Summer is approaching and with it high season for the circus festivals. Circus programmers spend the entire year putting together the menu for their festival. They’re the ones who decide which performances you’ll be served up. A dream-job or a minefield peppered with artists’ egos and disappointed festival-goers? We put it to two prominent members of the species: Martine Linaer-Gijsen, programmer for Flanders’ oldest and biggest circus and outdoor theatre festival Theater op de Markt, and Wendy Moonen, programmer of the biggest circus festival in the Netherlands, Festival Circolo.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #55 – June 2018 // Author: Hanna Mampuys // Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
There is no university course for circus programmer. What led you to the job?
Wendy Moonen: “During my studies in Cultural and Social education I did an apprenticeship at the theater festival Boulevard in Den Bosch (NL). I knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do for a living: working for festivals. Each year Boulevard would invite one big French circus, like Cirque Plume or Les Art Sauts. And I think that was the beginning of my love affair with the circus. Of course the step from apprentice to programmer didn’t happen overnight. I was employed by Boulevard, working part of my time on the program and part of my time on production. Wim Claesen was the director at that point, he was approaching retirement age and still had two dreams he wanted to realise: organising a circus festival and starting up a circus school. That became Circolo and ACaPA (Academy for Circus and Performance Arts, Ed.) in Tilburg. I was one of the team he put together to shape the festival. The first edition was in 2007. When Wim decided in 2012 that it was time for him to step down, I proposed myself as his successor. The rest of the story you know. In the meantime I also work on the program for Oerol and the street theatre part of Boulevard.”
Martine Linaer-Gijsen: “I recognise elements of my own history in Wendy’s account. I also got involved in the whole thing step by step. It is hard to say when I actually officially became the programmer of Theater op de Markt. I had been working for quite some time at Dommelhof (Limburg provincial domain for podium arts, culture and G-sport in Neerpelt, Ed.) and at some point we decided to shift the focus more towards the organisation of events like Theater op de Markt. I was responsible for communication – Marc Celis and Linda Janssen were in charge of the program. Linda is now director of the cultural centre Palethe in Overpelt. Marc asked me at some point to help out with the programme for Theaterstreken, another of the projects at Dommelhof. When Linda left for Palethe it was decided that someone else should take over communication so that I could focus on programming at Dommelhof. That was somewhere around 2006 or 2007, I believe. Marc and I worked together for several years, as he headed towards retirement. I do remember that at some point I realised: this year I actually put together the entire program.”
Martine: “I can also be completely seduced by dance and film, but circus has a particular quality, a purity and immediacy I don’t find in any other discipline. Many circus artists come back on stage after the show to meet the audience, that happens less often in dance or theatre. That accessibility, that openness, touches me and it is one of my motivations for working with those artists. I always say, if I am touched as a programmer, then my audience will also be touched.”
Wendy: “For me it’s of course the performances that are fascinating, but also everything surrounding the event. Circus makers who drive their own trucks into the festival terrain, who build up their own tent or decor… it goes much further than an actor who arrives an hour or so beforehand for the performance. In circus there is a feeling of family, the feeling of doing it together. During Circolo a close community develops in which everyone shares the same goal of bringing beautiful performances to our audience.”
Martine: “My first experience with ‘new circus’ was the performance Opéra Équestre from Zingaro. What blew me away was the proximity I talked about earlier. The horses stormed into the space with such power that the first three rows left the tent covered in dust at the end of the performance. The audience is literally part of the performance. And that is something I see time and again with circus shows: you are often sitting so close that you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the experience.”
Wendy: “One of my earliest memories is of the performance Kayasinne from Les Art Sauts. The gigantic tent was inflated and the audience sat in chaises longues to watch the entire performance above them. I never experienced anything like it before.”
What do you consider to be the role of a programmer?
Martine: “I like to think of myself as a maker of programmes or festivals. You work on a total concept. I am happiest standing in the middle of it all, as close as possible to all the aspects of production. I also believe that that is essential if you are working with outdoor theatre: you have to be able to foresee what might be necessary for a particular performance.”
Wendy: “I think that every festival is aiming for the same thing: you don’t program from a catalogue. You want to tell a story, you want to create an experience.”
