Breakthrough

A couple of weeks ago things may have finally broken through for us in Japan.  I met with The Author’s producer friends, Tokyo Productions, to speak about the possibility of The Rocker and I directing an event that they are preparing for early December in Nihombashi.  For now, it involves us going back to Canada to rehearse with 3-8 Canadian acrobats to create a show for a corporate event in Tokyo.

Tokyo Productions are interesting because of their relationship with Les Producers, a huge event company from France that directed the millennium celebration in Paris, the Paraolympics in Athens, the Toyota Pavilion at the World Expo 2005, and currently are at the Singapore festival and consulting on the 2008 Olympic Games with Steven Spielberg.  Their specialty is huge events with fireworks and water walls and projections and they are looking for a new acrobatic partner because of the challenges they faced during the Expo.  Our being in Asia already is a huge advantage because we are in Asia already.

I prepared a presentation of The Rocker’s videos to give them an idea of the work we do and of the artists who will be in the Taiwan show.  Tokyo Productions are thinking of having short acrobatic interventions integrated into their music, lighting concept, and video components.  If the artists are OK with that and available it would be a big win for everyone.  If this works, it would be the first time to my knowledge that New Circus has even been commissioned in Japan and if all goes well, they are looking to use acrobatics for high-end corporate events in Tokyo for brands like Armani, Prada, Gucci, Louis Vitton, Coach, Tiffany’s, and various movie premieres.

.  However, the time pressure is on – they want to make their final proposal in about 2 weeks, and I imagine that we will be hearing from the client shortly thereafter.

The strategy as I see it is to stay conservative and simple but to assure them that we are small, flexible, and quick enough to do whatever they want by bringing quality international acts from North America and Europe to Asia to create site-specific original productions at relatively low cost.

They are going to keep all creative control of the overall project but that we will be in charge of the physical direction.  After that first meeting they asked me to join them for dinner, but I wanted to get back home to start working on the proposal right away which ended up being:

1) One swinging aerial act. (1 artist)

2) Two single-point aerial acts. (2-4 artists, depending on solo or duo acts)

3) Two ground-based acrobatic acts (2 artists on elevated platforms).

4) One hand-to-hand duo (2 artists).

5) An acrobatic lighting design specialist

6) A circus rigging specialist.

7) The Rocker and myself to act as the direction team for the acrobats

Last week we met again to discuss this plan and to show them more of our database of artists which has increased to 75 (and I hope to increase that to 100 before I leave for Taiwan).  They were very impressed with the artists, so they invited me to a site visit next Wednesday.  In preparation, they’ve asked me to make a DVD compilation and company profiles of Taiwan Productions and The Rocker that show that both have been working for a long time, that they have experience doing large-budget productions, and that they have been working on high-profile shows.

They still sound very serious but I am not planning to talk about budget with them, because I still don’t know how to account for the different costs in Taiwan versus Japan.  For example, should we ask for the same rates that we asked for the film festival project in Taiwan or should we be increasing it to account for the different cost of living in Japan?  If we wait until after we have success with the festival, will we be able to ask more?  It’s for these reasons that I’d prefer all budget discussions to take place between Taiwan Production and Tokyo Productions so that The Rocker and I can think about the direction side as much as possible.  After all, Taiwan Productions is interested working in Japan and their connections to France and The Rocker has connections to Canada are a lot more useful than my connections to the US in terms of support for international artists.  I worked up a rough budget for the artistic and production costs that included:

  1.  8 person on the production team (France+Canada)
    2.  5 artists on the stage (2 chinese arcrobats+3 canadians for trapeze)
    3   Salary of the artists (3 weeks work)
    4   Production fee
    5   3 shows
    But did not include:
    1. Airplane tickets
    2  Local accomodation
    3  Perdiems
    4  Local artists fee
    5 Technical equipment and staff
    Based on this budget they’ve already asked for 7 artists instead of 5 and only 1 show instead of 3, and they are also looking for a video artist that can transform paintings into whole worlds and an acrobatic lighting specialist.

Now that they have an idea of acrobatic show budgets they said that no matter how things go with this project, they’d like to create a Japanese model budget for an acrobatic show so that they can present it to their numerous clients.

