Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Ben Grinberg
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we had drinks with Ben Grinberg, Artistic Director of Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, instructor at Circadium and Pig Iron, and the curator and host for Test Flights, a circus scratch night. Join our conversation about how Ben found his way into circus, the growth of contemporary circus in Philadelphia, Almanac’s 5 year anniversary celebration season, and a teaser for who you may see at this July’s Test Flights! Learn more about Hand to Hand Circus Festival, running June 28—July 1.
Also, this weekend (May 24th) check out the final performances of Communitas: Five Years Later by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
Feature Photo by Daniel Kontz
Conversation with Ben Grinberg
Katy: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer here at FringeArts…
Raina: And I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts, our new work series dedicated to local Philadelphia artists called High Pressure Fire Service, or HPFS, as we like to call it, is coming to a close. At the time this episode is coming out, we have just two shows left coming up in June: The Sincerity Project #3, in 2019, by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, which runs June 4th through the 8th, and Circuit City by Moor Mother, June 20th to the 22nd.
Katy: But today, we’re looking ahead to some of the events happening just the weekend after HPFS closes. We are presenting the second annual Hand to Hand Circus Festival, with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, and with a dynamic performance by the Circadium first-year students on the 25th, called Circadium: Springboard, and then an exciting lineup of events happening June 28th through July 1st. Today, we’re chatting with Ben Grinberg, curator and host for Hand to Hand Scratch Night, also called Test Flights, and he’s the Artistic Coordinator and Theater Instructor at Circadium, and the Artistic Director for Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. Welcome, Ben.
Ben: Thanks so much.
Raina: So, our first question, as is tradition, is what are we all drinking for Happy Hour on the Fringe? Ben?
Ben: Well, it’s 2:30 pm, so I have an iced coffee, which is delicious. Thank you.
Katy: I’m drinking tea.
Raina: And I’m having a nice glass of cold water.
Ben: That’s pretty lame, isn’t it?
Katy: We’re doing our best. Doing our best in the midst of a work day on this Friday. Happy Hour will come soon enough.
Raina: Well, we’re always happy, that’s… We’re just happy with what we’re drinking.
Katy: Ben, maybe you can start by telling our listeners, how did you get started in physical theater and in circus?
Ben: Wow, okay, sure. I was a member of the inaugural class of the Pig Iron School, which was sort of my introduction to physical theater. I had done a bunch of theater in my life previous to that, but I really had no idea that you could think about creating your own work, or think about making work that didn’t start from a script. Until Quinn Bauriedel actually came, I was in my senior year of college, and I was directing… I had a crazy idea to do a commedia dell’arte version of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for the experimental theater company, because I was like “Oh, these characters are all such archetypes!” And it was very strange, but so, in order to get some commedia training, we reached out in the larger Philadelphia theater world and Quinn came in and taught a four-hour physical theater workshop on commedia for us, and I…
My mind was completely blown. I had never been exposed to anything with levels of tension or anything like that before, so I knew, Quinn and I knew that I wanted to go to the Pig Iron School and start getting really invested in physical theater, and then at Pig Iron, one of the classes you have to take is acrobatics, which at Pig Iron, which I don’t know if you know I teach at Pig Iron, and their acrobatics is definitely about coordination, getting strong and staying fit as a performer, but it’s also about acrobatics as a metaphor for all of the kinds of risk-taking you need to do in order to open yourself up to be an available performer.
So that was sort of my introduction to acrobatics and to circus, there wasn’t a real emphasis on technical circus, the technical circus world felt like a very different thing, when I started to encounter that, which I… At that time, Pig Iron had a relationship with the physical circus arts, so I was able to go and take classes there with Nick Gillette and Lauren Harries, which were some of my classmates that founded Almanac with me, and so, yeah, we got to start taking acrobatics classes and sort of just gone from there.
Raina: I am curious. You said you first met Quinn, like, your senior year of college, was that a path change for you? Did you have a different direction you were headed in?
Ben: Oh, yeah, I was about to go do Teach for America, and I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do, graduating from school. I had a strange college experience. I went for two years and sort of burnt out completely and lived in New York for a year and tried to be an actor, and realized I could come back and graduate in a year if I switched my major from Systems Engineering to Classical Studies, so I ended up graduating with a degree in Classics, and I really had no… I always knew that I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to be a performer, but I think I went through that thing that a lot of people go through, which is society and maybe some family and other things preventing me from conceiving of that as a real, viable career path, and so I was looking for anything else that I could be happy doing until I finally… yeah, I think that workshop with Quinn was the moment I realized, “Oh, no, actually this is what I really need to do with my life, so…”
Katy: Ben, since then, you’ve built kind of an incredible career as a performer, you have your own company, Almanac, and then you teach circus too.
