[This article was published in CircusMagazine #38 – March 2014]
[Author: Bauke Lievens – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
A conversation with Karel Creemers, Danny Ronaldo, Arne Sierens and Johan Heldenbergh about the creation of ‘Ensor’, the first collaboration between Circus Ronaldo and Compagnie Cecilia.
To begin with, the epic announcement that ‘Ensor’ will become an “hilarious, staggering, Faustian variety show”, creates expectations. Add to that an equally epic team of creator-performers, and our expectations take another quantum leap: Karel Creemers, Danny Ronaldo and Johan Heldenbergh together on stage under the direction of Arne Sierens. ‘Ensor’ tells the story of Guido (Johan Heldenbergh), an actor/director who searches and struggles with his self-created characters in this play-within-a-play “about gullible love”, wherein the central, amorous meeting between Antonio (Danny Ronaldo) and Irene/Juliette never takes place because the latter doesn’t show up. The story grinds to a halt. Antonio, who only exists for that fateful meeting with Juliette, has lost his reason to be. A Romeo without a Juliet. And just as Pinocchio with Giuseppe, Antonia locks horns in discussion with Guido. About the meaning of life. About the point of theatre. And about the need for love, in which he continues to believe. This Faustian dialogue continues to be interspersed with visits by supporting characters like the Doctor, the Captain and Death, (all played by Karel Creemers). But before you completely lose the plot: ‘Ensor’ is above all else the story of four men and their internal struggle between a youthful belief in love and the theatre, and the reality of their lives as forty-somethings.
What in heavens name do you mean by a Faustian Variety Show?
Arne Sierens: “The audience sits on two sides of a long rectangular playing space, bordered on each end by a small house. The narrative is a succession of appearances by different characters; Variety.”
Johan Heldenbergh: “And in between the stories different circus acts intervene.”
Danny Ronaldo: “Although it is actually flashes of circus acts, as if blown in by the wind.”
Arne: “Souvenirs, vague memories.”
Karel Creemers: “Unfiltered clown sketches.”
Johan: “All the clichés from the circus, packed together, actually.”
Arne: “Yes, the typical classics, but unannounced. As if such things just “happen”.
Without interrupting the narrative?
Arne: “Yes, exactly. More like something to fill the holes that appear because the story has ground to a halt. So the acts are necessary.”
Danny: “A bit like in commedia dell’arte.”
Arne: “It is rather unintentional variety. It falls apart. It is pointless. There is no end. Julia is not there, so Romeo just sits in a chair and waits.”
Johan: “The adventures of Suske…” (all laugh)
Arne: “Three lonely Suskes who have actually all given up.”
Johan: “Along with all that, ‘Ensor’ is Faustian because the temptation of Mephisto becomes a real theme. Guido (Johan Heldenbergh) tries to convince Antonio (Danny Ronaldo), a character he has created himself, that he shouldn’t wait for true love. Because it doesn’t exist, I know that from experience.”
Johan, what have you learned by being on stage with Danny and Karel?
Johan: “Watching them throws me back to something I always wanted to do. The musical clowns were for me, as a kid, the very best. They were athletic, made me laughed, and touched me. But yeah, as a kid from Ledeberg I never came in contact with the circus. Danny or Karel have to lean up against a pole and look in a certain way, and they’re funny. As an actor I didn’t have many chances to lean against a pole and to look, knowing that was enough.”
Can you tell something about the desire of Circus Ronaldo and Compagnie Cecilia to collaborate?
Danny: “It is cold in my trailer, and the heating doesn’t work very well…(all laugh). No, I felt for a long time that Arne was crazy in love with the circus. Neither Ronaldo nor Cecilia are out to make deadly serious theatre. In Cecelia there is on the one hand theatre, and on the other the normal man or woman who recognises themselves in that theatre, so you get a sort of double-play. Also with Ronaldo our goal is not to show the clown, but the human being that you recognise in the clown scenarios.”
How did that translate into the working method?
