In our opening episode of season 4, guests Dea Birkett and Alex Lewthwaite talk about running back to the circus, performing and seeing the potential in everything.
Dea is a former circus performer and current Ringmaster of Circus250, established in 2018 to celebrate and showcase circus to new audiences. Alongside her work in Circus250, Dea is also Creative Director of Many Rivers Films and former Director of Kids in Museums, a charity dedicated to making museums more inclusive of families.
Alex is a 2nd year student at the University studying Medicine. He has just completed a group project which involved blogging (and vlogging) about life as a medical student during the pandemic.
Season 4 is all about student voices. Each episode features a student in conversation with a member of the wider community. Sharing experiences and finding unexpected common ground.
Subscribe now for University of Edinburgh community exploration and really good chat.
You can find more information on the Sharing things website.
Kate 0:05 Welcome to season four of Sharing things. Lots of things have happened, and kind of nothing's happened. We're still recording remotely, but there's a new host. I'm Kate, your guide and conversation wrangler. In this episode, I chatted to Alex and Dea and found out that wild swimming can be a paddling pool in the garden.
Hello Dea and Alex, thanks so much for joining us. How are you both doing?
Dea 0:33 I'm good. Very good, thank you.
Alex 0:36 Same, fantastic.
Kate 0:37 So I thought to start off with you could both just quickly tell each other a bit about yourself, so you're not two complete strangers?
Dea 0:45 Okay, well, I'm on my matric card, I have 1977. That's when I went to Edinburgh. Obviously, that was a long time ago. And since then, I've had several lives. I've written books. I've been a guardian journalist for quite a long time. And then, and I ran away to the circus, and then I became old to be in the circus. So I left the circus and ran an arts charity. And then I was hitting 60 and I thought, where was I happiest? And I was happiest in the circus and that's where I am now.
Kate 1:24 That's amazing. And where are you calling in from just now Dea?
Dea 1:27 At the moment I'm calling in from London, but I'm not in London very often, but I am actually here for rehearsing.
Kate 1:35 Excellent. Amazing. And what about you, Alex, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Alex 1:40 Yeah. I'm Alex. I'm 19 and I'm in my second year of medical school here at Edinburgh University. Yeah, I'm calling from Edinburgh itself actually, my flatmates haven't been able to get back since Christmas, so I'm now in one of their rooms actually to record this because it's quieter. So Peter, if you're listening, apologies, but hope you don't mind.
Dea 2:04 Well, that's one thing we've got in common Alex is I actually have 19 year old twins. One of them tried to get in to do medicine in Edinburgh and didn't. But you did [laughs]. So congratulations.
Kate 2:22 For this episode, I asked you both to bring along an object a significant object. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what you brought today.
Alex 2:32 Sure. So I've brought along-- this is a, it's like a wooden frog thing that is also like a musical instrument. I got it on a holiday, like five or six years ago. And it's sort of, if you sort of stroke it's back with like a stick that comes with it, it sort of makes the sound, so I'll just play it a bit. [Croaking frog instrument sound]. So if you use your imagination, you can sort of imagine it's a frog croaking. But I feel like the visual stimulus definitely helps. Yeah, I forgot I actually had this until I went home over Christmas and I was just in my attic and I sort of re-found it. And yeah, it's I think-- it's actually pretty common like I was-- I called up my friend and we were talking about this podcast. And I mentioned I was going to bring this frog on then like, two seconds later, she whipped out her own frog that she had herself. The reason why I chose it is, sort of music has always been like a big part of my life. I actually almost considered going in to do music university before I sort of settled on medicine. So yeah, I guess it sort of points to that aspect of my life.
Dea 3:52 Have those instruments got a name?
Alex 3:54 I'm not sure I probably should have googled that before. But...
Kate 3:58 Yeah, Alex, I also looked this up because I must admit, I have one of those frogs too [laughs]. When you said that your friend had one too and I was packing up my flat at the weekend because I'm moving and I came across it and I was like, oh, wow, Alex has got one of those too.
