A frowning child is insisting I pay to get in, even though this is MY Circus. Time is tight and there’s no time to argue so I search in my pockets. No cash, no cards. He looks determined and so do his be-spangled gang members who are gathering to support him. I dig deeper. Here it is! A pebble with a red heart on it, painted in nail varnish.
And I’m on.
The Big Top music plays, you know the tune. “Da da dadada da da daah da. Da da dadada da da daah da”. In the centre of the circle hangs the expectant trapeze. With my sparkling top hat catching the light and my cloak trailing behind me I’m doing a magnanimous ‘Ringmaster’ circuit, welcoming the over-capacity audience with their ‘aren’t we just fantastic after all’ smiles. The excitement is HIGH about tonight’s acts, some have been advertised gloriously and others…well, let’s wait and see.
In the Skyros Holidays brochure it says, ‘there will be a final night cabaret, which is usually held in the courtyard’. But we are high on the hill in ‘The Magic Circle’. What sorcery is afoot under this August moon and how did all these children GET here anyway?
They came with their parents. First to Athens by plane, then to Skyros by ferry and then by bus to Atsitsa Bay. That was a week, or maybe two weeks ago. It’s that kind of holiday, after three days who cares? You’re never going home anyway, why would you, unless it’s to see your dog? Oh yeah, and school.
STEM, you’ve heard of STEM? Science, Technology, English and Maths, they’re the main subjects teachers have to teach back in ‘the real world’. But STEAM is what bosses are looking for in school leavers. What’s the A in STEAM for? The Arts. Creativity, imagination, curiosity and the ability to think fast. To make connections, to join the dots and think out of the box.
You probably couldn’t get further away from the national curriculum than we are here on this remote Greek island, but as someone who has worked in education in the UK I can feel we’re STEAMING along tonight. Yes, metaphorically and literally. Earlier, while some parents were squeezing into their circus act costumes in their bamboo huts others were meeting in the sea-terrace bar early to add one or two ‘final night’ Mythos beers to their ‘oh, what the hell’ bar tabs.
So, let’s get something clear here. Is this a kids’ holiday, an adults’ holiday or a family holiday? The answer is a resounding “YES!” Plus, it’s an ‘alternative’ holiday.
The Skyros Centre was the first of its kind to open over thirty five years ago and, according to The Guardian, “it’s still the best”. Though it began in Skyros Town, a world heritage site on Skyros island, there’s an even further flung centre in Atsitsa Bay on the other side of the island from the port. Here you can study stand-up comedy, do yoga every morning, immerse yourself in storytelling, write poetry, abseil, learn to wind-surf, play African drums, learn to sing in harmony, sort your life out with legit psychology AND learn circus skills. There are open mic nights, five- rhythms dance sessions, onsite massages, three delicious meals a day and the kind of romantic starlit liaisons you dream about but never… oh, hang on a minute. I’ll be back soon.
Why am I calling it MY circus? Because, as one of the eight teachers here, I’ve been selected to be the overall course director for this particular two week stint. I’ve taught in many places around the world but there is nothing like Atsitsa Bay for bestowing freedom within a structure on its teachers and directors. Consequently, when I walked around and saw how proud the trapeze students were of what they were learning I spoke to the other teachers, made sure that they were happy to bring their various acts into a circular performance space instead of the courtyard stage, and moved the whole operation up here. Atsitsa Bay is an example of community in action, based on democratic principles laid down by the founders. I don’t have time to go into it now but it’s fascinating.
For the past couple of days some people have been painting backdrops, rehearsing songs, making costumes, learning poems, refining comedy sketches, and others have been lying on the beach saying, “I do enough of that back at home thank you very much. Does it kick off at 7? I’ll see you at 6.59pm precisely, cocktail in hand”.
And what else have the kids been doing? There’s a dedicated child co-ordinator, someone who is both resourceful in imagination and materials to look after them, free-ing up the parents do their own thing. So one day this increasingly feral, but paradoxically disciplined, gang might be building a den onsite out of sticks, crates, and blankets, then decorating it with paintings and signs. The first sign, every year without fail, will say ‘Kids Only. Adults Keep Out!’
Another day they might be harvesting figs from the trees around the site or being taught the basics of wind-surfing. Are they safe in the water with only one child minder? D’you know what? If there are sixty people onsite there are sixty child-minders. They couldn’t be safer and this pays off in spades. They become generous, helpful and entertaining in conversations because they feel more and more valued.
So, as Ringmaster, I invited them a couple of days ago to introduce the acts tonight but in a special way. It’s been their mission to examine the list of performers and find out something from them that the rest of the community don’t know. They will reveal it by themselves as they invite those acts to the centre of the ring when I give them the nod. There’s really very little for me to do except stay calmly upbeat in the centre of the crazy whirlwind of talent that’s about to hit the top of this moonlit hill.
And what does it do for their self-confidence? After coming with her Mum for several summers in a row one talented young lady, who used to lean towards introversion, has just been made head girl at her London school. This place, and this community, has played a part in changing her life I think.
And what of the adults? After the first couple of days they open up like books in a library that’s been locked for a few years while other things got done. It’s only the end of July and the whole of August when the kids are here, the rest of the season the place is theirs alone. Advertised as a ‘singles holiday’ it’s their recreation ground.
Personally I love teaching when the children are here. I’m confident that, with their newly nurtured STEAM approach to life, they’ll change the world for me in the next decade. In ten years time, when the Cuadrilla CEO is grating his teeth, looking out over his mildly profitable wind farm, built at great expense on his short-term cash bonanza fracking site, he’ll be muttering just like me, searching for that pebble with the heart on it, “I would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids!”