Arne: “In a rather unorganised fashion, coming from circus and from theatre, we tried to watch each other. We are indeed different kinds of performers, but in the first place we looked for the things we had in common. In Cecilia we have our own way of working, and to some degree we had to let go of that. Where we usually improvise our way to a sort of story and characters, the goal of the improvisation in this process was a way to get to know each other, to find each other on stage. This process was about confrontation. About what we were going to do together, and about the things we shared. Once we had met each other, we started working in a manner much more open-ended than we are used to. In theatre one tends to rule things out, to make things rhythmical and give them a musicality. To compose. But in circus you cannot time things that precisely. When a horse misbehaves, for example. You cannot be sure if you will receive applause or not. This makes it much more difficult to put an overall rhythm into the performance. Much more depends on the moment itself. That is what is so beautiful about circus! In ‘Ensor’ we tried to keep that quality.”
Danny: “It is mostly about working in a different way. For the most part we don’t usually rehearse.”
Karel: “We build sets.” (laughs)
Danny: “Yes, we build sets and we make precise agreements about how we will do things. We rehearse the timing of things, but never characters or numbers. During a rehearsal I am confident that I know pretty much how Karel will do things once there is an audience. The first performance with an audience is always surprising for us. Only then do you see how your fellow players fill out their roles.”
It is often said that creating things in circus is a much lonelier and individual exercise than in the theatre.
Danny: “Clowning is, for me, often a very lonely occupation, yes. During rehearsals in Ronaldo I can go a day and a half without even seeing Karel, because he is alone, pounding and building in his workshop. And then he suddenly appears with a crate, and an entire act. That’s kind of the history of circus: each performer had his own act. That is how it worked. Even if today there is much more mixing up of things and playing together.”
Arne: “We tried to capture that feeling of the ‘moment’. Even if we have a manuscript, it is not particularly tight. That openness was also an important criterium in the choice of material. Nothing was to be nailed down, everything had to happen hic et nunc.”
Also the reason you chose for a story in the story?
Arne: “Yes, exactly. The characters themselves don’t know what is supposed to happen in the narrative that they have to make up on the spot. There is no tension of a plot, because everything has ground to a halt. The characters have to do something that they have not prepared in advance. That is a literal translation of the situation we found ourselves in, as Ronaldo and Cecilia met for the first time.”
If making circus continues to be an autobiographical act for Ronaldo, as art and life are one and the same, then it seems that that autobiographical element is here as well, even if in this case it is more a part of the story itself.
Arne: “That is also why we find each other. I also work with the autobiography of the actor. That inspires me. When you want to tell a story, that has everything to do with what is going on inside. With a trauma, or a feeling. When the audience comes to see a performance, they aren’t looking at a character, but at what an actor is doing. A character is just a code. Someone walks on stage, and that person is wrapped up in a character, but it is the person we recognise. It is the person that is real.”
Do you recognise that relationship between actor and character, Danny?
Danny: “Yes, even if we are not as consciously concerned by those questions, it is the same in the circus. A clown or a trapeze artist who creates a number when he is eighteen years old and continues to perform it until he’s fifty-eight for instance. The number changes because the person changes. In that evolution there is an autobiographical process going on, and the public comes to see that: a person who does his number, today, here and now.”
Arne: “The virtuosity of a number is not interesting in itself. It is more about someone who shows where he is in his life, and therefore a glimpse of how he sees the world. It doesn’t interest me if a juggling number is done with three rings or forty-six rings. I am watching the person. And that is the same in the theatre.”
‘Ensor’ is described as a meeting between theatre and circus. What does that mean for you?
Arne: “Theatre and circus have always been very close to one another. At Astley you could find horses and pantomime. It is actually only with the bourgeois theatre of Ibsen for example, with its plush seats and curtains, that circus became seen as low art, and was banned from the theatres. In the beginning of the 20th century the European avant-garde kept trying to get back closer to circus. To the physical. Just look at Grotowski, Kantor, Artaud,… Peter Brook as well said that the rejuvenation of theatre could be found in folk art. That is where it happens, there is where there is contact between player and audience. Not in the aquarium of theatre for the bourgeoisie.”
