Renee Wingfield on mustering mythical strength for a living
Creative Director & Founder, Fliptease
Consumption: Flat White
I’m meeting with an outright fabulous person.
Who else can claim to be a fabled creature at night and a managing director at day?
Renee is a circus, aerial & water installation artist. She has been producing spectacle-based shows for local and regional communities, corporate events and family-friendly productions for over a decade in Western Australia.
Flying Trapeze Classes, FringeWorld Mermaid and Water Performances, at Yagan Square or Optus Stadium, you name it; Renee and her Fliptease team have probably entertained you on a WA stage with a signature blend of wonder and entertainment, imagination and cheekiness.
Secretly I had hoped she would order a ‘spiced, strong, skinny, extra frothy Frappuccino with tinsel straw, spread over two cups’, but Renee is the opposite of outrageously eccentric. Punctual, clad in her training gear and focused on the interview, she orders a practical Flat White.
Renee has 60 minutes allocated for our morning chat before she unleashes her alter ego Ms Gail Force to daily rehearsals. She transforms into a circus strong woman, ripping up phonebooks, a gracious amazon on the trapeze or a water bound mermaid enchanting kids and adults alike.
Becoming a mermaid doesn’t seem to be a trodden career path, and Renee didn't have the choice to run away and join a local circus, so I wanted to know more about her background.
‘I grew up on a farm. We lived in a small country town with a Social Circus program. Really, they were engagement programs for kids that don't necessarily fit the mainstream’, Renee chuckles.
‘I did gymnastics as a kid and I hated it. My mother put me in a drama class with an attached circus program. I thought this was fun at 9 or 10 years old.
At school, I found sport and was pretty good at football and soccer,’ Renee casually adds in the same sentence, ‘…and then then I broke my back. I fractured my spine.’
‘It was caused by the impact of repetitive running up to 25 hours per week with a misaligned spine. While I was receiving treatment, my physio urged me to rebuild the core strength in my lower back.
‘I was running into back spasm all the time. The physio suggested yoga. I had no idea what to make of it as a twenty-year-old farm girl with little world experience.
‘I recalled the fun I had with the circus class and signed up to train between work and Uni. Three months later, the woman who was supposed to teach the kid’s class didn't show up, and the administrator asked if I could fill in. I had already done a lot of kid’s soccer coaching. And suddenly, I was a circus coach for kids!’, Renee laughs.
The non-for-profit WA Circus School took off and Renee was eventually promoted to General Manager.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, Renee discovered quickly managerial and financial trouble.
‘I had just finished my business degree and decided to give this a shot for a year. I had zero experience on how to approach events or business.
‘With some professional accounting help and the community's support we managed to get out of a massive tax hole that had been left to us, and my then-partner and I started Fliptease. That was nearly 14 years ago.
‘In Australia, we’re slowly maturing as an audience. Often Fliptease and I still might be the first time you see a circus performer or mermaid or something weird and wonderful that we're doing.’
‘We've been fortunate to build ourselves a little niche. I'd like to think of us as the foremost circus company here in Western Australia. We use circus as a toolbox to create a spectacle and shows to tell meaningful stories with Art.
‘I've toured across the world and had lots of adventures. I wouldn't trade it for anything else.’
Renee’s success has not gone unnoticed in the Western Australian business community.
She won a ‘40 under 40 Award’ for her contribution to Culture and the Arts in 2019 and made state finals for the Telstra Business Women's Awards.
‘The award night for ‘40 under 40’ tends to be quite formal. ‘We have some very incredible looking people who stand out, no matter where they are. I didn't know if it was by choice, but the organisers had put my insane group of artists front and centre.
‘We all felt, it was sort of affectionately fitting, that we were the sprinkles on a beautifully layered cake of that evening’, Renee laughs.
‘Ironically, while I was receiving awards, we were looking down the barrel of cash flow issues and bad deals managements. It was very humbling to be in a room with that calibre of business folk.’
The great adventure continues for Renee and with it the sudden omnipresent pandemic virus threat.