Ben: Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of crazy. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, because… So, tonight actually is the five-year anniversary of Almanac’s first full-length show, that we performed in Philadelphia.
Ben: [crosstalk 00:06:10]. Yeah, awesome! And yeah, so it’s been crazy with everything that’s happened in five years, and yeah, I got really interested in the overlap between dance, physical theater and circus, and that’s really where Almanac’s work exists and that’s the lens through which I teach physical theater at Circadium, and I think, also, it’s what I bring to the acrobatics teaching at Pig Iron, so… Yeah, it’s kind of funny I teach acrobatics at the theater school and theater at the circus school, and I don’t know what that means, exactly, neither… I’m not… I don’t know. I’m not quite good enough to teach circus at the circus school or theater at the theater school, they’re just… Yeah, no, it’s great. I like being able to wear all of those different hats, so…
Katy: You really have feet in both worlds, and I feel like contemporary circus is increasingly moving in that direction.
Ben: I think so, yeah, and I think that is sort of… I think you could talk to a bunch of different people and get a bunch of different opinions about what contemporary circus is, but I think when you talk about the new circus as the roots for contemporary circus, you do talk about the desire to express something other than virtuosity inside a circus, and so when you talk about that in terms of performance, I think it’s so important to look to the art forms that have already been doing that, which are theater and dance, so…
Raina: I’m curious about what that scene looks like here in Philadelphia, because when you…I mean considering the fact that you started Almanac five years ago, Circadium wasn’t actually even a school yet, at that point. They’re in their second year now of having students, and so how has that changed for you, just in the past five years, but then also, what does that look like in other areas, and how does Philadelphia compare to other areas, even worldwide?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, all of us at Circadium are super optimistic that Philadelphia is going to become a real hub for contemporary circus on a worldwide level, and I think even nationally, that is becoming the case right now, and I don’t think that that was true five years ago, six years ago. So I think that’s really exciting, the audacity to start a serious three-year professional training program has started to attract lots of different artists. There are circus artists who are moving to the city, it feels like all the time. And that’s great, because that means there’s a community that’s starting to grow and there’s a sort of criticality that can come with that, and a sort of aesthetic proposition that can come as well, with time, which is something I’m really excited about. It’s something I think Test Flights is really trying to nurture, Test Flights/this Scratch Night. What was the original question?
Raina: I’m just thinking about how it’s kind of changed over the past five years and also how Philadelphia stands within that worldwide community.
Ben: Yeah. Philadelphia’s definitely in… I think in the circus world, there’s… You know, in all the different art worlds, there are these gravitational centers and Philadelphia is sort of in the larger orbit of Montréal. I think we get a lot of contemporary circus companies that come through because they’re touring to Montréal, or that are based in Montréal, but come to Philadelphia because it’s close and Montréal really is a world capital for the art form and for contemporary circus, and we’re lucky that we’re a seven and a half hour car ride away, so it’s still accessible for us to get up there. But yeah, we’re… I think… Okay, so six years ago… I don’t know, I always think of it like actually recreational circus schools are kind of a new thing in general in the United States, like now, you can sort of say “I’m going to take an aerial class”, or “I’m going to take a silks class”, and people sort of know what that means, maybe people need a little bit of an explanation, but that’s relatively common, and I feel like ten years ago, that just wasn’t the case.
And so, yeah, there’s really been this explosion of recreational circus in the United States, and I think that was partially due to a lot of reasons I mean the success of Cirque Du Soleil, and sort of people seeing the… Yeah, this physical virtuosity in performance through that and people getting interested in it, but now all through the States, you have a lot of recreational studios that have opened, and then you have people who go through the ranks and learn all of the things they can learn at these recreational places, and then they want more, and they want to know how to turn what they’re doing, which has been a really straightforward learning of technical tricks, it’s not [inaudible 00:11:21], it’s really tough, it’s fulfilling and it’s self-actualizing and all of that, but then they want to say “Oh, what can I do with this now? It doesn’t just feel like a show that has ten different people all performing the same tricks in slightly different costumes with different music, right? How can I start to really innovate inside of this form and start to express myself with it?”
