[This article was published in CircusMagazine #42 – March 2015]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Photography: Brecht Van Maele – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
In december we announced the ten nominations for the prize of circus personality of the year. The voting turnout was massive, and the supporters of circus programmer Kathleen Keymeulen most massive of all. Kathleen is a huge advocate for the circus, equally in the theatre space of CC De Werf in Aalst as in the organization of the annual summer festival Cirk!Aalst. Reason enough to pay her tribute and put her image on a fantastic poster. Assaulted by her new-found fame, we’ve just managed the honour to sit down across from her in a luxurious armchair in Aalst for a unique interview.
Sincere congratulations, Kathleen! Are you pleased with your victory as circus personality of the year?
Kathleen Keymeulen: “That I have to deal with this! (laughs) Of course I was pleased with the nomination, but to win… I would rather have left that to someone else. I myself voted for another candidate. As programmer I consciously chose to stay out of the limelight. That is what I enjoy about my job: to be someone who makes things possible. The public isn’t often aware of that, but that’s not a problem. Let the artist stand in the spotlight. When an artist is successful and you feel like it clicks between them and the audience, I find that immensely satisfying. I don’t need applause on top of that.”
Creating possibilities for others. Do you as programmer see yourself in such a subservient role?
“Yes, one organises things for others, but always a bit secretly for oneself. Precisely because you like something and want other people to see it as well. You function as a sort of medium. But still as medium you determine quite a lot: you determine who plays and who doesn’t play. You work behind the scenes, but have a lot of influence. You can choose you own course, and that is what I like about this job.”
Are there many artists who approach you with caution, knowing that you decide whether or not they will get a chance to play?
“Yes, that happens. But that pertains to both sides. On the one hand, you are flooded with information you never asked for. You get overloaded with paper. As soon as you become part of the festival circuit, everyone wants to have a word with you. You receive online news-pages you never asked for, people mail you for almost everything. On the other hand it is a pleasure to be able to support those artists with something special, and help them out with the interesting projects they want to realise. Of course that doesn’t happen in Cirk!Aalst to the same extent as in the bigger festivals. You can’t compare our work to that of Theater op de Markt or Humorologie.”
CARNIVAL – AND CIRCUS TOWN
How did circus arrive at De Werf? Did you insist?
“Two important factors contributed. I myself had noticed that circus was slowly sneaking its way into the theatre, and I found that a fascinating evolution. At the same time there was an initiative from Dylan Casaer, the alderman of culture at that time, to start up the festival Cirk!Aalst in 2009. He found that not enough went on in Aalst in the summertime. And that was true. Every self-respecting town has their own music or street theatre festival in the summer. In Aalst there was nothing. During the winter we had our famous carnival of course, but no summertime equivalent existed. That’s how the idea for a circus festival came to be. Alderman Casaer himself had connections with the circus world and knew it was starting to take off. That is why he proposed in February of 2009 to do something with the circus in Aalst, and in August of that same year the first festival had to be ready to go. So we had to get acquainted with and find our way through a lot of unknown territory, in a very short period of time. That is how we came to our first, rather easy festival line-up. Looking back, I would have done some things differently. But it worked. In the end the first edition included Pol & Freddy, and Bert & Fred. Groups who in the meantime have taken a serious step forward. So there were certainly some good things in that program.”
In that period, did you have a lot to learn about circus?
“Yes, it wasn’t obvious. True novices. Equally as an organisation: everyone in our little team have to find their way. That first festival was also incredibly tense. Would it work? Back then the people of Aalst didn’t know how to relate to a circus festival. A circle act, what is that? How and where is one supposed to sit? There is an enormous difference between managing the audience in the theatre and managing the audience on the street.”
Six years have gone by since the first edition. Has the festival grown?
“Absolutely. Certainly as far as the budget is concerned. For the first editions we had no subsidies, now we do. The city of Aalst completely supports the festival. Of course in times of economic hardship everything gets cut back. Aalst has also made big cutbacks, and yet the festival still gets what it needs. Not to grow even larger, but to continue at its present size. And people start to know the story. People know about the festival and the gigantic impact it has. Cirk!Aalst is the most democratic cultural event of the year. People who would never go to see a play in the theatre, are suddenly part of the circus audience. That is really lovely.”
How has your vision of circus evolved through the years?
“You travel in two different speeds at the same time. First, you have your own vision. Because you see a lot, you evolve quickly. But you must make sure that your public can follow. I know that Cirk!Aalst doesn’t evolve at the same speed as other festivals, and that our program is not the most challenging. But it is a slow process. Now we can do things that weren’t possible even two years ago. You have to go step by step and bring your audience with you. People from Aalst are also difficult as far as that goes. They are very critical spectators. If you can’t convince them, you will hear grumbling from the tribunes. But when the grumbling stops and turns into enthusiasm… that is lovely. Really satisfying. Fifteen years ago I was programming theatre in the Vooruit in Gent. The difference with Aalst in gigantic. In Gent the audience is open for everything. Here in Aalst you really have to convince people. And some things go a step too far. You know that were you to include those performances in your program you would be up against a brick wall.”
