[This article was published in CircusMagazine #52 – September 2017]
[Author: Hanna Mampuys – Translation: Craig Weston – Picture: Bart Grietens]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
Tent. For the true circus expert, it’s been a while since this noun without an article referred only to the traditional shelter under which a circus performance takes place. TENT (full name: TENT circustheater producties) is a circus collective based in Amsterdam. It is the first production house for circus in the Netherlands, a place where contemporary circus is being made possible. TENT is a collaboration between Rosa Boon, Cahit Metin and Hanneke Meijers. With a number of great looking projects in the works, finally a bit more financial support and plans for a new centre to work from, the future is looking bright. CircusMagazine took a look at the past and towards the future, together with Cahit and Rosa. ‘In the future we only want to become even more what we already are.’
TENT has existed now since 2010, what was it that led you to start the organisation?
Cahit Metin: “TENT was our response to the changing circus scene in the Netherlands. We were all working at the time for Circus Elleboog (the Amsterdam youth circus) where we were organising amateur and youth productions. It was through that work that we came into regular contact with international venues and companies, and it really inspired us. It was also around that time that the Dutch circus schools began, first Codarts in Rotterdam and a year later ACaPA in Tilburg. The possibilities for circus in the Netherlands seemed to be opening up: new artists, possible venues and an increasing interest which even translated to small budgets from time to time. To our minds the one thing missing in that picture was an organisation that could bring all of those elements together and get professional productions up and running.”
Rosa Boon: “For a while I was doing the programming for Elleboog and I had to look to Belgium and England for all my performances because there was nothing coming out of the Netherlands. We were all really excited by the ‘new circus’ we saw from those countries, and we wanted to create a platform for a similar evolution here in the Netherlands. In the meantime there were students from Elleboog that were going on to a higher circus education and we realised that if we couldn’t provide some kind of possibilities here, they would all be leaving the country once their studies were completed. So you could say that TENT arose out of a practical and artistic imperative.”
How does that vision translate into the daily working of an organisation? Precisely what does TENT do?
Boon: “Our core business is to support talent by making productions. Both of those ingredients are equally important to us. We want to offer opportunities to circus talent in the Netherlands to get their work to an audience, and we do that by making performances. That’s our label towards the outside world: TENT makes circus productions. Internally our work diversifies: we make our own productions, but we also instigate collaborations through coproductions and we foster the development of talent by organising masterclasses, laboratories and open stages.”
Metin: “What we do is create a kind of framework in which makers and artists can get to work: planning, budgets, marketing, accommodation, promotion, … all the elements essential to the creation of a circus production.”
Boon: “A rather special and very new project for us is the ‘New Makers – program’ that we just started up with Zinzi (Oegema, half of the duo Zinzi & Evertjan and performer of Cie XY, nvdr.) and for which we’ve been lucky enough to receive generous funding from the Foundation for Performing Arts. The program aims to give the new maker a chance to experiment with different ways of creating within the structure of an established organisation, and that experimentation leads to one or more productions. It’s the first time that that kind of funding has been given to a circus organisation.”
Are you yourselves circus makers?
Metin: “We aren’t makers ourselves, but with each production we do have a finger in the artistic pie.”
Boon: “Of course that happens in dialogue, rather than in a coaching role. We want to respect the artistic signature of the artist, but in the end we are the ones who bear the final responsibility for the project. Rather than giving instructions from the outside, we try to be as involved as possible with the process as it is happening, on the rehearsal floor.”
Metin: “If we see choices being made that cause us concern, then we talk about it. We go to the makers, ask them what it was that led them to that choice. If at the end of that discussion the choice sticks, then that’s okay with us. But at least we’ve raised our concerns, so the organisation TENT can continue to stand behind the production once it’s presented to the outside world.”
Boon: “Above all else we’re there to serve the maker and the project.”
Metin: “We want to be a good producer. To us that means: paying correctly, striving for a good personal contact and creating the best possible working conditions. Those are the top priorities. They’re even more important than our own salaries.”
There are three of you in the direction of TENT. Is the artistic direction also collective?
Boon: “Yes, all three of us are artistically involved in each project. Initially one of us is appointed to take on the chief responsibility for a project and all of the direct communication and planning that goes along with that, but laying out the big artistic and financial plans is something that the three of us do together.”
Metin: “At the same time we all have specific jobs: I specialise in all aspects of administration, Rosa is queen of funding and grants, and Hanneke does all the design and promotion.”
Don’t you find that a collective artistic vision often leads to compromise?
Metin: “I mostly see the strengths of working collectively. You constantly have to justify your position towards the others, which only underpins your point of view. The number of meetings involved in that process may be labor-intensive, and perhaps less efficient than just carrying out the orders of a single director, but it fortifies our plans.”
Boon: “I think that each of us at one point or another have thought, ‘if only I was the boss’. However we’ve all equally thought, ‘I would never want to do this alone, because then it would all be my responsibility.’ As long as there is room to make mistakes, for personal passion that doesn’t get quashed by the search for compromise, I continue to believe very strongly in that collective. We know each other so well that we ask the right questions and make each other stronger.”
Metin: “That collective frame of mind is definitely a leftover from our past in a youth-circus.”
Boon: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We were indoctrinated in that. But I think that that’s also particular to circus. You can’t do it alone. To put it in very visual terms: even the best aerial acrobat needs someone there to spot them. I think that’s why you don’t come across too many ego maniacs or assholes (jerks) in the circus. It attracts a certain kind of person.”
Metin: “In the circus you are sentenced to working together, so you may as well learn to love it!”
Could we now say there’s a particular TENT-style?