And so that’s where we are now on a cultural moment of… There are lots of people who have a lot of technical skills and want to start to become artists, and I think that’s where Circadium comes in, it’s how do we yet take people who have been training in circus, maybe their whole lives, a lot of these young people have been doing circus since they were four or five and are coming to Circadium when they’re 18 or 19, and so have incredible technical vocabularies and know how to perform in a sort of more traditional showmanship kind of way, but how do we give them the tools to be able to create work that really says something and is meaningful to them and to audiences and is sort of vital for the world? Yeah, again I feel like I didn’t really answer your question, I just went off on a different tangent!
Raina: I thought that was all great commentary.
Ben: Yeah, five years ago, Philadelphia school-
Raina: Can I just give you maybe one more question? What made you start Almanac as a dance and circus and theater group when that wasn’t as big five years ago?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, okay, so I was at the Pig Iron School, with such giants as Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard and Jess Conda, all the people who are here for High Pressure Fire Service, and a classmate of mine, Nick Gillette and I started to get really interested in acrobatics, and we started to look at… “What if we could create a language of storytelling that was acrobatic inherently?” And we got inspired by some videos that another classmate, Justin Rose, was sharing with us because he had some connections to the contemporary circus world, and we started watching some videos from some French companies, like [inaudible 00:13:37] and some 7 Fingers videos and performances we were able to see, and we also were learning about clown at this moment on our, you know, Pig Iron track, and so we were really interested in this idea.
“Okay, what if we could just play ourselves and not have any real performative character-based artifice, and what if acrobatics can become kind of like task-based choreography, and so it was really hard for us. We were very, sort of thought of ourselves as folk artists in this way, we didn’t have any real technical training, but we were like, “We can learn how to do this”, right? So it really was us self-teaching ourselves in a studio for many, many hours, sometimes biting things off, like clips we found on the internet, and sometimes just contact improvising until we found some kind of lift or something that we thought was interesting, or some kind of balance, and because we didn’t really have any technique and because these things were so new to us, I think the performance of them felt really new to an audience, and then one thing that people have always said about Almanac is that we really…
The work that we make lives in this place that just vibrates between the kind of risk that makes them really concerned for the performers and also this place where they’re like, “Okay, I get that there’s some craft and some artifice around this risk”, but definitely that thing that I think a great circus does, which is it puts you on the edge of your seat, and I think the thing that you realize which was really awesome is that you don’t have to be doing the best tricks in the world in order for audiences to be engaged in that way. Actually, if you’re approaching your own limits, and if you’re testing them, if you’re letting that be seen, that’s just as exciting or can be just as exciting for an audience as seven back-tucks off a Russian swing.
Katy: But I like what you’re saying, Ben, about circus being… I think it’s so enticing for people because on the one hand, people are doing amazing virtuosic things that an average person probably looks at and is like “Oh my God, I could never do that. I could never balance in that way, I could never juggle 20 balls at the same time.” But at the same time, they’re also, as an audience member, being like “I can see myself in those people, like what would it mean to get myself there?”, or “I do know the feeling of a fear of falling, even if it’s just down the stairs”, and so circus is kind of this fascinating balance between something that’s so out of this world and yet something that is so deeply human.
Ben: Exactly, and when I think about one of the reasons why I’m interested in continuing to make circus, I think it’s because now Cirque Du Soleil, just to, you know, hate on them for a little second, not really, it’s all based in love, but it becomes so great because their shows are so amazing, they’re so spectacle-based, but for me, there’s something that’s lost, because there’s not really a sense of intimacy.
I think the scale of the production value and some of these really elaborate costumes that sort of obscure the humanity of these people. If you see people do five back flips, they sort of seem… It’s almost like you’re watching a movie, it’s almost as if it’s a special effect, right, and you don’t really get to feel breath, you don’t get to be connected with those people in any kind of human way, often, and so I think that’s why there’s a movement now in contemporary circus, to make things that are smaller in scale and more intimate and let audience members more directly interact with performers as people.
I always tell a story because when we were first making Communitas, we heard… I think it was Totem was in town, and we just overheard someone recount the story of being outside after a show, and they were like “I want my money back! If I’m going to pay that much money for a ticket, that juggler better not drop any balls!” I mean, that’s so funny, because it’s like, “Right, how have we come to a place where we watch circus performances in Cirque Du Soleil, and we expect perfection, which is the opposite of humanity, right?”
