A couple of months ago I got a text from my boss. “Next month I’m going to Helsinki to check out their annual all-female clown festival,” he said. “You’re coming too.”
Being Jacksons Lane’s Marketing Officer is a weird and wonderful job. My ultimate responsibility is to put bums on seats, which often entails tried-and-tested tricks like the right poster here or the right press release there, or occasionally something a bit more technical, like the best set of keywords to use in a Google Ad. And every now and then it requires a whistle-stop trip across the Baltic Sea.
So, why am I at Helsinki’s Red Pearl Clown Festival? I’ll break it down.
Contemporary circus has been the prominent fixture of Jacksons Lane’s stage for about 12 years, since our current Artistic Director Adrian Berry, the aforementioned boss, took over its programming. Finnish circus has been a part of our programme for the last 7 years, with about 30 Finnish shows performed over that time.
This is for two quite pragmatic reasons: first, the quality of the work is invariably excellent. Finland has a tight, well-supported and healthy circus scene which produces ambitious and highly talented artists, who themselves produce considered and engaging work. Second: the Finns have set up an Institute in London to help extend their culture to faraway lands, which means they can financially and practically support Finnish artists touring to the UK, an otherwise increasingly unreceptive environment for foreign work.
This 7-year Highgate-Helsinki link hasn’t just sprung out of nowhere – it’s come about from meetings. Lots of meetings – with artists, producers, artistic directors, venue owners, festival managers, funders, diplomats, Finnish circus officials and more.
Ade and I were supposed to have five meetings over our two-day trip; we ended up having about 40.
Everywhere we went a Finn would ambush us. We arrive at an 8am meeting about Silence Festival, the annual Lapland arts festival which we want to satellite to north London, with its producer – the irrepressibly roguish Joonas Martikainen. On the next table is Lotta Nevalainen, Head of International Development at SirkusInfo, an 8-strong organisation dedicated to promoting and developing circus (I know, right? Finland is incredible).
Lotta joins us for the chat and invites us to the SirkusInfo offices the next day. We dutifully turn up and are welcomed into a beautiful, ornate, somehow Edwardian townhouse with fireplaces in each room, desktop Macs on each desk and an entire wall making up a contemporary circus library. Lotta grabs the other Lotta, Lotta Vaulo, the Managing Director. She takes two hours out of her day to feed us biscuits and tell us about the 20-odd Finnish circus companies they support. It’s a delight.
Then we meet Kaisa Karkkonen, producer of Dance House Hurjaruuth, where the clown festival’s happening. Afterwards Ade bumps into a techy who worked on a show at Jacksons Lane three years ago. “How are you?”, he asks. “Not too well,” the techy replies, “I have been sick these past two days.” The guide book warned me that small talk in Finland is “suspect by definition, and not especially valued” – I love it.
We meet Riku, director of Cirko, an incredible circus creation and performance space built into an old power plant in the outskirts of Helsinki (I think – I never really got my bearings). The café is gorgeously chic and filled with artists, who get 50% off meals. One of these artists is the incredibly talented Hanna Moisala, Jacksons Lane’s most frequent Finn – you may have seen her in Lola or Wiredo. She lives a mile from Jacksons Lane but we’ve somehow bumped into her 1500 miles away.
Then I juggled some snowballs:
From Cirko we crossed through the Siltavuorensalmi bay area, probably quite lovely in the summer but at that point being pelted with very wet snow, to Teatteri Union, home of visual theatre company WHS. At the 2018 London International Mime Festival we presented WHS's beautiful and devastating Lahto (Departure) - imagine Peter Greenaway at his best making a show about getting dumped - to meet the director Kalle Nio, star and director of Lahto. He showed us the first 20 minutes of his new show The Green (gorgeous, funny, very green) then gave us a quick tour around the theatre. It used to be a late-night erotic film venue, but they've since had the seats reupholstered and somewhat rebranded the place; though Union does still host the annual Viva Erotica Film Festival, I got the sense its audience goes for cerebral rather than corporeal delights - pea coats rather than anoraks, etc.