Dea 4:14 Did you say where you got it, Alex?
Alex 4:15 So this was on holiday in Gran Canaria. It was at sort of like a hotel complex and there's like a market on the promenade by the beach, like some nights and yeah, I just sort of nabbed it.
Dea 4:31 Souvenirs are fantastic things, aren't they? Because they have that kind of-- they hold that magic while they're in the place and sometimes when you bring them back home, it's gone. And you can't-- you just lose all sense of why you ever bought it. I remember, I was on holiday in Morocco, and I saw this beautiful horse bridle. I mean, I don't have a horse, but this beautiful horse bridle with all sort of bejewelled hanging up in a market as I thought I must have that, so I bought it as a souvenir. And when I brought it back and hung it up in my bedroom, it looked absurd. It didn't only look absurd, it smelled revolting, because it was uncured leather. It was something about-- sometimes you can bring the magic back and it holds it and sometimes it just disappears the minute you remove it from its geographical place.
Kate 5:23 And Alex, why did you choose that over, maybe like other instruments that you have, if you're saying that you're, you know, quite into music?
Alex 5:31 It's sort of like portable, it is like easy to sort of show you guys. Because I mean I've got, I've got guitars, I've got violins that I, I probably play, play more than the frog [laughs]. But, I don't know, there's something or at least I thought it was a little unique, but clearly, it may, it may not be. I've been writing an album actually for the last few months. So I might sneak it on one track just in the background.
Kate 5:59 Oh wow, that's cool. How is that going?
Alex 6:03 It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done, because sort of, I enjoy-- like the lyric writing I find easy and like to come up with music, but the whole like production side, like on the computer. In lockdown I sort of realised like why wait, I can do it now. There's, there's ways you can sort of just turn your bedroom into a studio and record. So I decided why not give it a go.
Kate 6:30 And you mentioned that you had thought about doing music as a career instead of medicine. Do you have any regrets about not choosing to go with music?
Alex 6:41 Yeah, so, so growing up, I had sort of like two, two parts of my life, there was like a sort of academic-sciency half of me, and then there was like the very musician, sort of creative side of me. And that was the sort of decision I had to come to terms with when deciding what to do with my future. And I think what it came down to was that if I chose to do music at university, there would be less of a scope for me to follow, like the sort of academic-sciencey route of my life. But if I did medicine, as I'm doing now, I can always have music, just even, like, for example what I'm doing now, but just, it's always gonna be something there. And yeah, I thought that was just-- it just made more sense to me.
Dea 7:30 If you wanted kind of time to do it, why did you choose medicine? Because medicine is like the most difficult and must be the most time consuming. I mean, why don't you just do something a bit easier, and you can do the music as well.
Alex 7:45 If I went to do something that wasn't as difficult as medicine, but I didn't really enjoy it, then I feel like that's, that's a little worse off than doing something I really enjoy. But even if it's a lot time consuming, but yeah, having both areas of my life that I enjoy rather than just one. And just waiting to get off work as, as a I don't know, accountant or something, to go home and do some music. No offence to any accountants listening [laughter].
Kate 8:16 Do you find that sort of writing music and, you know, performing and things like that, is that a bit of an escapism for you for, you know, when you're studying?
Alex 8:27 Yeah, definitely, definitely. And I feel like it is different parts of your brain you use. You can sort of do a lecture for, for a few hours, then go do music for a few hours and you don't really feel exhausted, like you're recharging your, your sciencey mind while you're-- when you're playing, playing your guitar or whatever. So I think that's nice.
Kate 8:56 And Dea, what about you, what object did you bring along with you?
Dea 9:00 Well I've brought my ringmasters jacket, which is here. I'm just going to stretch and get it.
Kate 9:10 Wow.
