Social circus grandfather – Reg Bolton

As Irene and I pulled a limp and battered Reg to shore, and he lay gasping on the sand like a beached monk seal, I realised that I had very nearly gained international infamy by ending the career of the world leader of social circus. The Hawaiian surf almost wiped out my mentor and friend before he’d completed his masterpiece PhD describing how and why circus arts helps develop healthy children and communities.

It was only after reading Reg’s ‘Circus in a Suitcase’ and later ‘New Circus’ in the 1980’s that I discovered how my interest in teaching juggling and other circus arts could lead to positive social changes. I really liked what Reg was doing…… a lot. He worked with kids living in tough conditions, kids who could get physical and kids who were in need of some fun. This pretty much described the kids in my Hawaii programs and I was ready for some guidance to proceed to the next step.

Reg was a clown, teacher, director, actor and a writer and he became my guide and inspiration for my HICCUP circus program long before I met him in Sarasota, Florida in 2001. He was a lively charismatic person gushing with dreams for the future of circus and how circus skills could improve the lives of kids everywhere. He described the bigger picture with his social circus (aka new circus) concept serving “as a social intervention tool for the purpose of community capacity building.” These words were music to my ears after my community development experiences in St. Lucia and Canada had left me wanting to be more actively involved in the health and welfare of the community in which I lived.

It all started for Reg in 1970 when he moved to Edinburgh to become an inspirational director of the Theatre Workshop. His project organized community theatre shows for young people in the deprived outlying Edinburgh estates not served by the traditional arts groups or festivals.

After some tough challenges Reg gradually started winning over suspicious children and community leaders. He continuously produced new shows, usually with puppets, circus skills and large comic characters. In 1975 he learned basic circus skills himself for one of the shows and soon after started Suitcase Circus. He later decided to create his own circus school “where elegance and perfection would not be the only criteria”.

The Edinburgh summer circus school opened in 1977, and over three seasons the concept of community circus began to develop from his commitment to see “circus schools appearing all over the map”. He then travelled, taught and created clubs and youth circus festivals but the UK became too narrow for Reg’s global ambitions. Reg’s family moved to Perth, Western Australia in 1985, and he became a leader in the new circus movement that was about to start spreading across the world. Reg pioneered the concept of “new circus” during the days when the traditional large-scale tented circus was in rapid decline. He described himself as “an enthusiast who became excited about the possibilities of using circus for education, self-fulfilment and community development”.

It was during my Jugglers for Peace trips to Nicaragua that I decided I wanted to use circus to help save the world and build community. Reg had meanwhile adopted the theme ‘Circus to Save the World’. He believed that “circus is essentially generous, giving, caring and co-operative while out there is competition, aggression, predation and annihilation.”

Reg eloquently would describe activities that he believed every child needs to do but are mostly always stopped from doing. He claimed that our modern society, fearful of litigation, sadly and tragically limited kids access to these playful, creative and sometimes risky activities. I agreed passionately with him and fully aligned with his position.

I never had a chance to meet and talk in depth with Reg or any other youth circus directors until 2001 and it was only then that I reflected on our pacific island culture. Apart from my own trial and error efforts all I had to educate, guide and inspire me on the community development side of circus were the books of Reg Bolton.

Just a month after my daughter’s birth I received another gift when Reg called to say he wanted to visit us for a few days. What a treat is was for me to be able to show him firsthand what we were doing with the inspiration he had originally given me back in my formative days in social circus.

Reg was kind enough to write a testimonial letter for us to support our future fundraising. It remains one of my dearest treasures and says in part, “I have been developing and operating circus programs for young people ‘at risk’ since 1975. I have worked on four continents and am currently in Western Australia, completing a PhD study on ‘Social Circus’. I recently visited the home of Hawaii’s HICCUP Circus. What I saw there impressed me greatly. Circus people are both specialist and versatile. They must think and act laterally to get results, and will discover talents in themselves applicable to many other fields of work. Historically, circus may have invented multi-culturalism, always welcoming artists of other races, and making a virtue of differences. You are fortunate to be the home of the uniquely talented residents of Bellyacres, who have international status and connections. In my mind, their performance venue, ‘S.P.A.C.E.’ will be a world focal point of excellence, both in performing arts and also as a model of community development. I intend to use “HICCUP” as one of the three case studies in my PhD, and look forward to a long association with your island. Please give Mr Ellis and his colleagues all the support you can. You will be amply rewarded. Reg Bolton Hon. President, National Association of Youth Circus, (UK) Deputy Chair, Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association.”

Despite his near drowning Reg had planned to return soon to Hawaii and I felt really sad that he never got to see our Seaview Performing Arts Centre for Eduction (S.P.A.C.E.) in action because, in June 2006, he tragically died of a sudden heart attack and the circus world suffered a great loss that day.

Fortunately Reg completed his Phd thesis about how social circus works and left the circus world a huge lasting legacy. R.I.P. renegade Reg.


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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “Social circus grandfather – Reg Bolton

  1. Another fascinating story full of excitement and inspiration. Graham your life continues to be a treasure chest of remarkable experiences and people.

    Liked by 1 person

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