How do you and Kaveh know each other?
Me and Kaveh go back a long time, more than fifteen years. I was running a theatre in Tunbridge Wells called Trinity and Kaveh had not yet trained as a circus performer. He was in a physical theatre company at the time, they came and had a meeting with me, which at the time didn't go anywhere, but then in 2006 we reconnected. He was just graduating as a circus performer from Circus Space [now the National Centre for Circus Arts]. He and Lauren Hendry set up their own company called So and So Circus that won the business plan in their final year which had a £8,000 award funded by Deutsche Bank. We supported their first show called The Hot Dots which went onto tour nationally.
Kaveh helped me realise that there was such a huge niche for circus but there wasn't a home for circus artists, either for touring or for emerging circus artists. I had started thinking about it because I'd already booked in Ockham's Razor and some other companies. I'd been working with international circus artists at Trinity. My relationship to circus goes back to when I used to be at the Albany, but Kaveh was instigative in getting me linked in with Circus Space. And really, he was instigative in making Jacksons Lane what it is now, we are the UK's leading contemporary circus venue, and a lot of that is down to Kaveh.
How has Nearly There Yet changed over the time you've known the company?
Well, the first thing is Kaveh has found new collaborators. Ed [Stephen], being one of the main ones and Mimosa Percy. His own collaborations have increased but more importantly his work has transcended circus. It still has circus elements to it, of course, but through his work with Proteus, and the people with whom he collaborates, it's not just circus, there's not such a reliance on it and I think that's a good thing. He's been thinking about different disciplines and how he can use circus skills within his work and integrate them which is quite a rare form of inspiration.
So that's how he's changed for me, he's thinking beyond circus. People probably wouldn’t expect that I think that's a good thing - but I do, because I'm all for collaboration across art forms and cross-fertilisation as well. Also, just the breadth of what he's doing, I can't keep up!
Where do you think British circus is now compared to ten years ago?
There's this quote that Rachel Claire said which rang very true a few years ago. She said, "Circus in the UK now is where contemporary dance was twenty years ago". Ten years ago, Jacksons Lane’s circus programme didn't exist, and that made quite a difference with having support to get work off the ground, to grow it. That's not me saying “we're great, we're great” it's just a fact that there wasn't a venue of our scale doing that kind of stuff back then. But then again, the frustrating thing is that the National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) haven't changed since then. It’s still a frustrating thing, if you look at the NPO list there's tons of theatre companies, but circus has Ockham's Razor, NoFitState, Upswing, Mimbre and Jacksons Lane, but not many more than that. So in one sense the funding structure hasn't improved, but on the other side it has, in that the Arts Council have now acknowledged circus to the extent to, when I went to the briefing at the Almeida about a year or so ago, they always used to have these big banners saying 'Theatre', 'Dance', 'Music', and now the word is 'Circus' is included. Even though there isn't a circus department at the Arts Council, it's still acknowledged as an art form which is growing.
It's come of age, I think what you find now is that, ten years ago The Underbelly wouldn't have risked a big top on the South Bank or having a circus field in Edinburgh, the only circus used to be NoFit State and Gandini Juggling and that was it, and the odd international stuff. Now, we support an award up there (Total Theatre & Jacksons Lane Award for Circus).
So that shows how much it's grown. In some ways, what's happening now is that less new companies are being formed and less work is being created. I don't know why that is, we're still trying to work it out. If you look back four years ago, there were maybe five or six companies that came out of the National Centre’s Degree program, who we've gone on to support. Now, it's quite a rare thing, so in one sense it's great and it's transcended, and it's reached the mainstream, there's CircusFest at the Roundhouse and all those things. But on the other side there's this slight fear and worry that, why is less work being created? Has Brexit had the effect with a lot of performers going back to countries where they came from or to work in other countries around the world?
Where do you think circus will be in the next 10 years?
I think it'll do similarly to what puppetry's done; like War Horse for example. It's now the norm to see puppetry in mainstream West End, National Theatre, and circus is getting there as well. I think the Olympics had a lot to do with that, I think that will continue to grow, and it will become the norm to see circus as an art form integrated into theatre with text and that's a good thing in my opinion. I don't know where that leaves the smaller, emerging, experimental scale circus, I would like to think it'll grow.