Dea 9:10 So it's really the most beautiful thing. It's, it's a kind of Tim Burton version of a ringmasters jacket. It has all the traditional elements, so it's red, it's a shape of a riding jacket. So it's short at the front and has big tails at the back. But beyond that, it kind of goes into the realm of fantasy. It's got this huge collar at the back, which is-- it looks like it's wired but it's not actually wired, it's done with plastic, moulded plastic inside it. And then it's got lots of sequins and gold braid. It's all made from recycled materials. So the red jacket which looks like velvet is recycled ring doors. Ring doors are the big red curtains that come across the back of a ring in a traditional circus and the stiffening inside it so that it stands up inside the lining, that's old trapeze tape.
Kate 9:10 Wow.
Dea 9:23 So it's made from bits of old circuses and at the back, the tail - because you have to have a tail on a ringmasters jacket - is completely big, wild, curly, standing up thing like a big wave that comes out behind the body. So it's very difficult to sit down on. This was made for me by a woman called Becky Truman, who like me, was a circus performer, an aerialist, she was an aerialist, I wasn't an aerialist, so she worked the trapeze as a young woman. But now, what she does now, she makes circus costumes and she often uses recycled materials from the circus community. So she made it for me. And it's, and it's-- and when I put it on, it has that transformational moment where but I put on I just, I become someone else. And I think that's, for me, that's what circus is so much about is that ordinary people become extraordinary on stage or in the ring, and wondrous and beautiful. And I feel that incredible transformation, the minute I put it on. And also, of course it has a top hat, which of course, like that it was a riding jacket, the jacket, the top hat was actually a riding hat, not a top hat. So traditionally it would be shorter than a top hat. And of course, I've also got my, actually I can blow it for you. So you could have a bit of sound to go with your frog sound. [Sound of a whistle blowing]. This is my ring masters whistle because every ring master has a whistle and it's to-- you blow it so many times at different points. So maybe three blasts to let people know it's five minutes to the show begins, so wherever they are behind the ring doors, wherever they are, they know to gather to get ready to enter the ring. The ringmaster isn't just someone in a, in a beautiful jacket that's walking around the ring, the ring master is actually managing the show. They're like the production manager of the show. So they time things, they check safety, they do all that kind of stuff. And they do it in a beautiful costume. So it's my ringmasters jacket that transforms me and takes me back into the circus which I love so much. As a you know, a woman in my 60s, who is normally totally invisible walking along the street, nobody sees older women. Older women often talk about the invisibility of the older woman you can't get served in a bar, you know, you're waving your arms around in a cafe to get the waiter to see you all that. But if I put that jacket on, everybody sees me. It kind of counters the growing invisibility of me as I get older is countered by that extreme visibility of my gold and red, huge ring masters jacket.
Alex 13:18 So do wear it to the bar to get served?
Dea 13:20 [Laughs]. I wear it at every single opportunity. Of course there are no bars to wear it to at the moment, but as soon as there are I will be. If there's any kind of occasion-- I've worn it to weddings and things like that, which is a kind of slightly odd thing to do to turn up your cousin's wedding in a ringmasters jacket. But hey, no one's gonna notice me in a little cocktail dress are they? So you have to do something.
Kate 13:49 What drew you to the role as a ringmaster specifically?
Dea 13:55 Well, I suppose in some ways that my interim career between circus performer and circus ringmaster was a lot about producing things, you know, running a charity, whatever. And as I said earlier, the ring-- a ringmaster is in a sense produces the circus so I had those skills of putting things on. So the ringmaster is part performance, but also part producer. Alex says he's, you know, he's got a musician in him as well as a medic. Well, I've got a kind of performer in me as well as a producer, and the ringmaster marvellously brings those two aspects together in one place. But also obviously I am too old [laughs] to perform otherwise, I'm not gonna-- I can't, I couldn't do it physically anymore. Being a physical performer in, in circus of any form is generally younger people like athletes or whatever, you wouldn't be doing it at my age.
Alex 14:58 What was the sort of performance you did when you were younger?