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Midnight in a quiet bar on our way to our lodges, we happen across the Finnish Embassy team from London, over for a Ministry event. Last time I met them they were thrusting Salmiakki liqueur (like salty black sambuca) into my unsuspecting hands at the Embassy.
Another midnight in a louder bar with two circus artists after watching their show, we bump into Jenni from Kallo Collective, one of Finland’s most highly feted contemporary circus groups, and a motley crew of circus performers. Jenni tells me that in the ’90s it was her and a couple of others starting the new circus wave in Helsinki. Now there’s a funded 8-strong circus support organisation, a 1400sqm dedicated circus building and a very-much-thriving circus scene across Finland. And a London arts centre determined to get as many over here as possible.
And every Finn we bump into adores Ade. They treat him like a long-lost son, finally returned to his homeland – they’re small on talk but big on hugs.
Why Red Pearl Festival?
There is, unfortunately, only one annual female clown festival in the world (I haven’t Googled it but I’m pretty sure). As their press release says, “Most clowns have traditionally been male, but this festival serves as a reminder that first-class female clowns can be found in the Nordic countries and all over the world.”
First-class indeed. We saw a few shows by clowns of various stripes, from traditional red-nose lonely types to more contemporary physical comedians. There was one show in particular Ade had his eye on – The Receptionists by Kallo Collective. Two hotel receptionists stand behind a desk, filing paperwork and arranging the fruit bowl – a simple enough premise, and yet from the first five seconds you find yourself in the palm of their hands. It was devastatingly funny. So – we’re taking it to Jacksons Lane this Autumn. Watch this space.
The next night we headed to Helsinki’s dedicated circus venue Cirko to see Weibel Weibel Co.’s Breaking Point – it wasn’t part of the Red Pearl festival but, hey, when in Helsinki. The formal brilliance of the two clowns in Receptionists gave way to extreme insouciance as the solo performer, a tightrope walker, explains: “So, I guess this is a show about tension,” before asking his audience to make him a tightrope out of 30 layers of tissue paper, which he twists into a rope on which he walks and unicycles before setting it on fire on one end while boiling water from a steaming kettle at the other end, then starts playing his violin incredibly beautifully while waiting to see which end would break first. Yeah, I was tense. He even made me light the tightrope on fire before I had any time to check if I was violating any Finnish laws by doing so (see below):
Good point. How’s all this getting bums on seats?
First, and I really feel like I’m burying the lede here, but we’ve got a whole hot damn Finnish season of work this Autumn, in which we’re hoping to have eight works by Finns spread across September to November – Finns you may have seen before, Finns breaking their Jacksons Lane cherry, Finns from Helsinki, or Lapland, or London. Not just circus Finns, either, but clowning, miming, dancing, acting Finns. Going to Helsinki allowed me to suss out a lot of important info about these shows which I’d have struggled to get through endless email chains.
Second, our Finnish partnership isn’t going away: we want to keep building it. We’re obviously not the only UK venue welcoming overseas work, but the number of theatres who do so on a regular basis appears to be falling; and wouldn’t it be great if we could make ourselves a model of a financially viable, culturally enriching, eye-opening host venue of international work? To do so will need the partnership to entail more than programming shows – it would need full organisational involvement.
As a marketeer, it’s easy to take for granted the relative ease of promoting a show made in Britain, probably by someone with similar cultural referents to me and my audience. When a venue’s show/season is from, for example, Finland – not worlds away, but you know, they have 18 diphthongs, for crying out loud – it helps for the marketeer to start learning the language of the Finns in order to better translate it to a London audience – hence, more bums, more seats. Christ, no, not the actual language.
More information about our upcoming programme of Finnish work coming soon. Please sign up to our newsletter to receive Jacksons Lane's regular updates.