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Raven in Changing Times

Anke van Engelshoven, Lena Ries, and Romy Seibt – together they are still hungry, one of the few all-female read collectives for contemporary circus in Germany. A fact of which the three artists and mothers are aware and which, among other societal ills, they address with a critical eye in Raven, a creation they developed in collaboration with the Chamäleon in 2019. They tap into powerful imagery, a good helping of humour and a mix of genre-bending devices. The result is a feminist piece that is always evolving – moving with the times, touching, and giving courage. Courage to talk about topics such as the compatibility of motherhood with artistic work and also to free the negatively connoted concept of the “Rabenmutter” (“bad mother”) from its socially constructed patterns and to reinterpret it.

Today, they are on the road internationally with their creation. At the outset of their upcoming Canadian tour, we take a brief moment to look ahead to what is to come and what has been.

Raven by still hungry

It’s great that you found the time – despite the current hustle and bustle around you! How are you feeling so close to your Canadian tour? How do you feel about the whole thing – is there still a sense of excitement or are you so used to it by now that it feels more like a ‘holiday’?

Romy: Holiday? No, no! (laughs)
It’s all still very exciting for us and we’re really looking forward to going. The Canadian tour was postponed for two years due to the pandemic, so it’s a really nice feeling to finally be on the road – we’re also going to Paris next week! After that, we’ll come back again briefly and then fly to Canada. It’s all quite exciting for us – also or especially because we haven’t done anything like this before. Most of the time we travelled to one place and performed there. And now we have ten places to go!

Wow! Ten places! And all in just one month, right?

Anke: Ten locations in five weeks, spread over 17 performances. And all across the country; there are some really large distances to cover from one location to the other. Sometimes we have to take flights, so the excitement is more logistical: “I hope our luggage arrives! These are the kinds of things where sooner or later you realise you no longer have control over whether everything goes well. Hopefully everything will really work out!

Let’s assume the best for now; in any case, our fingers are crossed! Is there anything you are really looking forward to or, alternatively, is there something you are absolutely not looking forward to? 

Lena: Well, I think traveling – as beautiful as it may be – is always a bit exhausting. We’re even traveling between different time zones this time, have to drive a lot, fly a lot and set up and tear down. It’s not without its stresses and strains, but I think the joy outweighs the strain. We’re a good, well-coordinated team – we’re not worried that we won’t succeed. But of course, it is always exhausting.

It’s great when the joy still wins out in the end, despite all the stress!

Anke: Yes, it would be a shame if it didn’t (laughs).

Well, you have waited long enough for it to finally start. Your intention with Raven was also to reinterpret the term “Rabenmutter”, which has a very negative connotation in Germany. When you look back at the last few years: Would you say you have succeeded and have you perhaps even noticed changes in the audience’s reactions?

Romy: Yes, I think so. Above all, my own understanding has changed – in relation to the question of how to reconcile being an artist and being a mother. Our confidence, or self-confidence, has grown.

And the reactions we get from the audience are a total vindication. Not only from mothers, but from all kinds of people – men, artists, everyone (laughs)! It’s great. I think the same is true when you take a look at the newspapers and see the kinds of interviews and articles published now. The topic is becoming more and more central: women on stage. And by the way, the newly founded Bühnenmütter e.V. also contributes to this. A lot is happening in society right now and slowly the perspective on these issues is changing. But of course, there is still a lot to do: the ubiquitous gender gap in terms of pay and other such problems. Because if we take a closer look, not much has changed in the theatre sector yet. But at least processes are underway, and that’s something.

Lena: I can think of one more concrete example of change: We were in Newfoundland in September and October 2022. Our piece includes a scene in which Anke gets a phone call from her agent in which she makes an absolutely impossible job offer. This actually sparked a discussion afterwards – the next day at breakfast, the agents from Cirque du Soleil and others sat together and discussed how job descriptions could be worded differently in the future. That in itself was a small success – to see that we are provoking thought even at the professional level. How are women viewed in circus? There are also more and more pieces and collectives by women now. A positive development.

