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 Skeleton of a Project

I have this Taiwan project weighing so heavily on my mind that it’s impossible for me to sit still.  In the middle of my recent Hawaiian vacation, I was actually relieved in a way to see that due to a little bit of an emergency, The Rocker needed me to schedule the whole festival for him in a 24 hour period.  This justified my logging in and getting things done.  I started by drafting an initial proposal for artists in the Taiwan festival to provide all or some of the following services in the course of one festival day:

Stage Show: The artists will have the main stage at their disposal for one hour, which includes set-up, performance, and take-down time.  Actual performance time is meant to last about 45 minutes.  The artists will have the outdoor sound system at their disposal as well as the lighting system if the performance is to take place at night.  Technical needs and technical rehearsal schedule remains to be determined.

Animation: Artists will have use of a portable stage if needed.  Otherwise, animation takes place in the general space of the square.  The animations are meant to attract new audience members to the festival space.  A single block of animation is meant to last one hour with about 45 minutes of actual performing time.

Workshop: Workshops are meant to give the general public a chance to interact with the artists face-to-face.  They are meant to be interactive exchanges and demonstrations of the artists work.  A single workshop block is meant to last 45 minutes.

At most, an artist will be asked to provide one Stage Show, one Workshop, and one Animation in the course of a single day of the festival.  Technical needs and equipment for workshops and animations are the responsibility of the artist with the exception of rigging needs, which must be discussed with festival organizers on a case-by-case basis.

 Master class: Some artists will provide a Master Classes to local students and professionals in the performing arts which will be considered a Workshop for scheduling purposes.  Any change in the artist’s fee between a Workshop and a Master Class is to be determined on a case-by-case basis.  For example, if the Master Class is meant to last longer than 45 minutes the artist should be duly compensated.

New Creation:  Artists performing in the New Creation will receive those fees in addition to any fees for other festival activities.

Special Animation:  Another artist and I are MC’s for the nightly Cabaret, and our fees for this performance will also be independent from any other fees.

Nightly Cabaret: 4-8 numbers per night (some possibly from the new creation) may be featured in a cabaret made up of 5-7 minute long numbers adapted to a circus cabaret format with these fees in addition to any other fees received.

The next step was to start fitting all of the artists into a rough draft of a schedule for the outdoor entertainment.   Without knowing the exact show lengths and final duties of each artist as well as final confirmation on their availability I relied on The Rocker’s DVD of the acts he has booked/is thinking of booking to help me with the scheduling.  I’m also using materials from Cirque Theatrical who wrote back saying that they would love to be a part of the festival and are willing to work through us as the sole booking entity.  The show they want to do is definitely family friendly, and won the silver medal at the big annual circus festival in Paris last year.  These materials will also allow me to cut a trailer for my contacts in Japan.

So the final product was two schedule options for the Taiwan team:

Case 1 (Dream Case): Our budget is huge and we are able to have 10 groups there every day of the festival (groups may come or go, but there are at least 10 on site every day). In addition to the main entertainment under the big top, the cabaret, and the new creation, at least 4 of the 10 groups have shows that can be performed on the main stage outside.  6 of the 10 groups have smaller shows that can be performed on small stages or among the public, and all of the groups have something they can present in a workshop format.  In addition, some of the performers from the tent shows or the new creation or the cabaret are able to present some workshops (2-4 extra workshop slots availble per day).

Case 2 (Realistic Case): We have 5 groups every night of the festival with an extra group for the first friday (opening ceremony night).  2-4 of them have main-stage shows, and all 5 are able to do animation/street shows.  All of them can do workshop-style shows.

In both cases, I have assumed that weekdays are going to be dead until the late afternoon for tech rehearsals, troubleshooting, etc.  We will need a lot of time for that, I am sure!  The schedule is designed to give a sense of flow and build towards each night’s main entertainment under the big top which is always preceded by a cabaret “opening act.”  During the main show, the square will not be dead, however, a shorter, smaller-scale performance will happen outside simultaneously.  After the big top show, I have planned to have a “farewell, goodnight performance” on an outdoor stage with accompanying animation going on so that the public feels like the entertainment continues long after they are gone.  The workshops take place throughout the day on the sidelines inviting members of the public to interact with the artists, have their picture taken with them, to try out the techniques, etc. I’ve assumed that most artists will offer a lower level of commitment than what we have already requested.  If they commit fully, great, we have a surplus of entertainment.  If not, we’ll adjust the schedule for the performance hours that they can commit per day (we asked for three, which is more than reasonable from my perspective as an acrobat myself).

