The Sounds of Circus with Stijn Dickel and Ben Scheff

Circus News

The Sounds of Circus with Stijn Dickel and Ben Scheff

There’s a common adage that the essence of circus is innate to humans and human existence. Depending on who you talk to, the essence-of-the-day changes. Actions or states of being commonly cited are tension, humor, risk, trust, physical communication, or an inkling for the spectacular. Despite this revolving door of essences, there are two generalities the adage carries. First, that “circus” has been with us for as long as “us” has been an us, and second, that the essence – whichever is currently in vogue – relies on a sensory experience of one’s environments and other people. Stijn Dickel, a sound designer and one of my two interviewees, explains that sound comes first in our sensorial development. “Sound is as old as the street. It is the first thing we develop in the belly of our mothers. It’s the first sense we develop to get in contact with the world.” This third article in The Circus Designer Series hones in on sound and circus through conversations with Dickel and sound designer Ben Scheff. As I revisited our conversations, I found that thinking about the facets of circus that may be innate to humans and the sensorial seeds that sound implants in us prior to birth, imbued these conversations with both a galactic and an elemental feeling. 

A love for sound seemed to latch onto Scheff and Dickel from a young age as much as they latched onto it. Thinking about how to develop sound for an exhibition or how a theatrical play should sound, “this was a virus, it immediately got under my skin,” Dickel said. Scheff described it as catching a bug; they grew up surrounded by musical family members, particularly their father. Attending rehearsals with him at a young age, Scheff developed an interest in music and sound, but it was the lure of candy that cinched the deal. “Do you want to come hang out with us in the booth? We have Twizzlers.” They recall that the temptation for sweets quickly faded into fascination with technical theater that has shaped their career. Dickel described, “I was like all the young guys in my village: very eager to play music in a band, perform, and be a rock artist.” Later in life, he learned that his naturally augmented ability to hear had caused him to have a heightened sonic interaction with and interpretation of his environment. Dreams of rockstardom fueled this world experience through a social activity. From these beginnings, their paths diverge. Scheff focused on sound design in their undergraduate and masters level schooling; Dickel honed an artistic attentiveness to sound, space, and the body while on a four-year tour as a musician/performer. Scheff now designs for theater, dance, and circus; they works in settings that one might describe as more codified than Dickel who creates participatory sound projects based on co-listening and whose design work is often one element of a devising process. Despite – and because of – their differences, their stories create a full-bodied picture of how an attentiveness to sound is a powerful tool in art and life.

Both Dickel and Scheff have worked with sound in tandem with many artistic genres: theater, dance, musical theater, visual arts, and circus. I asked them if there was something unique about working in circus. Scheff replied, “Circus often lends itself to intensely collaborative projects that aren’t easily defined by the description of their components.” Dickel echoed, “I never felt this much openness – as in an open source way of sharing. The costume is as important as the dramaturgy, as the sound; everything is more or less equal. In other disciplines there is a kind of ownership sometimes, or the visual [takes precedence] and then the audio.” Scheff also found it refreshing and truthful that in circus, “You don’t need a thesis statement attached to it. It can be its own story, it doesn’t need to exist in the context of another story,” and the sounds can be “fun, powerful, bright. They’re satisfying sounds because you want satisfying sounds.” Similarly, Dickel mentioned, “The most intriguing thing is the audience. What is the expectation of the audience? What are the codes in contemporary circus? How are they coming into the space? Are they coming for the stunts or are they coming for the emotion?” Neither told stories of struggles or troubles during a circus production. Their comments were complimentary of the genre and only expressed a positive environment where they both felt personally and artistically comfortable.

An acrobat balances on one leg with a paintbrush in his mouth. He paints on a canvas in the style of Jackson Pollock
Plock! by Grensgeval and aifoon. A circus and sound theater production in which a painter-acrobat mimics Jackson Pollock while music brings alive paint cans and subconsciously guides the audiences. Photo credit: Bart Grietens.

So how does someone start a career in this seemingly utopic circus world as a sound designer? One might assume that technical knowledge about equipment or software would be key to a sound designer’s success. Rather, Dickel and Scheff encouraged developing personal and interpersonal skills. These, they insisted, are at the profession’s core. Scheff went so far as to say, “It’s not often well-rewarded in this business to be the best at something. It’s well-rewarded to be connected and to be good to work with. Working up the skill set you need to reach out and engage with people is the primary skill I think that you need to launch yourself” because “the most important tool you have at your disposal are the connections that you have.” I joked with them that The Circus Designer Series should have been named Keep Your Connections & Don’t Be A Jerk. We had a chuckle, but only because it’s true. Each one of my interviewees has, with sincerity, insisted that personal connections and your demeanor as a collaborator are essential to success.

