Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Bri Hammond
When I met Matt Wilson, it was his 49th birthday. ‘It doesn’t feel that different from 48… birthdays are like that,’ he says with a modest tug at his curled moustache.
But what is different about Wilson compared to your average 49-year-old is that he is an active circus performer. ‘It is great to still be in the circus and doing physical acts. When I first started I thought I’d give myself till about maybe 31, or 32, until I would have to hang up my boots and do something else. But, touch wood, it just keeps on going.’
Originally from Perth, Wilson first experienced the Flying Ashton’s when he was five years old, but the dream to run away and join the circus came later in life. ‘I was about 23 when I did my first handstand,’ he admits.
Setting out to be an actor as a teenager, Wilson’s career in circus now spans decades. He enjoys the scope of the profession – having worked as an acrobat, stuntman, slapstick comedian, clown, juggler, human cannonball, actor, singer, musician, director, and teacher.
Currently performing with Circus Oz, he has performed with companies nationally and internationally, most recently touring as Dame Edna Everage’s stunt double. Other highlights include bungee jumping off the Sydney Opera House on New Year's Eve in 2000 and being shot out of a cannon in the New Victory Theatre in New York.
But it isn’t all acrobatics and unicycles as a circus performer. In 2006 he came within millimetres from death when performing his human cannonball act during a matinee performance on a blistering hot day in Canberra.
Such a near death experience might see any performer hang their hat, but after a few years off to recover, Wilson returned to circus. He even devised a stage show Memoirs of a Human Cannonball exploring the themes of risk, danger, sacrifice and how far some people will go to have fun.
‘You always get to see a part of a person in a circus because they don’t just perform as a character, it is an extension of themselves.’
Armed with the ability to take the excitement, the terror, the mastering of a new trick along with the many failings in his stride, Wilson jokes about performing until he is 80. ‘I'd like to keep doing this as long as I can because it is one of the few things I feel absolutely right in – this is what I was meant to do.’
Wilson acknowledges that not everybody can say that about their career. ‘A day doesn't go by where I feel like I take that for granted. So the longer I can stay on stage the better, and if not, as long as I'm involved in circus in some way, I’m happy.’
Currently touring with Circus Oz’s But Wait…There’s More, Wilson takes us behind the guise of a circus performer to share the various lives it entails, along with the challenges and the moments of spontaneity amongst a strict regime.
From lessons on the art of doing nothing, to what a near death experience can teach you, Wilson is arguably as captivating as any carnivàle.
I used to be excellent at sleeping in, but when I had kids, that all changed. They are pretty grown up now, but the habit seems to have stayed, damn it. [Laughs]
So I get up pretty early and potter around for a bit and usually use that bit of quiet time in the house to just slowly wake up and listen to the birds singing and the sun rise and all that sort of stuff. I don't go onto the phone, it is just me time.
Then everything slowly comes to life. One of my daughters still goes to school so I usually make lunch for her or make sure she hasn't forgotten anything. When she has gone I will get ready for work, have a big bowl of porridge – great energy food, which you need quite a bit of for this job. I like to have quick oats, really fine cut ones, and I just add water, sultanas and cranberries and sometimes a scoop of dried fruit and a nice decent sprinkling of cinnamon and stir it all together and cook it so it is just right – like Goldilocks.
I also have a coffee machine at home and I'm a milk-with-one-sugar guy.
We start practice at ten, but I usually head in early and get on the motorbike around 9.20a.m to avoid the traffic.
I will have a cup of tea, chat to a few people and have a look at the white board which has the schedule of the day and prepare anything I need to do. With 12 or 13 people in the troupe and everyone trying to rehearse various pieces, it is really important to schedule it all and have allocated times so that people are available for this bit or that.
Come ten o’clock we will all get on the floor and start with a warm up. Basically the first hour of the day is dedicated to just having a stretch and doing basic training such as handstands and flexibility work to warm yourself up.
I like to hang from a trapeze and stretch my body out and get onto the trampoline and warm up for a while and then have a nice deep stretch.
I’ve been working on my splits and I am that close to getting them. But that said I have been trying to master them my entire life – it's literally been thirty years or more!
