Performing the Norm

Circus, Visual Art

By Dana McMillan, Feature Image by Regan Ainslie

We play many performances throughout our lives; our costumes the clothes we wear for different circumstances, and our masks the subtle shifts in the way we hold our bodies in the different spaces we fill. The everyday nature of these performances means they are so subconscious that they become disguised as normalcy. As a young (unaware) queer woman, I didn’t realise I was onstage 24/7.

The performance of femininity never quite sat well in my body and the beauty rituals of my peers filled me with an anxiety I couldn’t name. From quite young I knew I wanted to be an actress, but I recognised that I did not look like the people I wanted to be – the women projected on the screens around me. They were beautiful, feminine straight role models. Even the great roles they played worked to ingrain a sense of there existing a normal feminine to perform.

I looked at the people I admired and the great theatrical roles that a young woman could aspire to: tragic Shakespearean heroines and disenchanted Chekovian maidens. I wanted to be worthy enough to die like Juliet, or go mad like Ophelia (or mad again like Lady Macbeth). Madness. Tragedy. Depth. Soul. This was acting. This was being an actress. I wanted to speak words that were heavy with the importance of the Canon. I wanted to be what I saw as a classical actress.

I stuck pictures on my walls of these actresses, hoping that their greatness would cast some sort of spell. Ritualistically, I would rehearse monologues to the air, thinking that they had the gravity to hold a room. While I thought maybe I could train my voice to have the power of those words, I kept coming up against one hurdle: I was at war with my body, the instrument of my performance.

There was a disparity between what I wanted and what I thought I was fit for. I realised I wasn’t going to be a pretty enough Juliet or lithe enough to disintegrate as Ophelia. I wasn’t going to be the ingénue who people would want to see weep as Nina in The Seagull. I could feel the gap between my own body and theirs becoming larger and larger. When I stood on stage I recoiled from gesture; moving would surely only draw attention to the fact my body did not move like it should and its mistakes would make this disparity even more hideously obvious.

Doublespeak, The Dig Collective, Photography by Aaron Walker

Yet in the face of this perceived failure, I clung harder to these roles. If I could succeed at playing them, then it would prove that I could fit the model. I clung to the idea of Nina. In a Christopher Hampton translation of her speech to Konstantin at the end of the play she says, “I started acting badly… I couldn’t work out what to do with my arms, I forgot how to stand on stage, I lost control of my voice. You have no idea what it is like to know you’re acting appallingly.” I kept trying to convince myself that maybe I could still be a Nina. Wasn’t I her? Stuck on stage with my arms like two dead weights at my side, all my movements mechanic. I was so unsure of my own bones, muscles, and flesh that words breathed no life into them. I would try to lean into the fragility of the inner world, hoping I could show enough emotion through my eyes rather than my wings. It never quite clicked. I was told once by a director that they felt like my scene partner was acting to a brick wall – talk about unable to move. Perhaps I was just acting badly because I was young and inexperienced and all of the things that create a bad performance. However, theatre relies on being under an audience’s gaze and it is very hard to perform when you believe your body shouldn’t be seen.

The physicality knitted into the words of these great roles I have mentioned reflects the historical context in which they were written. For women this includes the ideals of beauty, and the ways in which they could take up space. It is not just the words these women speak, but also the words spoken about them, that construct the way audiences see them. Shakespeare and Chekov may be adapted for contemporary settings, but these characters still bear the weight of the expectations honed by audiences over hundreds of years.

I didn’t think I was beautiful enough for Nina, but I also didn’t see how my body could love Trigorin or be loved by Konstantin. It did not love Romeo or Hamlet. I could imagine what it felt like, even telling myself that I knew what it felt like, but the inability to recognise my own sexuality meant I couldn’t channel these characters’ desire into a language I understood within my own body. I could find no honesty in their passion.

Soothplayers Hares and Hyenas.jpg
Completely Improvised Shakespeare, Soothplayers,

There was a separation between my head and my body and while method acting works for some, it still requires you to be able to use your body on stage. It wasn’t until I started working in more physical practices that I realised how to actually be present on stage. As almost a trial by fire, I found physical performance when I joined The DIG Collective, an experimental theatre collective (then based in Melbourne, we now we cross Melbourne and Sydney). On my first day with the collective – a sort of come and try – I was so nervous. I thought any minute they would realise that I couldn’t move, how funny my body was… and not in a good way.

We trained regularly and rigorously, and as a result knew each other’s bodies to the point where I could anticipate what someone was about to do and fit my body to theirs.  Our trust and physical openness began to break down the tensions and rigidity of my limbs. We allowed ourselves to be silly, for our bodies to be ugly, and from there we built new worlds without physical constraints or conventions.

The joy of being silly came to surpass the desire to be a ‘great actress’. I fell in love with all the bizarre things my body could do and all the beautiful ways it could move. When someone gave me direction it made more sense through bodily instruction. Where is the tension? What body part leads? When I think about my own practice and the performances I create now, it is always through the lens of the body first, then the emotion, then the words. I am so used to talking with my body that I now know its rhythms far better than I know my vocal ones.

