‘If it rains then the floor gets wet and we can’t fall well.’ It’s with this seeming contradiction that the master clown Gonzalo Alarcón cancels the performance of Chiringuito Paradise by Sitting Duck at the CIRKL festival in Leuven. The imposing mechanical decor gets covered with a tarp. I’m invited into the shelter which now resembles a gigantic Ikea bag turned upside down, joining a very dejected Gonzalo and his fellow actor Joris Verbeeren.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #59 – June 2019 // Author: Tom Permentier // Translation: Craig Weston // Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
A bit later I join the roguish duo from Sitting Duck in the festival backstage area for this interview, and the sun is shining bright again. Gonzalo Alarcón, Chilean by birth, built his career in the streets with Hopla Circus. Joris Verbeeren, West Flemish, is a passionate juggler who in an earlier life made waves with ShakeThat, the culinary circus collective where the cocktails literally flew through the air. Two circus artists, about half-way through their careers… or perhaps not anywhere near that yet. Time for a review.
Gentlemen, how has it been, the life of a circus artist, up until now?
Joris Verbeeren: “My happy years started around the time I turned 24, when I started to perform as a circus artist. From that point on, I completely enjoyed my life. It’s not that I was miserable before that, but I had no goals, or any kind of idea what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t make a conscious decision to become a circus artist, out of the blue. It just sort of happened. When I was a kid there weren’t a whole lot of circus schools around, and becoming a circus artist was not an obvious choice. I started to follow lessons in a youth circus and not long thereafter I was giving lessons myself. That’s how I got my first experience on a stage, though never with the idea of going professional. However, as I found myself more and more often on stage, in small scale animations to bigger shows, I started to realise: ‘This is actually really cool.’ Slowly but surely it became a way of life.”
You even gave up your further studies to become a performer. Was that a difficult choice?
Joris: “Not at all. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I was relieved, that would be an exaggeration, but I always considered myself to be a very good bad student. I would skip my lessons to go juggling in the park. I find the idea of ‘studying’ something quite interesting as a concept. I can imagine doing it at some point in the future, but not just in order to get a diploma. To get a diploma you had to study all kinds of things that didn’t really interest me, so I lost interest.”
Gonzalo, you’ve just turned forty, and your body is getting older. How do you deal with that?
Gonzalo Alarcón: “I use it. I have more experience, on stage as well as off, and I enjoy getting older. I’ve learned to deal with that positively. I consider the physical work to be an exploration: juggling, jumping, a bit of acro-porté. Through that work I get to know myself better, and to look at my body with a bit of distance. My work isn’t any less physical than it was twenty years ago. My acrobatics may have been a bit more spectacular, but the result was more or less the same as it is today. I still give everything I’ve got, work hard and train hard and I am constantly moving. So I actually don’t feel old.”
You studied clowning and burlesque at the famous circus school CNAC in Châlons-en-Champagne, France. Do you still go by the book with all the skills you learned there?
Gonzalo: “To some extent. I use the playing techniques from my acting classes, just as jugglers or acrobats apply their specific techniques, but clown is more than that. As a clown you have to learn to listen to your audience, to your fellow players and especially to yourself. If you lie to yourself, you lose everything. You don’t play a clown, you are a clown. Technique may help you keep a situation under control on stage, but it’s the connection with the audience that is the most important thing.”
After all your years of experience, working with different companies, you are now working together. Creating a performance from nothing. Is that as difficult as the first time you did it?
Joris: “For me ShakeThat was a good creation process where everything just seemed to work. Other times the productions were much more difficult. I think everybody goes through that. A lot depends on the chemistry of the moment, if everybody is on the same track. And of course you need a good idea. All that together with a whole lot of dumb luck. Look at Follow me (parkour performance from Be Flat, which played as well in CIRKL, red.): that’s a fantastic group of guys, they’ve developed a fantastic idea, and they have built up a really strong network. It’s the sum of a lot of different ingredients that make something work. I find it difficult to write everything down and think: ‘Now we are going to improve all of it’. That said, we have started to write our ideas down on paper, and the shows we make are more coherent. And yet I find that the power of younger productions can sometimes be in their incoherence. There is something pure and beautiful about that, and you can also learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t from watching that kind of a performance. I have a feeling that the production process is easier than it used to be. You kind of get used to it, in working with other people for example. That doesn’t necessarily mean the result is always good. Like I said: chemistry, luck and the right idea are important. Then you have to hope for favourable winds. Because one year the public only wants to see dance shows, and if you arrive with a circus show about sailboats you won’t go very far with it. And the next year may be entirely different.”
