Circus festivals epitomise the evolution of circus, however, during one of the festivals I worked at this season I had to explain that there are no more elephants in the circus these days. Apparently, this came across as strange to the person asking the question, and at first I didn’t think too much of it, but the more I looked I realised that as much as contemporary circus celebrates its evolution and departure from traditional circus, we still utilise its characteristics and format. Not without modern comforts and additions of course. I can now enjoy an impeccable flat white at the festival, and artists might stay in hotels rather than caravans, but visually the festivals are still borrowing the aesthetics of the golden age of traditional circus, so maybe it’s not so strange that some audiences feel like they get something else than what they bargained for at a festival. So I asked myself, as as a circus artist, how can we make festivals that are both inclusive to all styles and all audiences?
The more or less standardised format of pitching circus tents in an urban environment and setting up a fully loaded program over the span of a few weeks is a staple of the warmer season here in Europe. At a glance, modern circus festivals seem like the perfect fit for the art form. There’s both space for pitched tents, as well as theatre staging, and by booking both newly-founded companies and well known headliners, the festivals will aid in promoting up and coming circus, as well as support the current cadre of touring shows. An audience can therefore enjoy a wider spectrum of circus than during a regular season.
As a circus performer and avid consumer of circus shows, festivals are a reason to rejoice. I am a huge fan of them, since they allow binge-watching of circus. During festivals, I take full advantage of all-day programming and see one show after the next. During this intense consumption of circus I do wonder if the festival format really is all it could be?
After my experiences at festivals around Europe I’ve come to realise the different settings they can provide and some nuances that I think are worth discussing.
Focusing on the Big Names
Certain festivals seem to focus on booking shows that are already popular in order to attract a large enough audience to justify claiming the space they require in a city; be it space to pitch their tents or a large theatre. The idea appears to be to attract as large of a circus audience as possible by having as recognisable names as possible. While the logic might seem sound to rely on an audience that is already initiated to circus, the drawback is that it’s a slowly expandable resource. There is only so large of an audience around that already wants to pay for and see circus and the remainder might not be as keen to pay the more-often-than-not steep prices for large scale circus shows. While the form is tried and tested, is it really ideal for contemporary circus? If circus is constantly progressing and evolving, shouldn’t the formats we present it in also be?
As the festival brings about a momentary immigration of audiences from far and wide, does this also cater to smaller companies and upcoming shows? In my experience the result is seeing the same names in festival after festival, (which became exceedingly clear in my research Strength in Numbers: The 34%) which I think creates a homogenised scene where the audience doesn’t recognise the diversity of the art form, but rather recognises a few famous names.
Focusing on Artists
Some festivals, like CIRCa in Auch, or Circusstad in Rotterdam, offer a second sort of program, catered to the artists themselves. A series of meet-and-greets, pitch meetings and artist-producer speed datings are organised as a catalyst to lay the foundation for the next generation of shows. These events are important and can very well be the stepping stone needed to get a project off the ground, but while focusing on the artists is important, these kinds of measures do nothing to foster the next generation of circus audiences, andwhat would a show be without an audience?
So, who is the target potential circus audience? Everyone, of course.
This is really a question of audiences. As much as any producer or artist may feel that their work depends solely on them, that is not the whole truth. Without inviting and encouraging new audiences to see circus, there´ll be no new circus.So, who is the target potential circus audience? Everyone, of course. What are then the ways festivals and circus shows can interact with the not-yet-initiated circus audiences? How do we approach the next generation of audiences?
Focusing on the Community
In Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, the circus festival Circusstad is carried out annually. Maaike van Langen is the artistic director and face of the festival, and a firm believer in the grass roots movement of circus, and its education of new audiences. Circusstad is built on its commitment to the Dutch circus scene, and makes no secret of the role that the relationship to the local communities plays in supporting this. Circusstad, the festival, takes place in the Schouwburgplein, a large open square in the very center of the city. Like a flash mob of circus tents it stands as stark contrast to the surrounding architecture in early may each year. However, Circusstad also operates in more than 30 primary schools where commissioned circus shows tour to perform for children who might not have the ability or funds to attend the festival proper, but who might one day be the next generation of artists and audiences. The festival in itself also features a packed schedule with free open air shows for precisely this reason. Circusstad, van Langen points out over a cup of coffee, gives something back to the city from which it is borrowing its space. She also notes that Circusstad aims to book shows for the general Rotterdam audience, and as Rotterdam is a working city she says: “What I did not want to show, was this poetic kind of show. I always use to say ‘it´s a festival with rough edges’.” Furthermore, Circusstad focuses heavily on the Dutch scene, and on up and coming shows, and in creating a relationship with the audience. The festival doesn’t feature a backstage area, but has the artists share the public space with the audience.
