[This article was published in CircusMagazine #47 – June 2016]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
One of the most prominent figures in the Flemish circus and street theatre circuit is Stefaan De Winter. Orchestra conductor with Die Verdammte Spielerei, ringmaster with cirQ Batavaria and Cirque Mélangé, bartender of the Kleinste Café ter Wereld,, ballerina in Boîte Tutu,… he does it all with a necessary dose of irresistible innocence. As the uncrowned king of street theatre he will as well be putting his broad shoulders to the wheel as he takes on the role of co-programmer with the festival Cirk! Aalst.
Stefaan, congratulations with your new appointment. How are you feeling?
Stefaan De Winter: “It’s wonderful that the city I grew up in appreciates what I do. It’s proof that people are aware of the fact that Aalst is a special city, and that you can’t just plug a programmer from Liege or Leuven into the job. As an organizer of a street festival it’s essential that you know the city very well. Otherwise it would take you two years on the job just to get acquainted with the place, and that would be a shame.”
Do you think you’re in a better position to assess the eccentric audience of Aalst than someone coming in from the outside?
“The people of Aalst are particularly sincere, there’s nothing highbrow in their nature. That is a privilege. It’s an audience that applauds the loudest, but that also dares to ask you what the hell you’re on about. That’s a wonderful combination.”
Do you also prefer that directness when you’re playing?
“Yes, I love sincerity. That’s also how I am. To be honest the kind of pampering that one encounters in the cultural sector can really get under my skin. Sometimes a performance is labelled as ‘good’, while the audience who’s watching it is left completely cold. You read an incredibly positive review in the newspaper, but then you find out that the critics and the actors are all the best of friends. That can get to me. I think you can really only evaluate a performance once all kinds of people have come to see it. And that’s the luxury we have in the street.”
What do you plan to concentrate on in your role as programmer for Cirk! Aalst ?
“I’ll be mostly in charge of keeping a finger on the pulse of young circus. And I want to give some space to those that other festivals often forget: the old veterans of the circus and the street. The ringmasters with thirty or forty years of experience, who can make the audience laugh with the wink of an eye. Or bring them along in their melancholy. Those performers often get left at the wayside because they are no longer young and shiny.”
You prefer watching someone with experience over someone young who is out to prove their technical talent?
“Yes. In many festivals you just see a forest of young trees. That can be great and full of potential, but those trees can suffocate one another. It’s better to have a couple of big mature trees and along with them a few young twigs sprouting up. But not under the big tree, rather somewhere nearby. That creates a lovely landscape.”
It sounds to me like your arrival will broaden what’s on offer at Cirk! Aalst.
“Yes, we also want to grow in terms of the big international names on offer. And we want to become a place for new creations. Dommelhof in Neerpelt has been doing incredible work in that terrain for years. But it’s astounding that there is only one Dommelhof. Flanders deserves another place like that. And there is no better location for it than in Aalst. Twenty minutes from Brussels, thirty minutes from Ghent, and forty from Antwerp. That’s ideal.”
POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT WITH A CAPITAL P
Through cirQ you have had a chance to work with all the old veterans at Circus Bavaria. How did that go?
“That was a unique opportunity. We can’t allow that sort of circus to disappear. I am completely behind the soul of that performance and the choice to work with the people of Bavaria. Perhaps it’s not the case with every family circus, but they deserve more appreciation. I want to give that kind of circus a chance. Young circus artists and organizers often complain that it’s difficult to find appropriate locations for their performances when the family circus is in town. Then do your thing there! Work together. The family circuses need all the help they can get. It would be an impoverished landscape if the only family circus we had left were the Ronaldos. I like it when Bavaria and Wiener, or Circus Pipo still get some mention. It may be ‘old-school’, but I love it.”
Are there things you learned, working together with the family circuses.
“It gave me a lot of respect for their craftsmanship. The hardness of the life they lead. Not occupied with how much subsidy they will get. They just work. Hard. If our politicians would work as hard as the circus families, then it wouldn’t be such a circus in the political arena.”
As street theatre maker, do you sometimes get the feeling that people look down on your craftsmanship?
“It happens. Our marching band Die Verdammte Spielerei has been around for ten years and has gained a lot of respect. We work with top musicians. And still, we are not always taken seriously by the cultural sector because we play in town fairs and communion parties. That’s “not done”, and I can’t stand that. You will never see De Spielerei at Theater Aan Zee or Perplex. You’ll say that it’s not good enough, but it is good enough. It’s just culture with a small ‘c’.”
Do people see it as popular entertainment because you put on a sort of clown’s nose?
“Yes, it’s clown, and that’s great! You won’t see us going after the big subsidies to pay for three months of seclusion, so we can brainstorm about big new artistic plans. We’ve been doing the same thing for ten years and it still works. It’s a lot of fun and people keep coming to see us. Does that make us culturally less relevant? On the contrary. We made a theatre show with De Spielerei and we’ve played all over Flanders. All the cultural centers were packed. And with an audience that normally doesn’t come to the theatre, because they know us from the street. We managed single-handedly, without subsidy money, to lower the threshold to culture. With great thanks to the programmers who dared to take us. Those that dare to think further than the walls of their cultural center.”