Dea 15:03 Yeah, you see I, I worked in traditional circus. I don't now, I work more in contemporary circus but, and I worked with elephants. There are no elephants anymore. And I'm absolutely fine with that, it was a past era. I rode elephants, I performed on elephants. I left because the only female in the ring older than me was my elephant Julia, and Julia was 53.
Kate 15:29 How do you think that the circus has changed over the years?
Dea 15:33 Circus has always been very dynamic. It's been around for just over 250 years now. And it has always been very, as a kind of on the edge of popular entertainment has always therefore responded and sometimes set popular trends. So it has changed enormously, at different points in its history. So the original circuses 250 years ago, were all ground based. And then they slowly over about the first 50/60 years, went into the air. And it was in the 1860s when the first flying trapeze happened, for example, which was a great innovation, and it was invented by a man called Jules Leotard. And he wore a little stretchy, swimming costume kind of thing. And that's the leotard, it's the leotard is named after Jules Leotard, who was the first flying trapeze artist. So the circus has been kind of the forefront. It was very much in the late 19th century at the forefront of women's emancipation. At a time when women were not allowed to perform on a theatre stage, they could perform in leotards in the circus. So circus always had women performers long, long before any other live performance, they were in the circus. There were lots of black performers in the late 19th century too. It's always been a kind of place for outsiders. And that's something I really love about it, the fact that it's very welcoming of outsiders, and different. You know, it's evolved, it's changed, it's wonderfully dynamic, different. So the change has been enormous and welcome.
Kate 17:31 And thinking specifically about performance, Alex, do you perform any of your music?
Alex 17:39 Well, not recently [laughter]. I had a YouTube, I have a YouTube channel, actually, that I started in my first year of high school. And I sort of regularly upload videos and that. I think lockdown was, was a good time for me, especially the first one, to just sort of spend a hundred hours on a project and, you know, spend my time that way. But my-- yeah some of my best memories are from performing. I had a, I had a-- I was in a rock band in high school. And we've played a couple of shows. And I think that's, that was probably my, my best night. If I had to pick a best night it would be one of those shows. Yeah.
Kate 18:23 What was it about it that you enjoyed?
Alex 18:26 I think it's sort of stepping out of your comfort zone. And it's sort of, it's a rare, a rare experience. Like because I, I'd say in normal everyday to day life, I'm, I'm probably like a little introverted, maybe. But I also love, like, just performing in front of like a big crowd. And apparently, that is, that is a common thing like to have that sort of brain. But yeah there's, there's something about being, I don't know, vulnerable in front of like so many people, and then just, because music is such an intimate thing that just connects, connects you and the audience. Yeah.
Kate 19:06 Yeah. It's similar to what Dea said about, you know, when you put on the jacket, and you feel, you feel powerful and confident. So I just wondered, Alex, in sort of medicine, do you think there is a kind of performance in that? Is there a performance element in being a doctor?
Alex 19:26 Oh, wow. Yeah, I suppose there is actually especially working as part of a team, which is talked about quite a lot in the medical profession. And they call it performing an operation, I guess.
Kate 19:43 In a theatre.
Alex 19:44 Yeah, oh wow [laughter]. Yeah, so yeah, I do think there is a element of that.
Dea 19:51 And again, you've got people like Harry Hill, who's a doctor and is it, Adam Kay? Yeah, you've got quite a few doctor performers, haven't you? When you look at that, and you've got people like Richard Bean who writes plays, he's also a doctor. So you can see there must be something that brings those two elements together in some way mustn't there? But I know exactly what you mean by putting yourself up on a stage in front of people to be someone different.
Alex 20:26 Yeah.
Dea 20:27 I think a lot, I think a lot of performers are actually quite shy, but find the mask of performance allows them not to be.
Alex 20:34 Yeah, the mask of performance. I like that. That's, that's a good way of putting it.
Kate 20:42 And so Alex, you were saying that throughout lockdown, you know, you've sort of started putting more onto your YouTube channel and kind of like developing those different skills. I wondered, Dea, is there anything that you've found throughout this time?
