Circus Solarus - Tricia Cooney and Arnaldo Giordano


Part One

Interviewees: Arnaldo Giordano, born 1950
          and Tricia Cooney, born 1950

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 29 May, 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, August 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

So how did you find Australia when you first arrived here? I mean it must have been a big culture shock for you?

Well we were wogs in those days. I was five, at five I didn’t remember a lot about Italy. I went to some kind of day care group occasionally. It all worked out. I think every migrant finds that it’s different and you’re discriminated against. I’ve survived and I’m very healthy mentally as well as physically so it’s OK.

Now Patricia how did you actually meet Arnaldo?

We first met in 1969. They had poetry workshops in the Pact Theatre. We’d all gather by candlelight reading our poetry. We haven’t gone on with the poetry. Then we kept meeting over the years. We had a lot of friends in common so we didn’t actually start going out till 1973. But we first met in what’s now the Nikko Hotel. It was the old Corn Exchange down near Pyrmont Bridge.

We’d been working together since then really.

It’s been a creative partnership.

It has been a creative partnership for thirty five years or something like that.

Now you went overseas didn’t you Patricia sometime back in the seventies? What sort of skills had you picked up overseas?

Well Arnaldo went over to Italy for the first time since 1955 with his parents. I was still finishing my Arts degree. So he’d been over there about a year and I followed when I finished my degree. Then we travelled together for another year. You did that kind of thing in those days. I had supported myself through university and the end of high school doing craft work. I’d started a leather business with my sister in year 11. Then I’d been crocheting ski hats and things when I was at uni, I was on a scholarship to get a bit of extra money as I was living away from home. While we were overseas we ran out of money a couple of times. Once was in Morocco and we were stuck in Marrakech where Arnaldo learnt to use the Moroccan bow lathe. It was operated with a hand bow not with any outside source of power. You held the knife with one hand and guided it with your toes. It was a very laborious way of turning wood. So he had learnt that in Marrakech and then we went to Ibiza and met various people there. We started working at the tourist market in Ibiza.

So I was making some food and crocheting things and Arnaldo was doing some wood turning there. When we came back to Australia we decided that we would see if we could earn a living through the things that we made. We were living up on the Central Coast and we were working at Paddington Bazaar. Then gradually developed the things that we were making so we started making wet form leatherwork. We both had a bit of a background in leather. We were doing some shoes. They had a fabric upper, they were like the espadrilles. So it was leather sole and a fabric upper. Then we began making leather jewellery, the wildflower jewellery. That was in 1976 we began that. Arnaldo’s parents they remigrated back to Italy in 1976, after his Mum retired. They wanted us to go and visit them. We had intended to go back soon but of course establishing the craft business took a bit longer than we thought. Then our daughter was born in 1979 so it took us until 1980 before we went back to Italy. We were over there two years and then our second daughter was born in Italy. So we came back and kept on with what we’d been doing.

 Earth Spirit costume 1986 worn by Ronaldo
Cameron, Homage Festival, Terrigal

So when you came back to Australia in 1982, I think it was, you were involved with the Women and Arts Festival weren’t you? Tell me a bit about that?

Yes it was 1982 or 1983. We were again living on the Central Coast and there was a big rise in the community arts movement. There was quite a lot of government funding, there were all the “international years” that you might remember. The International Year of the Child and the Year of the Tree and the Year of the Whale and all these sorts of things. So there were different amounts of funding for community projects for that related to all those international years. There’d been a group that had formed out of the Women and Arts Festival on the Central Coast. They were advertising for committee members. The children were quite small and we were working at home. I think I just felt like I wanted to have some outside interest. So what started out as a volunteer role has become full time over the years.

What were you doing Arnaldo when you came back to Australia?

Well I worked with a well known wood turner for a while. Then I left that and exhibited with the Woodworkers Group of NSW. I was one of the founding members with my bow lathe. They were all saying to me “isn’t it time to go electric?” Of course they’d missed the point about the bow lathe. Its origins 5,000 years ago as one of the first machines, the potter’s wheel and the bow lathe. Then we’d left that and as Trish has already said we were working on our own things that we made. We’d decided that we’d make a living from our work. That’s what we’ve done in one way or another since then.