‘The new adventure is figuring out how to essentially survive mass cancellations of large events. I predicted that we'd lose 50% of our work after April but these cancellations came already in.
‘It’s pretty scary, but we’re either renegotiating event booking dates or payouts. Due to the nature of casual employment and sole trader practices in the industry, it’s going to be difficult.’
Renee takes another sip of her practical Flat White.
‘Right now, I just want to kick around some ideas. I feel like we haven't had a 5-minute break in the last three years so maybe this is a good time to just take the foot off the gas.
‘Learning some new skills and revisiting what we're doing because we've made so much new work. Even though it’s a financially difficult spot for artists we must keep developing our creativity.
‘It's hard to maintain a full-time income from one sort of performance art in Western Australia. For one month, I’ll be up in the air, in the next we'll be doing kid’s shows.
'It’s important to be good at those kinds of repetitions but you also need to have a regular change to stay creative.
‘It's not common knowledge but three years ago, due to some aerial accidents here in Western Australia, we’ve almost lost a whole industry overnight. We could no longer book aerial acts in venues.
‘The venues had decided - within their rights - that it was too risky. Now it finally started to slightly come back, but we lost a lot of money overnight. This virus thing now is neither here nor there because we've had income loss before.
‘The job is now to get creative and relate to how we are managing this next section. Everyone else is fighting that same fight as well.
‘In my view, Art is about learning how to talk to lots of people in a visual language. We must be bilingual, not only in The Arts but in how we communicate with business and clients.’
‘Taking the lead doesn’t mean to play the ‘I'm an artist you don't understand me’ card. It’s more like ‘I'm an artist, it's my job to learn to understand the world around me.
‘You don't have to like what I do; I don’t draw my self-worth from that. For me it’s about being healthy.’
‘I don't identify with the Starving Artist stereotype. We have the luxury of more thinking time than the general populous, we have a different perspective. And this allows us to include other people's perspectives.
‘Find someone who likes what you do, and you love what they do, to have a mutually working relationship. That way I've been very fortunate to have kept 80% of my clients.
‘Our working relationship goes both ways, most of them are committed to re-engaging us. They can express back to their communities or business that we can be trusted and are reliable in our delivery.
‘The values don’t have to be the same,’ Renee grins, ‘we quite often get a little provocative in a very safe way’.
‘Ultimately, we are respecting the big companies which support communities and artists. However, we must also poke the bear!’
We both laugh. Renee is on a roll and I know what she means by it. A few years back, in my Marketing Director role, I hired her troupe for an anniversary event and our introvert staff had a ball, flirting with her fire-swallowing colleague from afar.
‘I'm enjoying seeing more Western Australian artists succeed in doing fantastic commercial and self-funded work’, she says.
‘I'd like to see everyone above the poverty line but that's a long-term education thing. There's no easy answer for that, but first, let's talk to find someone who likes your stuff. I was inspired by Kevin Kelly's ‘1000 true fans’ essay four or five years ago.
‘He wrote about crowdfunding in 2008 when it wasn’t a thing then. Finding your true supporters who are prepared to pay annually a little bit for what they love instead of chasing after big unknown crowds resonated with me.
‘Fliptease company members fluctuate wildly between 10 up to 50; not including my production manager or associate producer.
‘The performance schedule is always different. For example, last weekend part of the team was up in Geraldton and half a dozen performers were at five other events across Perth on that same weekend.
‘Fliptease is the engine room for everything I want to do, but at times, Miss Gail Force does her own thing.’
Renee explains the difficulty of balancing a private and public persona.
‘On social media, I tend to be more reserved. At events, I often hide behind the stage door because I want to focused on what I'm doing on stage or with my team.
‘I've had to renegotiate with myself to stay more accessible to my community. To be honest with you, it's a real struggle when there is always focus on you, but you can’t fight social media interest.’
I’ve read up on some myths. The Haitian mermaid Lasirn's personality is a blend of cool, calm, seductive, hot, passionate, angry, and strong opposites. Together, they represent a wide range of female temperaments, just like Miss Gail Force does.
‘Gail is just a shinier version of me. She can do anything I can’t; she’s just all the playful aspects of my personality.’