My actor’s body means more to me than the contradiction of what I think a role should ‘look like’ and my own frame. I no longer need to be Juliet or Ophelia. In a physical, devised world, women have the power to create bodies that lie outside the norm; bodies that are rebellious and subversive to social expectations. We can reinterpret the social standard of whose bodies are acceptable onstage.For example, in my  work with improvised Shakespeare collective Soothplayers, everything is created on the spot and without a casting process there is no limit to the characters I can embody. I can become kings, queens, witches, fairies or soldiers. There one condition is, “does the character serve the show?” not, “does my body serve the character?” I do not have to limit myself to the handful of Great Roles for Women. I can play a diminutive lover, a bloody queen, or any role or gender in between.

By letting go of the feminine ideal onstage I was able to start embracing my identity as a queer woman offstage. No longer constantly trying to brand myself as the pretty lover, I have no expectations on myself to uphold this identity in my everyday life. This is one less role I have to perform and I am happy to embrace the identity of something ‘other’ if my artistic practice does not rely on how normal I can be. In fact, it relishes how weird I can be. I think what a difference it would have made to me at fifteen if I had understood the power in being a clown and that greatness is larger than the Western Canon.

I thought I would never touch The Seagull again, but last year I did return to Nina during a course to see if she was still in there and still held some importance to me. What I found was that when I shattered my own expectations of how she moved, she somehow came alive in my body. I had thought of her as fragile for so long I did not see that she could be like me or that I could be her. What we had in common wasn’t that we were both bad actors, or that we loved the same people, or fit some ideal –  it was that I knew what it was like to be heartbroken, desperate, alone and lost. When I asked the question, “How does my body respond to this moment?” a massive but simple realisation occurred; that my body as a queer woman was enough. It could feel her. Its experience was special for this moment. It was only on the stage we both couldn’t move our arms and when I finally let her into them, the seagull flew.

Dana McMillan Headshot- photo Alex Talamo 2

Dana McMillan is a  Melbourne based performer, theatre maker and improviser. She is currently working as Co-Artistic Director and performer with The DIG Collective, an experimental theatre company dedicated to making performances through a devised process and non-linear storytelling.  She is also a founding member of Grub Theatre and ensemble member of Soothplayers: Completely Improvised Shakespeare and Quiet Achievers, a silent physical improvised comedy. You can find out more at

Seeing the Work: The Dangerous Act of Looking in Contemporary Circus


Feature image: Emily Chilvers captured by Aaron Walker Photography

by Alex Tálamo

Lately, I have been thinking about the radical act of looking. Having been recently immersed in the 2018 Sydney Festival and the concurrent Circus Industry Forum, I have been reflecting on my role as a witness to performance and what relationship this might have to the circus arts in particular.

In the late ‘90s I was a performer within the flourishing industry of Australian youth circus. Now, I am an observer: a performance artist and academic, who is lured back into the world of Australian circus as a heavily invested audience member. Watching circus from the seating bank still evokes the feelings of thrill and awe that captivated me during my training, but as an audience member I have discovered that looking—particularly in relation to circus—is also potentially a dangerous act.

The action of looking or ‘bearing witness’ is theorised about extensively across performance studies. Scholar Peggy Phelan famously declared that “[p]erformance’s only life is in the present,” suggesting that while the witness is necessary in framing a performance, the work only exists within the live moment shared between performer and audience. Alternately, Diana Taylor has suggested that an exchange of knowledge occurs between performers and audiences, “transmitted through a non-archival system of transfer … [called] the repertoire.” She argues that this is an embodied knowledge, which therefore escapes articulation. But it is within trauma studies that the witness is most directly attended to in understanding the relationship between the event and the context in which it is witnessed. In this account, the position of the witness, both physically and socio-politically, dictates what is possible to be observed.

In the book Testimony, which discusses the crisis of witnessing across trauma and literature studies, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub note that a witness experiences events within a historical context, but that this historical context is also narrated—’texualised’. They propose that the way a witness experiences an event is part of a narrative that has led them to the moment of witnessing (and continues after the performance is over). What a witness can see in any given event is defined by this pre-existing narrative. That is, an event doesn’t just have a historical context, it has a narrative context, and this is important because when something is narrated it necessarily requires including (valuing) some things and excludes others. Given this, a witness may be unable see things that are designated ‘unimportant’. In Australia, for example, you don’t have to look far to see how narratives about who or what is important has enabled the inability to acknowledge those perceived to be unimportant. From the colonial racism that led to Governor Bourke’s 1835 false proclamation of ‘Terra Nullius’, or the reimagining of national borders by shrinking Australia’s ‘migration zone’ in order to deny visibility, and therefore accountability, to refugees landing on Australian soil, to the unwillingness at a governmental level to acknowledge the epidemic of misogyny that is enabling a proliferation of family violence: these major events in Australia’s history demonstrate how narratives that precede an event can enable powerful acts of acknowledgment or exclusion.