After warming up, it really depends on the schedule; it could be anything. For example, we might be working on the group pole act so the whole ensemble will get together and we might start by just climbing it and getting warm, and then in the rehearsal process we will identify the areas that we want to fix up.
Then we might get the band in and run through the routine a few times and iron out any problems.
We might break up into more individual acts. Quite often half the ensemble will be working on a specific act of the show and others will continue doing basic training or work in partners to practise tricks.
A lot of them you already have and you can pull out of the bag, but we just like to keep doing them as a matter of practice and as a way to keep it in your body.
Most of the strength acts that require quite a bit of stamina are good to keep doing quite regularly, or any act for that matter.
We break for an hour for lunch. Most of the time I will make my own lunch and bring it in and it is quite often leftovers from the night before. Sometimes we will just go out and buy lunch because there are so many great food places around Collingwood.
We have a housekeeping meeting where we are all sit down around the table and discuss “The Schedule” and anything else that comes up – for instance, media requests, tour details, accommodation, or any acts that might need some finessing.
We usually follow up the meeting with group music practice because we have everyone in the room so it is a good time to work on the tunes for the show. There have been a couple of times where opportunities to play at gigs have come up and that is really great fun and great to have on the side.
The afternoons are a bit more focussed on the ensemble and we might run through the entire show, or at least chunks of it. Most of the acts are together, but we might work on the transitions from act to act, which are a vital part of a show.
If we are not working specifically on the show, we will often train on the flying trapeze or go through moves.
Throughout the day you often find you are not on the schedule, but you will just find something to do. Everyone is pretty self-motivated.
Often you might be sitting in the corner with the director or one of the other performers just talking about ideas and that dialogue is important to get everyone on the same page. But we try and get the floor and do as much as we can because it is a bit more immediate. You can talk yourself around in circles sometimes.
The last half hour is left as a grey area in the schedule because everyone is usually pretty tired by then. You are left to your own devices in a way, to either tidy up the place, get your things together or just work on something you didn't get a chance to work on.
Each day is a major workout, so when you get home the last thing on your mind is going for a run or something. Fairly regularly I’ll have a nice hot bath with some Epsom salts to relax.
Then I’ll cook some dinner. I used to be a terrible cook when I was younger but somewhere along the line I started learning a few things and quite like it. But during the week ,I keep it fairly basic; a couple of meals might be a bit more adventurous.
The rest of the night is usually spent on the couch just watching a bit of really bad TV because that's all that seems to be on. Fortunately there are other options out there, like Netflix. I really love Game of Thrones or anything science fiction.
I’m reluctant to call myself someone who likes fantasy – I have never played Dungeon and Dragons, for instance – but that said I like getting lost in entertainment. I think there is a good reason for it, a very human reason too. I think everyone loves that sense of escapism and just putting their own lives aside for a minute.
Whether it is a TV series, a movie, a play or a circus, they are all the same sort of thing – it is a moment of pure escapism and being entertained and hopefully being transported into a different headspace and place of being. I am as much of a sucker for that as anyone, really.
My partner works in the film industry and we only really cross paths briefly in the evening because she does really long hours and goes to bed even earlier than I do. But we do get opportunities to go down the coast sometimes and have a bit of quality time.
DAILY ROUTINE ON TOUR
Being on tour is very different because obviously my family is not there and things tend to shift into more of a night-time routine as we will do the show each night. I’ll usually sleep in till around ten to recover from the night before.
We get called into the theatre around 5pm and have a warm up and go through any notes from the night before. Then it’s makeup, costume and showtime. We usually finish up around 9.30pm after a bit of a cool down and pre-setting for the next day.
Usually after that, if you are too tired you will just go back to your hotel and chill out. But often we will have a couple of drinks as a group, sit down, dissect the show a bit, and what not.
We quite often hang out together, play a few games, listen to music or watch telly. It is sort of like a family on tour, really.
In some ways, being on tour is more mentally or emotionally challenging because you are away from home for such a long time, but there is another part of it that is a little bit easier because you are just responsible for yourself. I love being at home, but it’s just different. In some ways it’s a bit like downtime.