So at that time we were doing the wet formed leather jewellery and we were also air brushing designs on tee shirts as well.

Yes we played with a lot of different ideas.

There were a lot of community festivals in those days weren’t there? Did you get involved in those?

Yes, initially with the Central Coast Community Arts group we were involved in quite a number of community festivals. I suppose from about 1984 to 1986. We kept meeting other artists who were also working in the same way. We’d go to Newcastle and work on festivals up in Newcastle and stay with some of these artists. We all began talking about setting up a group to work on our own ideas rather than just do workshops for whatever festival was going.

 1988 Singleton Festival, Circus Solarus Fairground (Tricia in centre in yellow
Elephant costume in front of Janine on stilts) part of
Hunter Valley tour for the Bicentennial celebrations

Tell me when was Circus Solarus formed and how did that come into being?

Well as I said we met all these other artists working on these community festivals. In 1984 there was quite a seminal community arts conference up in Springwood in the Blue Mountains. That put us all together for quite a few days.

Over morning tea and lunch and dinner we began to develop an idea to set up a group. We were scattered from Newcastle to the Illawarra to Campbelltown. We were in Glenorie at the time. So it took quite a long time to work up the idea. With the bicentennial year coming up in 1987 there was a bit of funding. Not that we got any funding.

There was an opportunity there so we formed in 1987 but didn’t really begin performing as Circus Solarus until 1988 the beginning of the bicentennial year.

Part of that too was that we decided, because we did go for some funding during that bicentennial year, and we didn’t get any. That’s when we were forming so that’s when groups really need funding when they’re starting off. So we decided after that, that we would just make a living from our work, rather than go for funding. We really haven’t… you could say that we’ve got funding through the organisations that employ us. They get funding and obviously we get paid through there. We really haven’t depended on government grants to survive. That seems quite unique really.

Very hard to do in the arts world still it makes you independent and you’re master of your own destiny?

I think as you will have seen in the exhibition (at Parramatta Heritage Centre in 2009), that’s why there’s such a proliferation of different sorts of work. We work across so many different fields rather that specialising in one particular style of performance.

 The 3 original members that are still in Circus Solarus today:
L to R: Tricia Cooney, Janine Hilder, Arnaldo Giordano as Sea Creatures at Darling Harbour

Now your first performance was in 1988? What was that first performance? Do you recall it?

The very first performance was the First Fleet Festival in Botany Bay just before Australia Day.

In January.

I think it rained for the whole week.

I think we were there for ten days or something and it rained for nine.

We’d set ourselves up us solar powered performers but it was such a wet year 1988 that we wondered whether we’d cursed ourselves. I think in the long run we’ve had longevity but we did wonder what we’d started.

Waterproof things that you might have needed raincoats etc? How many people were in the group in those very early days?

It sort of fluctuated really, it was eight to ten people but that narrowed down quite quickly to six or so. They all went off and did their own thing. So the core group was really four of us and then we had a couple more people who were with us. That core group is still basically the same apart from one person. So we’ve actually been together, three out of the four people that are in the group now, the core group are the same people that started twenty one years ago.

What was your charter, these days companies have a charter, this is their mission statement. What would yours have been?

Probably much the same as it is now. We wanted to engage people with comic performances and costumed characters, to create large imagery for festivals. We call what we do the art of celebration. I think it’s still largely about that.

 Parade group for Glen Innes Land of the Beardies festival 2007,
community costume, puppet and performance project by Circus Solarus

Is it mainly performance art or are there visual aspects or audio aspects even?

We have all of that. Either a concept comes from a community that wants something developed for their festival. We can work with them to teach them to walk on stilts. To make costumes and do some big imagery and to work on a narrative or if we come up with an idea then we come up with an internal narrative. Usually when you’re in street theatre you maintain the character that you have. There is a story when we go out but people just see you as maybe a character. It’s an improvised performance. From the concept we make all the costumes and then it is us actually performing the pieces, taking on those characters. We do like to leave people laughing that’s a really important part of it. Doesn’t always happen but we can do with all the laughter that you can get from people.