Dea 20:58 Well, I run a circus production company, Circus250 and we have put all our performances up online now. We, we were supported to do that, which was fabulous. So I've learned quite a bit of those technical skills. I think what I've learned, also, though, is the power of live, and the need for an audience. And I noticed-- so we have done some performances, in theatres with absolutely no one in them. Empty-- to huge empty theatres for the purpose of live streaming, or recording. And it's really difficult to get all the way through a full length show with no one there. The first couple of times we did it, I don't think we were very good. And we had to, you actually had to in your mind's eye just see full seats. That was the only way to get it, you had to just populate those empty seats in your mind's eye, and have them reacting to you, otherwise it-- you couldn't-- all that energy that you get off an audience was, was not there. And it-- I've now with the less, the less and less live, the more and more I value live. And what I hope is that lots of people feel that. So that when live returns, and it's not only live performance, but live, real stuff in a museum. So we can go on and see every digital collection we like. But the, seeing the real thing in front of you in a museum, there's nothing like that. So what I hope is that people will have that same hunger for live real when we emerge from this, and the value of it will be even better recognised. Rather than everybody saying, oh, well, we can see it online now. As I say, I hope for that, I hope for that. You'll have a better sense than I do, Alex of your, your generation that might be far more comfortable in some ways than my generation of interacting with something that isn't live.
Alex 23:13 Yeah, well, I feel like the consensus right now, at least from my echo chamber online, is that people are raring to go to see live performance and just get that experience because, I mean, it's one thing sitting in bed watching a show with like, the crowd sounds in your ears. But if you're actually there, with like, it's just loud and it's, it's just an experience that you just can't, can't swap out for, yeah, a show on TV.
Dea 23:43 And it's shared. Even if you never talk to the person sitting next to you in a theatre. They're sharing the emotions with you, and it feels very lonely, doesn't it? Watching it by yourself.
Alex 23:56 Yeah.
Dea 23:56 So lonely. So sad.
Kate 23:58 Yeah. And not sharing the reactions of everyone else around, you know, the sort of the gasps or the laughs and things like that. That's definitely what I miss.
Dea 24:09 I think, I think we had-- I think it was we had to become a bit more online literate in how to, how to watch live performance online. I know my, the time-- the first couple of times I watched theatre shows online I was like, I'm not sure about this. But now I quite enjoy it. I've kind of got used to it and I'm go to the-- me and my mum, we go to the theatre once a week. We meet at 7:45 on a Wednesday evening, on our phones Zooming each other. We have a glass of wine in our hands each, we, we have a we have a glass of wine and then at eight o'clock we bang the button and we watch whatever theatre we've decided to watch that week. And then we meet in the interval and have another drink because we as we say the bar is open and then we watch the second half. We discuss it, and then at the end, we see if the bar is still open i.e. if either of us are too tired to or don't want to go on speaking or not. And if the bar's still open, we have another drink remotely, obviously, and, and if someone says to me, what am I doing on Wednesday night, I say I'm going to the theatre with my mum.
Kate 25:19 [Laughter]. Don't bother me, I'm away.
Dea 25:26 My mum, who's 87, is completely used to that now, so I think we can get there actually.
Kate 25:34 Yeah. And Alex, are there any sort of rituals or habits, like Dea was saying about going to the theatre with her mum, are there any remote rituals that you've developed throughout this time?
Alex 25:48 I can't say I have no. I mean, I've definitely got to a daily schedule, but there's nothing really specific, like, arranging like a theatre trip.
Kate 25:59 Yeah.
Dea 26:00 I, I've got a daily ritual. I'm one of these cold water swimmers.
Kate 26:05 Wow, really?
Dea 26:08 So normally I live by the sea and I go in the sea every day. But now I'm in London, I travel around with a kid's paddling pool [laughter] and a little electric pump. This is completely true. And I blow it up and I jump in it every morning and splash around in it. I fill it up with cold water and splash around it.