Does our society need more of that sort of clowning around? Do we still dare to laugh together?
“Well…hmm….everything has become a bit sensitive. For a long time people talked about taking things out of the hands of the traditional powers of the church and political parties. Progress and freedom. But it’s all just become a bit flat. In the old days you had a catholic and a socialist and a flemish nationalist and that was clear. Now there is left and right and if you find yourself in the center, you’re a sitting duck ready to get shot. How sad is all of that? It doesn’t work. If you are a leftist you’re not allowed to say something rightist, and vice versa. We need a new political model. Why is there not a single politician who dares to say that the attacks in Paris or Brussels are our just deserts? The victims didn’t deserve it, but that the whole thing has blown up was unavoidable. You can’t propagate unrest in the Middle East for the last twenty years and not expect someone to hit back at some point. You can’t kick someone in the shins every day and then get angry when he finally kicks you back. But there’s no backbone in the political class.”
Do you think it’s possible for circus and street theatre to be our jester and buffoon, to put us in our place, with or without a laugh?
“Circus and street theatre, culture in general, should bring people together. At that point, integration happens all by itself. But political recuperation must be forbidden. I don’t want the left to take credit for it, because it’s not about right or left. Culture doesn’t carry any party’s card.”
CIRCUS ARTISTS – THE PRUNING
From politics back to you. Is it true that you are trained as a classical singer?
“Yes, that’s right. At least for a year. I got my passion for singing from the boy’s choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino at the small college in Aalst. I traveled all around the world with them, up until I was twenty-one. We sang in the Royal Albert Hall, and we were with the very top in Toledo. I had all my greatest lifetime achievements by the time I was 15, but I didn’t even realize it. After that I studied to become a schoolteacher in elementary and special education. My parents really wanted me to get some kind of diploma.”
Is a teacher also a kind of entertainer?
“Teaching is absolutely entertaining. Before when I worked in restaurants and bars, I also never thought of my customers as customers, but as audience. You can put an ice cube in a glass and give that to someone, but you can also do a lot more with that ice cube.”
And when did you begin to train as a classical singer?
“While I was teaching. But after a year I stopped with the conservatory. Not because I knew everything, but because I had the feeling they couldn’t teach me what I wanted to learn. I learned the most by sitting on a café terrace and watching people. And by asking myself what kind of person someone was. I am getting really good at that. With De Spielerei that’s all I do.”
How did the evolution from teacher and singer to street theatre maker happen?
“Kurt Defrancq and Fabien Audooren had put an ad in the newspaper: wanted – hygienic singing talent. Really playful. The idea was to go through the city as garbage men, singing opera. That’s how I got to know Fabien and MiraMiro. Fabien always said: Stefaan, even if they put you in a crowd of three hundred other guys you would still manage to get everyone to look at you. Of course I have the advantage of my size. If you are 1m 94 and weigh 110 kilos, it helps. By then we had started up Die Verdammte Spielerei at the conservatory. Fabien asked us to come and play for the fireworks at the Gentse Feesten. That’s how the Speilerei slowly started to become an institution in Gent, and then we started to go from festival to festival. You get to know programmers and they can feel it when your heart is in what you do. I don’t pretend to think I am indispensable, but there is a need for people like me in the cultural circuit, just to shake things up. Provocation. If you don’t poke in the fire it will go out. I like to do that. If you come from Aalst provocation is in your dna.”
That provocation and teasing of the audience is also your roll in Die Verdammte Spielerei. Can people always take that in good fun?
“People ask me once in a while if I ever got punched in the face. No. I have learned to tell who will slug you and who won’t. And then I purposely choose the one who will, in order to stop just in time, to pamper him and let him down softly. When a dolled-up woman with big fake breasts is demanding all the attention, I like to go to her, look deep in her eyes, come to the verge of kissing her in the neck, and at the very last moment choose for the little old lady next to her. And that’s when the three hundred people watching respond with a big “ooooh”. And I think that’s fantastic. That’s a visual language. And that’s what I like to see in performances. Circus artists should stop once in a while with their technique. Stop everything and just watch people. And then after two months begin again. Circus artists should be like trees: once in a while a good pruning and the year after they will bear a lot more fruit.”
Will you have any time left to play this summer?
“This summer De Spielerei will celebrate it’s tenth anniversary, so we have to celebrate that. We’ll do that by creating the longest marching band, in Gent, Brugge and Aalst. Everyone can join in. People can go to our website and download the music scores to learn them. And those who don’t play an instrument can whistle along. Or be a majorette. That’s the kind of things I would like to make. Just fun and not too highbrow. I’ve also met with the bishop of Ghent, to organize a classic afternoon concert during the Gentse Feesten. Next year I would like to make a series: A Pack of Classic. That people come to a concert and that afterwards their concert ticket is also good for a visit to the chip shop for a pack of chips. If the concert’s no good, at least you have the chips.”
All sounds very promising.
“Yeah, I am really happy with how things are going at the moment. How interesting my life is. The chance that I die more quickly than someone else is substantial, but if I die at forty, I still have seven years to do everything. And I am really in the mood! So come on, let’s have another drink. You want another cup of coffee?”