Eoin Butler's Q&A

 

MARION FOSSETT, ringmistress, Fossett’s Circus on the enduring appeal of life in the ring

How much of the year do you spend on the road?We usually go out around St Patrick’s Day and tour right through to the end of October. During the summer, that means doing at least one show a day. Often we’ll perform twice on the same day, pack up and travel to the next town that night.

Your show no longer includes animals. Why?No, we haven’t had wild animals for the past five years. But the star of the show is still a little terrier called Max who comes on riding a pony and tears the place up. The kids love him. This year, two acrobats from Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey are topping the bill. They do a high wire with no safety net. For the final trick, she stands on his shoulders and he walks across...

Wait, you’re not going to give the ending away?It’s a two-hour show. There’s a lot more I’m not going to tell you about, don’t worry!

How far back does the circus tradition go in your family?Fossett’s was founded in 1888. So we’re older than the Abbey Theatre. I’m fourth generation. Otto the Clown is played by my nephew Edward Fossett Jr, so we’re well into our fifth now. I’d describe it as a traditional circus with West End production values.

If someone announced that they wanted to become — I don’t know — a quantity surveyor, would they find themselves disconnected from the family, Scientology-style?Not at all. Sure, I left to become a singer and my family were all very proud of me. I performed in a group called Sheeba in Eurovision in 1981, with Maxi – who is still my best friend. We sang a song called Horoscopes.

Long before Richard Dawkins, you were making the case for rationality over superstition through song!Yes, the song was sort of denouncing astrology. It was an unusual subject matter for a song, but it was very popular.

Yet ironically, your outfit choices on the night were anything but rational. I’ve seen the clips!I will admit I’m guilty for a lot of Sheeba’s outfits. I did like a bit of bling. But that was the era of glitter and glam and I still think we looked fab. Shay Healy told us that if our song was judged on the video alone we’d have won hands down!

Why did you decide to rejoin the circus?There was TV series on RTÉ called The Big Top, which I co-hosted with Aonghus McAnally. I acted as ringmistress. So when my father retired as ringmaster, I suppose, I was the logical choice to succeed him.

Had you missed the lifestyle while you were away from it?Of course. Don’t forget, there were no mobile phones in those days. When I was performing around the world, if I wanted to get in touch with my parents, I would have to call the nearest Garda station and ask them to pass the message on.

It was once widely assumed that competition from mass media would prove fatal for the circus industry. Yet you’ve managed to adapt with the times?We’re a lot slicker now. People have higher expectations, so you have to be. We have rock’n‘roll lighting and we can sell tickets through our website. Performers will contact us on Facebook and send us YouTube clips of their act. And, of course, they all have agents. Yet the core of our business is traditional. We still roll into town, put up the big top and create an illusion out of sawdust and spangles.

Circus is now recognised as an art form by the Irish Government. Had it been looked down upon prior that?In certain circles, yes. Being recognised as a standalone art form by the Irish Government was great. Even bigger for us was being asked to perform for President McAleese. My father would have been so proud. A journalist said to me at the time ‘You’ve reinvented yourselves!’ I said ‘No, we haven’t. You’ve just started to see us in a different light.’

Finally, what is the enduring appeal of circus lifestyle that has convinced so many generations of your family to stick with it?Someone once said to me, ‘You can shake the sawdust out of your feet but you can’t shake it out of your blood’. That’s so true. Even when I wasn’t with the show, my heart was here. My sisters and I still call the circus home. Not a house, not a place, but the show itself. The road.

It’s where your heart is. It’s where your family is. It’s home.

Fossett’s Circus will be at the Electric Picnic in Stradbally, from August 31st to September 2nd

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