You know, there’s nothing human about getting it exactly right every single time, and for me, and I think for a lot of contemporary circus artists, the moment where something goes wrong, the moment when you drop a ball is the most important moment, it’s the moment when you can really be let in, and I think that’s to discount any traditional circus lineages, because I think lots of really traditional circus families have such an artistry around crafting that sense of “Okay, we’re going to do something and it’s going to seem really hard for us, and we’re going to craft that experience”, and the artifice around that is really useful and traditional and has been honed over many years, but I think it’s easy, for whatever reason, for artists to forget that and to say “I need to only do the things that are technically the most challenging”, so, yeah. Just reminding audiences and maybe artists sometimes of humanity.
Katy: Yeah. Well, speaking of the artists that you’re working with, tell us a little bit about who we might see on Test Flights..
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, there have been a couple of Philadelphia-based companies that have been operating for a while, in sort of circus adjacent landscapes, and so I’m really interested in bringing their work into dialogue with contemporary circus, as it sort of comes from a more traditional circus background, so I’m really interested in creating a night where we might see a performance by Tribe of Fools, which is a parkour-based theater company, or Brian Sanders’ JUNK, alongside some artists whose work is really going in the other direction from a really strong technical circus background into interpretive expression.
And so hopefully 3AM Theater, which is a new circus company that’s based in Philadelphia that is Kyle Driggs and Andrea Murillo, will be involved in Test Flights, and also Open Ring Circus, which is an interesting new circus collective that’s based in Philly. They’re making a piece about the Hartford Circus Fire, which is super interesting, because the combination of documentary, historical theater and circus is one that I think is super challenging, and I’m really interested to see how that piece grows and progresses. And you may end up seeing something from Almanac during Scratch Night as well, so… Yeah.
Katy: I know Almanac has so many things coming up as well, you want to tell us a little bit about all that’s on your plate for that.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely, so I mentioned earlier, this is actually the five-year anniversary of our first full-length work, so we’re in the middle, now, of our run of Communitas: Five Years Later, which has sort of been a reimagining and a reinvestigation of that first piece, and that is… I think there are two more performances, May 24th and 25th at the Funicular Station, and then on Sunday, on May 26th, we actually have a pretty giant outdoor family fitness, arts and culture fitness festival, and I think it’s really like FringeArts and Almanac and everyone’s sort of humming on the same lines here, because I think the Circus Midway that will be a part of Hand to Hand…
These invitations for the public to come and try these circus things, I think are such an important part of circus programming, because it’s just like what you said, when we watch circus artists, we do put ourselves in that place, and we imagine ourselves as these people who are taking on these incredible things and we really just naturally want to try it, so FitFest is going to be really great. We’re going to have participatory workshops from Almanac and from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and juggling and wire-walking and acrobatics and also hip-hop fundamentals and the Old City Sweethearts, and dance and some martial arts forms…
Basically, anything that encourages you to creatively move your body will be there, and anyone can come, all ages, and it’s free, and then in the evening, we’re going to have some performances onstage overlooking the Delaware River in Penn Treaty Park, so we’ll have a special encore performance of Communitas: Five Years Later, and some performances from Circadium and other circus artists as well, and a few dance companies, so it’s going to be great.
And then, in June, we’re remounting the newest version of Almanac’s ensemble-devised solo show, featuring Nicole Burgio, which is called XOXO Moongirl, and it’s one of my favorite pieces we’ve ever made. It’s just Nicole and live music by Mel Hsu, and is a circus theater examination and processing of Nicole’s history of growing up in a house with domestic violence and physical abuse, and so… Yeah, there’s like a proposition for circus aerials, handstands and dance to be really used in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever used it before in my work, or I’ve seen often inside of that show, so I’m really excited to remount that, and then we’re taking it to Edinburgh in August, so I’ve got to hope that goes well.
Raina: Because you guys were in Mexico too, right?
Ben:Yeah, yeah, actually, yes, so XOXO Moongirl, Nicole was so mad at me when I told her that I told the producers that she would be performing the whole show in Spanish, but she learned the whole show in Spanish and we performed it in Mexico City, and also created an ensemble-devised work with emerging professional circus artists in Mexico as well, while we were there, so, yeah. Hopefully we’ll be going back again in the next Winter, so…
Raina: This is a little bit of just a divergent question. This idea of also speaking in circus theater, because I feel like so much of circus is that your body tells the story, and so I’m really curious, like, what… Is this one of the first pieces where, you know, also it’s like a solo show, so, like, what’s that process like building in text and language around the work?