The politics of looking within history and trauma studies provides some understanding of how the politics of looking shapes what is possible to be seen in contemporary circus. It allows us to question who is acknowledged and who is excluded in the witness’ vision of circus, providing an understanding that issues of inequality in the arts are only half answered by looking only at the stage. To understand how the form of our art produces meaning and politics we also have to think about how circus is looked at. This is an argument that the ability to philosophise within a form—to create new social dynamics—requires the audience to also engage in the task.

I want to be clear: racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia and other forms of bigotry exist on circus stages, and in the pursuit of attempting to understand the role of the witness in circus performance I am not suggesting that performers are excused from their accountability in perpetuating this bigotry—we should absolutely be held accountable for our performance choices. However, in order to understand why this bigotry is so persistent, both on and off the stage, and in order to understand the social mechanics of how our form operates, I argue that we also need to understand how an audience enters a circus performance, and how a circus audience is created.

The narratives of the contemporary circus form are entrenched in its traditional (modernist) history. Circus, more than any other art form, has a mythology and media spin that frequently refers back to the traditional form. Whenever circus is evoked, it is framed in marketing and by media coverage with phrases such as: ‘roll up, roll up’ and ‘run away with the circus’. This framing positions circus within a narrative of social outsider-ism. Drawing on a history of constant travelling and a mythology of ‘belonging nowhere’, the circus is both an event and site where normal social rules don’t apply. Its parallels might be the Roman festivals of Bacchus, or the Christian Twelfth Night festivals, where misrule and revelry subvert social norms for the period of the festival, but where the status quo is re-established once the festival is over. In this frame, the circus is a place of wonder, where the ‘impossible is possible’; a site where magic is expected.

If this is the narrative in which a witness enters a performance—where literally anything might be possible—then subversive or empowering representations are only possible within the frame of the circus performance. That is, of course women can be strong, people of colour can be visible and outspoken, people in wheelchairs can do acrobatics, and gender diverse people can exist, but this openness and possibility doesn’t extend to anyone outside of the boundaries of the circus world. Off stage, in the ‘real world’, these people are still expected to shut up and behave as they’re supposed to. The narrative that the audience enters with makes circus performance difficult to be subversive in because the more regressive a performance is, the more ‘magic’, ‘unique’ and ‘impossible’ the representative world of the performance becomes. It is for this reason that within contemporary circus, it is actually hard to see performers as people. Within the narrative of circus as a site of ‘wonder’, performers are more like superheros, whose humanity is only recognised after a serious fault or injury—after the performance is broken.

How audiences imagine contemporary circus, is also a question of what are the philosophies of circus that are as yet unarticulated or not widely articulated. It offers the question: How might the articulation of these alternative philosophies change the way audiences see work? For example, contemporary circus is based on intense interpersonal relationships. I argue that, to a greater degree than other artistic forms, circus relationships are highly specialised. Where contemporary dancers might be expected to dance with any number of partners and collaborators across their careers, frequently circus partnerships are so specialised that substitutions are not possible at all. When a performer’s life depends on their partner catching them within a millisecond margin of error, they engage in a level of trust not often experienced by other performers or members of the public. How might the representation of these complex relationships on stage, be overshadowed by the ‘magic’ of the traditional circus narrative? Does the ‘impossibility made possible’ frame fail to allow us as witnesses to see the real skill (and philosophy of the form) in the performance?

There are already some strong examples of attempts to reframe the way circus is witnessed. One way that performers are slowly shifting this narrative is to inhabit an aesthetic of ‘training’; to focus on the physical reality of the skill, rather than the spectacle of its performance. This has included a focus on failing bodies—bodies that do not perform ‘the trick’ successfully and have an aesthetics of grit, with unglamorous sweating hairy bodies and stripped-down lighting and costume elements. I do not present this example in order to dictate a new contemporary aesthetic. This is only one example of an exponentially growing contemporary form that will no doubt find several creative solutions. I highlight this choice in order to ask if we invite a new way of seeing the circus, not as a place of ‘wonder’ but, for example, as a place of work, does the witness have access to a more radical seeing? Could changing the narrative the witness enters with allow audiences to see a richer picture of the nature of the relationships between circus artists? Could it allow audiences to see performers as people?

Circuses have always been sites for housing and looking at those pushed to the margins of a society, and therefore, held the potential for radical seeing, but I suspect the contemporary form will be defined by how we (as artists and audiences) imagine the new circus narrative that will enable richer, more dangerous, ways of seeing.

Alex Tálamo is a performance artist and researcher, currently undertaking a Ph.D. candidature in Creative Practice at UNSW. She was part of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Cultural Leaders of the Future program (2011) and was an Emerging Cultural Leader at FCAC (2016). She has presented at The Performance Studies International Conference: Performance Climates (‘DoubleSpeak: excerpt’, 2016), The Circus Futures Forum (‘The future will demand new leaders, new cultural and social models of practice and more importantly community engagement’, 2014), and SPRUIK! (‘The language of circus performance’, 2010). She posts writing via twitter @alextalamo_ and documentation of her performance work is available via