Editor’s Note: We sat down with Peter Nielsen, President of Portland’s Circus Conservatory of America, and Hillary Webb, Vice President and Academic Dean. The school is set to become the first and only accredited college teaching circus arts in the United States. Currently, they offer recreational classes in Portland but are gearing up for much bigger things to come.
IM: Thank you for being here. Where are you from and how long have you been in Maine?
HW: I grew up in Massachusetts and spend a lot of my life bouncing back and forth between there and Maine. I’ve moved to a lot of different places-New York City, New Mexico, and really realized I am absolutely a New Englander at heart. I currently live in Eliot, Maine. Over the last five or six years I have been coming to Portland as much as I possibly could to do volunteer work, to spend time up here, to see shows, to get involved in the community. For me Portland really exemplifies what I’m looking for in a creative community and as a city is a warm and friendly and exciting place to be. I just love the atmosphere in Portland and I’ve always wanted to spend as much time as possible up here, and so when the work with Circus Conservatory came up I was just thrilled to be able to kind of make this my new home.
IM: How about you, Peter?
PN: I grew up just north of Boston and kept heading further north and went up to the University of Maine in Orono. I graduated with a degree in literature and pursued a lot of publishing. I started little magazines and things up there. Then I brought them down to Portland and started a publishing studio in Portland, on Congress Street, back in the late eighties. That took off into a career in publishing. I left to take a job in Cambridge, Massachusetts that I thought would last a couple years and then that moved on to Vermont. It took me a total of about 22 years to make my way back to Portland, but it had always been my intention to get back here that whole time.
IM: How did a career in publishing lead to the circus?
PN: What I was doing in publishing was working with emerging fields in academia to create new publishing programs. I became tuned into how to identify and develop emerging areas in the academic community. I was also in Vermont producing community arts festivals, concert series and pretty much everything—it’s just sort of in my nature to produce the arts. So I finally sort of found the opportunity to bring all of that together with the launch of our circus school.
IM: Why circus?
PN: While I was living [in Vermont] for twenty whatever years, my son, Noah, had a particular gift for balance. That was identified by a friend of mine who was a stilt walker, who then made Noah a pair of stilts when he was about eight years old. Noah began to stilt in parades when he was eight. Then he got a unicycle, some juggling equipment, and then he joined Circus Smirkus. He made into their Big Top Tour and for four years while he was in high school, he toured, performing in 70 shows in seven weeks each summer. [At Circus Smirkus] Noah became connected with the international community of circus performers. I saw that and I began to realize it was an emerging academic market. Noah wanted to go to circus college and together we began to explore where these colleges were. Not one was in the United States. He wanted to go to École nationale de cirque in Montreal; that’s the best. I was involved with creating for Noah—with the help of his guidance counselor—an alternative path to graduation. He was touring with Circus Smirkus for three months a year, and the rest of the time, while most kids were in class, he could study circus. He also studied cello and a few other arts, but we developed a curriculum for him to be able to pursue circus as a professional from the time he was 14.
IM: That’s incredible. Where is Noah now?
PN: He did get into École nationale de cirque…he’s a second-year student there right now. That whole sort of process led me to see that this was what I wanted to do and I came to Portland to do it.
IM: Is this still the only circus college in the States?
PN: Correct. Currently it represents the only effort in the circus community in the United States to develop a full under-graduate program and college.
IM: Who accredits this type of institution?
HW: The New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
IM: The fact that it hasn’t been done here before, I would think, would turn most people off. It seems pretty daunting. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered so far?
HW: The fact that it’s never being done before is actually one of the things that makes people so enthusiastic about it. We’ve found such great support. I think just the idea that we will have the first circus college in the United States gives a sense of nationalistic pride on one level, like, “Yeah, we’re going to have a circus college and we’re going to be competitive in that way”, and the fact of it being in Portland, as somebody who loves the city, is even better. That’s really something we’ve seen from a lot of people who we’ve talked to.
HW: It’s its really inspiring to me and Peter. Obviously one of the challenges of being the first is that nobody has done this before, at least in the context that we’re doing it. So you know, there aren’t a lot of models for us to look to for how to, you know, A equals, or goes to B, to C, to D.
IM: You’re breaking new ground here.
HW: I don’t want to say we’re making it up as we go along, because it’s not entirely true; because there are plenty of models out there that we can follow. But on the other hand, we’re doing it in a way that we feel makes the most sense both for the students that we want to bring in and for the community in which we’re doing it.
IM: Why choose Maine as a place to do this?
PN: As far as I’m concerned, honestly, I can’t think of any place that can even compete with it. Montreal is the world hub of the circus industry. It’s the home of the international headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, the home of the best circus training school in the world, École nationale de cirque, and it’s also the home of the world’s premier circus theatre space. Those three entities exist on a single campus, and they represent the biggest investment and the biggest concentration of circus anywhere in the world. It’s a six-hour drive from here.
