“Circus is organised delight. We want to see circus explode once more into the lives of people in the NE, so that they see the full range of possibilities in it: pleasure, participation, action, and career exploration.” Helen Averley, Founder Circus Central
That’s one of the reasons why Helen Averley and Steve Cousins of Let’s Circus founded The North East Circus Development Trust (NECDT) in 2009, following a year of research into its feasibility undertaken by Brian Debnam. They had also secured £100,000 funding from Legacy Trust Fund to kick start the Five Ring Circus (NE regional youth circus) as part of the regions Cultural Olympiad project NE Generation.
At the same time, funding from Newcastle City Council, Business Link and the Christ Church Parochial Church Council enabled The NECDT to develop a circus training centre, Circus Central, at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne. Here we provided a circus skills training hub using the School and Church Halls. and establishing a partnership between the NECDT, Christ Church PCC and Christ Church Church of England Primary School in 2010.
The Five Ring Circus enabled young people in the region to experience a wide range of circus training and participatory activities from mid-2010 through to the end of 2012. This programme was delivered by Let’s Circus. Over 10,000 young people were involved during our introductory programmes in circus skills and the establishment of local circus clubs in North and South Tyneside, Stockton, Newcastle and Durham. These Five Ring Circus clubs fed into the Circus Central programme. Five Ring Circus performance troupe established in 2012 gathered the region’s most promising talent into an excellence programme involving advanced training and performance. Alumni have gone on to Circus Schools in the UK and Europe and into professional circuses.
Helen Averley and Steve Cousins managed the NECDT together, with Helen becoming CEO and lead until April 2019
By 2011, NECDT and Christ Church achieved its first objective to establish the church hall as a dedicated space for circus training, with a trapeze rig, and within the school and church halls establishing a regular pattern of youth and community circus involving after-school club, community circus club and youth circus introductory and excellence training with over 80 people of all ages regularly attending activity at the regional centre.
By 2013 the NECDT now known as “Circus Central” had established a community who regularly participated in or trained in circus at Circus Central, and since then has supported the ambitions of its artists, teachers and participants of all ages. It also increased regular training for all age groups, developed and managed and delivered EU-funded training programmes for adults and young people. It created ambitious artistic new work in 2015 and 2016, experimenting with new formats of circus theatre funded through the ACE small Grants for the Arts (House of Light, Vampire Rabbit), These explored site specific and immersive theatre through cross-disciplinary means, digital media, sound, light, moving image, and outdoors and large-scale youth circus productions. In 2014 and 2016 Helen led and developed two Heritage Lottery funded projects focusing on circus heritage, Family La Bonche… who are we? (an exemplar HLF project) and War Circus. The results of which can be seen here.
In 2015, Circus Central became a work based learning centre providing the only BTEC programme for circus in the UK that is not affiliated with a college of Further Education or school. As the number of classes increased for adults and with the BTEC training programme, the age group for the Five Ring Circus was revised from 12-25 to a flexible 11–18(ish). Participants still come from right across the region. By 2017 there were 24 classes per week. and members of the 2017 Five Ring Circus troupe consist of young people who were audience members of the first troupe.
In March 2017 Helen Averley having founded and led the NECDT and Circus Central for 7 years decided to stepped down as CEO and concentrate on her work with Let’s Circus.
What do people say about the project?
“Circus Central has grown into an exceptional organisation within the region. The opportunities they offer to young people in the Five Ring Circus are unique. Not only do they learn challenging skills in acrobatics, juggling, aerial and clowning, but they also have the opportunity to perform publicly, participate in regional, national and international exchanges with other young people. Some of the young people have gone on to study circus, and are now returning to the region to train other young people”.
Patricia Stead, Programme Manager/Creative Producer, Dance City, Newcastle
“Circus Central is not only an inspiring circus school but also a home for research and engagement. Its work on circus history in the North East (funded by Heritage Lottery) engaged its students directly in archival research which taught them much about the history of circus and about the history of the region. Their subsequent re-creation of acts from the past demonstrated the inspiration that they gained from this learning experience.”
Ron Beadle, Circus Research Network and Professor Northumbria University