Australian expat Lee Nelson is better known as Wally, your friendly neighbourhood street performer. He came to Iceland four years ago and founded his own circus. Yep, courtesy of this good man, Iceland now has a fully operational circus—Sirkus Íslands! And at the end of this month, that circus will premiere a new stage show, Sirkus Sóley at Salurinn in Kópavogur. Fancy that—a homegrown, Icelandic circus? You need to experience this. Tickets are only 1200 ISK, too, so start looking for a ride to Kópavogur and prepare to be impressed.
“The show will be family entertainment at its most exciting and unpredictable,” he tells me over coffee. The man is excited, and he waxes on: “I think, just like our last show, that Sirkus Íslands virgins will be stunned at how good we actually are. A cast of 15 entertainers will deliver a non-stop bombardment of hilarious and daring antics. The people of Reykjavik can expect to be entertained!”
Define “making a living”
Lee says the Sirkus Sóley has been in the planning stages for well over a year, and that the group has been practicing for months by now. He is adamant that his group is here to stay, at least “as long as I can keep the dream alive in my heart and the hearts of my circus folk. As for extending [Sóley], the simple math if we sell out this run are that 1.2% of the entire Icelandic nation will come and see our show at Easter time. I’ll be happy with that.”
When asked if it is hard to make a living as a professional clown in Iceland, Lee gets analytical: “That depends on how you define making a living. How you define it—how much is enough? I don’t define enough as owning a Range Rover. I define enough as not having to work. Do I work? I play. And as long as I can keep playing and I don’t have to get a job, I’m making enough.”
Rounding up the group that now comprises Sirkus Íslands took a while according to Lee. “For quite a while I couldn’t really get it to happen the way I wanted. I started giving classes in Kramhúsið in 2007 and plastered signs all over town advertising them. A lot of times I’d just been there by myself. However, after about six months a little group started to form…”
Do you feel you’ve brought something new to the island?
Lee: I think I maybe brought the belief that you can make a living out of your art without getting any kind of government help, and I showed people that you can survive and prosper just through your art. I don’t need 500.000 ISK a month to live. I just need to go to sleep at night knowing I’ve worked hard. I don’t think Icelanders get that. Icelandic people have gone absolutely bananas in the last ten years, they all want fucking money money money, holidays, crap crap crap.
Indeed. How do you like Icelandic audiences, then?
Lee: Oh my God, the Icelandic audiences just fucking rock. They are so supportive. Icelandic people just really love seeing Icelandic people doing something they didn’t think Icelandic people could do. Some of the best claps and cheers of my fifteen year long circus career have been in this country—for some of the weakest tricks!
As a professional clown living on this cold and dark island, do you ever feel like this just isn’t funny anymore?
Lee: It’s fucking hilarious. I’m not a big fan of January, though. I’m not a big fan of what Icelanders have let their country become either. I don’t find that to be very funny. I think there’s very little difference at the moment between Iceland and Africa. The only difference between the economies of Africa and Iceland now is automatic weapons.
Huh? Care to elaborate?
Lee: Icelanders don’t shoot each other. The poor people here don’t have access to guns. The poor people in Africa do, and that is what creates the chaos. If people could get guns here, there would have been a coup by now.
So you don’t think a country can be taken over with pots and pans?
Lee: No. But the whole pots and pans thing was so much fun! It wasn’t really about protest; it was more about having a rave party. Those Icelanders discovered beats and dancing in the streets for the first time ever.
Local theatre group Vesturport have often incorporated of circus elements in their shows, and received acclaim for it. Speaking as an authority on all things circus, do you like them?
Lee: I’ve never really seen any of their stuff.
Lee: Because they charge too much money. It frustrates me that so many theatre companies here sell their tickets for 3,500 ISK and up. They’re subsidised by the government, they get all this support and they still charge a fortune for their tickets. What about some bloody Filipino immigrants in Breiðholt? Do they care about them? I do. I want those people to come and have a good time in my circus. Sirkus Íslands is for the people, by the people.