Resurrection

Here I am still, in Hawaii.  It feels like it is day 100 of my visit.  My days have really become a search for the sun.  The incessant rain has let up a little bit, and the island is small enough (about 60km wide at its wides) that from the center I can make an OK guess as to where the weather might be best.  I put about 200km on the car today just driving from place to place.  I am wishing I had a way to attach my dad’s antique surfboard to the car, because today on the North Shore, the waves were perfect to try and get back into the surfing habit.

I found a soft piece of flesh on the ground by the shorebreak and picked it up.  It looked like a sea slug or a sea cucumber, and I was sure it was dead.  Such things are not meant to live out of water.  I poked it, and it did not move, and I finally left it in a tidepool and watched it for about half an hour.  I could convince myself it was moving, but ultimately, I decided I was smoking crack or something.

I continued my search for sunlight up and down the north shore, and found myself making a big circle, ending up back at the sea slug beach.  I figured I would check on the poor guy, and found that it had grown lots of tiny arms and was moving around and seemed quite happy!  a miracle!  it looked like it was evolving, and I was scared that in a few more hours it would be a human being, so I threw it into the ocean.  Even if he didn’t end up being a human being, I think he will be happier there.

It is really strange seeing Japanese people out of their native environment, and they really do seem out of their environment.  They are about as rare as gaijin in Japan once you leave the Ala Moana shopping districts and Waikiki, and they always look the same, the way that gaijin always look the same, but in a completely different way.  Strange.

It rained hard all over the island today, thunder and lightning and the whole affair, but I managed to stay out of it completely.  I conside that a success.

Yesterday was my grampa’s and my uncle’s birthday celebration.  I had already visited quite a bit with my uncle and my grandmother, so I spent most of the two-hour dinner (which was absolutely delicious, I can tell you… three courses plus a dessert and coffee… mmm.  it will be a while before I can eat like that again) talking with my grampa.  I will tell you, I really feel useless when I talk to him.  he isn’t impressed with much of what I am doing, but he tells me this in a way that makes me understand that he expected nothing less of me than the things I am most proud of, and that I must now re-evaluate my assessment of my abilities in order to account for my recent successes.

It is frustrating, but I have had to learn to turn this sort of frustration into personal motivation.  Otherwise, I get depressed and run myself into walls until I die.  And that is not productive at all!

I have sunburn on my neck, which hurts, but it is ok because I am happy to have seen the sun even once this vacation.

I had a long talk with my gramma and grampa before they leave for Las Vegas tomorrow morning, and it was very nice.  Talking about taxes, my family, my dad, business, Japan, etc.  Just a good time.  I am amazed at how they look at things in such a different way.  Very practical, pragmatic.  I feel I still have so much to learn from these guys.

Ah well…  a couple of days left.  If I could leave for Japan the day after tomorrow, I would probably do it, though.  But I am glad to have had this break.  I am still really looking forward to a few museums and one hike in particular that I have still not had the chance to take…

I have been living life very easily.  In a way, I wish that the vacation side of things could be over.

Whirlwind Tour Business Debrief

In Japan, I have progressed a great deal on the corporate and government angles, but there is little more I can do there until we have a final video and product to show to them.  However, there are other places to look for support for out project and I have just wrapped up a week-long trip in North America.  It was an expensive trip, but to be honest, I feel that the information that was gained and the support that we have garnered was well worth the cost.  In summary, I am ready to continue to the next step of tour pre-production in Tokyo starting next week.  Basically, mission accomplished.

USA

Three organizations have stated their support and intent to help us bring our project to the Midwest by applying for grants, providing venues, promoting us as part of their season, and providing us with local audiences.  They also have extensive contacts with local corporations such as 3M, the Target chain of retail stores, and others who have teamed up as corporate sponsors for these arts organizations in the past.

They are very excited with how this project sounds on paper, and after my 20-minute presentation was completed, they had a lot of questions about our reasons for doing this project, and vocally expressed their excitement that such projects were taking shape in Asia.  I think that in the US, there is a real interest in being the first organization to present contemporary, cool work from the Asian sphere.  They were particularly sold on the idea of integrating multi-media into a traditional art form, as well as adding acrobatics to physical theater, and creating a visual, image-based production that is not script-based.