Gonzalo: “For me this production was just as difficult as when I first started out. Back then I was also making new shows, each time with different people. You have to get to know each other, discover your differences and deal with them. And luck has a lot to do with it. When you work with people from different artistic backgrounds, and it’s a real challenge each time again.”
How did you meet each other? How was your collaboration?
Gonzalo: “We met each other in a castle, didn’t we?”
Joris: (nods) “Gonzalo was performing with my ex-girlfriend Aurélia (Brailowsky, red.). I knew them both from that show, even before I was together with Aurélia. I was friends with her and others from Hopla Circus. Hopla and ShakeThat were from the same generation, in the meantime we’ve become a bunch of old farts (laughs). I lived together with a few friends in a castle in Zulte and Hopla would come by to rehearse. So I started seeing Gonzalo more and more often. He helped me once when I was making a show together with a friend of mine. After that we made a few silly numbers together, then finally decided to start working on something substantial.”
Did you tend to agree on things during the creation?
Joris: “We both stand behind the final result, so we are really happy about that. But we each had rather different ideas about the working method along the way. With a duo that’s even a bigger deal: at a certain point we saw each other more often than our own girlfriends. During that period it wasn’t always easy.”
Gonzalo: “A new collaboration is always a gamble, especially coming from such different worlds. For me that was mostly enriching. The big advantage in our collaboration was that even when we didn’t agree, we kept working. From time to time we had some hefty discussions, but that never stopped us from going on. The show was always going on.”
Joris: “Neither of us had a particular idea of what the show should become, so we weren’t obliged to make big compromises, we just sculpted the show, step by step. He in his way and me in mine. It wasn’t like he wanted to set the show in an ice cream parlour while I wanted to put it in a bar on the beach, and that my idea won over in the end.”
You worked with the director Christine Rossignol. How did that go?
Gonzalo: “Really well. I was happy that we ran into her, she is a good clown and a good director. She also directed Hopla Circus’ La Familia Rodriquez. We chose to work with Christine precisely because of our different backgrounds. I was mostly interested in clown and building up routines, while Joris was more into juggling and object manipulation, which I also, to be clear, also think is really important. At some point there we were with a whole lot of material, and we were putting things together, but we felt like something was missing. Christine brought us closer together, which was just what we needed. She helped us become a duo. That was near the end of the creation process, not long before our premiere. She put the cherry on top, but it was a very important cherry.”
So she didn’t bring any big changes to the piece?
Joris: “Oh yes, she did. But so did we. There are big chunks of our material that didn’t change at all, but you have to realise that we were doing some of those bits three years ago, long before we had our structure, like the routine with the two planks of wood, you remember? (Gonzalo confirms) We‘d paid no attention to the decor, in that period we just played with whatever was around. Then we found ourselves in Engis for a week, and that’s where we worked on the scenario for the first time. Immediately thereafter we had to play for two hundred children, a performance that we filmed and later evaluated. There were a lot of great things in there, I still think it’s a shame we couldn’t keep some of the tricks from that period. But in fact there’s nothing left from that phase of the work. And that was a process that seemed to repeat itself: find new material, watch the film and then throw the new ideas in the bin.”
Gonzalo: “Each time again, kill your darlings, on three different levels: first technically – the juggling and the falling stunts we had meticulously figured out, then the circus theatre – the slapstick and the clowning, and finally – the decor. The decor plays an essential role in the final piece. We had to build it, tinker around with all the different mechanisms so that in the end the decor would perfectly collapse. That had to be perfect. And then bringing all those aspects together into a whole. Everything had to fit in the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to inject some life into the idea by playing in the street as well, which meant reinventing ourselves a few times over. Which meant changing everything once again.”
A ‘chiringuito’ is a bar on the beach, very popular in Latin America. Where did that idea come from?
Gonzalo: “We knew we wanted to make a slapstick show, with lots of pratfalls. So we thought of chairs and tables to make all those falls more spectacular. Then came the idea for a decor which would completely collapse.”
Joris: “I have always dreamed of having my own cocktail bar – maybe one day to run the place – but for this piece it took a while before we came up with the idea of a bar on the beach. Once the idea was there, I was immediately enthusiastic. And I am also fascinated by structures which collapse or implode.”
Gonzalo: “We did a lot of research into different kinds of accidents. Just like jugglers who work very precisely to avoid a drop, we consider falling to be precision-work. A fall demands meticulous calculation and execution. The audience can laugh because they realise that you are not really in pain. But if that does happen, if you are in pain, the audience senses it immediately. So working on this form of slapstick we really studied the films of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers and Jackie Chan. Not to imitate them, but to see how they fell and dealt with their failures. The difference in circus is that for a live audience you only get one take. It has to be right the first time.”