The name Circus Solarus almost suggests circus and tents and things but that’s not what you do is it? Why did you choose the name Circus?

When you think of a theatre you think of the missing fourth wall. I suppose I always think of Circus Solarus as a circle in the sun and that’s what we do. We perform street theatre in the round. There isn’t a barrier there in a way between the people we perform to. What we try and do is engage them in our performances. You’ll occasionally get people who don’t want to talk to you but usually it’s a bit of fun. We’ve got all our animal characters that will come and nuzzle up to people. I guess that’s why we call ourselves solar powered circus. We started off wanting to have solar powered vehicles. But of course that was far too outlandish you’ve got to have big dreams. But ultimately we perform outdoors most of the time. Occasionally we’ll be in museums but most of our performances are outdoor festival ones.

You do allow people the possibility of playing with you. So if you are a particular character you do maintain that character and you allow people to come in and take part of that. Children are really wonderful in that way because they do… it’s all very real for them. If they see you riding a cow it’s real for them. We found that up to about six or seven they’re not puppets they’re actually real animals. They’re in a fantasy world and it’s just an extension of it. Sometimes adults really play too. At the end of that maybe they’ve got a smile on their face or you’ve touched them and maybe they’re smiling or maybe they’re laughing. That’s what we try and do engage people. Even if they’re changed for just five minutes, I think the world is very humdrum. I see a lot in the distance of people who aren’t engaging with you directly close by you can see the smile on their faces. So you are also interacting not just with the people who are just around you and you’re interacting with verbally. But also the visuals work on people from a distance as well.

I suppose a number of us have skills in the visual arts. So our costumes are always quite elaborate and you need that when you’re working in the street. You need that visual element as well as the performance element.

 Janine and Arnaldo in Camel costumes on stilts

Now when did Circus Solarus move to The Hills Shire?

Well we never really did. We’ve always been like Fred who was in our group, he was the fourth member. Three of us have been in it twenty one years. Well he was the fourth one he was in it for about nineteen years. Fred and Janine lived in Campbelltown and we lived on the Central Coast and then we lived…

I think what you’re trying to say is that Circus Solarus has never actually had a production space and we still don’t. So we’ve lived in The Hills Shire since 1986 and we’re half of Circus Solarus and Fred and Janine used to live in Campbelltown and they were the other half of Circus Solarus. We usually do a lot of the production in the kitchen and the back verandah. Fred had a slightly larger space out at Wedderburn on an artist’s colony out in the bush there outside of Campbelltown. The current members now are Arnaldo and myself and Janine Hilder and Catherine Woodger. They live down in Wollongong.

What are the four main avenues of Circus Solarus’s work?

I suppose the largest proportion of it is still the same as we began in... festivals and community projects, over the years we’ve also done a lot of work in museums and galleries and also corporate events. But I think the main things we do are festivals and community projects. I guess they’re the main things that we’ve done in The Hills Shire as well.

 Tricia as Snake Charmer in our (mock) Circus Show

You also have galleries do you and museums do you perform there?

Yes we do. They call it museum theatre that is often shows developed around the theme of an exhibition. Sometimes we’ll do children’s activities in a museum that also relate to an exhibition that they’re running.

 Arnaldo as Super Chump the Strongman with inflatable muscles

The corporate as well is the other one that we’re involved with. It can be something that we devise on a particular theme or it can just be entertainment for some corporate event or conference.

Now what sort of themes do your performances have? Tell me a bit about those?

It depends on the festival really. We were one of the permanent troupes in Darling Harbour for fifteen years. Every three months they’d call us in and they’d say “we’ve got a flower festival, a boat festival, a brass band festival, what can you do for each of those”? So I suppose all the different themes that we have come out of our history like that. We’ve got a large variety of characters and costumes that have come from theming for different events. So there’s all sorts of things. Australiana, aquatic characters, recycling, the environmental these themes have been quite large. Also quite a number of our community festival residencies will be based around a local history theme. So we’ve developed quite a few performances and parades that relate to some aspect of local history. A lot of the giant puppets you saw in the exhibition also were historical characters that we’ve made into large puppets.

They’re not always exclusively comic characters but predominately… the power of laughter.

Go To Part Two