In early March, Circuscentrum went to the UK on a study tour with 20 artists, organisers and programme makers from the circus sector in tow, as well as a delegate from the Flemish government’s Department of Culture. The goal: to visit some interesting circus hotspots and get to grips with some hot topics – relating to inclusion, production and (psychological) safety – relevant on both sides of the pond. By Liv Laveyne

First, perhaps, the bad news: Brexit’s repercussions for the exchange between artists and organisers affect us, too. There are the changed rules with regard to work permits, the ceasing of European subsidies for cross-border collaborations, not to mention the age-old hassle of passport control now being an issue once again. That said, the good news is that – if the public transport gods are on your side – you can still depart from Brussels and be in the heart of London in the space of two hours. That wasn’t the Flemish delegation’s final destination, however: we had to travel a little further, to Jacksons Lane in north London.

Inclusion as a mirror of society

Jacksons Lane Arts Centre calls itself the UK’s leading venue when it comes to supporting and presenting contemporary circus. It boasts an extensive circus programme, a youth studio, residencies and (micro-)grants for artists. For 45 years now it has played another important role, too, as a meeting place for the neighbourhood. In the 1970s, an empty church was turned into a community centre, which grew into a vibrant performing arts venue where comedian Suzy Eddie Izzard first began her career, among others.

Jacksons Lane
Copyright Paula Alvala

In the lull of activity surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, Jacksons Lane took the time to thoroughly renovate the place: the old church was divided into several spaces, with a large multipurpose hall in the roof that is mainly rented out for events (80% of the total income comes from hall rental) and four small but high-ceilinged rehearsal rooms downstairs that, at 6.5 metres in height, are ideal for practising aerial techniques.

I want audiences here to be representative of the people on the street. 

Adrian ‘Ade’ Berry, artistic director of Jacksons Lane

Adjacent to this area is the theatre auditorium and a cafeteria. The latter is popular among the neighbourhood’s young families and senior citizens. In this way, Jacksons Lane remains true to its social origins, which are reflected in initiatives like its traditional Christmas dinner for people of lesser means or – with the current energy crisis – their participation in the Warm Welcome concept, where, from 10am to 10pm during the winter months, people are invited into the warmth of the building with no obligation to participate in activities or consume anything. This inclusive approach may not translate directly into higher ticket sales but it does contribute to achieving a more inclusive audience mix in the long run. It is the initiative of Adrian ‘Ade’ Berry, artistic director of Jacksons Lane: ‘I want audiences here to be representative of the people on the street’.  

This is also the goal of Kelsie Acton, inclusion manager at Battersea Arts Centre, the well-known arts centre in south London that is the world’s only entirely ‘relaxed venue’. There they present low-stimulus ‘relaxed performances’ and have an adapted accessibility policy  which provides for chill-out rooms and noise-cancelling headphones for people with psychosocial disabilities, such as those with Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD or high sensitivity.

‘When talking about inclusion at our venue, we have to keep the outside reality in mind. According to demographic data, 15% of people have physical disabilities and 7% of people suffer from ADHD or are neurodivergent in some other way. We want to see that reality reflected in the shows we put on.’ 

Kaveh Rahnama is not averse to quotas either. He is the project leader of Future Formed, a London-based initiative supporting under-represented young people (between 16 and 30) in their artistic careers. Kaveh sees quotas as desirable, not dogmatic. ‘I want to reach 90% of groups who are under-represented. This could be in terms of gender, economic status or cultural background. Some find this sort of objective paralysing but I find it reassuring because I know what I’m striving for.’ 

Els Degryse of Cirque Plus in Bruges agrees: ‘With inclusion, people tend to lump everything together and that’s just counterproductive. A scattershot approach is no good. It’s important to make a choice about what specific topic you want to engage with, as well as with and for whom.’ Every year since 2018, Cirque Plus has developed a show featuring people with physical and mental disabilities. ‘In the coming years, the festival plans to develop this further with an educational programme focused on circus and theatre, thus creating opportunities for people with physical or mental disabilities to become professional circus performers.’