Today I met with Tokyo Productions and the technical head of the Toyota Pavalion from16:30 to 22:30 and developed a collaboration plan through 2007.  Outside of the opening ceremony idea we talked about big corporate events and possibly bringing a full show or a Japan creation on tour.  They are even interested in having us arrange entertainment for the whole month of December and maybe having us in charge of a Pomp Duck and Circumstance-style restaurant for the entire year of 2007.  This would mean arranging entertainment for a cabaret month-by month for an entire year… a great way for us to get known in Japan and also in the circus world since a month-long contract in Japan will attract a lot of interested artists.  They want a storyboard in the next week or so!  It’s ambitious and exciting but it may pose some logistical issues as The Rocker and I need to figure out how to make Tokyo 2007 work with everything else in 2007.  I know there is a way, we just need to find it.  Things are finally selling here!

Afterwards we did a site visit at Tokyo Station to see what is possible for the reopening event and my goal was to prove that my expertise on acrobatic design was invaluable to the project.  Even though I could have answered most of their questions on the spot, stayed ambiguous and told them that I’d want to consult with Taiwan Productions before responding.  Makes the issues sound as important as they are.

Even better the dinner and drinking that followed (of course).  The Japanese producer who has engaged Tokyo Productions was with us the whole time.  He is a young-seeming guy (though I cannot place his real age) named Opera who was full of questions about circus and the business and marketing of it and I tried to be full of answers.  He was drunk, and I played the trick of just looking as though I was drinking.  Some flirtatious girls showed up later, but they weren’t terribly interesting, so I was happy when Tokyo Productions and Opera asked me to sit with them to continue to talk business while everyone else flirted at the other end of the table.  They seem happy that I am an MIT graduate.  Weird shit. Circus expert, OK, but a circus expert with an MIT degree – now we can talk.  I think this may be unique to Japan.

Then, all of a sudden, today, they tell me that the idea of the show was scrapped.  The temptation was to despair, but I told myself that there was a way to get around this. I shut up for about 15 minutes and thought as hard as I could.  The client told them that they didn’t like the idea of an “add on” attraction, that they were worried about weather, and that they didn’t want a permanent structure during the day.  After thinking of a possible solution brought it up during a lull in the conversation: “What if we don’t sell it as a show, but as a lighting design for the building which integrates acrobatic performances on the balconies, the roof, the windows, and the floor in front of the building?”  The idea went from being scrapped to being the centerpiece of the design and they are interested in hearing my thoughts for a new bar/restaurant/lounge concept that will integrate a live show aspect as well.  Interesting.  Selling acrobatics as just an extra idea made it too easy to cut; integrating us into the whole lighting concept is a lot easier to defend.  Changes our constraints a bit, but we’ll worry about that once people have made up their minds.

As they start to reach out to their other clients, I am struck by how obscenely large the project budgets seem to be – this is all quite new to me.  Given how small our costs are relative to the whole budget, I think that someone will eventually bite, so I’m asking the Taiwan Productions to forward me proposals that they have sent to clients in Taiwan so that I can build off of them by adjusting for Japanese costs.  In the meantime, Tokyo Productions wants to know if they can fly me back to Japan to help them with proposals for a few days at a time during the Taiwan project.  Why not?

In 2006 I undertook an international arts entrepreneurship appreticeship under "The Rocker" between Tokyo, Japan, and Taipei, Taiwan with a few trips to Bangkok, Thailand, Chennai India, Ahmedabad, India, and Chuncheon, Korea.

The Beginning of the Apprenticeship

Was interesting taking notes during The Rocker’s pitch to the Canadian embassy in Tokyo.  Here’s how he explained our work in a nutshell:

What do we offer?

  • A high-quality product of a recognizable brand at an extremely competitive price
  • An openness and a flexibility to work with your client’s needs and wishes
  • The potential for a long-term relationship with an experienced circus production team and their network of event producers in Taiwan and Greater China.
  • The unique opportunity to have a first-hand role in marketing the circus brand to the Japanese public

The Human River

I had a Russian circus coach in his sixties, Alex, who could still do standing backflips.  He was able to pluck you out of the air one-handed if you were about to land on your head; it was like being caught by an oak tree.  He looked like a bear, he walked like a zombie, and his secret to maintaining his form was taking good care of his intestines.

