Ulla Hokkanen – Circus Director
Ulla is the circus director of Galway Community Circus, the largest youth arts organisation in the city. Her parents set up a youth circus in her home town of Mänttä in Finland when she was a child. Re-joining a circus group in her adulthood was like coming home...
Tell us about your background, where you're from, how you got to where you are today?
I'm originally from Finland. Mathematics and statistics were my passion when I was in school; I loved all of that. I studied it in college but soon realised it wasn't for me. Then I had a bit of a trying to figure out what I want to do time and then many years later, I graduated from sociology and social work from the University of Tampere. I wasn't into arts really, apart from the fact that I was doing circus with my family. Other than that I never thought I was creative.
I came to Ireland just over 12 years ago to do my Erasmus in UL. I studied Politics, Social Sciences, Women's Studies. You use sociology every day; it's a good background to have for my job because that's what really interests me; the social side of circus as a tool for community development and personal development and a social tool. That's where my heart is. I happened to move into Galway from there and here I am! Well, I guess it's a little more interesting than that!
So how did you get involved with circus originally?
When I was 7 years of age, there was a youth circus company that came to my hometown. I'm from a really small town called Mänttä. There's a population of just 5 or 6,000. There was circus that came to do a weekend course in a school my sister and I, who's a year older than me, went along and we loved it. My parents were both teachers at the time; they're retired now, but my mum was a special education teacher, so they were like, 'Wow, this is brilliant, what a fantastic thing to have for the kids'. Especially mum, she'd been teaching for 30 years, but was continually taking courses and educating herself in how she could help with different learners and the kids who were struggling a bit in mainstream education. So she was always on hand to find different tools to help different individuals - so she thought it was brilliant and me and my sister loved it.
My parents then got together with another family and set up a youth circus in my hometown and my whole family was involved for ten years. Six days a week we were at the circus doing acrobatics and rolla bolla. In my first show, I performed magic in my dad's big jacket and you had to wrap up the sleeves. I was tiny, you know, an eight year old probably. But we loved it and like I said, the town was really small, and we had 100 kids involved in the circus. In Finland, there's a big tradition of volunteer work where a big group of people get together to make a big project happen, so they might build a house. There's a special word for it - Talkoo - I don't think there's a word for it in the English language. I guess after the war, people had to do that - they were building each other's houses and that's where it started. So the circus was run like that - all the parents were volunteering. My dad was able to juggle four clubs at a time and my mum is still doing headstands every day. It was just a lovely thing to have - your parents into something you enjoy and feel passionate about. As a kid, there was the idea that anything was possible. We had crazy ideas like we wanted to do a show about space and then the adults were trying to figure out how they were going to make these massive props with no money, but they made it happen and the shows are great. The costumes were pretty good - they put a huge amount of effort into it. I don't remember a moment when someone would have said, 'No, that's not possible'. It was a challenge for them as well. Then they were trying to figure out how they were going to make it happen. It was a big part of my growing up, and it was the only time I ever performed. I was a really shy kid, but in the circus shows, I really enjoyed getting up on stage. I had my best friends there and we went on exchanges, we had circus sleepovers - that was my social circle. It was really lovely.
"We're definitely growing some very amazing future adult Galwegians"
Ten years later, when I was 17 I moved out of the small town and my parents stopped doing circus as well. So did my sister. Then I went off to study and I never did circus again. Maybe I regret that now.
But you're now the director of Galway Community Circus - how did that come about?
When I first came to Ireland and had moved to Galway, I wanted some experience working with young people so I was looking for different volunteer projects to get involved in. I saw an ad in the local paper that the circus was looking for volunteers. So I started volunteering, then I started teaching a bit, I was doing administration and then six and a half years ago, I became the manager of the circus.
What is it like, working for a circus? What do you enjoy most about it?
Well, I love the challenge. I love that you can go anywhere with it - there are no limits to what you can do with circus. Of course, I love working with young people. Even though I'm not teaching, I would see them around and I would still feel that I have a connection. We have a really lovely community, with really nice people to work with. So I feel very lucky that most of the days are good days that you get to spend with nice people and positive people. I think there's a lot of positively and fun around and I think that's really healthy as an environment. If you're going to spend so much time on something, it might as well be something that is fun.
It sounds like quite a magical environment. What does it bring to the kids and the families who are involved?
I think it brings a lot of self confidence. What we're trying to achieve is to make sure that every person is involved. It instills a realisation that you're able to do things, you're able to do a lot more than you ever thought you could and there are many things you're good at. Also, if you set your mind to something, if you practice, then you can do amazing things. The circus is non competitive, so even though it's highly physical if you want it to be, it offers a bit of an alternative to things that are out there that maybe have a competitive edge. So in circus you are just challenging yourself.
What I really love about circus too is that if you think of old style touring circuses, who maybe in the morning are putting up the tent, then they have a show to run, they're selling popcorn and there's a ringmaster and you have the trapeze artist that everybody is needed and everybody has to multitask - that's the same in circus. If you have a pyramid, you need the base, you need the middle, you need the flyers. So regardless of how big or small, how strong or how fast you are, you're needed - everybody has a role. Ultimately, we aim for personal, social and community development so that people's confidence goes through the roof, they get to experience feeling proud of what they do and being in front of people.
What exactly happens at Galway Community Circus?
We teach circus arts to mainly young people between five to 20 years of age - that would be our youth circus class and they're run in different age groups. Most of our members come once a week, but some of them come up to four times a week. Then we have early childhood programmes - that's parent and toddler circus and family circus classes where the whole family comes and practices circus together. We have some adult recreational classes, some adult aerial acrobatic classes and then we work with a lot of different schools and community groups and people living with disability and special needs groups and so on. So we are primarily youth-focused, but then there's a lot more around it as well.
