Yaron Lifschitz, CEO of the Brisbane based circus company, Circa, challenges the traditional funding paradigm by demanding to open up the funding pool to anyone who can compete on merit. We publish Lifschitz’s unedited speech at the Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast in Sydney on November 30, 2016, because we find it inspiring and internationally relevant.
Over the past few months the world turned colder and less hospitable. Brexit, the rise of fundamentalisms both east and west, the election of Trump. Suddenly things I believe in seem out of key with the times. Plurality, diversity, compromise, compassion now appear to belong to another, quainter era – a distant empire of decency. Except that they are needed more then ever now. There is a pressing urgency to ask more fearless questions, debate more savagely unpleasant truths and explore our own contradictions more robustly. Everyone agrees our civic discourse; with its social media, 24 hour news cycles and veneration of the individual’s rights rather than their responsibilities is far from healthy. And as an artist, company leader and a festival director, it is beholden on me to respond. Art may not solve problems but, as Susan Sontag notes, it can wear them out. Art lifts our species, puts us in touch with our gods, encodes our memories and harnesses the collective imagination in service of our possibilities. The act of making art is inherently hopeful.
Sometimes it is hard to have hope. It is always difficult making art. I aim today to share some experiences from the trenches and to use them to appeal to you all to continue to believe in and support a world where risk is an asset, where merit is rewarded and where art is supported.
We were too circus for the legitimate dance and theatre crowd, too posh for the circus aficionados, too European for Australia, too Australian for Europe. For my first six years we re-wrote the limits of just how bad a review could be.
When you run a company you have a chance to create a little world – a functional, non-toxic utopia that stands as a modest bulwark against rising entropy and indifference. For 18 years now I have held the stewardship of a circus company from Brisbane; first called Rock ’n’ Roll Circus and, since 2004, Circa. I moved to Brisbane from Sydney, having reached the limits of my modest talents as a theatre director. When you get bored of your own shows, it’s time to do something else. So I ran away, driving north on a day where Michael Slater hit a magnificent 123 at the SCG, and I joined the circus.
Every day since, for 18 years I have fought to imagine and create the most challenging art I could in a field that has, historically, been largely considered an entertainment. This was, in many ways, a pretty dumb move. We were too circus for the legitimate dance and theatre crowd, too posh for the circus aficionados, too European for Australia, too Australian for Europe – in short, on a bad day we enjoyed a constituency of four people in a hot room in Brisbane who actually believed what we were doing. And they were us.
For my first six years we re-wrote the limits of just how bad a review could be. In fact, we even managed to get slammed in someone else’s review, which said “it is refreshing to see that they, unlike one local company, do not seem intent on sucking the joy from circus”.
We were the joy suckers. The ones who dared to try strange and dangerous things with our art form. In those early years a lot people were nude on stage, music blasted while we ranted into microphones. We hung on walls, we juggled a lot. I’m not saying it was good – loads of it was utterly indulgent nonsense. But I was lucky enough to have a team who wanted to search and we were digging, looking for new approaches, trying to turn our craft into art. When we started touring in 2005, I had the experience of being our artistic director, show director, production manager, stage manager, lighting, sound, stage and costume designer, tour manager and, for four months, general manager.
We now tour more internationally than all the Australian major performing arts companies put together.
And from this perilous state in 2004, we now employ a full time, year round ensemble of 18 artists, we tour more internationally than all the major performing arts board companies put together. Where once we turned over $450 000, we now turn over $7.5 million a year; where once 75% of our turnover was funding, it is now around 20%. We have won multiple awards, provided over 20,000 workshops a year, seeded numerous successful smaller companies with our alumni and graduates, and in 2016 alone we presented eight new creations premiering as far afield as theatres in Wollongong and cemeteries in London.
While this took a lot of luck, it wasn’t an accident.
It is 2009. We are in Montreal. At TOHU – the custom-built circus venue on the precinct that includes Cirque du Soleil and the Ecole Nationale de Cirque. In short, we are at the epicentre of new circus. We are presenting our show by the light of stars that are no longer…. a slow, aching piece made in the wake of my sister’s passing. In one scene someone holds on pointe for around six minutes. We are about to open when I suddenly get a wave of nausea. I realise it is because of the five artists in the show, three have never performed it, one has been in the show for three days and we haven’t yet done a run. We open and 30 people walk out over the course of those first, agonising 80 minutes. Our lives are naturally over. But at the end something incredible happens. The audience rises and roars. Then a review appears in the major French paper saying that like a UFO from southern skies here is something we have never seen before. Each show, the reaction grows and grows. Next year we will play our seventh season at TOHU – more that any non-Montreal company.
It wouldn’t have happened unless we had a culture of embracing risk.
