Circus - it's not all about You
By Tim Marston, 04 January 2012 –
How to improve your teaching in 237 easy steps.
Written By Rob Thorburn.
If you're a working circus artist, I'm sure you've picked up the phone several times and heard the words:
“Hi, I'd like a circus workshop, please?”
Teaching circus is not everyone's cup of tea. However, if you want to keep your finances in good shape when show bookings are scarce, being able to teach is a very useful skill to have. Teaching circus can be just as emotionally rewarding as performing, improves your skills in many different areas, develops your public speaking and audience interaction, and refines your understanding of your chosen prop.
Returning to the question, if you are going to say “Yes” and go for it, you need to be ready with your own questions. From the beginning, it is important to establish what type of workshop the client is after. You can do this effectively by asking the right questions:
- How many students?
- How old are they?
- How long do they want the workshops?
- Is it one group, or will there be many?
- What is the venue going to be?
- Is it part of a larger event, and if so, what?
- What does the client want the students to get out of the session?
In asking these questions, you must be aware of your own limitations as a workshop leader (how many students you can teach at a time and whether you need more teachers, how long a day you are prepared to do, whether you can actually do what is being asked of you, etc.). Once these have been answered to your satisfaction, you should be able to begin preparing for your workshop.
There are a few obvious categories of workshop you can fit most inquiries into, and good preparation will make you, the client, and the students much, much happier.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to gloss over a few of the different types of workshops and focus on ones you are likely to come across as a professional workshop leader/facilitator. I'm also not going to cover special needs workshops, as they require far more than just being good at your prop. In my opinion, if you want to go down this route, you absolutely must do specific training. Finally, I won't deal with pricing, as that is a whole different minefield.
What types of workshop are you most likely to encounter? Here is a breakdown of the most common:
- Kids: anything from a single session with your local brownies to several days in a school.
- Community: pretty much the same as above, but more likely with adults or adolescents.
- Corporate: otherwise known as 'team-building', a term that makes me shudder slightly.
There are many nuances within these categories and several types I have left out (one to one tuition, festival workshops, ongoing courses and master classes to name but a few). However, there are a lot of thing that are common to all and will help enormously with whatever you are preparing.
- Have a clear Goal for the workshop. If you know where you want to get to by the end, you'll instinctively build your workshop in a solid, progressive way. It may be that you want your students to have fun and learn a few new skills, or you might want them to develop specifically along a certain path such as show preparation, or in advance of learning something at a later date.
- Write a Timeline. Whether it's for a 20 minute session or a 10 week course, if you plan out your session with approximate timings you'll be much more confident in delivery. Make sure you are prepared to cut parts when necessary, and have some extras in reserve if your students surprise you with their progress.
- Know your Content. It's super-important to have an in-depth understanding of what you are teaching for several reasons. Make sure you have several ways of teaching each thing, not just the way you learned – not everyone's minds/bodies learn in the same way; you'll be able to demonstrate where people are trying to get to; you'll be able to cater for different levels at the same time; and just as importantly, you'll be able to teach safely.
- Make sure you have some Variety. People get bored quickly these days - you’re competing with busy schedules, iGadgets, and short attention spans. While some of your students will be predisposed towards spending a lot of time on one thing, many will become disruptive if you don't give them enough variety. Try to get a handle on your group early on and find the balance between some fun stuff, warming up, some easily achievable stuff, some impressive stuff, etc.
- Be Professional. It's almost easier to list the ways in which you can do badly here than the ways you can impress a client. After all, they won't remember most of the good work but they certainly won't forget any slip-ups or any points where you were unprofessional or rude. Make sure it's clear what you are offering, sort out payment details in advance, keep good lines of communication open, behave and dress sensibly, don't be late, have good equipment, have your insurance and any other documents to hand if requested, etc.
Each of these headings deserves an article to itself, but if you take a good look at each of them in relation to your work (and don't assume I have written an exhaustive list!), you'll be in good shape.
Let's take a look at some specifics. Kids workshops are a strong source of income these days, but you have to be well prepared in your own mind to take them on regularly. Children are incredibly quick to recognise when you have no enthusiasm for teaching them. As a result, things can get out of hand pretty quickly. My advice is that you shouldn’t do them unless you want to: they can be really soul destroying if you’re not prepared for disappointment/abuse/childminding. The plus-side is that it's incredibly rewarding if you spot one kid that really liked it who will go home and put some tennis balls in his socks to make some poi, or you get a whole group juggling within one session. Before you take the plunge on your own, I recommend going along as someone’s assistant a few times to get a feel of how it might go.
