Women at work: Chelsea McGuffin

True Colors Festival Team

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March 24, 2022

When you attend a Chelsea McGuffin show, you get circus and theater that will leave you in tears, transformed, or simply thankful. Chelsea tells us more about her process and the results that can be experienced by anyone. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here’s our interview with Chelsea.

By True Colors Festival Team

Kaleidoscope by Chelsea McGuffin

Image description: A colourful scene taken from “Kaleidoscope”, a circus show by Chelsea McGuffin that’s inspired by the unique perspective of Ethan Hugh, a boy with Asperger’s. An aerial performer is suspended by silk ropes while four other cast members look up at her from a bed on the stage. Chelsea’s productions celebrate the powerful stories of whom she calls “community people” — these could be people living with Asperger’s or women with mental health challenges. Her circus workshops and inclusive production methods result in unique and accessible stage performances that have left audiences in tears, transformed, or simply thankful. Her goal? For performers and audiences to “never feel like an outsider.”

Q: Describe how you first fell in love with the circus?
I fell in love with circus arts accidentally. I grew up practicing ballet, thinking I was going to be a ballet dancer. When I got into my early 20s, I knew that I wanted to keep performing, but I just wasn’t sure in which direction. While in Sydney, Australia, I started some circus classes with an amazing teacher there, Sally Forth, who was a dancer as well. Her style of teaching circus was very much like teaching a dance technique. So I think I got drawn into it that way. And from there, I fell in love with it.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in contemporary circus?
I decided to stay in the circus because, as my career began to evolve, I fell in love with the people that work inside the industry. They seem so open and generous and willing to try many different things. I found that people in the circus really wanted to work with grassroots and were happy to work with anyone. It was very much about your personality and your enthusiasm and what you wanted to do with the things that you had, whether that was tricks, or you could be a great clown or you’re a musician. 

Q: What makes the circus so welcoming?
I think the circus community has always been a fringe sector, even from its traditions from back when it was primarily traveling circuses. It was very much about people that were sitting on the outside of the norm; traveling and living different lifestyles. So I guess the circus has always sat a bit to the side. I’ve also found through some of my storytelling in the circus, a lot of people find it hard to fit in, to find where their place is in society. They want to be creative and share their stories but do not know how to do so. And so they kind of fall into the family of circus, and then start building their skills and journey from there.

Q: Scariest performance memory?
One moment that really stands out is the show we did in London. We knew that a very special guest was coming to the show, but we didn’t know who it was going to be. And there had been talks about security, how they were going to get in, and they bought all the tickets for the show that night. Turns out, it was Madonna.

I watched her come into the venue, and she sat right in the front row, which means that she could touch the stage. It was a circus show that had a few dance numbers, which I had to do right in front of her. And that was by far the most nerve-wracking moment ever because she is very much a childhood star of mine. 

Q: Why is it important that your productions spotlight neurodivergence, mental illness, and related issues?

I’ve got more mature in my art creating and less ego-driven in terms of what I want to say. Along the way in my life journey, I’ve met some really interesting people and really wanted to share their stories. And as we’re talking about before, circus can be for everybody. It’s such a great platform to use to share stories that might be hard to talk about. And so we can use creativity and coming together in different ways to share or express challenges or differences that we all might be living with.

Q: Tell us more about Kaleidoscope, the show inspired by the life and vision of Ethan Hugh, a boy with Asperger syndrome. 

I met the young boy who starred in that show through a youth circus I was teaching at. He came with his mother who was finding it really difficult to find a group activity that he could join. It became a great community for him and we thought we should share his story because there are so many different ways we could do that through the tools that circus offers. Another beautiful part of the show was the audience. For many of them, this was their first experience of the theater. After the show, we were having beautiful conversations with all sorts of people of all ages. I remember talking to an adult man who always wanted to go to the theater but never felt safe. He knew a production about Asperger’s would be produced in a way that was safe for him as it was marketed as being sensory sensitive. That show really opened me up to thinking in terms of who I wanted to access these shows and what I wanted to be using my creative platform for.

Q: Any memorable moments from the staging of Kaleidoscope?