People have strange ideas about how their bodies function.

It was a Russian coach fad at my school; fasting one day a week and fasting one week a month.  It was all part of a solemn ceremony which culminating in a glorious herbal enema to keep your colon clean, supple, and rubbery like a nubile squid.

I wasn’t ready to go that far, but he afforded me this advice:  Eat a grapefruit every morning; don’t eat anything cooked, never talk during a meal, always eat meat last, and enjoy a handful of organic peanuts before physical activity (softdrinks are poison, and processed food is good to make your stomach feel full, but it won’t do anything for your body).

He was my teacher, I listened, and it made sense, at least when training 12 hours a day like the good circus school students that we were.

This kind of ascetic eating regimen fit with his personality.  Even his sense of humor:

One day, the denizens of a small village awoke to a loud, rhythmic pounding.  Each pound was punctuated by a man’s screams of pain.  The villagers, shivering in the morning chill and dressed only in their nightclothes, left their huts to find the source of the screaming.  In the middle of the public square, a man was repeatedly striking his phallus [Alex always said phallus when he told this joke or any other joke that featured a penis.  He always lowered his voice and blushed a little when he said it.  Ever seen an embarrassed bear?] with a blacksmith’s hammer.  The patriarch approached the man to ask him why in the world he was punishing his member so.  “Doesn’t it hurt terribly?”  “Of course,” replied the stranger, “but nothing compares to blissful respite that comes between each strike.”

My Lithuanian roommates have explained that this is actually a very Eastern European kind of joke.  They tell another one that I like:

A wife walks out onto her porch where her husband is looking at the sky with a serene smile on his face.  “Why are you so happy?” she asks.  “Our neighbor’s house is burning down.”

I told this joke in Boston to a mixed audience of Canadians, Americans, and Bulgarians, and sure enough, the Bulgarians laughed while the North Americans waited for the punchline.

My point was that people have lots of different theories one how to best care for their body.  The FDA of America has a great one, which happens to be very different from that which is professed by their Japanese counterpart.  But I think that having your own cartoonish view of the human body is helpful, as long as it makes sense to you and it keeps you healthy.

For me, I believe that the key to everything is water.  Lots of water.  If I can keep a steady flow of water through my body, I find I can train harder without being sore the next day, I am more flexible, I have more energy, it is easier to maintain my weight (or lose weight when necessary), and I can drink alcohol with no ill effects in the morning.

For me, I see the body as a riverbed which is constantly polluted by our everyday actions (like every other riverbed you have ever seen).  If you can keep that river flowing at nearly flood levels, all those pollutants (lactic acid, alcohol, excess nutrients, etc) will be washed away.  I also see water as a sort of lubricant for cells, particularly muscle cells, that help them to work more efficiently.

I know that this is all a huge oversimplification and sounds a lot like a placebo (based strongly in sports medicine and common sense, of course), but it does serve as a nice little feather to hold onto when I force my body to do impossible things.

http://www.it-cortex.com/images/Failure_Cause_Survey.264.gif

First Thunderstorm of the Year

What a night.  The Rocker just arrived in Tokyo from Taipei and we hung out for a few hours talking circus and strategy for the gauntlet of meetings we are going through this week in Japan and next week in Korea.

I can never let myself evaluate the success or potential of any of the projects that are in development, pre-development, or pre-pre-pre-pre-development.  That would be a recipe for disappointment and depression.

At first, I couldn’t help but but all my hopes on one horse and then feeling completely dashed when it didn’t come through.  Worse, I would be tempted to undersell my services; ‘OK, OK, I’ll do it for half the budget I asked for, I’ll work for free just give me the project!’  This is the danger of developing projects you actually believe in; they are harder babies to kill.

I would say that in this business, only about 10% of all projects make it out of the pre-pre-production phase.  The only remedy is to try to develop 1000% of your actual production capacity in anticipation of the inevitable failures that pave the way to success.

