On leaving secondary school, Hyacinth went to Drama school. On completing her diploma at the Birmingham School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, she went off to college. Whilst at college, she stumbled into what would be her career for the next few years.
Some time after that, she studied on the three-year Interpreting programme with a company called Remark based in London. She successfully survived her final years of study through the lockdown, the last few months of her course being taught online. She graduated in May 2021. She has been a Registered Interpreter for over a year now working across a few domains and by all accounts enjoying it!
When I first found out that Hyacinth had strong links to the circus world, I was beyond excited to set up a time to chat with my fellow IOCN ‘sister’ and get into the details. From that initial phone-call, through all the moments, voice notes and the text messages in between I have truly felt connected to her, and she has become a forever friend. Straight off the bat I wanted to know how Hyacinth had become a magician’s assistant and she took me back to her days as a ‘youth’.
Time with the Beechmen
Hyacinth became initially involved with a marching band called “The Beechmen Drum & Bugle Corps” (Bugle – pronounced bue-gal) after being invited to watch a rehearsal. In the 1980’s, the Beechmen were the only competing all Black Drum & Bugle Corps within the UK . Hyacinth joined the Colour Guards as a flag-waver but soon found this boring and then went on to join the Rifle Guards section to which she was drawn because they used carved wooden rifles that they would toss in the air as part of their dance routines. She would later become the Rifle Guard instructor and choreographer of their routines.
In time, The Beechmen Drum & Bugle Corps began to evolve. With the addition of dedicated circus performers and some professionals hired from abroad the Beechmen Circus was born.
The Circus as Fire Breather/Eater
A themed tour based on the Barnum Circus saw Hyacinth working with professional circus performers who provided basic skills training in juggling, stilt walking, unicycling, globe walking, tight rope skills, silks and fire breathing/eating!
From that extensive list of skilled people brought in to induct, Hyacinth soon narrowed down the areas that she felt she was not very good at, (which was all of it she says) she maintains that she was “not too bad” at juggling but not much more than that!
Upon meeting a professional fire-breather, she recalls literally being blown away by the skill level and daring of their act and she soon thought to herself, “You know what, I am going to give it a go”, thinking the worst that could possibly happen would be either burning her face or burning her hair off. Regardless, she decided to embark on training, much to the bemusement of family and friends!
Hyacinth found the danger combined with stepping out of her comfort zone within the circus ring exhilarating and exciting. After a few practical workshop sessions, she picked up the skill, and was able to douse flames in her mouth, blow huge fireballs and roll a burning torch along her body!
The circus was an outdoor, full size circus ring with bench seating for the audience. The troupe toured for several years. They would also attend outdoor galas, shows, family fun days and more. Performing outdoors as a fire eater had its own challenges. Flames could blow back at you especially on windy days, but this all added to the buzz of performing.
Now married and with a very young daughter. She recounts that during pregnancy she toured, and her maternity leave only lasted a few months because they were back on the road travelling up and down the country with baby in tow and their small family run, no animals circus.
A few years later, Hyacinth, now well rehearsed as a fire-breather, had a funny encounter during a school run. At the end of the school day the teacher had asked if she could have a word. Hyacinth assumed the worst, until the teacher told her that her daughter (who was in infants at the time) had such a vivid imagination. She had told her, “My Mummy is a dragon…” and had drawn a picture of a dragon breathing out fire.
Hyacinth explained that her daughter was correct, which had taken the teacher aback. She then went on to explain that she was a circus owner, fire-eater as well as a CSW! This then became a running joke and talk around school because her daughter had spread it around that her Mum was a fire breathing dragon! Now with lots of parents asking if she could ‘perform’ at their child’s birthday party, Hyacinth politely declined, and only ever did a ‘performance’ for her own daughters’ 8th birthday with her invited classmates, in the safety of their own home and in the garden!
From Small Top to Big Top!
She told me that although it had been loosely discussed, out of the blue one day, her husband came home announcing that he had bought a Big Top! At this she had to do a double take as he proceeded to explain it was a 500-seater Big Top with king poles and quarter poles!! This marked the pivotal moment they went from a small outdoor setup to a large-scale family production. This was on a completely different level to what they had previously managed. This time they had a caravan (which was now Hyacinth’s job to tow to venues) and lorries to transport the heavy-duty equipment, burger vans, popcorn candy floss machines, circus merchandise and now hiring bigger acts to perform in the Big Top from various countries around the world, encompassing ball jugglers, aerialist, stilt walkers, clowns, contortionists, bungee rope act and silks.
On becoming a Magician’s Assistant
Hyacinth’s fire-breathing skills had also advanced at this stage too, and she had her own segment in the show too. Along with her husband (who is a professional magician and designs and makes props and illusions for other magicians) she was one part of the quartet of the group in their award-winning comedy illusion act The Amnesia Magic Company. The name speaks volumes… whereby every trick attempted, would invariably be forgotten, fail or just generally go wrong. The group became quite infamous with this act, winning prestigious awards such as the Ken Dodd Comedy Award for Promising Newcomers, with the opportunity to perform their act alongside him. Other highlights included a performance with Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.
Hyacinth’s circus days gradually drew to a halt. Leaving the circus life behind, and with the magic act officially ending in 2008 saw another new and exciting chapter for the family which came in the form of retail.
And now to Fancy Dress…
She was now a proprietor of The Fandango Fancy Dress company, best described as an authentic costume shop. People came from far and wide to hire costumes, ranging from historical dress, including Medieval, Elizabethan, Victorian, Halloween, Christmas and weird and wonderful specific era type costumes, including wigs, makeup and footwear. That too ended and was sold on only recently.