Martine: “Going out to see things is incredibly important. By now I have so much experience that I can put together a certain amount of a programme from my desk. There are some festivals I don’t bother to go to anymore, because I know I won’t find what I am looking for there. At the same time I think it is still incredibly important to be willing to make that 700 km trip for one performance, because you have a feeling that it might be worth it. People sometimes think I am a bit crazy, but for me that’s the kind of motivation you need if you want to be a programmer.”
Wendy: “You can’t see everything – at least I don’t manage to – and that’s why contact with other programmers is also so important. It’s a way of making a sort of pre-selection of the things that might be worth it or that you know you must try to see. Going to see the performances personally is still the most important step.”
What’s your criteria for choosing a particular performance? I assume that it goes beyond your own personal taste?
Martine: “You can never completely ignore your own personal taste. It’s often about a sort of gut-feeling that you cannot explain. Sometimes something doesn’t make the program because it doesn’t quite fit the bigger picture for that particular year, or for some other reason it’s not the right moment. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good performance. We also take the different circus disciplines into account. The programme has to be as diverse as possible. I mean, how many jugglers can you take in one day? (laughs) Actually the programme has to be diverse in many other ways: for different age levels, both Flemish and international productions, … In Hasselt we also try to aim for a balance between location theatre and circus. It’s one big puzzle that I and my colleagues put together, piece by piece. Finding the right balance is never that simple.”
Wendy: “At Circolo we want to programme performances that are for everyone, but also performances to fascinate the more experienced spectator. Together with those goals we aim to offer opportunities to young circus makers who have studied in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands circus still hasn’t appropriated the spot it deserves among the other artistic disciplines, so as a circus festival we play an important role in promoting Dutch circus and circus makers. If we want the circus field in the Netherlands to grow, we have to support our young makers, introducing them to our international colleagues and giving them the chance to show their work. We have ten days and a limited number of tents so at some point we are full. There is always more on offer than we can book for our festival, so we have to make choices. And those choices are not only determined by quality or my own personal taste, it’s more complicated than that.”
Is there an artistic line that runs through your programme? Does a festival in its entirety have a certain identity?
Wendy: “We always choose for performances that take dramaturgy into account, that have a particular story line, that take distance from that traditional cabaret formula of independent acts. In some editions we have had a theme which ran through the festival, for example, a focus on the combination of circus with dance. We even organised a colloquium with the aim of bringing the dance and circus worlds closer together, in search of exchange on a deeper level. This year we will attach a seminary to the festival with the theme – ‘dramaturgy of the body’. And we have programmed a number of performances that correspond with that theme. But at the same time I realise that the normal audience is coming to the festival to see beautiful circus performances. The larger theme is something that helps me during the programming and an extra accent in terms of content for those with more awareness of the circus biotope.”
Martine: “In our choice of content there’s one line we consciously maintain and that’s the bringing together of different disciplines. We don’t just aim to bring you ‘circus’, but the disciplines related to it as well. A mono-disciplinary festival, only circus or only theatre, … – I often find that kind of boring. What really fascinates me is location work, there are still loads of possibilities to be found there for circus: making specific work for specific places, beginning with the location. Theater op de Markt continues to be a real festival for the people, we are not an art festival. I want to take the audience on a trip where they discover something new. There is no sweeter reaction from the audience than: ‘I never saw that before!’ I don’t mean it always has to be something new, but somehow surprising and different. That is a big challenge when you are putting together a programme.”
You both see so many performances, can you identify certain trends?
Wendy: “We often look towards France for our festivals, because within Europe the French contribution to circus is by far the largest. Recently I have seen a lot of heavily theatrical pieces with French dialogue. Not so accessible for a Dutch audience… If I am really crazy about a piece we can always consider working with subtitles, but you don’t just pull that out of a hat. I find myself wondering as well: is a circus artist also an actor? Does circus really need all that text?”
Martine: “One trend that I notice is that Flemish and Dutch audiences crave the work that combines different disciplines. Circus artists that collaborate with those working with sound or video.”
Wendy: “Another trend is that young circus artists resolutely choose for the role of creator. Rather than going to audition for an existing company, solely as a performer, they choose to go their own way and develop their own identity. I am not saying that one path is better than another, but I do notice that it is the tendency for this younger generation. The role of maker is one that is stimulated, through the Circuscentrum and the fact that there are increasing chances to work ‘in residence’.”
