Combining bizarre, brave and beautiful circus acts with a Devil-driven rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, The Circus of Horrors is touring the UK again, taking their brand new show, Voodoo, to around a hundred theatres across the country. We had a chance to have a quick chat with the show’s creator and ringmaster, Dr Haze…
This year’s show is called “Voodoo”. Do your ideas for the show come first, or do you fit the idea around the acts you have?
A bit of both. I’ll come up with an original concept, and I’ll look for certain acts to make that work, and then another act will come forward and I’ll think it will be perfect fit for the same idea.
What’s different about this year, compared to last year?
This year, we have lots of new acts and lots of new people. We have a strongman and crossbow act from what used to be Transylvania, from Romania. The difference there is that it’s the girl throwing the knives, which is very rare. Nearly always you get a guy throwing knives around a girl, this act has completely spun it round. He’s a massive guy, and she fires longbows and crossbows, all sorts of stuff around him. And then he goes off and does an amazing strongman act. In fact, all the dangerous stuff is done by girls this year. We’ve got great aerial acts – a girl hanging by her hair, hanging by her teeth, by the back of the neck, stuff like that. So it’s a sort-of nod to the Suffragettes in their anniversary, if you like. We’ve also brought back some acts we haven’t seen for a few years. It’s working really well!
What does the Voodoo theme bring to the show?
I like the idea of voodoo, the word conjures up a lot of great images. So I came up with the story of a voodoo curse being placed on a family and a voodoo creature that keeps appearing. The guy who plays the creature is a fantastic contortionist. If you remember the film The Exorcist where Regan’s head twists completely round – that was done with a puppet back in the day, it would be CGI if it was made now – well, he does a very similar thing to that, but for real. He’s almost made of rubber. His legs and feet are facing one way, and his whole torso and head turn around to face the other. It’s quite remarkable. So he does really, really, really extreme contortion, so we thought he’d be the perfect person to play this Voodoo King character.
Where do you find your acts?
Well, the contortionist is from Tanzania. We’ve got a group of Tanzanian acrobats, and they found him, and said to me “you need to take a look at this guy, he’s amazing”. So I watched a YouTube clip of him, and said “book him, he’s perfect for the character I want”. The strongman and crossbow couple from Romania, they’d never been to the UK before, sent me a YouTube clip, and thought that as we’ve never had an archery act or a strongman act, and the fact that it’s the girl throwing the knives, would be a really good change. So a lot of people find me. And the people we’ve already got, we try to get them to change their act a bit, so you’ve still got the great characters in there who’ve been there before, but they are doing different stuff.
What about brand new talent?
A lot of young circus performers will see the show and come forward and say they can do this and that, and would really like to join The Circus of Horrors. For a lot of people, it’s a dream to join something like The Circus of Horrors. The old adage of wanting to run away and join the circus is still very apparent. I get emails nearly every day saying they’d love to join The Circus of Horrors, and they can be normal circus artists or just people with some unusual talent.
What about people who are just keen to join in?
Talent has to come first. What they look like is important, but they don’t have to be beautiful – they can be really ugly. We employ anyone from any walk of life, no matter what the look like. The talent is the first thing. We wouldn’t take a beautiful girl on, for example, if she couldn’t do anything. It would be pointless. But if they were a beautiful girl who could swallow swords, or do a great aerial act, or whatever, they we’d definitely consider her. But equally, if they were really ugly but had a great character, and were a great performer, we’d take them too. So we are an equal opportunities employer!
Do your acts have to have ‘alternative’ backgrounds?
People we’ve got come from all walks of life. We have people from traditional circus backgrounds, but we’ve also got people who’ve never been in a circus in their life, and they come from a completely contemporary background. We mix the whole thing together into a big melting pot – and the voodoo comes out!
What’s your background?
I was born and bred in the circus. My Mum and Dad were in the circus from before I was even born. I was brought up in Preston, Lancashire until I was 11, when my Dad took me with him to work in a circus in Ireland, this was in the early Seventies. He got me a job as a fire eater, even though I’d never lit a match. I had to stand in a circus ring and pretend I’d been a fire eater all my life. I would stand there and fire eat, and the circus people would also pretend too, when in fact I’d only just learnt. It was a real baptism of fire (excuse the pun!).
How did you come up with The Circus of Horrors?
I left the circus when I was 20 to have a bash at rock ‘n’ roll, because I’d lost interest in the traditional circus, to a degree. Circuses were having to change because of animal rights protestors. Whatever your views on the use of animals in circuses, a man in a cage surrounded by lions or tigers is very exciting, and if you take that out, you need to replace it with something equally exciting, and a lot of circuses weren’t doing that. They were taking the animals out but not replacing them with anything, so they were becoming quite boring to me. So I did rock ‘n’ roll for a while. And then, a few years later, I had the idea of combining two of my passions – circus and rock ‘n’ roll – with a third one, horror. Growing up in the 1970s, there were movies that really changed the general perception of horror, things like The Exorcist, The Shining, Carrie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I was too young to watch them, but I watched them anyway. And because of those three elements – horror, circus and rock ‘n’ roll, I became Dr Haze and created The Circus of Horrors.
