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Los Angeles Festival : Ra-ra Zoo: Life's 'Silly' Circus

September 15, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

GLASGOW, Scotland — What is a Ra-Ra Zoo? Ask Sue Broadway, who, with a name like Broadway, must be destined for the stars.

Just now, though, destiny finds her opening Thursday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center along with fellow members of this piece of circo-comic machinery called Ra-Ra Zoo in Circus Comedy Theatre.

That, Broadway explained, "is a sort of eccentric and rather silly attempt at the circus. "Two of us are specialist musicians as well as being jugglers and so forth, and it all kind of mixes together. There's no narrative as such. The show's a little bit verbal--we argue with each other when we juggle--but it's more strongly visual."

Broadway is in a large shell of a building deep in the throes of renovation, where members of Ra-Ra Zoo run workshops with the children of a local community circus. Between sessions, with hammers ringing and teen-agers squealing, she continued:

"I'm the aerialist, Dave (Spathaky) over there is the juggler. Stephen (Kent), who's not here today, is the musician and Deb (Deborah Pope) is an acrobat. We're each strongest in those fields, but we all do a piece of each other's work and all play music."

Australian Sue Broadway was a founding member of Circus Oz, which was to the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival what Le Cirque du Soleil is to this year's Los Angeles Festival. She founded Oz with two co-members of New Circus, a small juggling/fire-eating/unicycling street act. That was 1977.

"I was 19 then," Broadway said. "When I found myself still working with Circus Oz eight years later, it was enough. I wanted to work in something more intimate, that had more space for exploring performance. Although what Ra-Ra Zoo does is still strongly skill-based, it's combined with a comedy of ideas."

The London-based Ra-Ra Zoo originated in 1984 with Broadway and the English-born Kent, who had spent two years at Circus Oz.

"Half of me was thinking I'd give up circus altogether," Broadway said. "I started working with Stephen on a little cabaret act. Then we met up with Dave." Six months later, they were in business.

"I like to think there's a social conscience in what we do," Broadway reflected. "The women in the show are very strong and important. We've always been committed to having an equal number of women," a hangover from the unisexuality of Circus Oz.

"Ra-Ra Zoo's a bit different," she cautioned. "I wanted to explore female comedy. To do that you need to get away from androgyny, because the things that are funny about women are their feminine characteristics--the things social expectations about being female produce in us."

Broadway, who grew up in Sidney and attended the University of Adelaide as a drama student, was transformed when she took on a summer job with a circus. She rode the elephant, wore glitter and ostrich feathers, stood around in the whip-cracking act with bits of newspaper between her teeth, sold "candy floss" at the interval and was "general girl on the lot."

"It was hard," she said. "Traditional circus is a hard life, but there was something about the work and the people I just loved." Among them was an aerialist. "The courage and the beauty of what she was doing were fantastic. I watched her like a hawk. Then I went back to the university gym, hung a rope and started climbing--teaching myself, really. Once I'd started, there seemed no reason to stop."

Broadway's new-found interest coincided with the burgeoning of street performance, a general interest in the arts in Adelaide and the start of its annual arts festival. "Money seemed to be available," she said. Broadway and some other street performers formed New Circus and were swamped with work.

"We were the only group doing anything remotely--I hate to use the word--accessible. What we did could go anywhere and kids liked it. Old people liked it. Everybody would laugh. It was popular. Ever since then that's always what I've wanted to do: something that would reach a wide audience."

Smallness and mobility are also central to Ra-Ra Zoo's considerations. Broadway's aerial work requires a "good size theater, but smallness," she said, "has to do with performing fun. When you're working with three other people, it means that when you go out on stage there are only three other personalities to deal with."

Ra-Ra Zoo gave its first performance at the London International Mime Festival in January 1985. Broadway, Kent and Clark have been a constant. The fourth performer has always been a woman but not always the same one. That keeps the show fresh.

The Ra-Ra Zooians like performing live. They don't particularly want to go into movies or TV and are embarking on a somewhat bigger project this fall. Broadway herself has been invited to choreograph an aerial piece for London Extempore Dance.

"It's good to do other things," she said. "The other side of that is, it's only by doing the same material consistently for a time that it gets really good. You have to balance things, your creativity turning over so it keeps getting better."

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