For Degryse, this addresses a long-held gripe. ‘As a youngster, I went along to a Jomba camp [holiday camps for children with disabilities, ed.]. There I realised that it was not about what the children could not do but what they could. Still today, we too often start from the limitation rather than the possibilities.’

‘On stage, there is more and more attention being paid to inclusion and diversity, but when you look at the internal workings of things, especially in arts organisations, there is still a lot of work to be done, in terms of staffing, the audiences being targeted, and so on’, says Rahnama. ‘Too much of the money circulating in the arts sector is spent on the purely creative side of things as opposed to internal operations. Or we talk about diversity but then it’s often still an old white guy working with black children.’

‘I piss on pity,’ says Acton: words that were originally the slogan of musician Johnny Crescendo, who in the 1990s denounced the pat-on-the-head attitude and advocated for a more considered disability policy. ‘You may have a completely gender-neutral disabled toilet but what good is that if you cannot enter the building with your wheelchair? Inclusion means being a place where everyone is welcome. Makes sense, right? But saying everyone is welcome and everyone actually feeling welcome are two different things.’ This everyone can agree with. Equity is not equality. In other words, it’s not about equality – everyone is different and has different needs, after all – but about offering equal opportunities. ‘And, yes, maybe inclusion for one side means excluding someone on the other side, and that’s okay, as long as you are honest and transparent about that, because that is precisely how a dialogue emerges,’ says Rahnama.

But perhaps most important is the ‘call to action’: just doing it, with the necessary trial and error. Not fixating on the potential hurdles but rather seeing them as opportunities. If you ask Acton, that’s precisely what’s so exciting about it: ‘A stage performance requires a concentrated form of being together with strangers, in this case the audience. That makes venues such as ours the most interesting test beds for society.’

Waldo’s Circus Magic and Terror
‘Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror’ by Extraordinary Bodies, Royal Theatre, Plymouth and The Old Vic, Bristol. Copyright Paula Alvala

An inclusive musical about a colourful circus troupe during the Nazi terror and how the persecution of Jews and minorities causes internal cracks to form but also necessitates solidarity. Set in the 1930s, this inclusive performance also subtly bears a topical message of tolerance and equality. The company Extraordinary Bodies puts people with physical and mental disabilities on stage together, while also maintaining an inclusive approach to audiences.

Audio description is provided for people with a visual impairment, for example, and sign language is transformed into an utterly moving choreographic gem by the wheelchair-using BSL interpreter, who uses their hands and facial expressions to full effect.

Where are the Flemish circus producers?

The group heads further afield to Newbury, a half-hour train journey from London. It’s a sleepy town best known as the birthplace of Michael Bond, the author of Paddington Bear, and for being the location of the former Greenham Common RAF airbase from 1942 to 1993. It is here, in an old aircraft hangar, that 101 Outdoor Arts has been housed since 2014. This circus creation centre, which hosts around 60 companies-in-residence each year, acts as a knowledge centre and has a construction workshop with a focus on outdoor performances that are taken on tour around Newbury.  The remote location encourages focus, with two large rehearsal/practice halls, a shed for wood- and metalwork, sleeping units for 15 people and a fantastic kitchen (they plan to publish a cookbook on the theme of healthy food for circus artists). What makes it all the more remarkable is that, in addition to offering this infrastructure, 101 Outdoor Arts also shares expertise through artist development programmes. For instance, there are labs on (eco-friendly) design, dramaturgy and directing, and with the ‘Toolbox’ training series they teach producers about cultural leadership and entrepreneurship. Suffice it to say, we couldn’t have found a better place for a roundtable discussion on new models of creation and production.

101 Outdoor Arts
Copyright Paula Alvala

A discussion that begins in a Babylonian confusion of tongues. First to be untangled is the term ‘commissioned work’, or what we in Flanders would call besteld werk, to be understood as co-production in the form of a strictly monetary contribution.