On a more personal level, Dickel said, “I would encourage everybody – as a human being – to sophisticate the listening system, to listen to everyday sound environments, to listen to silence, to listen to your heartbeat. Listen with somebody else, listen to other cultures – not what people are saying, but how they are saying it.” He described how one might listen with “not only the ears but the whole system. Listen with the soles of the foot. At this moment, do I feel sounds with my upper arms? Think about your body as a membrane. How do we receive vibrations? This – to create a language to discuss with other artists – will make you as a human being and sound designer much richer.”

A sound board and monitors are arranged for a technical rehearsal for a circus production.
Front of house rig for music and sound playback. Twas the Night Before, Cirque du Soleil. Masque Sound, East Rutherford, NJ. Photo courtesy of Ben Scheff.

Scheff also spoke about the importance of developing artistic language. “It’s crucial to learn how to talk about art.” They clarified that they didn’t mean “knowing a lot of factual information, or who you are and what your voice is… but being able to talk to people who work in other design disciplines, who work in other media, and other forms.” An example, “when I say chiaroscuro? What do you think of when I say brutalists?” They ensured that, “The more you have those communications with other people, the more tactile it becomes. So that when you hit your first design meeting you can start to reference that vocabulary you’ve built up.”

a straps artist in jeans and an orange t-shirt hangs upside down by one foot next to a suspended, large speaker.
Murmur by Grensgeval and aifoon. A solo show with 31 speakers placed in the performer’s costume and in backpacks carried by audience members to create an immersive and interactive soundscape. Photo credit Bart Grietens.

This was a perfect segue to my next topic: best communication practices. Both Dickel and Scheff thought that being part of artistic conversations early on and having consistent communication with the production team was ideal.”If the sound designer, and costume, and lights, and everybody can be together, can be on the same spot of the birth of an idea for the creation, it’s a better starting point. It’s better for negotiation,” Dickel said. Scheff believes it’s best to “make all the information available to everyone. Populate the communal online folder with information, make collaborative playlists.” They also commented that, “We’re taught not to bother people, and that’s the opposite of a useful communication skill. I love when I get home late at night and have a two-sentence email from a director” with an off-the-cuff idea about the production. Scheff’s further advice was straightforward, “Lose any fear of asking dumb questions and of saying that you don’t know what something means.” And they offered, “It’s not out of the question to ask something as broad as, what do you need from me as the sound designer? People are sometimes taken aback when you ask a question that broad,” but he found it useful to give collaborators the chance to define their expectations. 

I began my last article with the ending, my closing interview question: is there anything else you’d like the CircusTalk readership to know? Scheff and Dickel’s responses highlighted a theme that has emerged in this Circus Designer series: trust. The way my interviewees have spoken about it throughout this series leads me to believe that – in certain creative settings – designers are not valued enough for their expertise, which then instills a lack of trust in creative, decision-making moments. 

Scheff said, “There is a lot to gain from reaching out with trust to the people you are working with.” A mentor pointed out to them that because designers traditionally spend less time on a single production than a director or performer “by the time a designer [assuming they have worked fairly consistently] is three years out of school, they will have been in three times as many techs as a given director.” And echoing Travis Lahay’s advice about how to negotiate decision-making, Scheff said, “You don’t just say that the director’s wrong, but you do say, I have a thought about this. I think we can serve this moment better if we do something a little differently, can I talk to you about that? If the creative environment you’re in is one where there is trust enough that a designer can push back against a directorial choice even in the room, in the moment, because they know they have a tool to serve a moment if it works slightly differently, those are tremendous opportunities to bring the show together which could be missed because there isn’t that trust that a designer knows their tools better than the director, or better than the performer.” 

Above: A sound-heavy passage of Manxome Foes. Credit to Search for Sumatra. Music and Sound by Ben Scheff.

When Dickel spoke of trust, he related it to co-composing. He described giving another person a sound massage and wanted people to know, “It’s an easy thing to do.” One person closes their eyes and the other creates a soundscape using accessible objects or tools: “You can compose with silence. You can compose with the paper around the candy. You can compose with the chair.” Spend half an hour composing, then switch roles. Note, “When did you stop listening to the paper, and when did you start listening to the chair? There is no school in it. It can be intimidating, but everyone can do it. It’s a democratic way to be a sound designer.” This small exercise can develop into leading someone in a blindfolded walk. “You have to trust each other, and when the trust is there, you can explore all the listening modes – to stretch listening.” At the end of this article is a short composition exercise that Dickel has crafted for the CircusTalk readers, a way to start exploring your environment sonically.

