Keep an eye out for the ‘curbside carnies’ bringing circus to lockdown

Someday this spring or summer – hopefully soon – you may notice a small wooden platform wheel up to a local Melbourne park, or mall, or street. It will unfold like a present, steps will tumble down, and a performer will mount the stage: a Curbside Carnie, ready to swallow fire, belt out a tune, juggle, contort or amuse.

This contraption is currently under construction in the backyard of Sophie deLightful, a circus and cabaret performer and producer who recently had a brainwave: if pandemic restrictions mean she and audiences can't get to a stage, shouldn't she bring the stage to them? And the Curbside Carnies were born.

“Curbside Carnies” Sophie deLightful and Richard Ramblespin with dog Jasper.Credit:Justin McManus

"What people really want right now is some laughter and some joy," deLightful says. "This stage allows that contactless, COVID-safe factor."

She likes how it's a new old-fashioned idea, "like roving minstrels, travelling troubadours, I love that old-school vibe". And she senses a huge pent-up demand. Even roller skating in costume to a photo shoot for The Age, people waved and smiled, said hi. Kids gathered to watch.

"Everything is so controlled now. When I walk out the front door it's, 'OK, mask, hand sanitiser, am I safe, am I not breaking the law'. To have sparks of randomness, the unexpected things, the things that made Melbourne great when things were normal… so many of me and my friends are bursting with ideas and we've had months to come up with them."

Every 'outing' of the stage will feature a slightly different cast: deLightful says expect juggling, singing, dancing, acrobatics, balancing, unicycle, whips, fire and clowning.

But only, of course, if it's legal, and if there's support. DeLightful is talking to a range of councils across Melbourne about how it can be done safely and within the law (and using COVID-19 grants to pay the performers). Even when it's ready to go next month, she expects to have to stay within the 5km bubble around her Reservoir home.

But she is getting universally positive responses, she says, from councils who want to work with her. Already she's fielding requests from the public who can suggest where they'd like the troubadours to visit: old people who live by themselves, or a park that children often play at.

In the meantime, her performers are learning new tricks – or how to adapt old ones to the tiny (1.2m across) stage.

"Contactless circus is the future," says deLightful, who lost almost all her work when the pandemic shuttered the performing arts, and has made do with a series of Zoom cabaret shows.

"We can bring that joy back – and it's so desperately needed right now," she says. "I'm very much looking forward to summer. Even if there's not thousands of people at a festival dancing together, there will be opportunities. And the creative sector – we know how to find them."

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