Then there is the British understanding of ‘co-production’, where the producers are supported in offering expertise and infrastructure, i.e. the ‘with thanks to’ part of the credits. When it comes to subsidies, we learn that such funds are more limited in the UK, while the convoluted search for private funding remains a struggle on both sides of the channel. Perhaps the most striking observation to emerge is that there are actually no circus producers in Flanders.

In Anglo-Saxon countries, in the tradition of Shakespearean theatre, there are prescribed roles: the writer, the director, the (lead) actor and supporting roles, the costume and set designers and indeed the producer. There is much less of that tradition in Flanders, where the artist combines all those different roles under the single role of maker.

Danielle Corbisly, head of 101 Outdoor Arts' residency programme

The role of producer is quite normal in the UK, where there can even be quite significant differences in approach: some step down as performers to produce either their own work or the work of others, and then there are the odd few, like producer duo Split Second, who are not creators themselves. But one thing is abundantly clear: the task of the producer is crucial and broad in scope: ‘The producer is the intermediary and facilitator between idea and execution, from concept to the stage or arena. As a producer, you are there to realise the creative vision. As such, (1) people need to know what that is, (2) the money needs to be found to make it happen, (3) people and resources need to be brought together, (4) those people and resources must be properly followed-up on and finally (5) all this needs to be properly communicated about,’ says Luke Hallgarten, artistic director of The Revel Puck Circus. In short, the producer is the one who materialises the immaterial, a kind of X-Men-like figure or, in the words of Upswing’s Vicki Dela Amedume: ‘We as producers make sure the artist can focus on what they want to make, whereas the producer looks at how this can be made.’

On the Flemish side, there are immediate murmurs as mentalist-juggler Tim Oelbrandt wryly remarks: ‘Then we circus performers in Flanders are all our own producers.’ In Flemish we’d say Tim’s statement ‘puts the finger on the wound’. From burn-outs to the lack of funding and inefficient pooling of resources, productions in Flanders are almost entirely artist-driven. Artists here are both maker and producer – and, if necessary, driver and plumber, too. There are no producers or production houses in circus here. According to Danielle Corbisly, head of 101 Outdoor Arts’ residency programme, this is also determined by the historical context: ‘In Anglo-Saxon countries, in the tradition of Shakespearean theatre, there are prescribed roles: the writer, the director, the (lead) actor and supporting roles, the costume and set designers and indeed the producer. There is much less of that tradition in Flanders, where the artist combines all those different roles under the single role of maker.’

We have to be careful about taking on too many roles because that only invites burnout.

Margot Jansens, founder of Detail Company

‘We need to keep cherishing that in circus,’ says Ezra Trigg of the trapeze-centric Gorilla Circus. ‘That’s where our resilience comes from. If the whole theatre apparatus were to implode, we circus folk would still be able to put on a show. I don’t really see that happening in the other disciplines.’ Jan Daems, head of training at circus college Codarts Rotterdam, makes the (serious) joke: ‘What’s the difference between an actor, a dancer and a circus artist? A circus artist knows the name of the technician! It is this respect that we also like to pass on at our school; a production is only as strong as your team.’ Circus artist Jakobe Geens agrees: ‘I like that philosophy in circus. Where you set up and dismantle the tent together, where you are jointly responsible for the entire process.’ Others, like circus dramaturge Margot Jansens, think this is too romantic a way of looking at things: ‘We have to be careful about taking on too many roles because that only invites burnout. We can say that doing everything is part of our identity as circus artists, but an identity is not some fixed idea but rather something that is changeable in time and space.’

With regard to the need for the professionalisation of the Flemish circus sector, this is an important conclusion to remember when it comes to policymaking. In England, there are grants for producers but not in Flanders. In the Flemish Arts Decree, there are some alternative management agencies (e.g. Vincent Company) and production houses (e.g. GRIP), but the producer’s tasks are still mainly taken on by the companies and artists themselves, resulting in too much pressure on artists and too much overhead for each organisation. Margot Jansens felt a different approach was in order: she has founded the non-profit Detail Company, which, rather than a collective, will act as a collection of different makers whose roles are assumed on a rotational basis.  

