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?

Moving at the Speed of Seoul

Korea was quite an experience.  We walked away from the festival with three new contracts until 2009 and I have been incredibly busy ever since.  Unfortunately for me, Korea ended up being all business and very little sightseeing, but it looks like I will be spending quite a bit more time there in the future, I look at it as a good investment.  The bad news that the 2006 edition of one of those projects in Suwan will not go forward due to lack of time.  Nonetheless, they still seem truly interested and suggest that we focus on developing something for next year’s festival.  Furthermore, we are confirmed to return to the Korean festival next year.  Shit, people work fast there.

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From an Internet Terminal (50 cents for 15 minutes) in Cheongnyangni Station in Seoul

I have been as busy and sick as a dog the last three days in preparation for the festival in Korea.  I finally finished cutting the trailer video for the project in Taiwan this fall after about 100 hours of work in the cutting room (See?  I can never be specific.  Just this last week as The Rocker and I were jetting around Japan on a quick promotional tour, we found out that there has been a major change in plans.  It is not a problem, but it has changed the concept of the show 180 degrees.  This is why I talk about projects as little as possible until opening day.  Special thanks to my good friend, The Clown, who instilled this idea in me early in my career.  Even the video concept changed at the last minute, but sometimes such destabilization can play to your advantage.).

To tell the truth, I am very happy with this video; I tried some new techniques, and it is about two times longer than the previous longest video I have ever cut.  The eclectic music presented special problems, but I think I was able to work around them all (Imagine trying to find a way to make Marilyn Manson, Pink Floyd, Nine Inch Nails, traditional Chinese drumming, an avant garde percussionist, Mongolian Buddhist chanting and Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ in a way that will make sense!  I hope to post some links soon.

For this trip, I have been writing old school style in my notebook every chance I get.  I met up with the daughter of my former German teacher and her friends in downtown Seoul and had drinks early into the morning.  I will transcribe some thoughts as time allows.

Travelling like this is really the best part of my life right now.  Tonight, The Political Scientist will be arriving as well; the special Lithuanian envoy to the Korean arts scene.

Off to Chuncheon!

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Light at the End of the English Teaching Tunnel

One more month left teaching English.  The company sent me a new lesson plan for one of their schools.  Even though the plan was for 6th graders, it seems to cover an awful lot of ground.  Unless the students have had some English before, I expect a lot of blank stares and not much retention.  I will try to follow it as much as possible, but if things start to go downhill and the Japanese teacher starts to panic, I will slip into my standard 6th grade routine.

The boss of the English company observed me teaching a couple of weeks ago which I worry was a bit of a bore.  I really do very little in the middle school classes.  If she wanted to see me doing anything more that playing parrot; I would have recommend coming to an elementary school where I actually have fun interacting with kids and making English learning fun.

I’ve told the company about a discipline problem with a couple of third-grade classes who are giving trouble to their teachers.  The lesson plans that the Japanese teachers have prepared for me are really light (if they’ve been prepared at all), but with a little quick thinking, they can be fleshed out into complete lessons.

That school has two teachers.  One, with whom I have only worked one day, had no lesson plan whatsoever. The other teacher will usually prepare something abstract, like presenting me with alphabet flashcards, and I have been building the day’s lessons and games off of that.  Basically, I have to put myself in the Elementary School mindset, and everything works well.  It just falls apart when dealing with the troublesome 3rd graders.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that the school was unable to hold on to the foreign English teachers like me because they would call in sick when assigned to that school.  This might explain why the teachers there are not accustomed to preparing lesson plans.  I think that by working together with these teachers over the next month (4 days, total), they will have a better idea of how to prepare for my replacement.

Speaking of which, the English company asked me for my final dates teaching with them.  I’ll know better after I talk with The Rocker in Korea, but my goal is to continue all the way to the last day of June as we initially agreed.  Strange, I started teaching English to keep paying the rent, but it’s really not as bad as I thought it might be.  But of course it helps that I see my real job as being what is printed on my business cards – the work that I’m doing for Taiwan

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The Politics of Meetings

So we just got out of what was promising to be one of our most stressful meetings: a sodan with the New National Theatre of Tokyo.

After meeting with them in March, I thought that one of the most relevant questions that the New National Theatre of Tokyo would ask us would be which Japanese artists we would like to work with, so I had made it a priority to do some research on that end.  Since this has to be a dance show (there is no theater department at the NNTT which still fucks with my brain), so I contacted seminal butoh companies to show them our work and see if they would be interested in collaborating.  A month ago I wrote to Sankai Juku so see if they would be interested in collaborating to create a new creation involving international New Circus artists in residence at the National Theatre of Tokyo in hopes that these two highly individualistic, visual, and physical performance forms will find inspiration from each other.  No reason to believe that this will work, but nothing lost in trying.  I saw their show in Chiba and tried to use the name of one of The Rocker’s old friends who used to work with them to secure a meeting but it didn’t work.  I did manage a quick meeting with one of their representatives though, and even though we didn’t get to talk about anything specific, I decided to try to set up the meeting with the NNTT and The Rocker.  I’ve noticed that my English emails often go unanswered but The Activist’s Japanese emails gets responses, so she offered to just call the National Theatre on our behalf and also to come with us to that meeting.