Here are a few more specific workshop elements that will help:
- Communication is important for a few different reasons. There is nothing worse than turning up with poi and juggling kit to a bunch of kids who have been told they are getting stilts and trapeze. Make sure you and your client have this aspect clear.
- Use your Time well. Try to keep the workshop relatively short, especially if it's an introductory session. Better to leave the students wanting more than wanting out.
- Make it Fun and include Games, Kids respond well when not doing something they think of as 'school'.
- Make it Accessible. Teach simple but engaging and achievable things: try to discover the real basics of your prop.
- Use Colour. This sounds simple, but have bright, fun looking props. There’s nothing less interesting for new students than trying to learn a new skill with something that doesn’t spark their interest.
- Be mindful of Emotions. I can't emphasise enough how important it is to enjoy yourself. Kids pick up on emotion very easily. When you the teacher are enjoying yourself, the kids think what they are doing is fun
- Discipline. Know what you are going to do in any given situation (what happens if a kid starts a fight; starts throwing things; etc.?). Make it clear between you and the client if you or a responsible adult is going to discipline any bad behaviour.
I tend to treat Community workshops in much the same way. However, there are some things that regularly come up that you may want to consider. You should be able to focus a little more on fewer things because, in general, adults have a better attention span. The potential downside, however, is dealing with defeatism: some adults have decided they are unable to do certain things, whereas kids are more likely to try anything. You might also need to tweak game-playing within your sessions, as many adults have lost their ability/desire to 'play'. Every situation is unique, so you'll have to judge what is best for the group after you see what you are working with. In general though, the guidelines are the same: good communication, good preparation, achievable content, fun.
Corporate workshops, compared with the previous two workshop archetypes, are very different experiences. You will need/be forced to focus more on what the client wants, whereas in most other teaching situations you have a degree of free reign as the recognised professional. This means using and aiming at all the buzzwords: trust, teamwork, group activities, multitasking, improved learning capabilities, etc. Fortunately, there are a few circus skills and activities that are conducive to building a workshop along those themes (as well as some that are completely unsuited). The ones I am most likely to use are acrobalance, juggling, stiltwalking, and body percussion. These are all things that can be directly related to a corporate mind and easily tick the boxes of those buzzwords above. You can also modify your use of games to fit the situation: for example, I tend to use trust games and group participation games rather than the silly games that I would for kids/community workshops.n the whole though, I treat these workshops in much the same way, e.g., students need swift gratification as they have short attention spans. Other similarities include the need to be really clear in advance what is happening at the workshop, and to have bright spangly toys.
Remember that during corporate work your value as a workshop teacher is as much based on appearance and attitude as it is on quality of instruction. Your professionalism will be under constant scrutiny at these events: you need to have a very clear plan of your sessions and what they will achieve, and you need to work quickly and safely. You definitely need to look the part, but what that doesn't mean is that you turn up in a suit - be yourself (just, cleaner than usual!)! Clients are often paying to have something different, new and challenging for their staff: circus, traditionally, manipulates the cultural norms and constraints that we become so acclimatised to in our daily lives. Thus, if you turn up looking and acting like one of them, they’ll be disappointed. Workshops (especially corporate ones) are a performance like any other, so have a costume and a character at the ready.
I'm aware that this is turning into a small book, so I'll wrap it up here.. I believe that if you prepare for a workshop as thoroughly as you would for a performance then you can't go far wrong, and the more you teach, the better your skills will be. Of course, as is the case with pretty much any job in the performance industry, sometimes the gig you do will be nothing like the one you have prepared for – in this case it's all about how flexible and accommodating you are, and experience will help enormously. I have a lot of resources available for people who are interested in becoming better workshop leaders and would love to hear of other people's techniques for workshop facilitation. If you've never considered workshops as a way of boosting your earnings, have a think and maybe try it out by shadowing someone – you may find it suits you!
Thanks to Rob for that awesome blog post.....For those of you who don't know Rob, he is a Scottish hippy who likes cats....Either that or a world famous spinner, circus teacher and an all round thoroughly nice chap! You can checkout his site on the link below
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