Boon: “If there is a thread running through our productions it would be the physicality. We do a lot of partner acrobatics. Let’s say we would be more likely to make something à la Compagnie XY than à la Gandini Juggling. That’s mostly just a question of personal taste. Beyond that I think that we care a lot about design. We try to bring a bold image to every production and to TENT in general via the website, promotion, press releases, … In all of our work I think we are looking for how we can give form to contemporary circus: ‘just what is that, circus, and what do I want to say with it’?”
Metin: “It’s also about the people standing on stage: the personal, the human: me and the circus.”
What does circus in the Netherlands need in order to develop further?
Boon: “…and good productions. The two go together of course. We see that circus in the Netherlands is dealing with image issues. For the larger public, circus is either Cirque du Soleil or traditional circus. The regular theatres are catching on to the developments in contemporary circus, but even if they find it interesting, few actually dare to include it in their program. The cultural climate in the Netherlands is a disaster since the cut-backs in 2011. To program an unknown name in an equally unknown genre is too great a financial risk for many theatres. We are working really hard, together with different organisations, to try and put circus on the map. And it’s starting to feel like the tide is turning. You see that festivals like Circolo and Circusstad are getting more and more attention and that over the past few years different circus initiatives have been getting funded.”
Metin: “So some things are changing, but it goes so slowly. Being patient and not giving up is the message. If we look at the situation in Belgium/Flanders, then we see a structure that fills us with envy. You are about ten years ahead of the Netherlands: separating the Circus Decree from the general Arts Decree, a Circuscentrum that seriously lobbies for the sector, a network of Cultural Centres where working in residence is possible, the quantity of good circus festivals that enjoy a lot of international attention, …”
But in spite of the unfavourable climate in the Netherlands you yourselves have existed now for seven years, and it seems to be going well with TENT. What is your secret?
Boon: “Not giving up!”
Metin: “A steadfast belief in what we’re trying to do.”
Boon: “It’s not always been easy. It’s only been this year that we can pay ourselves something for the work that we do. Up until now we’ve had to earn our living elsewhere. That was to some degree a choice. We chose to put the money towards new curtain rails in the studio rather than into our own pockets. But you can’t keep that up forever. The two year grant we just received from the city has relieved a bit of the pressure. I honestly don’t know if we would still be here, had we not received that funding.”
Metin: “We have indeed come to a crossroads. At some point it starts to pinch. Not because you don’t want to do it anymore, but because you simply can’t do it anymore. You give your all, and though money is in itself not your motivation, over time the lack of it can drag you down immensely.”
How has your work evolved since you began in 2010?
Metin: “In all the little things! We started this initiative as a bunch of naive little puppies, but in the meantime we’ve gained a ton of experience.”
Boon: “I think the most important evolution has been that we have become more proactive. In the beginning we reacted to things as they crossed our path, whereas now we are the ones laying out the path: what do we want to do, and how do we want to contribute to the sector?”
What are your biggest short-term challenges?
Boon: “Getting a regular spot in the program of Dutch theatres. So that we can also organise tours of our productions in that circuit and not only in festivals. That will also lead to a bigger audience, and strengthen our position in the cultural sector in the Netherlands.”
Metin: “One internal challenge is to really have something to offer to the people who work with us. The last six years it went like this: you make something, and afterwards you can only hope that we can put together a tour. It would be great if we had some kind of assurance from the outset that we will also be able to sell the production.”
Boon: “We are also looking for a new place, because in about a year from now the contract for our present studio runs out. That’s a pity, but it’s a change that will bring with it new opportunities.”
What is your personal motivation?
Metin: “At TENT no single workday is the same. I am able to combine all the things that I love into one job. One day I put together rehearsal schedules, the next day I am rehearsing myself, afterwards I do the bookkeeping, hang lighting or paint something in the studio. I need that variety. When I stopped at Elleboog I signed on for a while with a career coach to help me in the search for my new professional life. After about ten meetings we came to the conclusion that I already had my ideal job, the only thing missing was some kind of structural salary. That realisation really gave me a real boost, and I vowed to do everything in my power to turn this job into my means of making a living.”
Boon: “My greatest motivation is without a doubt my love for the circus. The circus in its lack of spoken language, in its accessibility. I really love to talk about art, but I also love it when things speak for themselves. Something I often forget, but which comes back whenever I am talking about circus with outsiders, is just how special the circus community is. The way we deal with each other, the space we give, both to each other and to that which is ‘different’, the sense of community, the respect… to my mind that is completely exceptional in this world.”
Where do you see TENT, ten years from now?
Metin: “We have to continue the search for our artistic identity, be more present on all the stages in the Netherlands, and beyond. I would like to see us grow organically, while keeping our hands on the reins, so that we can all work full-time for TENT. And at some point we have to play in Japan.”
Boon: “He’s been going on about Japan since we started. Maybe a Japanese organiser will read this interview and send us an invitation… I hope myself that within the next ten years we will have grown to become a place where all kinds of things are possible: creating, training, technical and artistic development… But above all I want to continue to build on the contemporary circus community and give it a place of its own.”
I get the impression that what you dream of becoming is not that far off from what you already are.
Metin: “Yes, but what matters to us now is that we are recognised for that. That what we are doing has a right to exist and a stronger basis for the future.”
Boon: “We want to give the things we do a firmer foundation. Reinforce what we already have before we start to dream of bigger things.”
Metin: “Someone said to me recently: at the point that you’re bothered by competition, you know that you’ve done a good job. Of course we don’t want to compete, but actually he’s right. We are in a market that doesn’t even exist yet, so from the moment there’s competition, it means the market is growing and that is precisely what we’re aiming for.”
Do you have faith in the future?
Metin: “Sure. Sometimes the work gets so stacked up that we just can’t see it anymore, that future.” (laughs)
Boon: “But more than anything we’re looking forward to it.”