This surprised me because performers only ever hear about a project once it has passed into the pre-production phase, at which point a show has a mortality rate of only about 33%.

Planning for the Year to Come

I still need to know what the schedule for Taiwan is looking like.  The Rocker talked about 2 months of creation being in July and August but he also mentioned that I might be off in July and that we may need a month of preproduction in October.  This may conflict with offers I have to direct in Boston in September and October that I might be able to ask between 500 and 1000 USD a week in addition to per diem, but if July is off, I might try to push their project to July which would give me a chance to go back to the US with a much better idea of budget, cast, etc, to pitch to our contacts there.  I just have to see if it would a problem to fly me in to the festival from the United States instead of Japan.  In any case, for now I am keeping my schedule free after the festival in case there are any opportunities that pop up.

It’s hard for me to explain to my family and friends what I am doing.  I do not like to talk about anything until it is definite; that’s a good way to get a reputation as a guy who talks a lot but doesn’t get anything done.  I have to keep my mouth shut.  As it is, out of about every 10 potential projects we get, only 1 comes through.

I am enjoying my job a lot.  Basically, I organize special events, set budgets, find acrobats, arrange their fees and their airplanes and hotels and all that, and then help direct the event.  Since I am doing the casting, it means that I also get to be in the shows, which is nice.  The Rocker lets me basically do whatever I want, and since he is Canadian, we are eligible for a lot of Canadian support and he is introducing me to a lot of contacts in Canada and Asia.  Our big problem now is just that events come very slowly as our name is just getting out there.  No one really works like this in Asia which means that clients are not used to paying the kinds of budgets we have, so we lose a lot of leads.  Once people see the quality we bring, hopefully business will grow.  So that’s what I am trying to set up over here.  I think that I will know if things are going well by this December.  If things are not going well, I will need to rethink my strategy, but so far, I am happy!

I think my big goal is to keep my eyes and ears way open for the next couple of years to learn everything I can about this scene and about producing and directing and making all the contacts I can in Asia.  Once nice products are being produced, if the door will still be open in Canada and Asia, we’ll see what kind of opportunities are out there.  Hopefully I’ll have a chance to work with my circus school friends again just like what we did in 2003 and 2004, but this time with real budgets!  Two years ago, budgets in the millions were totally unthinkable, but when I saw how enormous the budget is for the festival and the new creation in Taiwan I almost died!

Hibiya Photo Shoot

About a month ago The Activist set up a meeting with me and a Tokyo newspaper to take photos of handbalancing (maybe photos in Ueno station with me doing the handstands in training clothes or my suit!) and an interview as well.

She really made this whole idea work all by yourself by using her contacts at the newspaper.  They covered her work when she was in her early 20’s, meeting the pope, receiving writing awards, etc.  Later, she wrote a weekly column for them.  To this day they still cover her work.  She said it was hard to promote my story since there is a business aspect to it unlike the grassroots, NGO, social projects she normally promotes.

Her first request was refused, but she re-pitched the idea to focus on my Japanese background and roots and my desire to bring a show to Japan – the timing is right because we are approaching the anniversary of the Expo and she has been pushing for the idea of profiling people related to the Expo.

She’s hoping that I will tell them about how the Expo helped me to embrace my Japanese background and roots and inspired me to stay longer in Japan – and only then mention my future plans about making a show happen in Japan.

Her advice to me is to change how we approach people and the media to focus on a good story more than the business angle.

On the day of the actual interview I made a little mistake when I mentioned that I met my Lithuanian roommates at Expo.  When I told my roommates about it they asked that Lithuania not be mentioned in the article because the Lithuanian embassy does not want to give the image that they used Expo as a way to get longer-term visas for Lithuanians.  The embassy is trying to make it easier for Lithuanians to come to Japan to work and are worried that it might look like they used the Expo to abuse the system!

Last week I finally received a copy of the article and sent thank-you notes to the reporter and photographer; and I, once again, thanked her very much for the effort she put into making that a reality!

