Circus Oz was founded in December 1978 in Melbourne with its first performance season in March 1978.[dubious ] Circus Oz was the amalgamation of two already well-known groups: Soapbox Circus, a roadshow set up by the Australian Performing Group in 1976; and the New Ensemble Circus, a continuation of the New Circus, established in Adelaide in 1974.
The most significant developmental elements in the early years of Circus Oz were the 32-week 1979 season at the Last Laugh Theatre Restaurant in Melbourne, the Chinese acrobatic master classes and the group's relations with The Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Circus Oz has performed in New York City, London and Jerusalem as part of its international touring.
In late 2013 Circus Oz relocated to a new custom-built home base in Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne. The Victorian government owns the facility, but it has been designed specifically to Circus Oz's requirements. This location includes a permanent Spiegeltent, large rehearsal spaces, outdoor areas, and workshop and props-making facilities. The buildings are approximately half of an abandoned college campus, and there is work being done by Arts Victoria to convert the remainder of the campus into an arts precinct, making it a vibrant multi-arts and community hub.
The founders wanted to create a modern circus without animals, but instead with elements of rock'n'roll, popular theatre and satire. The company has an ongoing social justice agenda and has generally been open about supporting humanitarian causes. Over the years this has included women's rights, land rights for indigenous Australians and strong feelings about the plight of asylum seekers.
One of the very first "new" or "contemporary" circuses without animals (it pre-dates Cirque du Soleil by several years), Circus Oz continues to make a show with only a dozen multi-skilled performers who all perform the entire show, doing "a bit of everything", from acrobatics and clowning to music and aerial work. The skills are high-level circus, but the show is usually comic and character-driven. The cast is a diverse mix of body shapes and ages, with an equal number of men and women. Their style is generally cheeky, anarchic and subversive, a balance of strong women and graceful men.
The company have an ongoing social justice agenda and have generally been open about supporting humanist causes. Over the years this has included women's rights, land rights for indigenous Australians and strong opposition to the mandatory indefinite detention of asylum seekers. Circus Oz has performed in twenty-six countries across five continents including four seasons on 42nd Street in New York, a number of seasons at Queen Elizabeth and Royal Festival Halls in London, a refugee camp in the West Bank, indigenous communities in the Australian desert and a glass opera house in the Brazilian rainforest. Over two million people have seen the company perform, and the show has been translated and performed in more than a dozen languages, including Hindi, Catalan and Danish. The troupe has broken box office records at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and represented Australia at many international festivals.
The company employs a full-time ensemble of 12 performers (an equal number of men and women), plus a technical crew, production and artistic departments.
Apart from touring nationally and internationally with their core ensemble, other parts of Circus Oz include:
- BLAKFlip, a programme connecting Australian Aboriginal performers and artists with the circus, including masterclasses, casting, performances, traineeships and guest artists;
- Circus Classes, public circus classes for the general public, adults, schools, and community groups to learn circus skills;
- The Melba Spiegeltent, a licensed venue, which will launch with a programme of cabaret, innovative performance, local community events;
- SideSault, a Sector Support Programme, providing access to space for a selected series of small/medium-sized local performance groups (primarily using a circus vocabulary);
- High Flying Teams, a corporate team-building and training programme using circus as a skill-base for corporate training.