This past March in Chicago I sat down at a chai cafe with Acrobatic Conundrum’s artistic director and co-founder, Terry Crane. The company is one of only a handful of contemporary circus companies regularly putting out touring shows from the United States. As they plan their 2017 and 2018 tour, Terry takes occasional side trips, like the one he did to visit Chicago to partake in the first Moment Festival and to pass on his love of circus arts. In addition to facilitating a rope intensive, he took part in Luchadores Del Rope, an epic and joyous rope battle between himself and rope master Emiliano Ron. Sitting in the cafe, we delved into his philosophy on how to balance a performing life with a directing one and what Acrobatic Conundrum hopes to accomplish in the next couple of years. Acrobatic Conundrum will be kicking off their tour in Portland, Oregon this fall.
Can you share a little bit of your background and how you became involved with circus?
I went to Oberlin College long ago and started doing circus there. From there I went to San Francisco’s Circus Center. I was there for a year and auditioned for École nationale de cirque (ENC) on a whim—not thinking I was going to get in—I almost didn’t go. Since then, I’ve worked at Circus Starlight and Circus Monte, Teatro ZinZanni, and Talvisirkus Hurjaruuth in Finland. I’ve also done a lot of corporate work and yet somewhere along the line I remembered that what I really love about circus was doing ensemble work. Soon after, I started my first company which was call Circus Syzygy. That worked for a couple of years until it kind of fell apart. So I started working on Acrobatic Conundrum. There was another person who helped me, Joselynn Engstrom, the managing director. She amicably left the company to have kids and pursue other things and Susie Williams came on about a year after that.
What was the initial plan?
At the time in Seattle there were a lot of artists that were technically good but there wasn’t a lot of risky artistic work going on. We wanted to do something more avant-garde and work together and we thought we’d make that a monthly series, but it very quickly evolved into something we invested a lot of artistic craft into. I decided building touring shows was a better format and that was more of what I wanted anyway. The third show we did was The Way Out. It was our first full length show. Before that we were doing cabarets that were curated, but with The Way Out we really put a lot of production energy into it. It had a set and costumes and a very crafted storyline.
Why do you think it’s so hard for Americans to take that leap to do ensemble work in circus?
I think it has a lot to do with the financial system. Essentially, there’s not really a precedent for it. Also, we don’t have the grants for that.
A lot of people say we don’t have grants and we need that because it takes time to develop the work. I agree with that. But then again, we have a lot of art culture in America. We have great movies, music and dance and theater. There may be a better support system for those artists that has built up over time, but don’t you think the majority of the art in the US is produced on a wing and a prayer?
Yeah, I totally agree with that. Blaming the funding is a little misguided or not the full story. It has to do with the fact that there is not that precedent. In Switzerland, there’s 15 circuses that tour. It’s a country the size of Washington state with 6 million people.
There’s also the litigiousness and a climate of fear around circus too, unfortunately. But then England has that same litigiousness and they still have a few more collectives, although not nearly as many as France. France has a hundred collectives and hundreds of little companies!
What do you think about Acrobatic Conundrum’s goals for the future? Do you have a tour coming up?
Yes, we’re touring October and November of 2017 and then in 2018 again. The show we’re touring this fall is Love and Gravity. It uses this never-ending rope apparatus—it’s a looped rope. It’s a pretty small cast of 6 people. It’s a show about relationships and it talks about relationships from our perspective as circus artists. There’s a trope of there not really being one right way to have a relationship. The loop is a great apparatus for thinking about relationships because there is this ever present idea of interdependence. One person lets go and the other person falls.
Are you also performing in the show? And do you find it difficult to be the artistic director and be in the show and have the objectivity to stand back and see it clearly?
I am in the show and totally. That has been one of the central themes in all of my ensembles. In this show, what we’ve done to help with that is that I was the artistic conceiver and initiator of the project and then we worked with 4 or 5 different directors for a week each so that there was a different outside eye every week. We got their input on the show.
Was this process pretty informal?
It varied and depended on the availability of the director because we were traveling and doing it as well. One of those directors felt like a particularly good fit, so we invited him back for one last remount and that’s Jaron Hollander. He’s great.
Did you get a lot of guidance from ENC about directing when you studied there?
I would not say that. It wasn’t a part of the curriculum really. I did get training to be a collaborator. They put us in a lot of collaboration situations and we had the opportunity to figure out how can we make a show with the resources we have. That was definitely useful with the formation of these two companies, but I’ve never had any formal training as a director. I’ve been doing this for awhile though, because ever since I was at Oberlin, I was directing in one way or another.
What are the perks of directing versus performing?
Within directing there are two roles; one is writing. I really like writing and then seeing something come to life. I also really enjoy facilitation and working with a group. I enjoy talking in a circle and making sure everyone’s voice is heard. Also, creating space for creation to happen is great. I love setting up games and scores and exercises. Its great to find that play and try to solicit the initiative from each of the artists. Those are the things I like. The role of giving critical feedback and straight up telling people what needs to happen, I don’t enjoy that very much, but it comes with the job.
Do you think one of the reasons America isn’t as solid on contemporary circus productions and companies as other countries is because there aren’t a lot of directors? There isn’t a culture of circus directors or any program to train people how to do this and perhaps that is a hole in the process? If you did a workshop on all of the directing techniques you just listed, I would sign up.
