• City Circ: Year One

    Muziektheater Transparent, Feedback | Photographer: Virginie Schreyen

    NoFit State at the Roundhouse, L’Amour de Loin at the English National Opera, Circa at Riverside Studios—a lot of the season’s biggest circus has fronted the City Circ label. City Circ began as the Circus Venues Alliance, an initiative started by the Arts Council to find a way of networking the venues in London to assist the development of new circus work. After a year of meetings it became clear the CVA needed a producer behind it to be the driving force and intelligence of the project, and it was given over to Crying Out Loud to manage. I asked Pam Vision, Associate Producer, and Marie Remy, General Manager,

    What happened first?

    Pam Vision: They [the Arts Council] really wanted the artist to be resident at venues and for venues to commission work and all that sort of thing. But you have to get them interested in the work to begin with. So we called a lot of meetings, a lot more meetings, with the idea of making it into a season and sort of into a festival. To give people a focus of when they needed to programme some circus, what they were looking for, what the shape of it would be around London, how many other people were involved. Of the probably about 35 venues on the list maybe 28 have come to meetings—at least two of the four a year. Of those I can’t remember exactly how many have programmed but it’s about 16 or something have managed to programme circus—some of those venues are venues like the Royal Opera House which programmes three years in advance; there’s no way they can fit something in at short notice. But most of them tried that could: to fit something in that either they already wanted to programme, or they came to us for advice and they went to see some stuff that we suggested and funded some artists to come in and create something for their venue.

    Are there shows that you can say happened because of City Circ and wouldn’t have otherwise?

    PV: Oh definitely. All of the smaller venues, the London venues, we supported financially, a little bit. We gave four of them a small amount of money to help them programme something that they would not normally be able to. So Broadway Barking—they were really, really keen and had real audience development problems. So we worked a lot with them to find somebody who could create the sort of circus stuff they needed—workshops to try to bring younger people into the venue, and they have So & So circus working for them. Arts Depot—we programmed a show into there Feedback, which is actually a show that Crying Out Loud produces, because they have some circus every year but this year wanted something a little bit different. Hackney Empire we didn’t support but they also came to us saying ‘Could we be a part of it’….

    Are you consciously trying to create a City Circ brand—I mean one that attaches to a particular kind of circus?

    Marie Remy: This was a pilot to get circus on the venues’ agendas; they were left to programme. Other than those cases where we helped more actively, there was no one curating it. I think overall we should be pleased with the result, but it could have been very bad because there was no quality control. In the future we would like more quality control—so maybe, and we’re discussing this, people would submit their programme ideas to some sort of panel or group that’s interested in thinking about it. And maybe further down the line therefore style will come through. But at the moment we want to give opportunities to UK circus artists who are interested in making theatre. Circus theatre as oppose to cabaret, though we have to be quite flexible.

    PV: Yeah, it’s difficult. Certainly the Arts Council but Crying Out Loud as well are interested in circus theatre—indoor, hour-long entertainment, not acts. Sometimes it’s difficult because some of the artists that are the best artists working in Britain still only have 20 minute shows that are mostly outdoors. And we have to give them a platform because their work is developing and that’s where—at the moment the place to actually get paid to do your work is outdoors, mostly. But we’ve had a lot of discussions within the group about what the definition of circus is. Some of the shows in the brochure people would say aren’t circus—some of them have no tricks in them, no flying in them, things like that. And we haven’t quite got it yet—haven’t got the crux of the definition yet. It’s a difficult one. It’s such a mix of different types of theatre—it’s really good theatre that has its root in circus. And that’s what we’re trying to develop.

    MR: But you’re right in a sense that it was a branding exercise in terms of programming awareness and starting a marketing awareness—but more within the industry. As an ambition for the first one that was quite enough—to get to do that. It’s definitely a brand in terms of people thinking City Circ is Contemporary Circus. Whatever that is.

    If you were looking at this in terms of developing audiences, was there a particular focus—pulling circus into the mainstream or reaching out to a particular demographic or whatever?

    MR: Definitely new demographics; not yet into the mainstream. What was untapped because this was just the first one, was getting all the people who came to the Lyric for Theatre-Rites and Ockham’s Razor, who are theatre audiences, to feed back into another circus show—into the smaller venues. Of course people who are into text-based theatre, they go and see contemporary dance—there’s a literacy there that audiences don’t have with circus because it’s so small. So ideally people who went to see NoFit State—if they liked that then they could go and see some stuff at Jacksons Lane.

