Ruth Juliet Wikler is a name to know. Earlier this month, she was officially announced the Deputy Director of Programming, Circus Arts, for the Tohu theater in Montréal. Prior to this appointment, Wikler had been consulting for the venue with a focus on July’s MICC circus market. Wikler is an alumna of Circomedia and founder of Cirque Boom (New York City, 2002). Her career as a creator segued to the founding of the production company Boom Arts in Portland, Oregon. Her history with circus and passion for international arts programming makes her position at Tohu an exciting next step. I had the pleasure of speaking with Wikler just a few days before the official announcement. What stood out to me was her ability to eloquently describe what sits at the core of circus, the reason we love it and why circus is important to humanity.
Madeline Hoak: What do you love about contemporary circus?
Ruth Juliet Wikler: Contemporary circus has the thing that first inspired me, which is this ability to be totally rigorous. It’s this rigorous discipline that’s not faking. It’s real…You put yourself at risk, and it’s very serious in this way. And it’s the most silly discipline. It has the most room for silliness, and real surreality.
There is a word in French which doesn’t translate into English. The word is “ludique.” It means playful, but it doesn’t mean playful for kids. It’s a spiritual playfulness. You’ll see [it used] in French contexts to characterize environments and works of art. It means there’s a sense of wonder and amazement and play. And that is a space that adults rarely get to enter, and children often get it squashed out of them. Circus is a zone of that. It keeps that space sacred. It provides…that permission to have amazement and wonder and playfulness and silliness. It’s like spiritual food. It keeps us human, keeps us connected with each other and sharing that experience together.
MH: Your programming with Boom Arts hasn’t been what one might categorized as “circus,” but there is a very clear thread of what we could call a circus vibe. Tell me more about that.
RW: [At Boom Arts] I was working with mainly theater-based work which tends to be more verbal and has more specific communication. I was trying to keep space for the ‘ludique’ sensibility within that – and it’s harder to do that with theater, especially political theater. It can be very specific and doesn’t always cultivate that space.
As I’ve developed my body of work as a programmer, I’ve started drifting back into the circus world. If you look at my programing through Boom Arts it hasn’t been (the) circus discipline, but that sensibility was there of silly but also rigorous but also serious…The idea of having some things that push your buttons and have a thrill. That I see in my programming at Boom Arts… I wanted to expand the portfolio of what Boom Arts was presenting, what kinds of work, so I dipped back into the circus world to see what was in there, and that was how this relationship with Tohu evolved.
Through my programming work I’ve developed these programming skills which are not connected specifically to circus. They are about partnership building and they are about network building and fluency and the ability to build partnerships that are local, national and international, and that’s what I’ve done through Boom Arts. It’s the combination that my relationship with circus is real, it’s not aspirational…That’s what I’m really bringing to this role [at the Tohu]. I’m not here to make another circus; I’m not a creator anymore. I love my role as a programmer supporting other artists… I love being a producer and presenter. It’s my comfort zone. I feel confident and happy about it.
In terms of my potential contribution for the US, I had this experience a few years ago, fall 2016, when I went to a street performance festival in Spain. It was my first time reconnecting with the art world I had left when I left circus. I had this light bulb moment. Because I understood that [between the circus] lexicon as well as the US presenting world, I could maybe serve as a bridge. That is what I and some colleagues I have in the US, my two predecessors with this interview series, Jenni Taylor Swain (Potluck Arts) and Monique Martin (Harlem Stage), the three of us have a project to figure out, how does the work that circulates in that world, how can it fit into US presenting practices beyond the slots it’s been relegated to in the past?
The lowest hanging fruit for presenting is to bring American artists home.
MH: Why do you think some presenters shy away from circus?
RW: American presenters often program what they believe American audiences like or work that they find familiar. Institutions like to know they are going to sell tickets. It’s an added hurdle that circus often falls into the category of international work. The circus part is almost peripheral or secondary. The challenges that circus from abroad, in particular, has in circulation are linked not only because people aren’t conversant with the form but they aren’t conversant with international work. There’s dwindling support for international work period.