Martine: “As a programmer that’s also what you are looking for: true artists, artists who have their own stories to tell. There aren’t that many iconic figures in the circus landscape, we could use some more of them. Of course the sector is young and a lot has changed and developed in these past years. When I talk to circus artists I also notice that they are beginning to think differently about the idea of creation.”
Wendy: “That’s a trend that’s less apparent in the Netherlands. Artists are often obliged to justify their very existence because circus is hardly taken seriously as an art form.”
How does the world of circus differ between Flanders and the Netherlands?
Wendy: “For the past ten years there has been funding for circus in Flanders, and the possibilities continue to grow. In the Netherlands we are still lobbying to get the word ‘circus’ included on the list of possible recipients for the funding there is to be had. That’s a reality that has huge repercussions for the sector.”
Martine: “Money is an important factor. It’s largely thanks to the funding that has been made available for circus that a circus sector even exists in Flanders.”
Wendy: “If there is something indispensable for the development of an art form, it is the possibility for a maker to experiment. In the Netherlands there are virtually no opportunities for artistic research. There is no money for that. So if you want to survive as an artist you have to be sure to produce a sellable product as soon as possible.”
How do see your contribution to the development of circus in your role as festival makers?
Wendy: “Developing talent is one of our missions. Outside of the festivals we also organise projects offering opportunities to circus talent. We realise that we are an important platform for makers and we take that role seriously. We also want to promote circus beyond the street theatre circuit, in indoor theatres, large and small. Once in a while they will book a big international name like Les 7 Doigts or Gravity and Other Myths, but it would be nice to get our own makers in those venues as well.”
Martine: “For us contributing to the development of our sector is part of our mission. And of course that goes beyond the festival. I am a sort of ambassador for young makers and Flemish work: I advise cultural centres in Limburg, recommend certain things, … with Theater op de Markt we also support certain groups as co-producers – we aren’t obliged to do it, but as a festival I couldn’t imagine only functioning receptively. Co-production has an effect on our programme: we agree to book the performance, even if in some cases we haven’t yet seen it. In that sense we take a risk, but that is part of the job.”
Which moment in your career is one you’ll never forget
Martine: “The one moment which will be impossible for me to ever forget, because it gets retold again and again by my husband, who continues to find it hilarious… We invited Circo da Madrugada to Theaterstreken: a Brazilian company with fantastic aerial acrobatics and a big structure. Before the performance began I had to make an announcement to the waiting audience of more than a thousand spectators. After a few words I sensed a big delay in my voice coming through the microphone. As a reaction to that delay, I began to speak …even …more …slowly. Everyone thought I was on drugs or something. So now I do everything I can, on all occasions, to avoid going anywhere near a microphone.”
Wendy: “We wanted to book Morsure, a performance by Compagnie Rasposo. In the original play there was a real tiger. For various reasons it wasn’t possible to bring that animal onto our festival grounds, so we requested the tiger-less version of the performance. When I dropped in to visit the company backstage at a festival in Marseille I really had to laugh: in the middle of the artists area, between the caravans and the catering, there was a big cage with a tiger in it. There were signs hanging on the cages saying ‘Beware of the Tiger’ and that was that. It suddenly seemed completely normal to have a tiger at the festival!”
What do you wish for yourself professionally in the future? What is your ten year plan?
Wendy: “I hope I can continue to do this work for a very long time, I think it must be the greatest job in the world and I see loads of challenges and possibilities in the future. I look forward to watching the field develop and want to encourage as many people as I can to get into the wild world of circus. Circolo is moving this year to Tilburg and it is becoming an annual event. That offers a lot of new possibilities in terms of collaboration, audience development, the fact that we’re closer to ACaPA, … In short, a lot of work and I really look forward to it.”
Martine: “I don’t see myself continuing as a programmer for another ten years. A festival is great, but it’s also so ephemeral. I want to continue working in the sector, but I would love to initiate some projects that develop over a longer period of time, projects for particular groups and particular artists. Get out of the theatre and get more involved with the content of a project and the direction it takes. I want to give more thought to those things, and at the same time have a younger programmer next to me who in the end can take over the torch for the next leg of the race.”