Of course, all of this interest is pending a viewing and approval of the final product and production budget.  One organization has already offered to come to Taipei to see our production’s premiere.  The organizations have requested that we not use their names publicly until they have been able to officially state their interest and support of the project upon seeing our premiere, and I have also told them that until that time, I will contact them only on a need-to-know basis as they are very busy developing their own work at this time.  Given that the Americans are very interested in seeing video of the creation process, primarily to see if the show is shaping up to be something they want to push as a flagship show for national touring.  I proposed that we include in the budget either rental or purchase of a GOOD video camera and editing system, or else to budget for the services of a videographer who could do it all for us in order to send really good quality footage to these theaters.

Personally, I think that if we might be able to secure Taiwanese corporate sponsors based on this unofficial support from the Minneapolis side, it would fuel our Minneapolis sponsor’s interest, and vice-versa.

To further sweeten the deal, one theater is part of a nation-wide collection of theaters that are particularly interested in promoting international performances in the United States, and they have suggested the possibility of plugging us into that network for a nationwide tour.  I do not want to be overly optimistic, but in my opinion, a stop in Minnesota is practically guaranteed if we make half as good a show as we are expecting.

I should tell you that Minneapolis is the closest city to a USA Montreal in terms of support for the arts, so I am very, very optimistic that with the theater (that recently won a Tony award and is considered the best contemporary theater in the nation) and this circus school (annual budget in the millions, connections with Cirque du Soleil in the works) cowriting a grant with us, we WILL be performing in Minneapolis on the 2007-2008 season.

And, I have a very good feeling that with this news, Boston will be even more interested in bringing us to their market.  The great thing is that if Minneapolis works, we will be able to treat it as a showcase for the fat cat agents who never leave the USA but have pockets overflowing with money.

The next step is to strategize with The Rocker’s Taiwanese producers to start a US grant-writing research binge together if this is a direction they are interested in going.  My plan of action for the next three months is to research grant opportunities at the municipal, state, and federal level in the USA for bringing in foreign performing arts, and to determine an official touring budget to present to our partners in the USA.

Canada

After talking with the SAT in Montreal, I have decided to begin speaking with the Canadian Embassy and other NGO’s in Canada and Japan to see what interest they might have in using our show as a flagship of modern Canadian technological and theater arts.  The problem I have run into on the Japanese side is that Taiwan is not recognized by the Japanese government, and thus, promoting the show as Taiwanese is very sensitive.  Now that we are able to promote it as the result of a Canadian creative collaboration that employs Taiwanese artists, many more channels are open to us.  On the Japan side, I will start by contacting the Canadian Embassy and Canadian/Japanese Arts organizations, and then begin speaking with Japanese Theaters the way that other Canadian arts organizations do.

Whirlwind Tour Part 2 (continued) – Boston

And today, another crazy one.  I had a terrible haircut, was unable to take a nap despite being very, very tired, and talked with one presenter from here in Boston.  It was in general very positive, but of course, they need to see the real show before they can say anything for real.  He really liked the show, though.  Of course, it is much easier for me to deal with the business side of things in English…

Even better since I had to hone it all in Japanese first!  It is like learning how to run underwater, I guess.  When you emerge, running itself is so easy!

Then it was off to meet my best friend from college and another friend who I have gotten to know better since college.  We met at a local bar/pub, and ate, talked for about an hour.  About real stuff, you know, and it was quite pleasant.  We talked about our friend…  caught up on everyone’s life, felt like we were 8 years younger.  Women, drinks, movies, literature…  very nice.

Then I went to another bar where I saw my gymnastics coach from MIT and my best friend from gymnastics…  Outside of work, my friend does this thing called ‘acrobatic dunking’ for the pro basketball team here.  His team should really go to Lithuania some day to do it.  We talked about women and life… very nice.

My coach told me that I can do an artist-in-residence at MIT any time and that he will make sure that it works.  I am very excited about the idea of lecturing at my old university for a semester when I have time.  I had a real Guinness, talked all about my life, heard all about theirs…  it is interesting how three friends can change over time, but still stay the same, you know!  Talking about performance, women, gymnastics… why we do it all, how young we were back then, how the world has changed, our world has changed.

In the end, my friend gave me a ride home in this custom-built car that he has had since we were freshmen… he build it from zero, it has been stolen and gutted three times, and he build it up again each time.  I appreciated it for the first time.  as a labor of love, as a piece of brilliant engineering, as the product of someone’s will to perfect something, as an automobile, and as a work of art.  Why was I never able to see things like that before?  What will I see in five years that I could never see now?

Then it was back to my other friends’ house for drinking and playing video games (American style catching up on things) and talking about women, women from college, what everyone is up to, about art, about plans.

