When you run a company you have a chance to create a little world: a functional, non-toxic utopia that stands as a modest bulwark against rising entropy and indifference.
For 18 years now I have held the stewardship of a circus company from Brisbane, first called Rock ’n’ Roll Circus and, since 2004, Circa.
Every day since, for 18 years, I have fought to imagine and create the most challenging art I can in a field that, historically, has been largely considered an entertainment. This was, in many ways, a pretty dumb move. We were too circus for the legitimate dance and theatre crowd, too posh for the circus aficionados, too European for Australia, too Australian for Europe.
For my first six years we rewrote the limits of just how bad a review could be. And from this perilous state in 2004, we now employ a full-time, year-round ensemble of 18 artists. We tour internationally more than all the major performing arts board companies put together. Where once we turned over $450,000, we now turn over $7.5 million a year; where once 75 per cent of our turnover was funding, it is now about 20 per cent. We have won multiple awards, provided more than 20,000 workshops a year, seeded numerous successful smaller companies with our alumni and graduates, and this year alone we presented eight new creations as far afield as theatres in Wollongong and cemeteries in London.
While this took a lot of luck, it wasn’t an accident. That story of who we are — the plucky upstart, the ratbags who dared to make circus contemporary, the little company that thought it could — that same story, with time, changes. At some point we find ourselves as the establishment. People like us. They expect us to be both revolutionary and exactly as expected.
The world is an astonishingly large place teeming with the opportunities. But in the arts we tend to swim in small puddles of our own comfort. At Circa we like to stick our necks out.
As a sector we tend to run around trying to fit things into funding models and keeping our overlords happy rather than being bold, vigorous businesses that enjoy venture capital and support. Funding should be investment in our risk, not our certainty. We have to forgive our bureaucrats their risk aversion, that’s their system. But we must never internalise it in a Stockholm syndrome of making art to meet the funding.
Making circus has taught me that you can cram a lot of clowns into a small car and a lot of projects can be funded from a single budget line. There is creativity in treating every dollar of government grant as if it is a dollar of venture capital and asking how can we create the maximum value with the funds we have.
Worryingly, the choc chips of strategic creativity are unevenly distributed in the cookie dough of the sector. We have a two-stream arts sector. On the one side, large companies are inured from change: witness for instance how the major performing arts companies were exempt from recent Australia Council cuts. They are encouraged to do what they do. Artistically, many of them are arteriosclerotic — playing heritage works to ageing audiences. They demand ever-larger shares of the public purse, which they regularly receive.
Had the recent opera review been the circus review, I think you would see a profusion of extraordinary work from an art form that we as a country are good at and that many people want to see.
But we, the small to medium sector, don’t get a say. On our side of the fence, we are searching for new answers, asking new questions. We are intent on surviving, on thriving. We know there is no magic bullet — sponsors are few, funding will go to those who already have status. But when we are allowed to compete on merit we often win. Circa enjoys national and international touring status and has secured the contracts for Artour, the organisation that delivers regional touring for the state of Queensland, and the Commonwealth Games. These were competitive processes. We were allowed to compete. And we succeeded.
Would that it were so for everything. Come on, MPAs. What are you worried about? Not being good enough in your protected state? You can’t claim the title if you are too scared to step into the ring. It’s not a funding program, it’s a government-entrenched oligarchy of privilege.
I challenge the major companies to demand their funding pool is opened to anyone who can compete on merit. Change, regeneration and competition are necessary. A protectorate of the privileged is the opposite of risk. What have you got to lose? Either you are strong and supple and good enough to survive, in which case you have the chance to prosper — to argue for more. Or you aren’t, in which case hiding under the covers of your historical entitlement is just cowardly. Come on out here into the real world, with us.
Yaron Lifschitz is Circa’s artistic director. This is an edited extract from an address to the Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast in Sydney today.
The Australian, ‘Major arts companies should step out into the real world‘ published November 30, 2017