"We quite often hang out together, play a few games, listen to music or watch telly. It is sort of like a family on tour, really."
Sometimes I'm almost reluctant to plan and to commit to things on the weekend. One thing I do like to do is go down to South Gippsland. I share a holiday house with some people near Wilsons Promontory. It is next to a national park, near the beach and really quiet and beautiful. I like to just go down there and light a fire, make nice food, play a guitar and read.
Otherwise I might do a bit of work in the garden, clean the gutters, build something. I like to have thing to do, but also like a bit of quiet time as well where I am just flat out on the couch. But generally I like to have little projects on the go.
PART IV: BEHIND THE SCENES
On the multifaceted nature of a circus performance…
I have been able to practise and exercise all sorts of things that interest me. You find there are just so many different parts to being a performer, from building props to coming up with ideas; it is really rich.
The more you do it, the more you learn and you find yourself not just thinking of an act but how it is lit, how to craft it in terms of its performance. You start seeing it as a whole picture.
On the art of doing nothing…
I really like those moments where you sit down and you have nothing to do, but you are perfectly happy doing that. I think that could be a definition of real happiness, just to sit down at your kitchen table and not feel the need to have to do anything or fill your time with some activity, or fill the air with words just because you feel a bit nervous sitting down and being quiet.
You are feeling content with just nothing and enjoying that moment in your life. Moments like that are rare, perfect moments.
They come from something inside you that it is not being stimulated by some other thing, it is so simple and yet it is so challenging and hard to find.
On slowing down…
The pressure you put on yourself is immense and just to simply be able to slow down and not feel guilty is difficult.
I think such moments used to exist a lot more when the world was a lot slower, I suspect, but everything is so fast now. The answers are just a press of a button away, which is a wonderful thing, but it is not everything. There is something else that is a bit grander than that.
On the relationship between routine and spontaneity…
It probably sounds like a day in the life of a circus performer is very structured and routined, but within that there is a lot of scope for exploration and spontaneity.
Part of the job brief in a way is to encourage creation – to let yourself be open to what instinctively or intuitively comes next and allow that flow to happen. In that way it is very unstructured, in a sense.
You’ve got to have some structures in place to allow it to happen, but on the whole I would say I am not a structured person. I like to be reasonably organised – my shed has shelves and boxes and it is quite tidy – but there's a little bit of mess on the bench.
I like a bit of chaos here and there because that is where surprises come from and what makes life not so predictable.
On making his own circus props…
There’s that old chestnut: if you want something done you’ve got to do it yourself. But there is also something really cathartic about making my own props.
As I’m sitting there making something, I’m not necessarily thinking about the act, but it brings you into that world so that when you come to performing, it is just a piece of you. There is something more to it, rather than just getting someone to whip something up, I don't know, it just means you have invested a bit of your soul and your love into it.
On laughter and resilience…
Laughter is always important – and being able to laugh even at the unfunniest of times. Laughter and resilience. Being able to take the knocks and bounce back from them.
There is a fine balance between being sensitive and resilient as well.
I’m not talking about a tough kind of resilience, I am talking about a resilience that is able to accept failure. Because out of failure is where you learn the most important things.
On having a near death experience…
I don’t think one moment can change everything – all your experiences have an accumulative effect on where you are at and where you get to, but that was certainly a big one, a kind of a big punctuation mark I guess.
The biggest lesson from that was really not to take for granted how other people regard you or feel about you.
When you realise that if you didn’t land on your back but instead on your neck or spine you could have died, that is a pretty profound thing. All these people were ringing me up to say they were glad I was okay, and that was very humbling.
To know there are people out there that care about you, you’ve got to acknowledge that and not forget it and it is a really valuable thing to have, because not everybody does. I think a lot of people do have that, but might not realise it.
On telling people how you feel…
As clichéd as it sounds, the accident also made me realise it’s important to let the people I care for know that, because why keep it to yourself?
Those sort of things should be expressed. Don't get caught out one day wishing you had have said something, and you didn't. Express those things.
"Learn to fail, otherwise you will fail to learn." – Matt Wilson