That is a great idea. It’s a huge gap and it’s been the struggle. I came back and I had all of these images. Ira Glass says something like ‘it’s really hard in the beginning because your taste is really good and your skills are low.’ I knew I’d seen good stuff and I wanted to create and perform those kinds of things… but how to get there? So with my first company Syzygy it was pure collaboration with no director essentially. We made great work but by the end we didn’t always enjoy each other’s company. With Acrobatic Conundrum, I was just trying to do direct and perform for awhile. Then with A Way OutI stepped out and was just directing. After that, with our subsequent show we borrowed directors, but it didn’t feel like our voice. It felt like someone had come in and drafted a vision of it. With this show, we had the process of inviting directors in as consultants so it felt a bit more like us. In the next incarnation, we are taking a director that has been working in the world of circus for decades. He is going to help us create something in our own voice that is artistically mature.
As for how to create and direct circus, I think about this 48 Hours Project that was happening at Moment…those were the most original ideas I’ve seen in years. So clearly that energy exists in the United States. There are circus artists who want to prioritize ensemble work. But it’s maybe figuring out people who want to direct that or facilitate that in a collaborative way.
Imagine if the 48 Hour Project had a week!
Definitely. It’s beautiful how grassroots it was and there was this really punk vibe of ‘We’re going to do this ourselves’. But it would be interesting to pull in other voices of people who could be hands-off enough to let that happen but who come with lots of experience in show creation to massage that a little bit. At ENC my favorite thing was ‘week of creation’ where normal classes stopped and we divided up and everyone got a director and we just made something with pretty low stakes. One of those became a project that was shown at Montréal Complètement Cirquea couple of years later!
How do you pay homage to the people who helped contribute to that process of developing the show?
We credit them as artistic counselors/guides for the project. At this point, Jaron is a director as well. That gives us the outside eye which is essential because you can’t see the picture and be in the picture.
If you work with interesting people you have to give them interesting things to do.
Is your tour going to be non-stop?
It’s going to be a solid block and the reason is that in order to work with world class artists, we need to keep them employed for a solid chunk of time. If you work with interesting people you have to give them interesting things to do. Rehearsals are from September thru mid November.
Will you be touringLove and Gravity in 2018 or a new show?
We’ll be touring a new show, although what we’d really like to do is to have two shows as resources that we can give to different theaters depending on what they can do in their space. The next show we are looking at doing a smaller project–maybe 3 or 4 artists and a musician. It would be great if we could tour work 6 months out of the year and then be doing work in Seattle.
Did you invent the never-ending loop?
I certainly didn’t invent the pulley or putting one in a circus show. I did have this idea one day where I was like ‘Oooh, I just want to do drops. I want to make a big machine that does that because that’s my favorite part of rope. I just want to keep dropping and dropping.’ At Circus Syzysgy they thought that was a great idea and they encouraged me to do it. As soon as we did it, we heard from people about similar things. Someone said it remind them of a show with Ockham’s Razor and then Giovanni Zoppe said his dad used to do something like that with a pulley 50 years ago. We’ve been pretty obsessed with it for a few years and the more we do it, the more we have to stop and explore all of the possibilities. The research just goes on and on.
That’s one of the things that is so interesting about circus is how new apparatus continues to be invented and explored.
Definitely! It’s an infinite game in that way. We are planning to use the loop in our next show too, but we will be exploring other things as well. We do some cyr, and partner acro. There’s a lot of dance. I’d say on the spectrum of dance to theater, we lean a little bit more towards contemporary dance. There are always some funny things, some clowning and comedy.
What do you want Acrobatic Conundrum to be like in 5 years?
In 5 years, I’d like to be touring most of the year, performing work 9 months out of the year and to be an exporter of our brand of creation in the world and to have the conversation going with other companies like Circa and 7 Fingers and to continue to push this beautiful medium forward. I don’t really see us becoming a household name. I have no interest in that. I don’t want to be a large-scale producer, but we want to do work that feels really human constantly and to have enough of a reputation that we can share our work all over. I just saw Cuisines and Confessions and I loved that 7 Fingers has changed a lot, in my opinion, because the founders are no longer performing, but it still maintains this feeling of intimacy.
Yeah, like the hoops act in Cuisines and Confessions with Sidney and Melvin—it’s all about their lives growing up in a tough neighborhood in St. Louis, right?
Oh yeah, its real. They actually lived that and they are talking about it and it gives it an authenticity. I was in Circus Flora with Melvin about 6 years ago and there was a shooting pretty close to the tent.
That’s so rough! Do you think that American circus is as respected as European or Canadian circus at this time? Do you feel like it’s a mission of yours?
Good question. I think it’s really awesome what the American company Ricochet Project is doing with Smoke & Mirrors. There is a little glimpse there for the rest of the contemporary circus world that people are trying. It’s just a man and a woman, Cody and Laura, and they do a lot of aerial. There’s a big chalk cloud at one point. They aren’t wearing a lot of clothes for a lot of it.
Yeah, I’ve seen it twice not and it blew my mind because it was really abstract in some ways and it really broke down each movement.
It was really well researched. I think these are the things that can happen when you have a longer creation process which is another reason that ensemble work in the US is behind really. That’s what it comes down to. For example, Cirque Plume in France will have a year for each of their shows.
Organizations in the US are starting to offer some circus artist residencies but they’re fairly short.
There are definitely resources out there and you can lean on other countries resources at times as well. I’m pretty excited at this moment because there are a few Latino artists here which is really cool. There’s a really growing scene in Mexico and Central America. Brazil is huge. So I think cross-pollinating in this way is hopeful for me.
One of the things you are known for is collaborating. How does that work for you in conjunction with your work with Acrobatic Conundrum?
In a way, I started doing these teaching tours a long time ago (in 2008) because there was a little demand for it. I got the idea in my head that we could go on the same route and be sharing a show. That’s something we do—we always teach workshops wherever we go to share with the circus community because when sharing a show you get to share your inspiration and get that dialogue going with other places and companies. In May, I’m doing a workshop on our never ending loop with circus artists from all over in a festival in Costa Rica. I’m really interested in doing more work in Latin America.