I started thinking about the mental, emotional and physical, and how I am not amazing in any one of them, but what I can do that is maybe worth a little something, is to see how they all are interrelated and the role that they can play in a performance piece.  And how a performance can tickle those three parts of things… we criticized arts at MIT as being a little too mental, a demonstration, say, and I realized that when I come as an artist in residence, this is what I want to change.  To make art more human instead of less so…

All in all, a hell of a day, business, many friends, business and friends, and then friends.

I remembered songs I played with my best friend when we were in college and played them in the background as my other friend talked to my best friend’s sex interest on the phone…  just like college days.

Cleared some shit up about the girl in the hallway who is dating my other friend… in short, everything I thought was a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

I learn so much about life when I travel.. so far, things have been good except for some frictions about my last minute-request to stay with family on oahu two days ago that resulted in me getting a last-minute hotel room instead, but what can one do?

Tomorrow at 5am, on to Montreal!!!

Whirlwind Tour Part 2: Boston

So I managed to get through yesterday, which entitled waking up in Honolulu at 10AM, flying to Chicago (arrive 5:30AM local time the next day), and then continuing on to Boston (arriving 9:40AM local time) going to my dance company’s rehearsal and exploring the possibility of a month’s work with them if Taiwan is truly screwing me out of that fourth month of work; I’d be in there as acrobatic/circus consultant, co-director for a new piece.  Plus, they gave me the personal contact info on all the promoters for the Boston area.  ‘All’ of them amounts to a grand total of three, but it is a hell of a lot more managable than the millions in Tokyo.

Business in the arts is a very strange thing.  When I sit at home, depressed and alone, when I train in a corner of the gym, I feel like a failure; like I am skillless and useless in the world.  but as soon as I have a project; a CREATION project, I feel like I am really doing something that few people can do.  I can look at a piece, at a theme, at an artist, and just know what has to be done to make that piece, theme, or artist effectively move an audience…  but there is that important ingredient of the other people there.  All alone, I am like a waterwheel in the desert.

Then it was off to MIT to meet with my former acrobatics partner from Bulgaria.  Strange, strange, strange.  It is like looking into a mirror in which your image from six years ago is reflected and superimposed over what you now are.  It was very interesting talking about her studies (system complexity), a Balkan’s view of the United States, and Americans and MIT in general, culture, cultural norms… and all in the context of sitting there in America with Americans all around us…   we were able to switch back and forth from English to French to Spanish as the spirit moved us, and as the sentiment required.

In the end, we realized that six years ago, we really had nothing in common.  I was an ignorant American, and she was a culture-shocked Balkan in a new environment.  Oddly enough, six years later, we have travelled to the same countries, both learned French, both started drinking, and are both looking at our “successful” lives and realizing that we feel like we have nothing in our hands…  that our choices have not been choices so much, but improvisations from moment to moment, and we only see ahead to the next junction.

Something that my friends at the Tabata refugee camp can surely relate to.

I can’t stop thinking about The Model and her visa problems, and The Political Scientist and her visa silence…  my biggest fear is returning to an empty or emptier house…

I hope for the best every day, and think of them often!

I ran into an ex-girlfriend completely by chance in the hallway while looking for a bathroom.  Her first words to me: ‘You asshole!  I knew you’d do this!’

I guess she thought I was trying to be cute by not telling her I would be in town and then showing up unannounced at her lab.  later on, I’d realize the absurdity of this presumption, as though I would research the work address of a former lover just to hang outside and stalk her…  but then when I told her that it was just chance, a happy chance, she said that it was even worse.

But come on, we are not best friends, I have only so much free time this trip, and my main reason for coming was to talk about my friend’s death with my two closest friends in Boston and to meet a woman whom I never really got to know when I had the chance…  realistically, I could not contact every friend I ever had in boston and schedule 15 minute coffee-breaks with all of them…

Then it was to the gym where I trained with my former acro partner…  the last time we had trained, she was helping me get into circus school.  Needless to say, I had improved a bit, but we still had a good time.  She had not done acro since our last practice together six years ago, so I was helping her relearn a lot of her moves.

Then it was wine and Indian with her and her roommates.  I had a million things to talk about with her roommate from Hawaii, very introspective, talking about racial identity of the hopelessly mixed like us, the social structure and climate, good and bad, of the islands, old-time Hawaiian pop culture…  history, it was a good conversation.  the other roommate was a little overbearing in the American sense, talking about how her greek friend should stop worrying about her relationships and just change herself to fit with the guy she is with, that love is worth changing yourself for, and that the Eastern European marrying-for-the-right-reasons is too mental, akin to arranged marriages, and that her Greek friend should be able to adapt to the Hollywood romantic ideal of pushing yourself into the mold of a reltaionship.  I got tired quickly of this and smiled.  Finally, at 4am I went to sleep on the couch (9 pm hawaii time… 36 sleepless hours) only to wake up five hours later to drive my friend to class.

