as I watched my colleagues go out on stage before me I was more nervous for them than I had ever been for my own performances. Perhaps this was a glimpse at how my mum had felt watching me skate at competitions. The opening number was a ring juggling trio. They were all Samoans, and six months previously none of them had ever juggled before, much less performed on stage. The boss had met them all in different places, recognised their potential, and invited them to train with him. So here they were, performing for their prime minister who was amongst a crowd of almost 1500 people.
Watching with pride
I was in complete awe of these young Samoans’ ability to cope with the changes in their lives. A year ago they had all been at school or working for their families, never having set foot on a stage. They might have watched this show back then, and now they were in it. But they performed as if they had been doing this their whole lives, and I was incredibly proud to call them colleagues and friends. Seeing them put on such a great performance helped to settled my own nerves, which were rattling a bit as my turn on stage approached. People quite often ask me if I still get nervous when I’m performing, after all these years of experience. The truth is that every time I’m opening a new show, the adrenaline still kicks in hard.
Once we’d made it through opening night we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Everyone had remembered where they were supposed to be, the audience loved the show, the reviews were great, and normal(ish) life could now be resumed.
Settling into life on tour
The pre-opening rehearsal period of a live show is often the time when you will work the longest hours (and in many cases earn the least). Once we had opened the show and were comfortable with what we were doing, we had a fair amount of free time. Shows were at 7pm Thursdays through to Sundays, which meant that from Mondays to Wednesdays we were able to do as we pleased.
My colleagues insisted that I should use this down-time to explore what Samoa had to offer. One invited me to come and visit his family on his home island of Savai’i. Larger than the main Samoan island of Upolo, but less populated. And, according to my colleague, far superior in beauty. So, one Monday morning, we jumped on a bus in downtown Apia. After a bumpy ride along the coastal road we were deposited onto a jetty, and from there we boarded a ferry bound for the “beautiful island”.
The photos you see in this post are Zoe’s personal photos and show what her circus life was really like!
Want to know what Zoe got up to in Savai’i? You’ll have to read her next guest blog post… coming soon!