Isn’t that then frustrating?
“It can be frustrating, yes. You have to adapt to the situation. With some performances you know that nobody will show up if you program them. And still, sometimes you have to do it. In January I booked ‘Untitled_I will be there when you die’ from Alessandro Sciarroni. In the Vooruit he played twice as part of Smells Like Circus for a sold-out theatre. In Aalst I had one hundred spectators, which is not bad, but our theatre is way larger than the Domzaal in the Vooruit. The performance was good here, but the turnout could have been better.”
How big is the theatre of De Werf?
“Six hundred seats. And we have nothing smaller. It means we miss out on part of what there is to offer. But you mustn’t program something if you don’t have the right space to put it in. Another problem is that you have to put the right audience together with the right performance. With Sciarroni that wasn’t obvious. This season I programmed two mainstream juggling performances, and they both had a very good turnout. But Sciarroni is something completely different. In the end I am constantly trying to lead the audience to the right performances. By searching for the right language. Thankfully I am not alone in that task, we have a whole team to do it.”
How many performances to you see in a year?
“Difficult to say. I now see a lot of circus, which conflicts with a chance to see other genres: theatre, humour and dance. In the old days I saw lots of theatre, and later during the comedy-hype lots of humour. Now mostly circus. A bit too much, actually (laughs). But it is hard to resist. I find circus at this point in time very interesting. But the exact number of performances that I see in a year, couldn’t tell you.”
I’ll put it another way: how many evenings per week do you spend at home?
“Good question! There are weeks that I am away four evenings out of seven. I make it a point to keep my Sundays free, to be home. Then Mondays and Tuesdays there is not so much going on, but from Wednesday it starts. Then they don’t see me at home.”
Do they approve there, back at home?
“Yeah, well they have to. They don’t have a choice. Once in a while I keep an evening free for my children. But they are used to it. They grew up with the festival. Especially my oldest son, whom I took around everywhere with me. I don’t think there’s a kid alive who has seen more festivals than he has.”
Are your own children involved with circus?
“No, absolutely not. I didn’t manage to pass on the disease.”
Would you have liked to see at least one of your children go into the circus? Or are you a concerned parent who prefers to see their children choosing a more secure path?
“I would have certainly allowed them to do it. They have to do what they really want to do. But if I am honest, I am rather relieved that they have not become flyers on the bascule.” (laughs)
Are circus artists usually easy to work with?
“Yes, circus artists are super. It’s easy for me to say it, because I am not involved with logistics. But usually I find the artists to be really fine, accessible people. Sometimes I am gobsmacked by what someone is physically capable of doing, and then afterwords I am a bit shy about going to talk to them. A kind of admiration and respect. But once you start talking, they turn out to be the most normal person in the world. And very thankful that you came over to say something. Just to have a conversation.”
Imagine that a young circus artist reads this interview and wants to be in your program. How do they go about it?
“They have to create a good performance. That is what it always comes down to: make a good performance and you will play it. But you have to take the time. Bert & Fred for instance, have come a long long way and have consistently continued to work on their own style. You have to work consequently and have enough ideas. If you can then manage to make the entire thing coherent, and make it work, then you will convince me.”
Of course you also need to get the space to develop yourself over a long period.
“In stand-up comedy it is the same. The big artists are expected to bring out a good full evening performance every two years. That is a huge challenge. Fledgling artists are usually not ready for that. A young comedian starts out with ten minutes of good material. It shouldn’t be your aim to immediately blow over the biggest theatres. Speed is not always a good thing. On the other hand, programmers can be very impatient people. A programmer works to a strict planning. You know: that’s when it has to be ready. And what we possibly don’t do enough of, is to dare to show the imperfect work. De Werf is of course not a production space. That task falls more to the Circuscentrum and Dommelhof. Perhaps programmers also want a bit too emphatically to ‘score’. As an organisation, we want to make a good showing, and so sometimes we are too demanding and impatient. Sorry for that.” (laughs)
Demanding and impatient? Sitting there before me as she is, those are about the last words I would use to describe her. Her eyes are those befitting a Circus Personality, full of passion and love for the circus. The prize has been more than well-earned.
[The 10 nominees were: Xavier Cloet, Bauke Lievens, Karel Creemers, Rose-Marie Malter, Jan Daems, Rinus Samyn, Machteld De Smedt, Frederique Snoeks, Kathleen Keymeulen and Alexander Vantournhout]
[Thanks to Stefaan De Winter, Xavier Cloet, Vincent Bruyninckx and Simon Bruyninckx for their beautiful appearance on the pictures]