Two bottles of wine between the two of us, but consumed over 5 hours of good conversation with roommates, and I had my first allergic reaction to American Indian food a la what happens every time The Political Scientist takes me to an Indian restaurant in Tokyo!

I try to find a place to nap now, maybe get a haircut, something to eat.  It is strange being in America, my friends.  It is like walking around Disneyland after working backstage for years.  There is no magic left, or what magic that is present is too easily understood.

Business is good, company is good, and I feel busy… just the way I like it on vacation!

Reversal of Fortunes

Frankly when I think about what I am about to type, I am a little stunned, myself, because I do not know how I got from being desperate and depressed just two and a half months ago to where I am now.

Three weeks ago, Adco reversed their previous decision to ignore our project and have decided that they are interested in at least some preliminary sponsorship activity and on Monday I will be sitting down in their main building with The Activist, one of their senior partners from their special events division, and a senior partner of a major PR firm.  We may even have a representative from Sony there but he is worried about that looking too official right now. I’ll be leading the full presentation which, if billed as an introduction to our project for all interested parties, should be pretty strong.

Basically, I am trying to get these people to talk together, and get them excited about the prospect.  If all goes well, I guess they start to comb through their respective client lists, find someone willing to latch on to the concept of bringing a circus show to Tokyo which is looking more and more like a possibility.  These people and companies who were looking at me blankly three months ago are now calling me to express interest.  If it’s good art too, that’s great, but since the mention of art seems to be a real buzzkill at these things, I’ll be focusing on the budgets and profit margins, that they want to see.  I’ll try see if they might offer a little pre-production and development budget for the project in Japan.  That way I can continue to produce the show here and keep courting various corporate sponsors that continue to pop up on my radar.

So how did “no’s” turn into “maybe’s?” Out of the blue, five weeks ago, I got an email from my friend at Adco who says that he reread our materials, reconsidered, and is trying to get Adco to work on it in some way.  He asked for a quick meeting to learn more so I quickly asked The Rocker send me the budget of our last show in Montreal and then started working on a new 3-5 minute video showing the type of shows we create.

At that meeting, I gathered that their renewed interest comes largely from Cirque do Soleil’s planned permanent show in Tokyo starting in 2007.  Also, is seems that in the last couple of months, the Japanese public has been embracing other pop stars from across Asia (Hong Kong, Korea, SE Asia, etc…)  I had known about both of these, but was surprised that Adco opened the meeting with that information. They seemed very happy with the two videos I showed them and the powerpoint presentation that I have been working on, so they gave nominal support to the  project because they want their name to be associated with the circus brand.  Finally some real support!

All I had to do was revise the budget Adco would handle publicity (which was a big cost).  I’ve created a nice brochure, a bilingual powerpoint presentation, a full DVD with all promotional videos in one place, and of course, fancy new name cards, so I’m going to go celebrate.  Fuck!  The biggest advertising company in the world wants to support us in Tokyo (nominally, ok, ok, but still!)!

Tokyo remains my focus as it is essentially the key to success in greater Asia; no other country can do as much for us in terms of actual financial support.  An investment in this little show could pave the way for a larger-scale tour, and then regular tours through Japan with various projects that might open up to us.  I’m sure that circus will be hot after Cirque du Soleil opens that permanent show and our project is smaller-scale, local, and has the support of Adco.  Just one big meeting on March 6th before leaving for a couple of weeks on my first vacation in over a year!

I arranged to meet the Adco team about 15 minutes before the actual start of the meeting to see if they would be willing to hire me as a ‘circus consultant.’  Seeing as they initially told me ‘hell no,’ and now they are showing a lot of interest, I want to see if there’s any way to be on their team to hedge my bets no matter what happens… They’ve told me that their goal is to sell advertising packages to clients in Asia and that the circus market is unsaturated at this point, at least until Cirque du Soleil enters in 2008.  We’re basically sneaking in under the radar, so I’m trying to sell my ability to work internationally, my circus contacts, my understanding of the creation and managing of circus shows, and the operation of small, medium, and (now) large events.  I wonder if I can connect to Adco Taiwan through Adco Japan…

Working hard right now, but it is all going to be worth it if the tour comes through.  Until then, I eat rice.