Where have you performed?
Well, we started at the Glastonbury Festival coming up to twenty-three years ago. We now do about a hundred different UK venues a year, and then we travel all over the world. We’ve been to Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Hong Kong, Japan, and even to Moscow. We’re the only British circus to go to Russia. We didn’t think it would last twenty-three weeks. Twenty-three years later, we’re still at it.
How has the show gone down with the international audiences?
We’ve got quite a big following now, worldwide. All over the UK we tend to be well attended; the home audience tend to know what they are going to get – we always give them a bit extra, but they know they are going to get this amazing rock ‘n’ roll circus, which is what they do get. But when we go abroad, places we haven’t been before – places like Japan – look at us in awe. And it was great to go to Moscow – the Moscow State Circus comes to the UK every year, but no British circus had never been to Moscow, so as we were a real trendsetter in that. Nobody knew how it would be perceived over there, as the show has a bit of campness in it. We all hear what they are like in Russia, but in actual fact there’s also a lot of ‘alternative’ people in Russia who love to see things like the Circus of Horrors, so it went down a storm over there.
Do you think the Circus of Horrors being thought of as a show for the ‘alternative’ puts anyone off seeing the show?
No, not at all. I think alternative culture embraces a lot of different people. If you think about it, when we started, if we been on a TV show, we’d have been shoved on late at night, after the watershed. What we’ve done, without changing anything – we still are extreme, and we want to be extreme – we’ve brought the extreme to the mainstream. We now do mainstream telly, like Britain’s Got Talent and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and This Morning. We will now go on those sort of programmes, without compromising, and they’ll quite openly talk about The Circus Of Horrors because it’s become an institution, and I think that’s the big difference.
Who comes to your show? Is it your show just for young people?
At the end of each show, I stand out there and see the all the crowd as they leave, and you’d think they would be 16 to 30 year olds, but we get a lot of people 60 year olds coming. You might wonder why they would like The Circus of Horrors – but they probably liked the Rolling Stones in the 60s and they just haven’t changed, and why should they? I still like Marc Bolan and T-Rex from the 70s – I’ve not changed. I still like rock music and I’m not going to like anything but rock music, that’s it for me. Getting older doesn’t mean you have to change. You might look a bit older, but it doesn’t mean you have to dress older, your attitudes don’t have to be any older, you don’t have to listen to different music. We’re a bit like The Rocky Horror Show – that attracts loads of different types of people, and we are on the same wavelength.
You said earlier about ‘taking extreme to the mainstream’. Is there a limit to your extremity? What wouldn’t you do?
Well, whatever we do, it has to be funny. It has to entertain people, that is first and foremost. If something was suggested for the show that wasn’t funny or entertaining, I wouldn’t be interested in doing it. And anything that involved real sex we wouldn’t do. We’ll have sexy people in the show, but we won’t have any actual sex. But if it involves people looking sexy, then that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. We have a dwarf lifting a bowling ball with his penis. I’d say that was quite extreme. I don’t think you can get much more extreme than that!
With your acts being so extreme, has anything gone wrong and stopped you from doing them?
Well, things have gone wrong during a show, but the audience didn’t realise and we rectified them. The sword swallower, for example, one time, he swallowed a sword and ripped a small hole in the top of his oesophagus. It wasn’t very pleasant, and he got taken to the hospital. The next day, his neck had swollen to the side of his head. They let it repair itself, and he came out. A few years later, he was swallowing a neon tube, one of the most dangerous things anybody can swallow – they have fluid inside them, they are powered by electricity, and they are covered in glass. If it breaks inside you, if one thing doesn’t get you, the others will. And what happened, he had a crack in his. We sent it back for repair, and when it came back, they made it slightly wider. We didn’t realise that. And by putting something a bit too wide down his oesophagus, he made another hole, but this time a bigger hole, and further down.
What happened next?
He carried on doing the show, but that night he didn’t feel very well, so we took him to the hospital. Red lights all the way. And when we got there, they didn’t believe what had happened, we had to prove it to them, which we did. In turned out what was happening was his stomach acid was coming out, leaking through the oesophagus, going round his heart and lungs. So they had to drain his stomach acid, and put him in an induced coma and wait for it to heal. He was in intensive care for months, and then in hospital for another two weeks. Then he was fine, and started sword swallowing a month later! But from that, he realised that he can’t do anything too wide. Unfortunately, in some cases, you have to make a mistake to get it right the next time.
What are you planning for next year? Do you have ideas yet?
I certainly have! I know what we are doing next year, but I’m not telling anyone quite yet. But I am on the lookout for suitable acts for that show.
The Circus of Horrors: Voodoo is currently touring the UK.