Kate 26:33 That is amazing. There's supposed to be some really, really good health benefits from cold water swimming. Have you-- do you feel like that, that you've felt any different from it?
Dea 26:43 Well I am I think officially addicted, so if I don't jump into cold water in the morning I get sort of in a bad mood. I don't feel as ready for the world, I'm-- I have, I have to do it now. I have to immerse myself in cold water every day. So that's absolutely a lockdown thing. But I've, yeah, I feel good for it. Amongst-- in a tiny, tiny back garden in a children's paddling pool overlooked by blocks of flats and everything. And I wear a woolly hat because that keeps your head warm. And then a swimming costume so they must, I'm probably some great early morning entertainment for the neighbourhood but I-- it's something even that, there's something about well world here I am. I've got-- I'm not in my kind of work clothes or leisure because I'm just me in my togs in the weather, whatever it is. I'm ready for you world. Chuck what you can at me today.
Kate 27:58 Wow. Alex, what about you? Are you tempted to try that?
Alex 28:04 I can't say I am no [laughter]. I roll out of bed at 11 and have some breakfast. I mean, I used to be a swimmer, actually. But then we're coming to university, I guess I just I never really, I mean, I was, I was allergic to the chlorine, which I feel was never a good mix. But yeah, I've never actually tried open water swimming. And coming from, coming from Inverness it is probably a good reason for that.
Dea 28:38 Well, the colder the better.
Alex 28:43 Up to a point.
Kate 28:45 And no, I like that, that you just, you know, you don't really care about what other people are thinking about you when you're in your woolly hat and your swimsuit in your paddling pool. Alex, what about you? Do you, you know you sort of put yourself out there in terms of your music and on, basically on the internet, do you place value in what, what other people think of that?
Alex 29:07 Definitely. I mean, I could say that it's, it's the sort of preparing the project and working on it that's, that's the real thing that matters. But-- so the reason why I'm on this podcast actually is because our, for our group project this semester at medical school, we were writing blogs and vlogs about the life of medical student in the pandemic. And we sort of got scouted by one of the communications team at the medical school. And for that I sort of made a vlog about my day just like everything I do as a medical student in a day. Like I really enjoyed making it and once it was out, I remember the next day I had a tutorial and people came up to me it's like, oh, I've watched your vlog and I loved it.
Kate 29:53 Yeah, it's nice to get that feedback from people isn't it?
Alex 29:56 Definitely.
Kate 30:01 So there is one last question that I have that we asked on each episode of Sharing things. And that is if there was a word that you could use that sums up your object what would it be?
Dea 30:15 I think mine would be spectacle. Spectacle, like show. On the recent census, it was the first time ever if you went under white, ethnic, other you could tick show woman and I ticked show woman.
Alex 30:38 Wow.
Dea 30:39 First time it was down as ethnicity.
Kate 30:42 Spectacle, that is a, that is a very good word especially just seeing the jacket in the background as well, that you know, just when it's there on the mannequin, definitely spectacle. What about you Alex?
Alex 30:52 I'm having a hard time here. Like all that's going round in my mind right now is like wood, frog. But maybe, potential? Just as in like, it could, it could go anywhere. Like it could add anything to any sort of piece of music or, or just you know, your imagination is the limit to for everything really, with all objects. So yeah, if you see the potential in everything, then, then you're on a good path. I think
Kate 31:26 I like that. I'll be listening out for the croaking frog in your album Alex [laughs]. Well, thank you so much for, for coming on Sharing things. It was really great chatting to you.
Alex 31:41 Yeah, I've enjoyed it a lot. Yeah.
Dea 31:43 I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Kate 31:51 Thank you for listening to Sharing things. Subscribe now for more conversations and more people. Take a look at our website to find out more about past episodes and guests. See you next time.
Sonia 32:01 So what is it like to graduate during a pandemic? We spoke to 2020 graduates and asked them to tell us their stories. Join us for a new podcast, Multi Story Edinburgh, available on Apple, Spotify or your other favourite podcast platform.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai