ANTOINE CARABINIER LÉPINE: I am Antoine Carabinier Lépine. I’m one of the co-founders of Cirque Alfonse and we are presenting “Barbu” at the Skirball Center.
CECIL MACKINNON: And I’m Cecil MacKinnon. I teach at Undergraduate Drama, Tisch, ETW and I am the theatre director of Circus Flora which is based out of St. Louis. So I would like to, if it’s alright with you, start with how you began. Did you go to circus school?
AC: Yeah, I went to the National Circus School in Montreal.
CM: So, just footnote, Canada has two wonderful circus schools with state funding that have trained and changed circus in the world.
AC: I started circus when I was around 14 and I went later to the National Circus School. I was lucky enough when…
CM: How old were you when you went to the…
CM: Oh wow, you went young.
AC: Yeah I was lucky. My parents bring me to the classes, like easier classes ,and they saw that I could do something circus. And they always supported us, me and my sister, as well and I ended up in the circus school when I was 15. I did three years there and after that I went with Cirque Éloize for…
CM: So you were with Éloize. Éloize is one of the shows that basically have emerged in Quebec, I would say, and which is now very established.
AC: Yeah they’re quite big, yeah, and after four years…
CM: And what was your specialty?
AC: Back then, I finished school with German wheel and teeterboard.
CM: German wheel, that’s a big wheel that you get inside and move around.
AC: I did German wheel maybe for two years with Éloize and a new apprentice arrived with Daniel Cyr. I started to learn with him the Cyr wheel, so I quit doing German wheel and just did Cyr wheel after. And after four years with Éloize, I moved into Sweden to work with the Cirkus Cirkör.
CM: They were just here doing said “Satyagraha.”
AC: Yeah, I did two years with them and after that…
CM: So you were with Éloize for four years and you went to Sweden for two years.
AC: And then at the end of the contract with Cirkus Cirkör, that’s when we decided to do a new show for a gift for my dad.
CM: A gift for your dad?
AC: Yeah, so as my dad was turning 60 years old, and with my sister, we decided, “why not make a show for him?” Because he always wanted to be on stage and never get a chance.
CM: But he wasn’t an acrobatist.
AC: No he wasn’t an acrobat at all. So we decided to put a show together. My sister was more dancer. And with some friends musicians, we put a small show together that we presented in Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez, our hometown.
CM: Just say it again, what your town is. Cause it’s important to the whole show where this town is.
AC: Our town is like an hour and a half from Montreal up north.
CM: I imagine it as north of Montreal.
AC: Yes, north of Montreal. Yeah it’s really in the wood. It’s a small town about like 2,500 people. And my parents live, really in the woods. The nearest neighbors are one kilometre and we said to my dad, “Yeah for your present for your 60th birthday, we’re gonna put a show together.” So that’s how Cirque Alfonse started. So we did that little creation…
CM: So you did that little show right there, so outside?
AC: In a big top. Yeah, we rented a big top and we presented the village baseball field.
CM: And the other people in it were relatives and friends?
AC: Friends, my sister, my girlfriend back in the day, not anymore. But so we were like two acrobat, one dancer, my dad, and four musician.
CM: Oh wow.
AC: It was a small show but really like easygoing.
CM: And did it have a relationship to the aesthetic that I see you having with being north of Montreal?
AC: Yeah, yeah it was already like traditional music from Quebec. Like a feeling of like what was back in the day in Quebec. Like in the house when they were doing party…
CM: It felt the way it was when you grew up?
AC: Yeah, sure and then we did that two summer but we had other contracts.
CM: And you were still working for…
AC: Yeah during that period I was working with, I was going to Switzerland to work with Cirque Knie.
AC: Yeah with me, with my sister. We managed to bring my sister with me on that contract and that’s where she met her husband now. We did Cirque Knie. We signed for two years but we just end up doing eight months and they cut the show. So we end up in Berlin and don’t know what to do and I end up in Cabaret Chamäleon in Berlin for one year. And it was like, “Okay we have a space like you’re free to do whatever you want.”
CM: And time to practice.
AC: So it was very nice and after that we receive a call from the Seven Fingers, me and my brother-in-law, to do “Traces.” So we were the second guests of “Traces.” So we performed traces for two years and we also did “Traces” here to replace…
CM: So Seven Fingers is another quite well established company that’s in Montreal actually. It was seven people who started. Two of whom were Americans from San Francisco who were in the Pickle Family which I started. Yeah Gypsy and Shaina. I didn’t know you… I didn’t focus that you were in that. So you were doing that and then?
AC: And then after that we’re kind of… not tired of traveling and everything, but just we wanted to do our own thing, me and my sister and we decided to bring…
CM: Now her husband too?
AC: Yeah her husband too. So we decided to bring back Cirque Alfonse. We haven’t done anything for four years.
CM: Is your father’s name? Alfonse?
AC: No. It’s named after Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez our hometown.
CM: Oh from the town.
AC: Yeah, right. No, my dad is called Alain, so it’s different. But yeah so we went back to Quebec and we decided to take three months off of everything. We didn’t accept any contracts and that’s when we created “Timber” which was the show that bring us on tour.
CM: That’s the one I saw in Montreal.
AC: No, you saw “Barbu.”
CM: I saw “Barbu.”
AC: No, “Timber” was about lumberjack in the camp back in the day.
CM: I guess that’s what I’ve seen on tape then, cause I’ve seen that show.
AC: Yeah probably. Juggling axes and wood. My dad was in that show as well.
CM: So he’s had his dreams come true.
AC: Yeah, big time. He didn’t expect that and we didn’t expect either. Cause when we created “Timber,” it was maybe to tour in Quebec. I mean Cirque Alfonse was meaning to tour Quebec. in the small places that we don’t go normally with Seven Fingers or Éloize, cause it’s too big. But at the end we presented “Timber” in the festival MCC and…
CM: There’s a circus festival every summer, early July, in Montreal which is a wonderful place to go.
AC: We presented it there. It was a huge success and people came to us and they were like, “Okay let’s tour it.” We were like, “Yeah okay.” But like we thought we would tour in Quebec, easygoing, everything. The first thing, like one agent arrived and “I have an offer in Hong Kong” and my dad is like, “What the hell? Are we going to go to Hong Kong?” So we didn’t accept it because it was too early in the stage but after like six months of preparation and everything we started to go abroad.
CM: Where’d you go first?
AC: First… Where did we go first? France! Yeah, France was our first tour.
CM: Yeah, that would make sense.
AC: Yeah and we ended up touring that show for six years all over the world like 15 countries. Yeah, so we didn’t expect that at all.
CM: And at that point, how many of you were there?
AC: We were eight on stage: my sister, my brother-in-law, me, my ex-girlfriend that we started this circus but she was still…yeah my father, and three musicians. And those three musicians… There’s two who are still with us on stage since the beginning of that period. And after five years of “Timber” we decided—no, after three years of “Timber,” we were in London performing at the South Bank Centre. We went to see a show in a Spiegeltent and we were like, “Oh that’s something else like cabaret style and really fun, like, we can do that as well.” You know like we don’t have that much of that style in Quebec and so we decided to create “Barbu.”
CM: So a Spiegeltent is a semi-permanent tent of which there are now quite a few around the world. At first there weren’t so many and they have… It’s very much a cabaret style. There’s mirrors and there’s booths and tables and usually red velvet.
AC: Yeah it’s really typical for cabaret, but it’s really nice. So we started “Barbu.” We presented it in Montreal first in the same festival. It worked really well and then we had like three months and a half contract in London, so that was a big thing on the South Bank.
CM: And that was because you had such a success before probably.
AC: Probably, yeah. I think because of “Timber” people… yeah. And we did it at Edinburgh as well, so that opened doors.
CM: And you were at Edinburgh this past summer.
AC: Yeah, with the new show. So yeah after that we toured “Barbu,” a lot with “Timber,” like both so because it’s all the same artists. There’s two artists that are different, but it’s almost the same people. After that, we said, “Okay, let’s stop ‘Timber'” cause after six years everybody was a bit tired. And my dad said, “I want to do it but like at 70 I’ll stop” but at 70…
CM: He’s still going.
AC: Yeah, he’s not ready to stop for real, but we said, “Yeah, for us it’s not… Yeah it’s too much.” So after six year we decided, “okay it’s done.” So now my parents are coming on tour normally, but they take care of the children. And my dad is selling the merch; he’s still part of the…
CM: Of course.
AC: Yeah and he built the band that we have in the new show. He’s always involved and my mum still doing the paperwork.
CM: So you’ve always done it financially in-house, basically with your family.
AC: Yeah, we don’t have an office, or now we have one person who’s taking care of the advance for the touring…
CM: Like a booker.
AC: Yeah, yeah but we don’t have any offices or… just at my parents’ place and when we do meetings, it’s there. But it’s nice we try to keep it really simple and close. We don’t want to, you know… Like now there’s so many companies who try just to put more shows and like… yeah to be a bit like Cirque du Soleil. Or not like, but to go big. We try to keep it us, cause it’s easier to manage. And we don’t have to have the trouble to look after other artists, or just being there for… It’s not really what we wanna do. And we want to be on stage, as well, we don’t want to just be manager.
CM: So that takes me to, sort of towards, so aesthetically, I mean when one comes to your show, especially when I first saw it, it’s very different than other things in Montreal, coming out of the schools there, which have a certain thing to them. Your show is very different and I imagine that was very conscious on your part.
AC: Yeah, of course. I mean we really wanted to have our own colour. And by working with so many different companies like Cirque du Soleil, Éloize, Seven Fingers, like, we’ve done it kind of. And we start to be older, as well, so that’s another point. Before I was a flyer, now I’m more base. When we started “Timber” we let grow our beard and and it became kind of our brand.
CM: Signature look.
AC: And because of that, I think we’re kind of roots. And you know like back in the day in the school, it was a bit less about like pointing your feet and it was a bit more rough. We wanted that more. We did slick with Cirque du Soleil, all perfect, but we felt that like also need to be more real and more close to the audience. So we let go the makeup; we let go everything…
CM: So just walk me along: when you first started, like when you’re doing it with your father, I can see you wouldn’t have makeup. But when you start going back into Montreal, was there a conscious… I mean what was the discussion?
AC: We work with Alain Francoeur. He’s our director, since the beginning. He was my first director when I went with Éloize. And he was a good friend. When we started to talk with my sister, him, me, and my parents, we knew that we are from the villages, we are from the wood, we are from roots. And I think it was the way to go for us and we wanted to keep that alive.
CM: He’s not from that?
AC: No, he’s more from dance. Yeah, he’s more from dance but he knew us since I was 17, when I started with him. So, like, when I was in circus school, I was always singing songs from Quebec. And, you know, I always loved that, and my sister as well. And when we’re from the region we are from, the traditional music is still really alive. It’s like a region, it’s not just for Christmas or for… it’s all year long. And even the teenagers are doing music like that.
CM: Even now?
AC: Even now, so it’s not common. Even in Quebec, people are like, “You’re playing traditional music.” Normally it’s just for Christmas.
CM: And do people still grow up playing?
AC: Yeah, yeah. That’s really nice.
CM: That’s great.
AC: Yeah, that’s great. So, yeah, I think it was kind of normal to do circus like that.
CM: So it didn’t seem like a rebellion or…?
AC: No, it was not against like the beautiful circus and slick. It was not against it. It was just another way to do it.
CM: That felt truer to you; well, it was your family.
AC: Yeah, exactly. It was normal.
CM: And were there friends of yours in the town who also went to circus school?
AC: Not from my town, but the musicians who are with us are from our region.
CM: And how did you know them?
AC: My brother-in-law and JP, who’s in Barbu now, we were in circus school together 20 years ago.
CM: But you met your brother-in-law in Knie.
AC: In the circus school.
CM: Oh, in circus school.
AC: I knew him and he was coming on the same contract.
CM: I see, so he met your sister because she was on that contract. So you three have known each other for a very long time.
AC: Yeah. And JP who’s with us as well since 20 years so…
CM: Yeah, cause that feels very unique about your group.
AC: Yeah, the connection.
CM: Family’s the wrong word, but long-term knowledge of each other.
AC: And like doing circus for 20 years together you know so much, every aspect of the other person. You know I was gonna react if something happen and we know like how to do it with each other.
CM: And have you dealt with injuries before? Have you been all right? I’m sure you’ve dealt with injuries but…
AC: Yeah I’m injured at the moment ,so yeah ,but I haven’t got huge injuries, quite lucky. But, yeah, you need to deal with it. It’s always difficult in circus and for a small circus company…
CM: That’s what I was going to say: it’s even more difficult.
AC: It’s so difficult cause everybody’s like, “Yeah but do you have a replacement?” But no, cause we don’t have the money to pay somebody on tour just to be… And who’s gonna get injured, you know? If it’s my sister… if it’s me, it’s different. So we just hope that a friend or somebody that we know is gonna be able to come and jump in. Sometimes we bring people from Australia just like the next day and they do the show. They don’t know the show but like we know that one is gonna be able to do it. What’s nice also it’s like circus: it’s such a small community and everybody knows everybody so you know who could do it approximately. You know it’s something that you learn. We have so many friends all over the world so…
CM: There’s been more and more… I mean really because of the schools in Montreal and Quebec, there have been more and more touring circuses than there was.
AC: Quebec it’s a big circus community that goes on tour a lot, because there’s not so much opportunity in Quebec to tour. After the maybe ten cities that can receive you there’s nowhere else to go. In Canada, we don’t tour so much.
CM:Oh really? Not the rest of Canada? They’re not interested?
AC: We tour but maybe like ten cities across Canada, cause there’s not so many people. Arts is a bit less outside of Quebec. I don’t know why.
CM: Isn’t it the Quebec Ministry of Culture that started all this by investing in…?
AC: Yeah, I don’t know we have a lot of culture in Quebec like music, dance, everything.
CM: It’s a totally different situation than the United States.
AC: And circus is blowing…
CM: And dancers get state subsidies.
AC: It’s great for us.
CM: It’s wonderful. Going up there’s like “Oh wow.” And what it’s done for Montreal: the restaurants, the hotels, the economy of Montreal, because of the culture. Enough said.
AC: We’re really happy about it. I mean Montreal… I’m still living in Montreal and I’m really glad, because after all the cities I’ve visited, it’s still the place where I like to be.
CM: Very livable city too. I was like, when you, I guess when you first… you first started was putting together show but then when you put together a show how do you begin? Do you begin with someone’s idea or do you just talk?
AC: Yeah, “Timber” was an idea that we had for quite a long time. I think because we worked in the wood and it was like something easy to transform with the axes, with the saw. The way we were… with the beard, I don’t know. For “Barbu,” it was from London. We saw that and we had an idea and after we talked with the director, with my sister. And we just took like a year to put together.
CM: So it was the director and…
AC: Me and my sister, we are kind of the artistic director, you can say. It’s like if we were three artistic directors. But at the end, because we’re on stage, we want somebody who can cut and have an outside eye.
CM: So then you start with what you’re talking about and then you have some time, I assume, somewhere.
AC: Normally we take three months to do a show. It’s a timing that we feel that it’s long enough to learn new stuff and not too long.
CM: And you’re not necessarily bringing new people in for this idea.
AC: Normally we try to keep our group tight for sure sometimes. It happened that people want to go for something else or we want to have somebody that is different, so yeah we have different. But the center is still my sister, my brother-in-law, me, and the musicians, and now my girlfriend, and the director and my parents. It’s like the main… But like the sound and the light are the same people since the beginning. And it is the same artistic team.
CM: So does that make it really difficult for someone to enter it?
CM: I think that would be very intimidating.
AC: Yeah, it’s really difficult because we are so tied together and…
CM: There must be shorthand. You know each other.
AC: And, you know, like, we receive a lot of applications to work with us, but we’re like, “Oh we keep in mind.” But you need to be really close to us to enter the company and we don’t, we don’t do auditions. We don’t do that kind of stuff, because we don’t want to. We want to keep it…
CM: But if a kid was growing up right now in your town coming along…
AC: But we have three kids now on tour so we see. Actually he’s seven now, the boy from my sister. She have two boys. He’s on tour with us since he’s five weeks old and he’s been on stage as well. So I don’t know what he’s gonna do.
CM: Yeah, it’s up to him.
AC: My brother-in-law has a cousin that just entered a circus cool now, so we see like if something happens. We try to…
CM: Grow your own artists. So do you take time off? At this point, this supports all of you right?
CM: The touring…
AC: Since the second year of “Timber,” we’ve been touring just Alfonse.
CM: And you haven’t taken outside contacts?
AC: No. I mean sometimes. Little, one shot deal. Stuff like that.
CM: And then you go back home when you have time off?
AC: Yeah, or on vacation.
CM: But you’re basically still based there in the town.
AC: Yeah, I mean my parents are still in the town. My sister just bought a house like five, six years ago right next to the town, another one of those small villages. Me, I’m based in Montreal. I prefer… I grew up in the woods, so I like cities now.
CM: Well, it’s almost a fairytale, the development of your company.
AC: Yeah, I mean sometimes, I’m like, “We’re so lucky.”
CM: It’s what dreams are.
AC: Even my parents are following and, you know, it’s a big family. Even the other who are not in the family, I think they feel it that it’s something special.
CM: And there’s no other siblings? It’s just you and your sister?
AC: Yeah. All of the family is together. Sometimes it’s difficult as well.
CM: I would think. I mean any company’s difficult, much less your family.
AC: For sure. But at the end I think there’s so many great times on tours. Like touring the world with your family…
CM: It’s wonderful. Do you usually play like here? You’re here two nights. Do you play longer than that usually?
AC: It depends. With “Timber” and with “Tabarnak,” our new show, it’s more in the normal theater like front stage theater…
CM: Oh, we call it a proscenium.
AC: A proscenium. Sometimes we do longer run but it’s in between one and five.