CIMG6498

The article looks great, but I have to admit that in a weird way it made me feel a bit down.  After seeing how excited people in Canada, the USA, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are about this project; I can’t help but wonder what I have been doing wrong here in Tokyo.  I blame myself; I think that I must be talking to the wrong people or saying the wrong things.  I also feel bad that The Activist has put so much effort into this project but that there has been no real payoff for her efforts.  It’s almost too much for me to let her keep helping out.  She has given 500% so far, and I am greatly in her debt, but she reassures me that she is still feeling positive about the project and is more than willing to keep helping out.  She has been an inspiration to me the whole way, and is a friend whose support I will treasure forever.

Inflate the Reality

So at the end of March The Rocker has included me in a pitch he made to a festival in Korea and three weeks ago I got last-minute confirmation that I would be going with him.  Like he says, forget about things and sometimes you get some nice surprises!  It will be a great networking opportunity, and also the chance to meet face-to-face to discuss a lot of the Taiwan festival details.

I’m supposed to write an article on “The Creation Process of Canadian Contemporary Circus” and to present “Three years training process in the National Circus School of Canada and how Canadian circus became a more theatrical, unique style.”  The Rocker will be presenting on “why Canadian circus and physical theatre grew to be such important and successful part of Canadian culture.” He will be introducing his past work in music fusion in China, the visual movement, and physical theatre in New Circus in Quebec using a lot of DVDs.  He says that when working in a different language with an interpreter, he prefers to let the images speak for themselves.
Following this advice, I’ll show how I developed my number, showing many versions of my number as it evolved through the school from its first version to the one we see in the DVD, why I went to circus school, and what exactly is the process of training, the new groups coming out of the school that are moving away from Cirque du Soleil style and creating a even newer form.
We’ll also talk together about how I ended up in Japan, the Rocker ended up in Taiwan, and where we are going with all this.  So far, the video I’m preparing is looking really great!

He told me that we need to present the school and Cirque du Soleil in a positive way, offering only constructive criticism as we are in no position to make enemies (he also told me remind him of what he just said, because sometimes he has a big mouth).  The Rocker quote: “Keep the lies, that’s the way we do things…not even white lies…just inflate the reality.”

Looks like it’s going to be fun! Too bad the focus has changed away from “the picking up of girls; theory and practice.”  I had already finished my first draft.

Since The Rocker is able to stop over in Japan on the way to the Korea festival I have set up a meeting with the Canadian embassy in Tokyo to formally introduce The Rocker, his work, and our plans are in Taiwan.  I will explain that I have been in contact with the National Theater of Tokyo and that they expressed interest in receiving a proposal regarding a potential residency and that we would like to have the embassy’s backing, and also to find out what resources we would have available to us as he represents a Canadian organization that is dedicated to bringing Canadian art abroad.

If everything goes well, I’ll be asking her for her support as we contact my people at the National Theater to set up a meeting for us on our free days. I’m also trying to find some local production companies to meet with but so far no luck.  He knows a small circus company that seems very sincere who are trying to set up a circus school in Tokyo and The Tokyo International Festival is also reviewing our materials to see if they can make time for us to meet with them.

He’ll be staying at a ryokan in Ikebukuro that he found online.  I just want to make sure that he knows that he’ll only have communal restrooms and a communal bath.  At least it will be a new experience (assuming they don’t have ryokans in Taiwan…  they very well might!)  Just to be safe, I’ll send him a primer on ‘ryokan etiquette’ so that he’s aware of the differences between hotels and rokans (there is no bed; the maid will come in to set up a futon during dinner time; which slippers to use where, etc.)

Oh his side, he’s been busy connecting with his contact from the Singapore Arts Festival this week and getting info on a Shanghai project run by one of his Macau friends.  Evidently some things he pulls together are very good, and some just drop out of existence.  He even met with some Japanese buyers – evidently there is a lot of support for Canadian/Japanese collaborations right now – and he’s thinking of travelling to Kyoto to meet one of them when he is in Japan later this month.  Japan is a very small country, really.  Nothing more than a half day away by train.  Kyoto is about two hours or so away by bullet train and costs about 200 dollars one way, so if the guy is interested in what we are going to be working on in Taiwan, then it would definitely be in our interests.