In the class, we teach acrobatics, aerial - trapeze, rope - juggling with balls, clubs, rings, different kinds of manipulation skills like Diabolo sticks. We do unicycling, stilt-walking, tight-wire walking, clown, hula hoops, skipping role physical theatre and dance - there's loads. We often mix into our shows music theatre skills and drama skills too.
Then we put on different shows. For the last seven years, we've had one big show a year in the Black Box Theatre, and we've had shows in a lot of other theatres around the city as well. We do shows in the Shantalla Community Centre, where we're based, and we have the big top - our own small big top. Every June, we have a mini circus festival, which has been running for about ten years. We do the parade in town, then we'd take groups outside of Galway to Europe to perform at different youth circus festivals. It just depends on the project and what the young people want to do.
What does the circus bring to the Galway community?
Galway has a really young population and although Galway has a lot of creative organisations and creative people involved, there's never enough for young people. There's never enough safe, creative outlets that are actually appealing to them, spaces where they want to hang out and have a sense of ownership of, and projects that they take pride in. So I think it's very, very important. Galway is really lucky to have the really diverse cultural sector that it has. But we're the only circus company and with 350 members a week, one of the biggest youth arts organisations in Galway; we're definitely growing some very amazing future adult Galwegians.
We were the first youth community circus in Ireland, but there's now a small community circus in Cloughjordan with 40 children involved, then there's a couple of more adult-focused circus groups in Dublin and cork, but not yet for young people. I think in five years time there will be loads of youth circuses.
What drives you?
I've been that young person, I've been there when maybe there's not so much to do or you're not really fitting into any of circles. So the fact that I know that it means alot to our members, I guess that's the biggest driving factor. The fact that I do feel it's a community that I have a place in, as does many other people. I think the fact that we work quite a lot in Europe and with international organisations, I can see the potential, I can see where it can go as well. For instance, in Europe, there's a youth circus organisation that's been running for 60 years. In Finland, the sector is a lot bigger than in Ireland, so I can see the potential and I can see that we're only at the beginning.
What would you like to see for the circus going forward?
Although we're really happy in the community centre where we are, one day, I would love to see a dedicated circus training space that would be welcoming and creative, where young people would feel 100 per cent ownership of the building and the space where they are. There would be rooms where they could do projects in, there would be sewing machines so they could make costumes, there would be things where they could build props, or tables to sit around and plan projects - a kind of creative hub.
What are the other things that you have seen in bigger circus communities that you would like for Galway?
The space is the biggest issue due to the fact that all our classes are full - we have a waiting list of people who want to join; we're bursting at the seams. That''s why space is an issue - if we had a bit more space, we could do more. We don't want to get bigger and lose the sense of community, so I think it's that fine balance of how do you grow and get bigger and have more people involved, yet feel like a family? In Finland, for example, they're setting up a circus secondary school - there's one in Sweden already. They have a national curriculum of the arts in Finland that includes circus arts. They teach circus in schools! Circus is a really fantastic tool; I think all PE teachers should learn circus and do circus. They're doing circus in Wales, for example. The circus companies are now training PE teachers in physical literacy - it's non-competitive, it combines creativity and physicality and thinks of sports in a broader sense. So loads of dreams!
"There are lots of people here like me who have come to Galway from somewhere else and arts and culture is creating that Galway where we feel at home."
Who in your life have been your biggest influence?
There are so many influencers, but honestly, a lot of the Galway parents who are involved in the circus have influenced me. I started when the circus had less than 20 children at the time, and so we knew every single young person and every single parent. They were hugely supportive and those young people as well...I remember when the first generation of 15, 16 year olds who had joined, they had come through Macnas and I thought, 'Oh my God; I never knew we had young people like this'. They were just so cool and so welcoming. It was a bit of an eye opener. I think I could see the Macnas influence or the Galway influence in them. It was the first time I met that type of young person.
I think it changes all the time. I'd like to think that I'm fair - equality is very important to me. We had training a couple of weeks ago and we did this exercise at the end where we were all saying nice things about each other, and two of the first things that were said about me was that 'Ulla is the queen of multitasking' and that 'Ulla always has time for us'. Even though I think they're quite wonderful things to say, afterwards I went to a time management course and the teacher said, 'Multitasking is a lie - there's no such thing. If you think you're good at multitasking, it just means that you're not doing things properly', and I was like - 'Oh no!' I'm shy, but the job has really changed me. It's given me more than I've given it - that's for sure.
What influence do you think culture has on Galway?
There are lots of people here like me who have come to Galway from somewhere else and arts and culture is creating that Galway where we feel at home. Galway isn't Galway only for those people who maybe have been here for generations, and that is the thing that attracts people to Galway. It's lots of amazing, creative open-minded people who have chosen this place to be their base. If you moved away from Galway, where would you find a place this size that would have so much going on? That's the hard part - how can you ever leave?
It's also the everyday life - you always have a choice of things to do or people to talk to, to inspire you - lots of people who are working hard and really feeling a sense of pride in their community - they want it to be a good place for them. So there are lots of people who are working in these communities and making things happen. Galway 2020 has been really great - the way it has reached out to the communities and individuals and it's opening conversations to look at values and what matters for people.
What would you like to see going forward?
In Ireland in general, and outside of Ireland, young people are not doing very well. I think there's a lot of issues - there's a lot of lonely people, a lot of people who haven't found their place, so I think we need more and more organisations and activities that are accessible, that are welcoming. Organisations where people can be introduced to that first thing to get involved in, and then through that, their lives can change. So whether it's festivals or projects or spaces, it is that people can get access to something positive in their lives.