CM: Yeah, cause that means it’s a bigger theater.
AC: Yes. big venue, but we perform like one month in London the Queen Elizabeth Hall which is like 900 seats. It was great but with “Barbu” we perform longer cause we do more festivals. And Spiegeltents so it’s a bit less capacity.
CM: I remember it as is in a pretty tight.
AC: Yeah, but you can fit like five, six hundred people.
CM: Yeah, the people. But the performance space is tight.
AC: Oh yeah, really tiny. But, yeah, we do like phrases where we go in Australia just after and we’re gonna do five weeks run in the same place.
CM: That’s where you’re going from here?
AC: No. We go to Mexico after here, then London, then Australia. But normally in normal theater we performed two, three nights.
CM: And how much equipment do you carry?
AC: A container, kind of.
CM: You mean a big container?
AC: I think it’s half a container, but still… We have a cargo so we have one set in Europe, one set here and we’re juggling with that.
CM: And your mother manages… Somebody must help manage all this.
AC: Yeah, it’s a bit crazy.
CM: Because that’s a lot to maneuver around.
AC: That’s a lot to take care of. It’s complicated with the ATA Carnet…
CM: And the visas and the government checking everything out.
AC: We went to Australia with “Timber” which is woody. And Australia don’t accept wood.
CM: The show is called “Timber.”
AC: Exactly. So they did all our set there just for…
CM: They built it there?
AC: They built it there for us. So we needed to take photos and measurement. And you need to find a wood, but like we didn’t know if it’d be the same density.
CM: It wouldn’t be the same wood.
AC: Yeah it was quite something when we arrived there and to just fix it all up.
CM: And was the wood very different?
AC: Yeah. For example, like, we had an act of a tree log, tree big log that we’re doing hand-to-hand on it. It was like big but not so big, but damn it was huge. We couldn’t like roll it. It was too heavy and we were like, “Are we gonna do that?” And we were throwing logs like that and it was quite different but fun at the same time.
CM: That’s amazing. I suppose wood contains things that they don’t want coming in the country.
AC: Yeah, exactly, Ithink its for insects and stuff like that. But Australia’s complicated for that.
CM: So you keep one set just in Europe?
AC: Yeah, mainly.
CM: And one in North America?
AC: Yeah, you know, like, now we’re going to Mexico with the Quebec set. But we need to go after to Australia, so we send the set from Europe in Australia. So it’s a mix match.
CM: And it has to travel on it’s own without a chaperon. Scary. But so it’s your mother who’s handling all this?
AC: For that, for the traveling of the cargo and all that we have somebody, but like it’s just doing that as a… He has a proper job and he’s taking that for us cause it’s too complicated. Paperwork it’s just…
CM: Well, it’s amazing how much touring is now going on with groups like yours and bigger groups. And sort of the United States is not aware of this in some ways. They think here that circus is dead. They have no idea what’s going on.
AC: It’s true. In the US, there’s not so much circus happening– I mean there’s some.
CM: There’s not much.
AC: But touring like small company like us? Not much. And it feels like the circus in the US want to be big or it’s really underground. But we tour with “Timber” in the US. We try to tour but it’s quite difficult.
CM: I mean it also seems to me that you’re very much not American. I mean your show is not American. You, yourselves, are very different.
AC: Lumberjack could be almost American.
CM: Certainly, it could. But America needs to get interested in the fact there’s another…
AC: And we’re not so much about like, “Wow,” you know, and big glitter, which US is a bit like that.
CM: Well, it’s starting to change, but it has been. Circus is definitely connected and then it’s also a negative word. We keep calling Congress a circus as though it didn’t take, you know, 90 people to make a queue and make something… Anyway… Yeah, no, I mean your whole way of going about your show is very different than things you see America. It should get… It would be great to have…
AC: We would love to tour more…
CM: And there’s plenty of cities…
CM: It’s interesting that America is so isolated about this…
AC: Yeah I don’t know why…
CM: Cause Europe…
AC: And there’s no big circus school in US.
CM: Nothing. People keep trying, but no. No, all the people from St. Louis, we send them up to Montreal, the kids we train. Go to Montreal. We feel really fortunate that they can go to Montreal. It has saved the life of quite a few people. It’s great. But there’s nothing here. There are circus schools but not…
AC: But not something like the government really supports.
CM: Not with academics. There’s one starting in Philadelphia but–I don’t want to offend, but there’s nothing like what you have in Canada.
AC: Yeah we’re lucky.
CM: Well a lot of it is the government funding at least, even if it doesn’t fund the whole thing, it seeds, sends it forth as a legitimate thing…