While there is certainly something to be said for dividing up the roles, this approach must go hand-in-hand with a certain vigilance, says Vicki Dela Amedume. ‘When an industry professionalises itself it also erects barriers, with the producer becoming the gatekeeper and the one who controls the purse strings determining the direction things will take. This is a regrettable development. Producing is not about taking control but about creating a framework that affords the artist the space they need.’

Safety first: from school age to the stage

From the old aircraft hangar in Newbury, the group moves on to the port city of Bristol, home to trip-hop music and the main circus city in the UK, with a major circus college and youth circus (Circomedia) and the nation’s largest concentration of circus organisations (such as the collective creation space Unit 15). We gather at an iconic venue: The Old Vic. Built in 1766, this is the oldest working theatre in the English-speaking world where performances are still put on every day.

Bristol Old Vic
Copyright Noemi De Clercq

We enter into discussion with Anna MacGregor, co-founder of Safer Spaces, an organisation that provides festivals and events with sensitivity training, offering specific tools for creating an inclusive environment free from sexual violence and harassment. This is by no means a mere luxury, since – just as in the Belgian arts, circus and education sectors – numerous #metoo situations have come to light in the UK in recent years.

More than 9 in 10 women in Belgium say they have been sexually harassed in public places, and 94% of these cases were not reported to police.

Anna MacGregor, co-founder of Safer Spaces

The discussion takes place in a little lounge area that feels quite literally like a safe space, a place of trust behind closed doors. What is said here is said in complete confidence. MacGregor reads us some disconcerting figures from Belgium. We learn that 4 in 5 women and 2 in 5 men say they have experienced ‘hands-off sexual victimisation’. More than 9 in 10 women in Belgium say they have been sexually harassed in public places, and 94% of these cases were not reported to police. Forms of sexual intimidation range from offensive objects, sexual jokes and comments to provocative noises, unwanted stares and unsolicited messages, photos or videos.

Since, like sports, circus is not only physically but also mentally demanding, it is important to define the boundaries of what is okay and what is not, both physically and psychologically, and before, during or after a show. And that goes beyond ‘no means no’. ‘Consent means doing something that you are sure is your choice, without any pressure or fear of the consequences. Consent can be withdrawn at any time and you have the right to change your mind. Many circus performers work freelance and have no social protections. That often means there are unequal power relations when it comes to getting or keeping a job,’ says MacGregor.

Larger organisational structures tend to have an internal confidential advisor for their employees – preferably a democratically elected team member and not a person in a managerial position – and a an external confidential advisor. To make safe spaces for audiences out of semi-public spaces,such as theatre auditoriums or festival squares where many different groups meet (young people, people without homes, people without internet access, etc.), an audience mediator can regulate the interrelations of locals and passers-by.

However, there is no structural approach in the case of freelance artists. While Kunstenpunt has made two psychologists available at a safe-disclosure office where artists can report transgressive behaviour, an approach that addresses the root cause is lacking. In contrast, on-set intimacy coordinators have been a fixture of the Anglo-Saxon performing arts and film world for years now.

Many circus performers work freelance and have no social protections. That often means there are unequal power relations when it comes to getting or keeping a job.

Anna MacGregor, co-founder of Safer Spaces

Everyone stresses the importance of a comprehensive approach from school age to the stage. Jan Daems tells of how an anonymous safe-disclosure office for cases of sexual harassment was set up in Codarts but that this anonymity formed an obstacle: students indicated that they needed someone to be able to speak to face to face, as hard as that may be to do. McGregor stresses the importance of a network where bystanders are proactive about assisting those in need. ‘For victims it is especially important to initiate the process and deal with the situation at hand immediately, to destigmatise it and offer clear communication.’

Perhaps that is the main takeaway of this trip: rather than remaining mere bystanders, we should actively assist where we can, whether the need relates to inclusion, production or safety. And whether it concerns Flanders or our colleagues over the water. However choppy the waters may sometimes become, we are a bridge to each other.  Or as Jan Daems puts it in his warm farewell to the WhatsApp group: ‘Colleagues, this was circus at its best, complete with laughter, soul-searching and silences. Glad I was able to experience this together with you all.’