For those presenters who might want to take a first step in programming international circus, I might spotlight the fact that with circus in particular, often many of the artists in an international company are actually American. It’s like a brain drain. We don’t have health care, we don’t have arts support, and so while many wonderful American circus artists stay to create work at home, we also have a national brain drain of our artists who go to Canada, Australia and Europe to become circus artists and who are part of these companies. The lowest hanging fruit for presenting is to bring American artists home.
MH: What would you say to presenters that are curious about programming circus shows?
RW: There are three things that presenters have still to discover. The first thing is that not all circus is the technical behemoth that they are scared off… There are certain venues that are really well-equipped to handle technical behemoths, and there are some that aren’t. But those that aren’t don’t need to discard circus because there is a lot of circus out there in a lot of diverse forms.
A second area of discovery is that circus is a discipline that is a point of entry to the performing arts for audiences of all ages. It’s to look at circus not only as a great show, but also as, are you building your audience for dance? Guess what, circus is like dance but with cool tricks that everyone goes for. This idea that you could develop audiences for your other performing art forms using circus — some presenters have discovered this. I think in Europe many presenters know this and in the States they don’t know it quite as well.
And then the third area of discovery is that circus and outdoor performance can have an alchemical impact on your community; by bringing people together; by having a show that you don’t have to speak English; by having a show that breaks the fourth wall; by having a clown that reaches out to the youngest member of the audience or someone who has never seen a performing art work. It can be an instrument of inclusion. Inclusion is no longer a peripheral concern. Presenters are really putting it front and center. This is a reason why now is the moment for the circus world to respond. Because we have these tools at our disposal through our art form that enable us to be radically inclusive, much more than any other art form. And circus artists have not yet fully grasped this. There could be more work created with this in mind.
MH: Could you expand on that idea for the artists in the CircusTalk community?
Sure. When you think about what your market is, it’s worth being even more targeted than maybe our artists and companies are at this moment. You could think of yourself as, ‘We make work for place-making.’ Or, ‘We make work for community engagement.’ Or, ‘We make work for diverse audiences.’ You could expand what your target market is to include concerns that are really at the front of presenters mind right now. Artists should make what they are on this planet to make, you don’t make something because there’s a market for it unless it’s a commercial product, but it could maybe influence how artists frame it or who they approach to present it. Thinking about multidisciplinary presenters and what their priorities are would be a really smart move for artists.
There’s another side of that as well, which is knowing what work is circulating in other disciplines. When you’re a multidisciplinary presenter who doesn’t specialize in circus, whether something is moving the dials ahead for circus or not may not be your first question. Maybe you’re looking for something that compliments your contemporary dance program. So for artists, knowing what contemporary dance is doing these days would help you make a case for your work.
It’s extra hard to do that as a circus artist. There are so many other levels of technical proficiency you have to keep up. The other area of growth is making it so that performers aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on this stuff. Getting more folks who are going into this field as directors, as producers, so performers aren’t spending six hours a day and rehearsing and watching all the other stuff.
MH: What else would you like the CircusTalk community to know?
This summer I’m the director of the MICC market, and I’m really excited about the panel discussion that we are doing… We have incredible participants and topics. There’s Circus in Public Space, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in Contemporary Circus and Interdisciplinary Concepts & Collaborations in Contemporary Circus. The idea with these is to weave circus into discourses that are important and urgent in the performing arts in general by looking at case studies for what’s happening that’s inspiring.
I also want to highlight one thing I love about this festival. We have this neighborhood program. MICC is many things — it has a robust indoor and outdoor program. One of the facets of the outdoor program is that it has a show that tours to different neighborhoods. Each day it has five hours of try-it-yourself workshop for kids. It’s not something to leave out of your itinerary. The company that’s doing it this year is The Kif-Kif Sisters. They are absolutely hilarious. They get the major stamp of approval from my kids. There’s a troupe called El Nucleo, which is Colombian artists that are based in France. They’re bringing a show called Somos, which I’m really excited about. There’s a lot of great programming in the festival, but I hope people will see those two for sure.
So if you’re headed to Montréal this summer or anytime in the near future, it will be hard to miss the impact that Wikler is going to have on the North American circus community. May we all find ways to preserve a little ‘ludique’ in our everyday lives. A huge thanks to Ruth Juliet Wikler for her insight and dedication to contemporary circus!
Feature photo El Nucleo: Somos. Photo courtesy of Sylvain Frappat.