University of Sheffield’s ‘The Sisterhood of the Ring’

University of Sheffield’s ‘The Sisterhood of the Ring’

University of Sheffield’s ‘The Sisterhood of the Ring’

By the University of Sheffield public engagement team

The public engagement team from the University of Sheffield tells us all about their fantastic event ‘The Sisterhood of the Ring’. Find out how to successfully combine research and performance to create a spectacular event, with helpful tips on how to ensure you have a packed house and how to work with your partner venue so that everything goes according to plan! 

Can you tell us a little bit about your event?

Professor Vanessa Toulmin created and directed ‘The Sisterhood of the Ring’, an innovative and empowering show to examine the role of race and gender in the circus. The event focused on the rise of contemporary circus art and the cross-fertilisation of performance genres, which highlight women in circus and performers from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Our motivation was to create an outstanding show to inform, inspire and entertain public audiences – merging research excellence with a high quality physical performance.

The event took the shape of a co-produced piece of narration and performance. Leading aerialist Madam Mango premiered a new show currently in development with four female aerial performers. Professor Vanessa Toulmin showcased her research using a variety of visual images and videos to enable the audience to explore 250 years of diversity in circus. Sarah Fielding of Invisible Circus also gave a fascinating talk on her experiences of creating performances, living and working in circus. The piece was woven together with personal narrative, bringing the performers closer to the audience by revealing aspects of themselves as women in circus.

Who were your target audience? How did you market your event?

The event was aimed at a broad adult audience. We targeted people interested in circus and people interested in free talks. We co-marketed the Being Human festival with our Festival of Social Science as both festivals are in November and this meant a distribution of 12,000 brochures across all cultural venues, bars and cafes in the city. We also targeted specific neighbourhoods close to Greentop Circus for brochure distribution to encourage attendance from hyper-local audiences. In addition we promoted the event on social media platforms and used Facebook adverts.

The result was a sold-out show to an audience of 100 members of the public. The evaluation was overwhelmingly positive, praising both the opportunity to learn more about the history of circus and women within it, as well as a great celebration of the physical performances. Some audience members enjoyed ‘Being so close to something so amazing and beautiful. Loved the history too’. The format also seemed to work well with an attendee commenting that it was an ‘interesting talk which lasted the perfect amount of time followed by a great thought provoking performance.’

Why was the venue so important for this event? How did you collaborate with them throughout the process?

‘The Sisterhood of The Ring’ was held at the Greentop Circus, a community circus space in a diverse and economically deprived neighbourhood of Sheffield. The public engagement team worked closely with Greentop circus to ensure that the physical space was laid out to accommodate the performances, talks, AV, film, sound and lighting. The University of Sheffield’s audio-visual team brought in additional screens, microphones and technical equipment to supplement the venue’s existing supplies. The staff at Greentop Circus organised lighting and sound technicians who knew the facilities and the space and provided excellent support to the production.

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event?

The team all worked really well together and it was great seeing the popularity of the event once we started promoting it to the public. The University of Sheffield’s public engagement and AV teams, Greentop and Madam Mango all worked closely on the planning and were all very hands-on during the delivery of the event. Professor Toulmin ensured that the performers understood the historical context of her research into the circus and shared this with them during a workshop session which helped formulate the narrative of the show.

It was also great to be part of the Being Human festival and celebrate the humanities locally, knowing that we were part of a national celebration. The support that we had from the Being Human team was excellent at every step of the way. All parties have thoroughly benefited from working together and we are now planning an Arts Council bid to develop the show further and take it on tour in 2019/2020.

Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers?

Doing risk assessments for your event. By hosting the event in a circus space in partnership with Madam Mango, we could mitigate risks and create an intimate and visually rich performance for the public.  There were several layers of risk assessment applied by the performers, experienced staff at the venue, the Sheffield public engagement team and audio-visual staff members.

Getting the timings of each element of your event right. For example, the balance between engaging the public with research excellence through talks and video and showcasing physical performances needs to be well timed so that each section is given adequate focus, but does not detract from the other.

Overbooking free events. The main issue we had was with online booking as people tend to book up free events quickly but not relinquish tickets even when prompted that it is sold out. So we took a deep breath and overbooked by 50% which resulted in a full house at 100 guests. It is important to consider the drop-out rate when putting on free events, but it is not an exact science and can change depending on many factors such as the day of the week, the weather and the location of the event.


This project was part of Being Human’s 2018 Small Award pathway. To be part of the 2019 festival and submit an event for a Small Award please visit our ‘apply now’ page.