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Spread The Magic! The Birth of St John’s International Circus Festival

St Johns International Circus Festival
By martin.frenette

Whether you believe that performing arts rhyme with movie, symphony or comedy, inspiring creators and moved spectators can always find a festival that unites craft and creation. At a time where artists keep re-inventing themselves, coming up with new styles and sub-categories that attract new crowds and creators, it feels like every city and every art form now has its gathering. From the Cannes film festival to Edinburgh’s Fringe and every street festival variation in between! Regardless of how invested and interested the audience might be, not every cultural event gets the same recognition and rave reactions that ensure its longevity. What’s the recipe to the successful making of a festival, what are the three wishes that the newcomer shall ask the Genie to get its happily ever after of roaring reviews and avid audiences? Really, what’s the secret?

“Spread the magic!”

Our plates have just been put down when the sentence comes out of Anahareo Dölle’s mouth with enthusiasm. The Canadian circus artist turned festival producer started planning for Saint John’s International Circus Festival two years ago. The thought of bringing more circus, more shows, and more artists to her local community was the thrilling energy that infused every aerial class and showcase she put on from that moment on.

In spite of growing up with a clown as a father, making her stage debuts at age 3 with the Ringling Clowns College alumni, and following him in countless theatres, the Newfoundland native did not get to see many circus shows in her hometown, something that she wanted to change by creating this festival. “My father and his contagious passion definitely influenced my career path, but it wasn’t until I moved to Montreal in my teens that I got to be exposed and immersed in all the magic. I’ve always enjoyed how all art forms complete and complement each other when it comes to circus. From Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco, my very first live circus performance, to the moving poetry of Cirque Éloize’s Nomade, those shows and the way they combine theater, dance, live music, impressive stunts, and all those colors have always been an immense source of inspiration.”

If Saint John’s is a culture-driven city with an art-supportive community, why can’t the city simply invite and sporadically book circus shows in its many venues?

“The fact that it is the oldest city and the furthest eastern point in North America, right on the ocean, makes our capital a great tourist destination, but very expensive flights are making it hard to get contemporary circus shows to visit us. As a result, the audience needs to be educated, exposed to everything impassioned artists have to offer.” This challenge made it even clearer to the former German resident how badly this festival was needed.

“I had stopped touring and already been back by the Atlantic for a few years when I attended the Vancouver Circus Festival and was struck by the idea: we need to have the same combination of shows and workshops on the East Coast!”

Cut to Summer 2016: Anahareo’s smile just grows bigger and you can literally see sparkles in her eyes as she’s reminiscing about the festival’s booking and creation process: “By reaching out to people that I knew would be interested to be involved in such a festival as well as members of the circus community who would understand what I had in mind, I was able to create the festival’s program. Start early and surround yourself with a good, reliable team to create something everyone will enjoy! The booking process lasted roughly six months but started a year before the first audience member stepped inside our headquarters.

St Johns International Circus Festival

“You’d be surprised by the number of meetings and emails each booking required! One piece of advice: do not be afraid to invest in a great opening show that will give credibility to the event and kick it off on a high note!” Another smile spreads from ear to ear and a sense of pride fills her voice when she mentions the broad variety of activities and shows offered to the audience as an influential booking factor. “The good mix of genres is a fine balance. This proved to be the key to our success according to the spectators who said how magical it looked and felt!”

St Johns International Circus Festival

Back to the topic of magic, the dynamic producer points out several times during our discussion how, unlike the Genie from the lamp, no one can do it alone and that the more magic makers a festival has, the better! She strongly encourages first-time producers to seek out partnerships with locals. They will become a great source of advertisement if they are feeling invested and included. From hotels benefiting from spectators invading the city to restaurants who can cater post-show social events, the local investment list was long on this festival and played a large part on why the four days of shows, workshops and panels were a hit.

“Inclusion! That’s another key to your festival’s success! Everyone should be included, regardless of their age, race, gender or profession.”

“By connecting people from every corner of the city and letting them feel as involved as the artists on stage and as welcome as every audience member, an art festival like Saint John’s creates a strong sense of community and a wave of excitement about something new and exhilarating! In this particular case, I also believe that the circus world was due and waiting for something new!”

Programming and booking are undeniably important aspects of any festival in the making, but the beating heart of it all would be the team behind it, a term that keeps coming back in the forty-one years old’s vocabulary. “It really is all about the team. Get reliable and flexible technicians and a trustworthy project coordinator that the cast and crew can rely on and go to for answers. I can’t be at every venue at all times, nor can the head-rigger. Trusting those near you and letting them make the call when you’re not around are vital qualities that every producer can benefit from. A festival is also the time to make new connections and benefit from good old ones who can work united towards the same goal. Networking, connecting, creating relationships, supporting companies, that’s what a festival really is about. Teamwork! Seeing all those volunteers who joined forces with our tech team to transform each venue and make every performance, every panel possible was very moving and the best motivation to make the next editions at least as good as this first one!”

St Johns International circus festival

It should come as no surprise that this driven businesswoman has no intention of letting Canada’s newest circus festival be a one-hit wonder and was back to the drawing board in the days that followed the wrap-up party.

“Getting people on board sooner was the main criticism we got, hence jumping right into 2019 made perfect sense! On top of this adrenaline rush that is still around, I also know that I cannot sit on what we’ve accomplished and take it all for granted. The beauty of a second edition is that the groundwork has already been done, it is now about finding ways to surprise people while keeping the elements that they were most fond of, always with a high artistic level.”

Getting people involved sooner also means starting to “Spread the word and the magic” sooner, to quote Anahareo. Finding and programming shows sure are a lot of fun, whilst finding the money for them is… Not! Still, getting enough funding to ensure that the greatest conditions can be offered to everyone involved is a long process that cannot start too early and that can ultimately force one to be both realistic and creative as to what they can deliver in the end.

And, as our meal comes to an end, this entrepreneur quickly points out that merchandise can wait in line and that no one should waste too much money and energy on those souvenirs! “Otherwise, have no limits! Create something that you’ll be proud of, include your local community, get a great team, and, most importantly, make a budget AND stick to it! Finally, BELIEVE! I cannot say that the festival ever was a sure bet, but I’ve always believed in it: it just had to work, there was no plan B and I can now honestly say that every aspect exceeded my expectations. Believe and, of course, spread the magic, all day, every day!”

St Johns International Circus Festival

Also by Martin Frenette:

Performance Nutrition – Feeding Artistic and Physical Needs

Broadway Dress: It Ain’t All Snapping and Sewing

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