Trust, like sound and the essence of circus, is intangible, but it is a real feeling. I believe it has a vibration, a frequency. It is both galactic and elemental. And like the revolving door of circus essences, it shows up in a myriad of ways. Trusting your gut, the physical umbilical cord that tethers us to our first sensorial experience of the world, is an important one in a creative profession. “Just because it’s your first idea doesn’t mean it isn’t your best idea,” Scheff reminded. “We are all taught to make, and then analyze, and iterate, and iterate, and iterate. And you’re exhausting yourself with something that isn’t your first reaction. You can trust yourself at the end of the day.”

Carry a sound

Created by Stijn Dickel.

Choose a place with a special atmosphere.
A place with a meaningful quality.

Make a recording of that place.
Choose a certain duration.
Put the recording on repeat and play it back via a Bluetooth speaker.

Listen to the place within the place…
Try different spots in the room to listen.
Try different spots in the room to put the speaker.
Take your time and keep on listening. Omni-directional.

Hide the speaker in a backpack and carry the sound with you.
Listen to how the sound changes other places.
Listen to how other places change the sound.
Listen to how the sound interacts with silence, with the wind, with a car passing by.

While carrying the sound,
Listen to how the sound modulates. How it reflects in different acoustics.
Listen to how your body (partially) absorbs the sound. Listen to how it feels.

Take the sound with you to the pub, to the mall, to a friend’s garden.
Eat, sleep and shower with the sound.
Listen to how it becomes familiar.
Listen to how it alienates others.

Stop the recording.
Go back to the original place.
And listen to how your listening has changed.

Madeline Hoak
Professor, Performer -United States
Madeline Hoak is an artist and academic who creates with, through and about circus. She is an Associate Editor for CircusTalk, Adjunct Professor of Aerial Arts at Pace University, a member of the American Circus Alliance's EDI committee, and the Editor and Curatorial Director of TELEPHONE, an international arts game. Madeline has performed, coached, produced, and choreographed at elite regional and international venues. Her background in dance and physical theater are infiltrated into her coaching and creation style. She is passionate about providing her students holistic circus education that includes physical, historical, theoretical resources. Madeline initiated the Aerial Acrobatics program at her alma mater, Muhlenberg College, where she taught from 2012-2017. She is also a regular contributor to Cirkus Syd's Circus Thinkers international reading group. Her circus research has been supported by Pace, NYU, and Concordia University. Recent publications include "Teaching the Mind-Body: Integrating Knowledges through Circus Arts'' (with Alisan Funk, Dan Berkley), a chapter in Art as an Agent for Social Change, "expanding in(finite) between," a multimedia essay in Circus Thinkers: Reflections, 2020, and "Digital Dance & TELEPHONE: A Unique Spectator Experience." Madeline has presented academic papers at numerous conferences including Circus and it’s Others (UC Davis), the Popular Culture Association, Gallatin (NYU), and McGill University. Madeline earned an MA from Gallatin, New York University’s School of Independent Study, where she designed a Circus Studies curriculum with a focus on spectatorship. madelinehoak.com
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Madeline Hoak

Madeline Hoak is an artist and academic who creates with, through and about circus. She is an Associate Editor for CircusTalk, Adjunct Professor of Aerial Arts at Pace University, a member of the American Circus Alliance's EDI committee, and the Editor and Curatorial Director of TELEPHONE, an international arts game. Madeline has performed, coached, produced, and choreographed at elite regional and international venues. Her background in dance and physical theater are infiltrated into her coaching and creation style. She is passionate about providing her students holistic circus education that includes physical, historical, theoretical resources. Madeline initiated the Aerial Acrobatics program at her alma mater, Muhlenberg College, where she taught from 2012-2017. She is also a regular contributor to Cirkus Syd's Circus Thinkers international reading group. Her circus research has been supported by Pace, NYU, and Concordia University. Recent publications include "Teaching the Mind-Body: Integrating Knowledges through Circus Arts'' (with Alisan Funk, Dan Berkley), a chapter in Art as an Agent for Social Change, "expanding in(finite) between," a multimedia essay in Circus Thinkers: Reflections, 2020, and "Digital Dance & TELEPHONE: A Unique Spectator Experience." Madeline has presented academic papers at numerous conferences including Circus and it’s Others (UC Davis), the Popular Culture Association, Gallatin (NYU), and McGill University. Madeline earned an MA from Gallatin, New York University’s School of Independent Study, where she designed a Circus Studies curriculum with a focus on spectatorship. madelinehoak.com