There were some very intimate moments of lying on the mat, and we all had to get very quiet and still and speak in whispering voices because he was having a moment where he felt like he just needed to reflect in that way, it was such a different process for creating work. And some days I would have big ideas based on discussions we had the previous day and Ethan would say something like, “Oh, no, that was yesterday. We don’t need to do that now.” And I would be like, “Okay, what are we going to do now?” It was quite beautiful for me, I think. I know it was a great journey for him and his family and the other artists. But for me as a director, I felt like I opened a whole lot of new doors and started a whole new journey for how I’d like to make work in the future.

Q: Did Ethan’s approach to theater influence the live shows? 

We had to take an unusual approach for the show flow. There were no in-between lightning states or transitional scenes – we just jumped from one scene to the next. Ethan found transitional moments very challenging, just like he did in real life. We had some little tricks that helped chop and change scenes, which also created a new way of making stage productions. There was something really nice for viewers as well, given that a lot of people that were coming to the show had different sensitivities. And so I think that also helped them because they weren’t finding themselves in these unusual lighting states or they didn’t have to endure dark moments.

Q: How has your work evolved over the last few years?

Well, each show for me, is very much about a reflection of a time or something that’s going on. I’ve always been somebody that sort of brought a bit of a community along with me when I created work, I guess more so now as I mature. I’m looking outwards to go, “Well, I’ve got a great community around me, but where are those sort of communities within our community that also want to access what we do?”

After Kaleidoscope, we did a production about mental wellness called Hysteria and that used a totally different process. But the connecting element is that all my works reflect real stories of community people, which is something that I’d like to keep doing through all my work, and using circus and theater as a way to share. 

Hysteria had a really beautiful workshop program that went with it. So it allowed people who didn’t necessarily want to be in a show to come along and explore some of their experiences or feelings through the workshops. We would have chat and play sessions and all of that is such a beautiful thing. It’s a really rich way of not just making a show but one that has a really clear endpoint. Hopefully, some of those people will be interested in coming and seeing the end product.

Q: Describe the most memorable reaction to your performances.

With Kaleidoscope, there are a lot of parents who would stay around to talk to Ethan’s mum about her experience and share different stories about what they’ve done or even just to say thank you. I think sometimes hearing somebody just say thank you can be really powerful because these are the little things you forget. A show can really have a great impact on somebody’s life, especially if they’re feeling isolated or disconnected and have not had that chance to be involved or see something like that. Or if they’re a parent of a young child who may be going through some of this stuff, it’s good to see that somebody else is out there with the same experience, but also that they’re celebrating it.

Q: You also work with a youth circus called Circus Ipswich? Tell us more about that. 

I am the creative director for Circus Ipswich, based out of a small city that’s about 40 minutes from Brisbane. And the school out there was started by a woman called Meg Hooper, and she started it as a circus enthusiast who wanted to bring circus to her community. The majority of the children that signed up just happen to be on the autism spectrum. She had known about Kaleidoscope and asked me if I would come out and develop some creative work. She wants to build a performance troupe out there with the young people and our focus is all about creative building, creative resilience and community heroes. And it’s such a beautiful thing to see the parents filming their children. There are always tears. Even for me as a trainer, I just feel honored to be with these young people and to witness how proud they are of their achievements.

Q: What has been the biggest takeaway from working with people from different marginalized communities? 

It’s beautiful. And we all have something, don’t we? We all live with something peculiar to share, so it’s lovely to just go. There’s such a welcoming feeling inside those communities as well. I never feel like an outsider, or that I’m different, or that I have more knowledge than anybody else. We’re just all here and there’s lots of hugs and lots of love to be shared, and that’s a great space to live in.

Q: The message of True Colors Festival is “One World One Family” – what do these words mean to you?

One world, one family. That makes me think of a world that we could live in, ideally full of peace, and where everyone can come together in harmony and use creativity in all sorts of different ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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True Colors Festival

TCF is a long-running international festival of performing arts. We celebrate diversity and inclusion, and embrace the fact that we are One World, One Family. We choose the arts as our platform, for its power to move, inspire and heal.

As a festival, TCF brings people together to generate exchanges, innovation and creativity; and transform the way we relate to each other.

Presented by The Nippon Foundation, TCF brings diverse artists and audiences together through concerts, documentaries, music videos, film screenings, children's programs, musicals, workshops and other activities. Since 2006, festivals have been organized in Southeast Asia and Japan, with more than 1,200 artists from more than 30 countries connecting with a global audience in more than 80 countries.

TCF invites you to journey with us, to enjoy, experience, share and spread our consciousness of being One World, One Family.

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