Danny: “People came to a performance to enjoy themselves the whole evening. In commedia dell’arte it was the task of the Lazzi, the clowns, to make sure that people didn’t run away between acts.”
Arne: “Also with Shakespeare. Why did people come? For the sword-fights. What does the gravedigger come to do in ‘Hamlet’? He has to kill time because the actor who plays Hamlet has to change costume. So Shakespeare wrote a comical act to break the ice. The plays of Shakespeare are also constructed like variety shows.”
I notice that the sort of theatre that you are talking about is not occupied with making us believe in something that is not. It is very clear that theatre is play. Nor is circus busy with the question of realism.
Arne: “Jugglers or clowns are larger than life and precisely that is what makes them indisputably human. A clown makes humanity so much larger than life that it becomes recognisable. It seems like a paradox, but the illusion of realism is wiped out. The clown does not pretend. He stands there for real, like a person, not as if he is a person. That is the enormous paradox I miss in theatre, where actors try to be ‘believable’. They get stuck in realism. Sometimes actors can make you forget you are sitting in the theatre, but that is rare. In that sense the big actors and the big circus artists are similar: they both possess the ability to grab that paradox, to isolate those details that make you, as a spectator, forget the rest. An actor who plays a character with a speech impediment, for example. In that impediment lies a truth which makes you accept the whole text, and see before you a ‘real’ person.”
What is in your opinion the biggest danger in the cross-over from circus and theatre?
Danny: “Most important is not to use circus elements to make theatre. Pretend that a juggling club is a telephone, for instance. Clubs are unavoidably circus objects.”
That links in to the same realism that you describe, Arne?
Arne: “Yes, exactly. Where at best it should become a sort of poetry.”
Danny: “Absolutely. To bring circus does not mean that you suddenly must do something difficult. It is more a question of something you carry with you and something you breathe out.”
Virtuosity then in a contemporary circus performance continues to undermine the narrative of the performance.
Arne: “Yes, but that is also true of theatre. I don’t enjoy virtuosity in texts that are overloaded with meaning. I scrap those. The same with metaphors. I no longer want metaphors, I am sick of metaphors. Something stands for something else. And then they say: your theatre has no depth. No. But that too is a paradox. The reconstruction of the surface. So difficult! La réconstruction de la surface. Not trying to search for depth. To completely avoid it. Only trying to look at the banality of the moment. Then depth may come of its own accord, rather than that you are constantly looking for it. It is all about creating a link between the small and the large. But you never know ahead of time where you will succeed in making that link, where suddenly a flower blooms. Never.”
Danny: “Het is indeed by staying at that normal level that objects get enough space to be able to say something. You can only take care that all the ingredients are there to make a particular meal. This must be fresh, this must be marinated, that other must stay thick in the refrigerator for as long as possible. And then it’s a question of waiting. That is the mystery of a piece. With Ronaldo for instance, we are never concretely busy creating a poetic scene. Very often it is only with the first performance, together with the audience, that we discover the poetry.”
Is there then not some particular glasses through which you look at the material that is born on the rehearsal stage, in order to make a choice?
Arne: “Look, we are all four of us men of a certain age. You have been married for so many years, perhaps with children. And all of a sudden you ask yourself where you are in your life. You try each time to find something new, but you have accumulated a lot of scars and you have a lot of baggage, and that can threaten to take away your ease and the freedom in your head. That is where we met, and that is what we try to expose. Something like: let us at least try to get free from all of that, crawl up on stage, give it a form and find some solutions, in our way. To laugh with the void. There is something of an exorcism in that.” (laughs)
And that exorcism is then the theatre, the playing itself?
Arne: “Absolutely. We exorcise the void and try to share something, in the hope that it will be recognised. In that sense, theatre is a ritual.”
Danny: “The ritual of a performance is always a combination of wonder and recognition. Someone does something that you have never seen before and you are full of wonder, but at the same time there have to be elements that you recognise. If you make a piece together with other people that is also how it goes: you marvel at one another, but at the same time you recognise much of yourself in the other standing across from you on stage.”