    PV: Also there was this audit commissioned by the Arts Council from Audiences London about circus audiences. They came to one of our meetings and did a presentation of what they discovered and it was really interesting. You might think that audience demographics are quite dull, but usually it was really, really interesting. And they really are helping to educate the venues about who it is they’re trying to speak to, and who they are speaking to, and who those people are that will like circus if we can get to them. I don’t think it’s hugely mainstream but it’s sort of in the same world as contemporary dance, contemporary events, productions, things.

    So are the venues sharing information?

    PV: Yeah, we’re trying. That was our big experiment with Feedback—doing Arts Depot and Hackney. We really asked Audiences London to look at that quite carefully.

    MR: And we had Jacksons Lane and Arts Depot do some offers between each other, which actually when you know the history of the venues they used to never collaborate because they saw each other as in the same catchment area. But they did some offers between each other; and you could do that on a much bigger scale.

    PV: What we’ve found in London is that venues are very protective of their programme and their knowledge, their audiences. And I think we really want to see them collaborate more and open up and we’ve been trying very hard to sort of show them that the evidence is that audiences are very loyal to their own venue and they won’t all leave Stratford and go and see stuff at the Lyric instead. So you know—obviously those are extremes but some of the ones that are quite close but not that close, in the suburbs, are very competitive. We’ve really been working on getting the marketing departments to work together, which has been really successful. And Audiences London are doing some market research on how that went, so we’ll see.

    Are you looking to Without Walls as a model? Is there any intention to start commissioning, or co-commissioning, work?

    PV: That’s exactly what we’d like to do. And we’ve talked about Without Walls a lot, as a model, to try and work in the same sort of way. And to try and get the funding. They get a lot of funding. To be able to do a bit of commissioning… our last meeting in fact was about what the next step is and when I said the word commission everyone in the room went [excited/incredulous gasp]. That’s what they’d love to do.

    Are there companies who’ve come to you particularly wanting to be involved in the next City Circ?

    PV: The four circus RFOs [Regularly Funded Organisations] that were made RFOs this year. Company FZ, who got an uplift and used to be the only one, Upswing, Ockham’s Razor and Mimbre. We’re working quite heavily with those four. I mean they’re completely doing their own thing and they’ve got their own planning, but we’ve been working with them to try to keep them involved in City Circ and to try to keep the venues aware of what they’re doing all the time. And then there are quite a few artists who we’ve been trying to match with venues who might be right for them. Geneva Gluck, Honk, LIT Theatre….

    MR: One of Rachel’s ambitions will be to have within the season a short blast of more challenging work, themed around the body. And maybe also a commission for children’s work—starting in 2010, but touring in ’11. Because when you look at children’s work, that’s something that all the venues do in some way or another. So they could tour the network as well as having a further life.

    PV: It’s actually something that’s really hard to find. We have circuses that roll up to your local park, but we don’t have theatre-circus work for children. And it’s something that all venues want—because circus still has a family tag attached to it.

    Are there any other ambitions for future City Circs?

    PV: I think the other thing that was really brought up, what the venues wanted even more of, was marketing support. Especially viral marketing and some of the new wave marketing things that are happening with Facebook, Twitter, everything that gets the younger people interested in it—to start to get a lot more of that on the ground.

    MR: We didn’t have a marketing budget for City Circ. So other than the brochure and the website we didn’t really have any marketing power. That’s part of it’s future: to have its own programming and commissioning and marketing budget so that it becomes a real entity.

    PV: Without Walls is national and City Circ is sort of London-based. So it’s a mixture of something like the old LIFT Festival and the Spill Festival. We’ve used Spill a lot as a model. So we’ve got real relationships with venues and we can pull them together as a festival and get a real branding that the audiences will recognise as well as the industry.

    MR: I know the ambition, if our Artistic Director was here she’d tell you, is of going national. We’ve been thinking about what form that could take—the Dance Touring Partnership is an interesting model: that could be the City Circ model for the regions.

    Anything to add?

    PV: It’s all been really good feedback from the venues. Sounds like we’re just complimenting ourselves, but they’re all up for it again.

    Interview with Pam Vision and Marie Remy conducted 29 July 2009 at the Royal Festival Hall (4th floor).

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