Women & Circus sat down with Nathalie Hébert, booking agent for Cirque le Roux, Gynoïdes, and The Ricochet Project, to talk about what it is like to be a circus arts administrator and her perspective on contemporary circus in the U.S.
Women & Circus: What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in circus arts administration?
Nathalie Hébert: You have to love to manage, organize, plan, and make budgets etc. It has to be natural and if you hate these things, then arts administration is not for you. You also have to be ready for a career that is not stable, that is similar to hustling as an artist, and you also need to be ready to work for multiple companies because a company rarely can hire you full time.
W&C: How did your life as a performer prepare you for your life as an arts administrator?
NH: As a performer I considered myself a small business and therefore already a business administrator. I had to do a lot of planning, I had to have self-discipline. I had to be constantly innovative, sell ideas and problem solve.
When you are a performer you get to a point when you don’t necessarily want to be doing it anymore, and personally, I realized that I would be more comfortable in my current role offstage. Now, I am more comfortable in administration, producing and selling shows, than I was performing in shows. Some performers don’t retire well, but I feel I have had a great retirement from performing because I was already an administrator.
W&C: What have been some of the most surprising challenges in your 2nd career?
NH: The most surprising thing to me is that I feel the world of circus hasn’t changed much or fast enough, either aesthetically or even with challenges that should have been solved with the internet. For example, I shouldn’t still be struggling to get high resolution images of the shows that I book to the media, but I still find there are problems getting good promotional material into the right hands.
Even the way we negotiate contracts feels dated to me, it’s not evolving. I ask myself why we are still having certain conversations in 2016. If you watch music and television it has evolved more than the performing arts and circus. Promoting the circus arts is not current and in many countries, not just the U.S., circus is not recognized as an art. In China there is absolutely no contemporary circus. The market for contemporary circus around the world is still very, very small. Many contemporary circus companies create works and have these ideas of a wonderful world tour, but they don’t realize how much work and change still needs to happen in order for them to have these opportunities.
W&C: What do you find the most rewarding?
NH: I like that I get asked to consult on projects. I have been asked to help with En Piste (a Canadian organization that helps develop, foster, and promote the Circus Arts) in guiding and “following” various circus artists on projects and/or challenges they are facing in their career. I give them input and there are times that it seems really helpful to them. I love that I can use my 20+ years experience to help others. I have faced so many challenges over the years: touring with CIRCA, working at la TOHU and touring with James Thiérrée, and I learned from those experiences… I know what to do when your cargo doesn’t arrive for your premier!
W&C: What can the U.S. do to evolve the presenter and touring circus landscape?
NH: Even in Quebec and Canada we are far from having an ideal touring landscape for circus. It’s a big challenge and I think we need to follow the French model that has specific networks dedicated to the contemporary circus arts. They created
these networks over 20 years ago, with residencies and presenters who understand contemporary circus and help it tour within France. Their network, called “Circus Territories”, helps presenters and audience members further understand and appreciate contemporary circus.
I actually think the U.S. audience is ready but I think the presenters are lagging behind. They are probably the biggest challenge that contemporary circus is facing. When I worked at the TOHU in Montreal, I gave lectures and really tried to work on this with American presenters, and there was interest, but for them to bring it home and present these things to their boards and investors was and continues to be difficult. They are ready for contemporary family circus, but for straight up contemporary circus, they aren’t ready.
W&C: What are the specific challenges of managing a circus show vs other types of shows?
NH: Injuries – I really feel like I was constantly managing injuries in circus. It’s hard on the artist’s bodies and we were constantly at a doctor’s office, filing paperwork, modifying the show because of an injury and convincing the theater that the show would still be good even when a performer wasn’t able to participate in the show or an act needed to be removed.
W&C: Do you have any thoughts to share about the role of women in circus art administration?
NH: It’s interesting, many jobs in cultural administration are filled by women, especially middle management jobs. What’s frustrating is that some of the more senior management positions are still occupied by men. That concerns me. We are all these little female ants following the male boss. This happens in all industries, but since there is less money in cultural work, I think there are more opportunities for women to land upper management positions. In many cases women are passionate about the work and are sometimes willing to overlook the poor salaries.
W&C: Has your gender had an impact during your career?
NH: I know for a fact that when I was an artist I was paid less money for my act than if the same act would have been performed by men. I always found men had better dressing rooms and better salaries, and as a woman I felt my performance career wasn’t as interesting. This may have changed slightly, now I feel that more and more people are being paid by how much their act is wanted, as opposed to who is performing the act.
In some instances I feel that things for female artists haven’t changed. Female artists have to be perfect and flexible and more attractive than any athlete, even her male counterparts.
When I performed my triple trapeze act in the 90’s, I remember we tried to make ourselves “more sexy” even though it absolutely wasn’t what our act was about and it didn’t reflect what we liked, but we hoped that it would provide more work opportunities. We were told “you need a sexier costume”. It was difficult to go through all the body image problems and never being satisfied with yourself and this still plagues the industry today. Which is why I think that the circus is still behind in this department. Yes you see different types of female bodies on stage but usually only in shows that aren’t mainstream.
In my administrative career, I don’t feel like gender has been as big of an issue. I feel more passionate about the work that needs to be done creating visibility and awareness around the contemporary circus industry than I do about lagging behind men in the world of cultural administration.
Nathalie Hébert is the executive director for the dance company “Le Fils D’Adrien Danse”, she was a production administrator for James Thiérrée and was the touring Director for CIRCA. She is also currently a booking agent for Gynoïdes and The Ricochet Project and Cirque le Roux.
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