‘She's the Adventurer. And she can take risks that I can’t take every day. I am a trapeze artist by training. At the time when I invented Miss Gail Force, I couldn't get the performing opportunities I wanted.
‘I was told it was very difficult for Australian female performers to be sexy, funny AND smart. We could either be sexy OR funny; we couldn't be both.
‘That was the flavour 15 years ago. The advice was that ‘Change was going to happen eventually but maybe just pick one for now while we’re battling this out in everyday culture,’ Renee quips.
‘It’s very easy to get put into ‘sexy’. At the time I performed with two others and I wasn't the funny one.
'Well, I didn’t want to be the pretty one, I wanted to be the strong one.'
‘Up until about three years ago, I was a nonverbal performer. Then a very esteemed circus peer challenged me why I didn’t have a voice on stage. All my male counterparts did. I never considered that, since I wrote the words for the others, I felt that my voice was already on stage.’
‘Around the same time, one of the performers had health issues. I ended up being the MC and taking control of the flow. I've coached for a long time, so I knew how to talk to people.’
I was tempted to suggest Renee knows how to boss people around on a footy oval, but on second thoughts she was spot-on. The MC of an event has a similar job to instruct people.
‘I started writing myself lines in shows. It all began with the uncomfortable nudge of ‘why didn’t I allow me to be out there?’
‘Nowadays Gail's still a show pony, but in a different way. She will always have an athletic presence because I want to stay as physical as I can. That came from my long-term injury and managing chronic pain’, explains Renee.
‘It impacts my mental health when I'm not active. The pain experience made me more resilient and that's been helpful every time I train or walk.
‘When I had my shoulder and wrist surgeries I realised that if you can't do what you want and suddenly fall in love with doing this new thing, the spice of life is trying new things all the time.’
Renee flashes her trademark smile.
‘Who knows what will be next? As I get older, obviously the physical aspects will also change.
What does Renee think about mythical storytelling in the age of computer games and TV shows?
‘At the moment I research stories types from all over the world. In Western culture, there are some ingrained stories we seek out and keep coming back to. Observationally we have matured along with our audience from 14 years ago.
‘In the mid to late 2000’s it was all very sexy, fun, risky nightclub work for an audience of late teens, early ’20s. And then we moved into the more corporate side, that's a mature educated space, and we have now also pre-teen audiences.
‘Remarkably kids like coming to every show every year. Adults, however, don't want to come back for the same show all over again. Repetition seems for children quite often gratifying and familiar; maybe it's the learning pattern,’ Renee suggests.
The Mermaid photos and videos of little ones with gaping mouths and sparkly eyes have made me wonder if Renee prefers working with kids.
‘I like balance. Most of the time kids aren’t cynical enough, they may be accidentally cynical, but they want to be captivated and believe that the magic is real. It's special and it makes them happy.
‘The same is true in adults, except you're fighting through a filter of ego or opinion, which is sometimes a little harder to get over.’
‘Everyone's just looking to fall in love with some sort of story. It's not just ‘magic away’ a little bit of the pain or confusion of the day.
‘Worldwide audiences are very different due to language and culture. When I was working in China and the US, people there were more spoilt for choice.
‘The Mermaid myth, Santa Claus or Baba Yaga seemingly are endemics all over the planet. And Circus is a place that might look different locally, throughout world history, however, it’s been with us since ancient times.
‘I’m drawn to those connecting points. Maybe growing up on a farm made me realise how important connection to a place and people are; otherwise, you’re alone.
‘Farming is probably a pretty dark topic for what's happening in Australia for the last five years. If it's not droughts, it's fire, if not fire, floods. And then economic recession.
‘Some weird, horrible time. Again, stories get us together. You live to tell the tale right back.’
The Common Ground:
The re-examination of existing concepts, ideas and even your persona help to stay resilient
Storytelling myths have fundamental truths, but they change with the ages of audiences and place. Brand storytelling does, too.
Artists have to speak the commercial language as fluent as their artistic expression
The spice of life is trying new things all the time.