In the near future, I predict circus will become more international than it is; I think it must. People look now beyond the UK to create a circus program which is sustainable, and despite Brexit I think that will continue, and we're looking to countries such as DOCH in Sweden, work in Finland, I think there will be more and more exchanges.
I think there's going to be more, if the way things are going, incoming work into the UK than us going out; I'd love that to change. I don't know if it will change, though. I think the art form is diverse; companies like Circumference and Nearly There Yet are – to great effect - using less circus and are less reliant on having to do tricks, more so thinking about narrative and stories they want to tell. That will continue to grow more and more because I've seen it develop, things like Circa, it's very much about demonstration of skills, maybe with a bit of theme put in there, and those big shows will always exist but the interesting artists are going to think about the more intellectual ways they can use their skills.
I'm still crystal ball-gazing. In terms of the funding structure, I don't know, I haven't got a clue.
When you are programming or when you're watching circus, what makes a good circus show for you?
You know all the clichés you try to avoid: edge of your seat, breath-taking. I was having a conversation with an artist from a dance collaboration which we supported in August and she's reading this book by a French writer of Classics about risk, the fear of someone falling, the fear of someone dropping the ball, is still key to everything. Not that people go because they want to see a fall; I use the example of an incident I heard of recently at a company where there was a fall on stage, and the audience felt complicit in it, but also quite sickened by what they saw, perhaps it's something to do with guilt, worry and concern because you're there; circus creates a connection between the audience and the artist.
It still has to have the elements and the skills that stem from traditional art forms, but what I'm interested in more nowadays is I guess the voice of circus artists, so I'm listening to that voice all the time. I'm looking for something which breaks the fourth wall, that makes me feel engaged, and I don't mean audience participation because I hate audience participation. But something where I can feel the artist connecting with the audience and that depends on the work, and I will literally lean forward and be engaged all the way through.
And, it's a real cliché, but a high skill level. Nobody wants to see bad acting and no one wants to see bad circus; it's also again about how you use that art form. In the way that Gandini has converted juggling is inspirational and made people get used to seeing companies such as Ockham’s Razor, but no one else is using those structures and forms in this industry at all. There's only so many things you can do on a silk or Chinese pole ... or is there?
Talking about Jacksons Lane, the centre is going through a big refurbishment, what's in the future for Jacksons Lane?
We're having the building completely redesigned, and we're building a new circus creation space which hopefully will lead to more touring and producing. Because our footprint's not going to get any bigger in terms of the size of the building, the idea is to take more work out. We've taken work to Edinburgh with Lost in Translation for a year, we've played at festivals: Glastonbury, South Bank, so I think that's going to grow more and more and be a more recognisable name out there rather than just a building. We opened the Mime Festival with WHS in Finland. I don't know if a lot of people knew it was us but we really wanted to bring this piece of work over and the only way we could do it was to find some other space.
What are some of the most funny and bizarre things you've seen or heard in your years?
I've got a whole folder in my Outlook box called 'F***ing Crazy People Program Proposals'.
Someone once did submit their play to us, which was 'a violent, comical, poetic story of a homeless, gay, androgynous street entertainer and serial killer. He hangs out with a group of undesirables including an old prostitute, an arsonist and an executive on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They go from seaside town to seaside town, from promenade to promenade, on an endless circus trail of violence, hatred and abuse'.
The best one, though, was a guy who got in touch, and he was an aerial harpist so he was really, really interested in working with us. I looked at it and his work was pretty dreadful to be honest, but I normally respond to everybody and I responded really politely and said: “I'm really sorry but I'm not totally sure your work is appropriate for us but good luck with it and everything”. He sent back this huge rant, which went on and on and on, he called me some terrible things, and then it got worse because he then posted a video blog about me where he read out my responses in this faux English accent, and said my name and address and phone number and described me as a 'snake oil merchant’ who pretends to be a circus programmer'. It went on and on, he bombarded me with emails just because I was polite enough to respond to his aerial harp proposal. That's probably the best one.
How do you and Kaveh know each other?