For this to happen we needed to have the right show, an astoundingly brave presenter (I cannot imagine how Stephane from TOHU ever managed to get that show up) and an incredible team. But it still wouldn’t have happened unless we had a culture of embracing risk – from our board to our artists, from our office to our production team. A culture that says “yes, let’s”. A culture that says that isn’t a problem, it’s a chance for us to be creative.
In Belfast, I have seen a company start a show with seven artists, finish with six, start the next night with six and finish with five, start the next night with five and finish with four and over the following three nights, finish each night with a different combination of five semi-healthy artists. Yet finish every show with a standing ovation. I have seen a production team take a show from a long run season, move it to a speigeltent, a 1,300 seat opera house and a 3,000 seat Roman amphitheatre. I have watched our executive team write six triennial applications in four years and remain, comparatively, sane. I have seen one finance manager manage payroll for 75 people, manage $6 million in income and expenditure, and hedge money in four currencies with impeccable compliance and efficiency. I have seen our one senior producer oversee 700 performances in 2010; each one delivered on time and on budget despite the odds.
This is only possible because there is a story we all share. And that story is ‘this is important’. We are achieving our mission of creating the future of circus. Circa exists nowhere save in the collective imagination of our company, our stakeholders and our audiences.
At some point, we find ourselves as the establishment. People like us. They expect us to be both revolutionary and exactly as expected.
That story of who we are – the plucky upstart, the ratbags who dared to make circus contemporary, the little company that thought it could – that same story, with time, changes. It ossifies. At some point, we find ourselves as the establishment. People like us. They expect us to be both revolutionary and exactly as expected. They want the next show to be different and yet precisely the same as the last. And internally where once there was a vigorous dialogue about art and ideas, now there is endless talk about per diems and travel days and timesheets. In short, we grew up.
I was once asked if I was a better wartime leader or peacetime leader. I replied I have never known peace so I can’t tell; though I do wonder from time to time if my love of revolution isn’t some romantic attachment – a sort of Che Guevara poster on the bedroom wall of my still teenage psyche?
When you come to a fork in the road, said Yogi Bear, take it!
So faced with the opportunity of being small or large, revolutionary or establishment, popular or avant guard, legitimate or ratbag, we decided to risk it and be them all.
We dared to grow by trying new things.
The world is an astonishingly large place teaming with the opportunities. But in the arts we tend to swim in small puddles of our own comfort. At Circa we like to stick our necks out. Three years ago we won the contract for Artour – the organisation that delivers regional touring for the state of Queensland. We’re also the Creative Leads of Festival 2018: the Commonwealth games arts and cultural program. As Creative Director of Festival 2018, I have the opportunity to bring my international contacts and my local knowledge together with our fantastic team and its brutally efficient ways of working.
We dared to grow by saying yes to opportunities that scared us. We dared to grow by not cutting out cloth to the available funding.
For daring to take on new roles and businesses we copped a heap of criticism – we were too big, too small, too adventurous, too unfocussed. But in fact, we make a profit, diversify our income streams, employ artists and arts-workers, realise a vision. For the Commonwealth Games we get to create lasting transformative value for the Gold Coast while helping showcase Australia’s culture to the world. For Artour, we help people tour and help broker relationships with presenters. Plus it’s fun.
We dared to grow by saying yes to opportunities that scared us.
At the end of 2010 I was sitting in a bumping in at Trafo – that miraculous black box in Budapest where the best companies from around the world continue to be programmed despite the forces of economics and Hungarian politics. The phone rang. It was a colleague asking me if we could bring Wunderkammer a new and very challenging creation, to Berlin for an eight-month season at the Chameleon theatre. They’d never had the visiting company before and we’ve never done a long run and we had no available artists. So I said “Sure”. We worked with our board and staff, we cast artists – committing to them for two years, we trained them and brought them to Berlin and we performed seven times a week for eight months. This season led to the creation of seven new full-time positions; positions that are still continuing. In 2018 we will do our fifth eight -month season – that is 40 months of performance in one venue in Berlin. And not one cent of government subsidy is attached to that project in any way. It is funded by the risk of the venue, banking on our skill and creativity selling tickets to the public.
We back ourselves.
We dared to grow by not cutting out cloth to the available funding.
One day in my office the phone rings. It is the director of finance of one of our funding agencies. A quick dialogue that actually happened…
FUNDER: Yaron, we see your financial reserve targets are too low.
ME: Well you didn’t give us the funding we asked for.
FUNDER: Yes, but you need to reach a benchmark of reserves of 20% of turnover.
ME: How do you suggest I make that happen?
FUNDER: You could do less.
ME: If we do less then we probably won’t be here. As an ensemble, our upfront costs are high. We make money by doing things.
FUNDER: Yes, but your reserves are worryingly low and we want you to build them by doing less.