That’s when things started to get very serious.  They asked for a professional translator, for someone from the Canadian embassy to be there, and for a copy of our proposal in advance.  This all made me a bit nervous since our goal is not to present a finished proposal, but to find out what they will require from us so that as we meet different performing arts group while The Rocker is in Japan, we can tell them what sort of commitment we are looking for, etc.  The Activist therefore suggested that we look at the meeting as sort of a “sodan,” to get the director of the theatre’s thoughts on the idea and since the Canadian embassy has already said that they cannot send a representative on the day of the meeting, she suggests that we at least get written support from the embassy to show that we are 100% sure that they would support us.  I’m not actually sure if we will be able to get that because it is still far too early.  They do want to have a project, but they’d need to talk with the New National Theater or any other collaborators before they will sign something official.  It goes around in circles.

She was worried that Sankai Juku is not the best option since they actually have closer connections to Theatre de la Ville in Paris, but that who knows, perhaps the NNTT has better access.  She also asked me about the thematic possibilities of a Butoh and Circus collaboration but I could imagine a lot of different possibilities.  I remembered them saying in March that we would need to involve Japanese artists and that it would need to be a new creation.  Now, from my point of view, until we know how the National Theater wants us to structure the residency, there is no way we can start thinking about the theme or message of a new show.  That message and theme will depend so much on what artists we are working with (Sankai Juku?  Dairakudakan?  Another Japanese dance company? Freelance dancers?).

For example, The National Theater might want The Rocker to hold auditions for Japanese dancers and acrobats to cast in a show that he will then direct, they might want to pair us up with a Japanese company (Like Sankai Juku or Dairakudakan) and then let us come up with a concept and let us direct the collaboration ourselves, they might have a show in production that they want to add an acrobatic element to, and The Rocker and myself would serve as consultants for that show.

For example, the residency at the National Theater of Taiwan started when the Theater asked The Rocker to create a new show for the circus festival.  They just wanted to buy a show, and it is up to us to determine the theme, the artist we will work with, etc, etc.

It was very different when he was in residence with another Taiwanese dance company, where they wanted him to act only as musical consultant and composer.  In that case, they knew exactly what they wanted and they directed him very closely.

So again, if this will be a sodan I’d love to discuss how the National Theater has worked in the past and the way that The Rocker has worked in the past to see if there is any possibility of doing something in the future.  Of course, if there is some interest in seeing a live example of our work, we would like to again extend the invitation to see the festival in Taiwan.

Our main goal was to show that we are flexible, enthusiastic, and open to many different way of working, and that it has had good results in the past.  The Rocker has been working almost exclusively an artist in residence for at least the last four years, and helping artists collaborate is his specialty!  So we just want to introduce this fact and then see what ideas can come out of a nice discussion.  Who knows?  Maybe they have been thinking about the meeting from a couple of months ago and has thought of a project already!

In the end, despite all the stress and uncertainty, the meeting with the NNTT, The Rocker, and The Activist went really well. The NNTT gave us a list of people to connect who are doing a lot of new and interesting things in Japan.  Since the person we met with once had a famous dance company and now advises the New National Theatre of Tokyo as a movement coach for contemporary, modern dance shows, The Activist checked in with a dancer friend of hers who knew the producer we talked to by a nickname which suggested that they were quite close.  The Activist’s friend confirmed that the people on the list are the types of people that we should be meeting with, places like the Yamaguchi center for Arts and Media and AN Creative.

The last one is interesting because they brought my dance company from Boston to Japan, worked at Expo, and also runs the auditions for Cirque du Soleil in Japan.  They are involved in a lot of international dance collaborations with Japan and Canada, Australia, the USA, etc.   She’s been great and says that if we decide to move forward, we should not hesitate to ask her for any help that we might need.

Took more notes from the meetings in Tokyo with The Rocker today.

[The Travelling Acrobat] was asked to come onboard The Rocker’s project last fall as assistant director for a circus-themed opening ceremony for the International Arts Festival in Taiwan.

We presented our proposal to the National Theatre and at the same time began researching the possibility of an exchange with Canada to produce a Taiwan/Canada tour exchange of artist groups.  That idea was favorably received and we also heard of interest in a Hong Kong engagement.

It was at that time that I was asked to investigate and gauge interest in bringing the show here to Tokyo.  So far we have had a strongly favorable response, but the problem is always the same – finding a way to integrate this show to appeal directly to a major corporate sponsor.

In Taiwan, we have a CKS Cultural Center and National Theatre residency to create the first collaboration between Taiwanese performers and Canadians.

To make this happen, we are using our connections at Cirque du Soleil, The National Circus School, and Tohu in Montreal.

Canada is famous for acrobatic dance and circus and multi-media performances, e.g. Carbon-14, La La La Human Steps, Robert Lepage.  We work with video artists, choreographers, and musicians.

On the Taiwan side, there are groups like Tai Gu Tales Dance Theater.

This is what brings us to you today.  We know that you represent excellence and progressive thinking in the arts.  We think that a collaboration could be interesting for you because an international circus arts project has the potential to:

  • Create an intimate connection with the audience
  • Appeal to a younger generation
  • Stimulate artistic creation in a new art form for Japan
  • Offer workshops, classes, and coaching
  • Stimulate deeper international exchange
  • Merge with video and multimedia materials and live music
  • Present modern, thematic work
  • Integrate the dance and theatre programs

 

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
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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%.