Looking at it geographically, Maine is kind of an ideal place, since we can begin to import circus from Montreal. Some of the people that are rehearsing here for next week’s show have come in from Montreal. They’ve all worked in Montreal. And most of them have been trained in Montreal and we continue to see a steady flow between Portland and Montreal of circus people since we got this going. Another big reason why we chose Maine is because of the health of the thriving creative economy in Maine and in Portland. People in Maine generally get that that the creative economy helps build other things, and attracts people to Maine, attracts businesses to Maine and then they can build on that. So we realized that we would be stepping into a welcoming economic area. And Maine also has a great audience, because people come up here for tourism and for second homes, and for pleasure.
It’s also—and this is fundamentally a big piece of it—where circus artists would want to live. The quality of life is high and the cost of living is not so high. It’s an ideal place for artists to live. This is the right size city for this size of project.
HW: One thing I found really exciting is the number of emails we’ve gotten from circus artists around the world who actually are from Maine.
IM: I was going to ask if you’ve gotten Mainer circus types to return home.
HW: We’ve got actually quite a few people who’ve said, “I can come home now”. There are these young people who are hungry to do what they do, but they don’t have the venue to do it here. So the fact that we’re bringing Mainers back to Maine is one of the best things that’s for me has come out of this so far.
IM: What kind of students are you looking for right now?
HW: We’re looking for students who have some circus or some physical background, and who are hungry to bring their pre-existing skills to the next level. We’re really geared towards students who would like to have a liberal arts education, in addition to the physical and artistic training. Circus is not just performing. Our goal is to expand the notion of what it means to be a circus artist professional: maybe a performer, maybe an advocate, maybe a producer or many, many other things.
IM: How hard will it be for a conservatory graduate to find work?
HW: We want them to make their own job opportunities.
PN: I think a lot of people assume that, “With your degree in circus you’re going to have a hard time finding a job”. It’s not all about what ‘one’ job you’re going to have when you graduate. It’s about what kind of life you’re going to build for yourself.
HW: Exactly. And there are actually quite a few jobs in circus. Circus is more and more becoming an art form. Broadway is incorporating circus performance. Some big troupes and some small troupes are getting created all around the world. So it’s not such a stretch to think you’re going to have a career in circus arts.
IM: Switching gears now. Can you briefly describe your routine? Do you ever go to sleep?
HW: These days I’m up at 3:30 [a.m.]because of all the things I really need to get done.
PN: I would say honestly that our minds are fully engaged in this around the clock, seven days a week. We do our best to add some self-care and preservation to that, so that we’re not completely consumed by it. We both also are early risers in general and we like to get up early and work. Most of the coaches and the students come in into the late afternoon and work into the evening, whereas we’re up at the crack of dawn and getting things moving.
HW: We’ll send each other texts at 6 a.m., if not before (laughs).
PN: Yeah. You up? Question mark.
IM: It seems like you’re a good team.
HW: I’m the introvert, he’s the extrovert.
IM: Well, it’s good to have both. How do you define your roles?
HW: Mine is answering the question, “How do we become a college?”, and all the things that are involved with being a college: recruitment, applications, auditions, admissions, student services, and accreditation; obviously the big one. We try to split the five-minute tasks as much as possible so that we can move forward with everything we’re doing.
PN: My primary job is to answer the question, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”.
IM: You need to ask yourself that a lot, I’m sure. It’s helpful to do so.
HW: Good answer.
IM: How do you define success?
HW: Success for me is last Friday night, attending a high-level event where our circus performers were performing and watching these beautiful, talented people do what they love and what they do best. It’s creating a space where incredible feats of human potential can take place. During that event we had a student from our recreational program who was performing alongside elite circus performers. Knocking it out of the park and showing how far she’s come. Watching that, with tears run down my face, is success to me. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already succeeded.
PN: Ditto. I think that was so perfectly said that I hesitate to say anything further. But you know, we have to ask ourselves that question a lot: “How will we define success?“ We’re taking on something that’s kind of enormous and very complex. We have to keep ourselves in check here and say, “We’re succeeding every day, no matter what happens in the long run, because we have already let the world know that there needs to be a circus college in the United States”. Success is just trying. So we’re trying something that people have wanted to have happen in the United States for a long time. Just the fact that we stood up and said, “We’re going to do it,” that we’ve made all the progress we have, is success. We hope and fully expect there to be a lot more successes, but I think that success looks like what we’re doing right now in the other room.
HW: With all that said, I can’t wait to have our first class graduate.
IM: This is when?
HW: When they do.
IM: Last question: What’s next for the school?
PN: We are building towards our college program. We have a bill in the Maine legislature right now that will be there for a full year. That is to authorize the Circus Conservatory of America to grant baccalaureate degrees. Meanwhile we’ve built a recreational program for students of all ages to enjoy learning circus and we’re about to add to that another level of sort of pre-professional, preparatory program for our students. It won’t be credit-bearing, but it will help prepare students for professional careers in circus. We’re also hosting the American Youth Circus Organization’s bi-annual festival here in August. We’ll have several young artists from around the country come to Portland to work together to create circus acts for a week, and to perform for the community.
IM: That sounds like enough for a year.
PN: That’s enough for a year. We’re also going to do a lot of different shows because we want to enjoy the process of making circus while we make a circus school.
IM: Thank you.