ME: Ok, so you want us to replace the small chance that we might fail with the absolute certainty that we will fail simply so you can reduce the risk?
FUNDER: I guess you could say that.
Sadly our reserves are still too low. Luckily, we get fewer of these sort of calls.
Funding should be investment in our risk, not our certainty.
My observation is that as a sector we tend to run around trying to fit things into funding models and keeping our overlords happy rather than being bold, vigorous businesses who enjoy venture capital and support. Funding should be investment in our risk, not our certainty. We have to forgive our bureaucrats their risk aversion, that’s their system. But we must never internalise it in a Stockholm syndrome of making art to meet the funding. They fund us to take risks, to make impossible things happen. Their world is Sisyphesian. Ours is Promethean. We are expected to steal fire and bring it to humanity. Rules will need to be broken, limits tested and stretched.
On that tour to TOHU in Canada we worked out that it was costing the government $10,000 to freight mats we could buy for $6,000. We suggested we buy the mats and return the money for another project. The answer was no – that was too complicated. We pushed back – boards met, letters were written. Finally we were allowed to do the sane thing.
Making circus has taught me that you can cram a lot of clowns into a small car and a lot of projects can be funded from a single budget line. There is creativity in treating every dollar of government grant as if it is a dollar of venture capital and asking how can we create the maximum value with the funds we have.
We believe that we should treat our art like it is a business and our business like it is an art.
At Circa we believe that we should treat our art like it is a business and our business like it is an art. We need to be rigorous with our bodies, disciplined and hard working. Thomas Edison is (it turns out incorrectly) attributed as saying “opportunity is often missed because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.” I agree and I’m proud to lead what I imagine is as hard a working team as can be found anywhere.
But we need to be astonishing, creative, unexpected with our strategies. I love the mission of DARPA – the American militaries advanced research department – “To Create and Prevent Surprise”. That’s exactly what I want to do. I want the audiences to come because they know us. I want them to be surprised when they see our show. I want our stakeholders to be certain they can trust us. I want them to trust us to take risks and change the world.
Worryingly, the choc chips of strategic creativity are unevenly distributed in the cookie dough of the sector. We have a two-stream arts sector. On the one side, large companies are inured from change – witness for instance how the MPAB companies were exempt from recent Australia Council cuts. They are encouraged to do what they do. Artistically, many of them are arteriosclerotic – playing heritage works to ageing audiences. They demand ever-larger shares of the public purse, which they regularly receive.
Had the recent opera review been the circus review, I think you would see a profusion of extraordinary work from an art form that, we as a country are actually good at and, that many people actually want to see. $24 million of extra funding. That is 34 times Circa’s annual grant base. That would nurture an extraordinary circus sector. It would be transformative.
But we, the small to medium sector, don’t get a say. Our reality is we live from hand to mouth, we fly economy, we search for opportunities. We are hungry. We re-invent our art and ourselves. We challenge our world. This isn’t romantic. It is born from savage necessity. Henry Ford said that if he’d asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses. The heritage arts companies produce marginally faster horses, more expensively each year. A modest increase in audience numbers here, a bail out there.
I challenge the major companies to demand their funding pool is opened to anyone who can compete on merit.
On our side of the fence, we are searching for new answers, asking new questions. We are intent on surviving, on thriving. We know that there is no magic bullet – sponsors are few, funding will go to those who already have status. But when we are allowed to compete on merit we often win. Circa enjoys national and international touring status and has secured the contracts for Artour and the Commonwealth Games. These were competitive processes. We were allowed to compete. And we succeeded.
Would that it were so for everything. Come on MPABs. What are you worried about? Not being good enough in your protected state? You can’t claim the title if you are too scared to step into the ring. It’s not a funding program, it’s a government entrenched oligarchy of privilege. Is it too much to ask that our governments take a real interest, that they target Australian investment in Australian stories, that they create new world art forms and experiences for a new world society?
I challenge the major companies to demand their funding pool is opened to anyone who can compete on merit. 50% of the Fortune 500 companies that were on the list in 1999 aren’t there in 2009. For MPAB companies, it is around 10%. Change, regeneration and competition are necessary. A protectorate of the privileged is the opposite of risk. What have you got to lose? Either you are strong and supple and good enough to survive, in which case you have the chance to prosper – to argue for more. Or you aren’t, in which case hiding under the covers of your historical entitlement is just cowardly. Come on out here. Into the real world. With us.
Risk is the oxygen of my world. Each presenter who books us takes a risk. Every stakeholder who supports us takes a risk. Each audience member who buys a ticket takes a risk. We put extraordinary young men and women on stage in a way that every performance could be their last. When things go wrong in circus, people can die. Our risks are very real – artistically, physically and organisationally.
I am proud to dance with risk on a daily basis. It is at the core of my art. In risk is our hope.