The Deaf World, Community and Signing
From very early on Hyacinth says she was never going to work in a 9-5 office job, it was just not an option for her. It was either midwifery or teaching. The first step she thought, supporting her two main interests, was to attain the National Nursery Exam Board [NNEB] qualification (1996). Hyacinth was then able to work in various educational establishments including nurseries, senior schools, post-16 settings, social services and family centres around Sandwell and Birmingham.
The path leading to Hyacinth becoming an Interpreter really manifested whilst working 1:1 with a pupil who had Down Syndrome. She had severely delayed social and language skills and would often wet herself, was quite violent, often biting, spitting, scratching other pupils and staff including Hyacinth. She was a constant flight risk; climbing out of windows and finding unlocked doors to run away. Simply put, that first year was incredibly difficult and at the end of each working day Hyacinth would go home exhausted, resilient yet determined, but above all desperately in need of a bath or shower!
Often feeling quite helpless, Hyacinth had voiced her concerns to the Head Teacher and expressed the challenges faced, including having very little support from teaching staff and was regularly left to strategise an almost impossible situation single handedly. Nevertheless, she persevered.
At that time, she had a friend who was also an NNEB and using Makaton and had just completed BSL L1 as a method to support children with social and communication difficulties. Hyacinth started going along with her friend to Deaf clubs and began socialising more with people from the Deaf community.
After discussing the benefits of signed support, pros and cons for BSL and possible courses she could embark on, Hyacinth was now armed with enough knowledge to discuss, with the Head Teacher, appropriate plans and action that could be taken. He responded:
“…If you find a course l will pay for it…”
That is exactly what she did! Hyacinth quickly found a course, enrolled on BSL Level 1 (1999) another gap followed, and she completed BSL Level 2 (2006).
Working 1:1 was a slow process. Gradually the pupil began to familiarise and link visual representation with signs. She learned the alphabet, was now able to finger-spell and write her name, and over time the inappropriate behaviour displayed initially became less frequent! Her vocabulary and confidence grew. Victory!!
Hyacinth was still running her circus whilst studying, as well as being an Assistant Vice Principal for the Pauline Quirke Academy of Performing Arts (PQA) in Sutton Coldfield and Telford between 2009 – 2019.
As her love for education intensified, she went on to study at Birmingham City University and achieved an Advanced Diploma in Childcare and Education, (ADCE, 1997). After a break she then studied at University of Wolverhampton, combining Early Childhood Studies and Special Needs and Inclusion gaining a BA with Honours degree in 2004.
Hyacinth knew she wanted to continue BSL training and after the student left primary in year 6, Hyacinth secured employment as a CSW at a Senior school which had one of the largest SEN departments in Sandwell, West Midlands, including a Deaf Base. Whilst at this school, BSL Level 3 was completed at a college in Worcester in 2008. After another break, she went on to University of Leeds once a month gaining her level 6 BSL language Qualification in 2011. Unfortunately, she was two marks off from achieving her full interpreting degree, so she happily continued working as a CSW deciding that perhaps interpreting was not for her! However, a new Head Teacher started, and the school became an Academy. The decision was to cut the SEN provision and in 2015, staff were ultimately given redundancies. This was the actual turning point. In 2016, she did a short Level 6 Interpreting Theory Course with Sign Solutions in Birmingham.
Coming back from Jamaica, a two-year break ensued to relocate and resettle her mother back in this country following the death of her father. With the support and encouragement of her family and friends and after all the upheaval, she enrolled onto another course, and revisited her interpreting qualification. In 2018 Hyacinth started her training in London with Remark!
How Does Circus Life and all the other components of your life compare to interpreting?
She says, “…it’s the best job…ever…It’s challenging, rewarding, you meet some incredible people, and you meet some not so nice people too…”
Hyacinth pointed out that there are so many similarities in all her chosen careers. She describes her time spent with the Drum & Bugle Corps as a defining period in her life and she says it taught her such discipline. For example, every Friday you had to be on time and that applies to Interpreting too. Turning up late was not, and is not an acceptable option. As a result of that she hates being late. She says she values the discipline that was instilled from such a young age, which has remained. She adds, the same applies for presentation not only physically, but visually and that links with the strict regime of a rigorous Drum Major inspection making sure our uniforms were in order, is something that remains.
Hyacinth herself finds the similarities with all the jobs that she has gone through her life, uncanny; for example, being in the circus; she had a toddler who had all the traits of normally a very happy child but could easily become the grumpy, screaming, toddler we mostly all know and love! With barely any sleep, she still had to get up, get out and perform. And she compares that to today for example she states,
“…if you’re having a bad day you still turn up, put on that professional ‘I’m fine’ cap, and go out there and do your thing! Then you go back to the car and crumble…”
More than just an Interpreter
More than just an interpreter took on more meaning the more I chatted to Hyacinth, not just because she has had many professions that ran alongside each other in her very short life but because she could see that all her paths have weaved together and led her to her current role as a Registered Sign Language Interpreter (RSLI).
First and foremost, Hyacinth is a Mum and Carer for her Mum. She has been a Drum & Bugle Corps Rifle Guard Instructor/Choreographer, fire-breather, owner and circus performer, an award-winning magician’s Assistant, fancy-dress-shop owner, PQA Vice Principal, CSW, and now finally a RSLI. Amongst all the other intersectional parts of her being, I would call that one well-rounded Interpreter. In every phase of her life that we discussed she was articulate, and able to denote transferable skills that she had acquired from her girlhood days in the Bugle Corps to scenarios from her circus days played out in the Interpreting world.
My favourite line from our chat was when Hyacinth was discussing her daughter having grown up in the Circus world and like her was not picking an office job.
“My daughter is an Actress, her Dad was a Family Paralegal and became a full-time Magician/Circus owner… and I’m now the one with a normal job as an Interpreter…oh, really…” she laughs!
Article written by Juliet Enebi in Collaboration with Hyacinth Powell