Ben: Yeah, well, for Almanac, our first show, Communitas, didn’t have words in it, and then we started using words pretty much right after that, and I think that is something that’s really interesting, because so much contemporary circus doesn’t use any words, but some does, and… Yeah, so why do we do that? I think… Sometimes I see some contemporary circus shows and it feels like the artists have a really deep relationship with the subject matter that they’re trying to address, or they are addressing through their work, and it just doesn’t come across clearly to an audience because somehow the language isn’t as specific as verbal language can be, and so I think if you want to make work that’s really personal, it’s really about complex ideas that aren’t embodied and don’t start from a somatic place, and I don’t understand why you wouldn’t use words, actually.
I feel like, lots of times, not using words makes things feel distant and feel unclear, and if you feel really strongly about what you have to say, you should say it, and I think that circus is a really great way to express a lot of things, and sometimes it’s just not the best way. So, for example, in XOXO Moongirl, one thing Nicole says is “Last year, my dad hit my mom”, you know, and I think you could see a theatrical dramatization of that, but it’s not the same thing as being able to understand how Nicole feels about that by hearing her relate that to an audience, and so after that detail was clear, the movement that comes afterwards can be grounded and contextualized in a way that makes it reach an audience more, I think, than if that was never there in the first place.
Raina: Yeah. And I think it’s very much an ongoing thing that we have just within the contemporary art sphere, you know, not every artist wants to explain their work in the same way and so a lot of times, and people want the art to speak for itself, but it doesn’t always translate the same way, and sometimes having that language jump can help people get there much easier, or just possibly like more effectively, depending on what it is you’re trying to convey.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely, I think so. I mean, yeah, I think some contemporary dance suffers from this thing, which is that it’s quite academic and quite hard to understand for an uneducated viewer, and so I think one thing about circus is that it’s sort of always been a popular art form, and I think that it should stay that way. I think it should be the sort of thing that anyone can kind of come in and understand, so…
Katy: And contemporary circus rides this line between having a narrative, which sometimes can be a really easy way in for people, but also in terms of traditional American circus, it’s often a display of physical feats, which doesn’t always have a narrative. So I think contemporary circus is pulling from many different genres to create something that is interdisciplinary and has many different ways that an audience member could engage with it, which is cool.
Ben: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s one reason why, when we do Test Flights at Circadium, it is an interdisciplinary works in progress show, so we have dance, theater, spoken word, music and circus all together, because it’s so true. All of us need to see each other’s work, we need to be inspired by each other.
Katy: Yeah, and likewise, why we include circus in our programming at the Fringe, so it’s all very good. And what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations, Ben? We ask everybody on the podcast this question.
Ben: Oh, my goodness… Yeah, I was prepared for this and I still don’t really have great answers. Okay, so lowbrow inspiration, I think I can answer because I’ve been a little bit obsessed recently with shitposting.
Katy: So for our listeners, explain what that is.
Ben: So, shitposting is basically, like, innocuous sort of trolling of people on social media, like it is trolling, but it’s not like white nationalist trolling, or anything like that, it’s like…
Ben: Yeah. I mean, I’m in a group called “Fishtown Shitposting,” and it really is just a place where people can come and make mostly absurdist comments about this other Facebook group (I’m a Fishtown resident) which is called “Fishtown is Awesome, Old, New, Everyone,” and so, you know, where is the steam valve for society when we all have to behave decorously on these neighborhood Facebook groups, and someone’s like “Oh, somebody bumped into my bumper and I’m calling 911”, or whatever, you know, you can go and you can sort of let off the steam by making shitposts. And, yeah, so I’m really… I think shitposting is awesome, and I really am interested in what live-action shitposting would be, and how that could translate to performance, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time in some shitposting spheres.
And then in terms of highbrow, I really love the contemporary circus company Finzi Pasca Company. I’ve seen a handful of their works and the way that they integrate spectacle, storytelling and heart into everything and make it sort of really inspiring. They made a show called Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, which was sort of Daniele Finzi Pasca’s relationship to this, to Chekhov and all of the themes that are in Chekhov’s work, exploded into contemporary circus, and it was really a moving piece, and, yeah, I don’t know… We just performed at a benefit with the PA ballet, and now I definitely want to go and take ballet classes, so I don’t know what that’s about, but that’s another highbrow inspiration right now.
Katy: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.
Ben: Yeah, thank you so much, it was super fun.
Raina: So, we will be having Ben Grinberg back here on July 1st, so Monday at 7 pm, and we’ll be hosting Test Flights, and we’re excited to see what that lineup of artists will be.
Katy: Yeah, and in the meantime, check out the rest of our Hand-to-Hand Circus programming, join us for our midway the Sunday before on June 30th and performances by a number of other companies. In the meantime, make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and to download the FringeArts App.