Martine Linaer (artistic coordinator, Dommelhof circus creation centre & Theater op de Markt festival)

‘It was a particularly nice three days – intense and inspiring. Usually, as a programmer, you’re mostly occupied with taking in a lot of performances, but this time you also got to know organisations and discuss hot topics. It struck me how, in certain areas, the UK is already much further ahead than we are in Flanders, especially when it comes to inclusion and safety. That session in Bristol on the importance of safe spaces has really stuck with me. In the large structure of the Dommelhof Provincial Domain, where I work, those mechanisms are already more or less embedded in HR, with a confidential advisor, but for artists that safety net is just not there. I want to work on that from within the circus creation centre as well. To figure out, on the one hand, how we as a circus creation centre and festival organiser can factor this into our HR policy, but also how I as coordinator can broach that conversation with artists and create awareness of the issue.’

Wouter Rogiers (cultural advisor to the cabinet of Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon)

‘As an outsider, I was able to observe how diverse the circus sector is. I was also struck by how driven everyone is and how very open everyone was to each other and to their colleagues abroad. In that sense, it was a learning experience for me: on the one hand, it was valuable getting to know the Flemish circus sector better, and, on the other hand, it is always good to see how things are done elsewhere. It is clear that there is a more commercial approach to circus in the UK, and a more artistic approach in Flanders. That also highlights the strength of subsidies in Flanders: it creates a safe environment where there is time and space to create and to make the most of that artistic freedom, whereas in the UK the time and financial pressures are not always conducive to quality. Having said that, we can still learn a lot from the way private financing and fundraising is done there. One thing I definitely take away from this experience with regard to policy: the issue of inclusion and psychological safety are important topics that are still not given enough attention in the decree and we should provide additional incentives within the subsidies to address this. Unlike in the Arts Decree, in the Circus Decree there are not really any out-and-out circus producers, so we don’t see any opportunities there to get that into the decree as a new additional organisational form, but we should see to it that the role of producer can be fully included within the festivals, workshops and companies, so that this process of professionalisation can continue down the right path.’

Emma Ketels (Je Buro booking office)

‘I was struck by how circus is viewed much more as an industry in the UK. There’s a huge number of producers there while here in Flanders the concept of producer is virtually unknown in this context. Artists aside, in all these supporting professions – and when I say that I’m referring to programme managers, co producers, workshops, distribution offices – you notice how these functions are performed very differently depending on the situation and that this can also be a source of frustrations and misunderstandings. After the talk at 101 Outdoor Arts I did feel that there was a need to better define those tasks and responsibilities in Flanders as well. A theatre booking office in Flanders, for example, is primarily a sales agency, while a circus booking office in France is involved from the outset in trying to help secure financing and then touring with the show until the end. At Je Buro, I also manage files, prepare grant applications and seek out co-producers. It made me realise that maybe I don’t run a booking agency after all: maybe I’m actually more of a producer ...’

Maarten Janssens (street theatre and youth circus De Machienerie)

‘I have been in many artist meetings and it’s often a pragmatic meeting capped at two hours. A three-day tour like this provides the opportunity not only to learn about other places abroad but, above all, to finally get properly acquainted with the people who make up the Flemish circus field. I am equally convinced that this will lead to further cross-fertilisations and collaborations. What surprised me enormously is how the British circus field subsists mainly on arts funding and private money, although I am still curious about how exactly they achieve that. Of course, the visit to 101 Outdoor Arts was also nice for me as a builder and designer. The approach of residencies in combination with a construction studio certainly results in a different energy because then you can really test things out scenographically without the creation necessarily being the end product. But what struck me most about the UK trip was the session on psychological safety. We are taking tentative steps in Flanders but we are nowhere near as far along as they are in the UK. We often talk about physical safety but neglect mental well-being. I also want to figure out what my contribution could be in this area.’

Discover the videoreport of the work visit