Focusing on the Local
Still other festivals do their thing the complete opposite way around to the headliner format. Last summer, I had the pleasure of working and performing at Brocante, a circus festival in northern Italy, that was envisioned and carried out by Roberto Magro. What I found extraordinary about Brocante was the approach to the whole concept of a festival. Instead of booking shows and performing them in a traditional (however maybe more practical) setting, the whole festival revolves around the idea of gathering artists and creating something new, and site specific, in the different public spaces in the villages around the Val Colvera in the Friuli region, in northern Italy. The artists themselves are from all over the world and are all more or less loosely connected by their relationship to Roberto Magro, who is from the village Frisanco, in the middle of the Val ColVera. In stark contrast to other festivals, Brocante operates on the premise that anyone is a possible circus audience member. Instead of bringing poster names, Brocante brings nameless spectacles created during the festival at the locations they will be performed at, and shares them with the locals who live in these areas. Instead on motivating an audience to come to a festival, Brocante brings the festival to an audience who might never have seen circus before, and who in turn receives the festival with open arms. This approach is sustained by the hospitality and generosity of both sides of the bargain. The artists offer a chance to see unique spectacles that are created and contained within the local area, made for the locals, and the audience offer the spaces, and their attention.As a result, the circus is presented not as an expensive commodity, but as part of the community, as something created together.
Roberto Magro stressed that the point of the audience is participating in the show, not just by witnessing it, but also physically joining it. This is the result of a three part mixture between the artists, the space and the audience. One of the performances was along a mountain trail leading up to a large cavern. The walk itself took more than an hour and a half and led the audience through mini-performances by over thirty artists along the way. The trek up the mountain becomes a participatory element and by the time the audience is gathered in the cave at the top they’ve become completely immersed in the setting and performance. In such a remote space both the artists and audience become intrinsically aware that neither one could exist without the other. This is emphasised even further by the fact that the festival exists (and has done so for nine editions) completely without financial support from any external sources, and operates without selling tickets. It sparks the radical notion that a festival is not an event where artists claim a space to present their work, but rather that a festival is an event where a community creates something spectacular together. Be it through performing, cooking, hosting, lending machinery, guiding lost artists, painting or watching the shows.
Catching up with Magro at an airport before he departs for Guatemala, he insists “…You can´t use the locals. You need to make them into participants. You have to install a relationship. They are not spectators, but spect-actors.” The philosophy that the audience has to work is exemplified in the final day of performances in Brocante. The entire village of Frisanco becomes stage for spectacles in squares and alleys and temporary stages, with no semblance of a program. The audience are given a map of the village and are invited to find their own way order from one show to the next.
At the end of the day, there isn´t a single answer to how festivals can or should operate. Everything from DIY festivals to dinner show varietés will keep existing and make space for all kinds of work, progressive or populist, and as long as we’re all aware that there are more ways to approach the way we present our work, and that we might all benefit from a path less traveled from time to time, circus will keep on evolving.
As a circus artist, contact with the audience is paramount, and amongst me and my colleagues good audience contact seems to be a (mostly) coincidental occurrence as a result of things like a good venue, timing, setting, a circus experienced audience or luck. That, however, feels far too random for me. If we for a moment don’t consider the audience as an outsider whose purpose is to look at us performing, we have to think of the audience as another ensemble member with a different role to play; and also convey this feeling to the audience. I don´t think the amazing inclusion I experienced in Brocante is a unique occurrence, but rather something that can be translated into any performance anywhere. In turn ‘educating an audience’ wouldn’t be about having an audience that knows certain shows or names or themes, but rather having an audience that knows that they are as much a part of the show as the artists are. And that is an audience that would keep on returning to the circus, as they are now part of it.
All photos courtesy of Bartolomeo Eugenio Rossi