JO Randerson has had an eight year love affair, and it’s not over yet. The object of her desires is Circus Ronaldo, a Belgian circus company, in New Zealand to perform their show Circenses for the International Festival of the Arts.
Randerson, who studied at Wellington Girls’ College and majored in Theatre at Victoria University, has a long history in theatre. She got involved writing, directing and performing for the university’s student drama club, writing for Bats theatre and performing as a stand up comedian at the same time. She co-founded award-winning theatre group Trouble in 1995, and later went on to found her own theatre company, Barbarian Productions. The company’s shows have played all around the world. It was on one of her overseas adventures, performing her solo theatre show Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong in Norway, that Randerson fell in love with Circus Ronaldo.
She’d always loved the circus “in the way that most of us love the circus” – the magic of the tent coming to town, the excitement of going inside, the community experience of being entertained – but when she saw Circus Ronaldo perform for the first time she was hooked.
“I fell in love with them. The tent. The shows. The people. I couldn’t leave the tent. Every morning I went down to hang out there,” says Randerson, “It was a strange experience for me. When they went to leave town I was hugely emotional. I wanted to serve them. I thought, ‘I’ll just clean your stages and prepare your props’.”
Seeing the show came at a crucial time for Randerson, who was travelling the world and pondering her place in it.
“I wondered if there was a useful place for someone of my age to make a real difference through theatre. I was considering becoming an aid worker instead, somewhere in the third world. Then I saw the show and I changed my mind.”
Randerson says Circus Ronaldo restored her faith in theatre. On her way to Belgium to pursue more theatre work, she abandoned her plans and instead began to follow the circus.
“It really was like falling in love. It was an overtaking obsession. I’ve been drawn to companies in the past, but I’ve never experienced it to that degree before.”
Randerson wanted to learn the skills to make a difference to people’s lives in the same way she could see the circus doing.
“It was so clear they were transforming their audiences from bunches of tired people jostling for a good seat. You go in and sit down with 400 other people and watch an incredibly beautiful piece of circus theatre and everyone comes out the other side clearly in a different headspace, pleasant and laughing and with a wonderful joy in their hearts.”
The performers are mainly Flemish, but also from Sicily and England. Randerson was loosely apprenticed to Danny Ronaldo and Karel Creemers, who taught her the art of clowning.
“I just followed them wherever they went. They travelled around and I was there beside them. I was hanging around when they packed up. I slept in the wagon, slept in the truck, slept in the curtains on the floor of the tent,” says Randerson, “I think it was extremely poetic. I wasn’t analysing what was happening. I just had an overpowering feeling that I needed to be in that tent with those people.”
She learnt a lot about clowning from the two performers. Danny Ronaldo taught her the humble approach of the clown, with the motto “the audience is King”.
“A good clown is an extremely spiritual person. You have to accept what happens and work with being in the present,” says Randerson, “You can’t deny anything. If you don’t get a laugh you have to register that. You have to be right there.”
On a practical level Randerson learnt the logistics of touring with a circus, packing the show in and out. She also noted the beauty of the circus props – all handcrafted – which she believes shows that this circus is manned by “genuine artists and creators”.
“It’s all about care and integrity. There’s no mass-produced plastic. Everything is lovingly made from wood and carved. They travel with their own tents and seats: you’re sitting on seats thousands of other people have sat on. You can just feel it.”
Circus Ronaldo’s show Circenses is now in town, with exactly that tent and those seats. The audience will be separated into halves. You watch the first half of the show from one side of the stage, and the other half of the show seeing what’s going on behind the stage. The show also includes live music and a knife-thrower, as well as circus tricks and Ronaldo’s trademark subversive humour and character comedy.
Randerson’s love affair with the circus has not come to an end. She’s the company’s ambassador while they’re in town, and whenever she’s overseas she catches up with them.
“It’s an ongoing conversation.”
Circenses, Waitangi Park, February 29 – March 18.