Romy, you once said that sometimes one should simply celebrate the term and also being a “Rabenmutter” – in the spirit of: “I’m not ‘just’ a mother, but also am surrounded by things that excite me.” Would you say you’ve internalised this attitude more by now, and maybe even live it properly?  

Romy: Yes (laughs)! I do feel that the perception of myself and my understanding of myself have improved. The part of us that can celebrate it and carry it around with confidence exists too. But the question remains: How does one balance it all – being a partner, an artist and a mother? This conflict will probably always be a part of us in some way. Although we can now deal with it much more openly, it is still present. I also feel that this will not change much. We are increasingly accepting of feeling torn, of the inner conflict of not being able to be in two places at the same time. Little by little, a certain degree of serenity emerges. Of course, one should also note that our children are growing up and becoming more independent, which also changes a lot.

What was your experience of the pandemic period and the time off from the performing? Was there a regression in terms of the traditional gender roles? Or did this not really affect you?

Anke: At first, the change was quite intense: We were at home again, cooking, home-schooling and actually playing all kinds of roles at the same time. At first, it was a real step backward. But then it loosened up a bit – also because there was a lot of discussion about the pandemic fuelling a return to traditional gender roles. The visibility alone raised awareness.

The next step was to shift the focus of our work: Because we suddenly became much more involved with funding, applications, reports, and bureaucracy in general, our focus shifted to desk work. And from there, fortunately, we went back to rehearsing, which – thanks to all the support – we were allowed to continue.

How did your children perceive the time; do you talk to them about the challenge of juggling everything?

still hungry: (as one) Yes.

Lena: Even though we developed this piece together, all three of us are in different situations – at home too. What we all have in common, however, is that we don’t lead regular, orderly lives like other families might. Sometimes we are not at home for long periods of time. These are all things that our children experience first-hand.

Right at the beginning, we talked about exactly those circumstances and explained our piece. We noticed that they had a completely different, childlike, naïve, and open view of our work. For them, for example, certain elements of our piece were funnier than for adults.

Your children are even part of the piece through images. What goes through your mind in that scene?

Anke: I’m always very touched to see them in that moment. And it reminds me of when we were making the piece, because of course they were much smaller and younger then. There’s something nostalgic about it and it’s a really lovely moment. It’s like you’re actually on stage with us. It’s so intimate and one just feels very connected. I also think it’s amazing for them to see how we fight for our job or our passion and what it means to go through ups and downs. I think it’s a great model for the kids.

And why did you decide to integrate your children in the piece? 

Lena: I think it makes the subject more accessible, even more real. At the very latest in this moment, it becomes clear that the audience is seeing reality on stage and that it is an autobiographical piece. It’s like a raw moment that brings everything together again and brings us back down to earth. Without that scene, it would be a completely different piece.

Romy: This moment shows the actual situation, so to speak, which does not judge and does not seek to be categorised in any way. The children play for themselves, it has nothing to do with us, we simply show how our children are. Everything can and may exist. Everything has its place and you have to learn to deal with it. And at the same time, this moment is also a kind of reality check, as Lena already said. This is our story. And maybe also someone else’s story:  This scene catches others in similar situations – and it doesn’t matter what your profession is – and reminds them: “Hey, we love our children so much and they love us and in the end that’s the most important thing.”

Are there any moments when you feel uncomfortable revealing so much personal information? Does it sometimes feel like emotional “striptease” to you?

Anke: At the beginning, it was a strange feeling and very challenging to open up in that way and also to have the confidence that it would be well received. We went through this process together bit by bit and then abstracted ourselves artistically in the next step. That way, the messages always found a beautiful language through physicality or abstraction.

Lena: Exactly, we grew into it. But we also grew because of it. We learned to trust ourselves and to speak out. At the very first performance, it was a great feeling – I remember it like it was yesterday. Then, after that, we looked at various elements here and there and adjusted them.

Romy: Without that absolute honesty, the piece wouldn’t work. If it wasn’t one hundred percent authentic, it would simply be a fake and we wouldn’t have been able to put it on stage in good conscience. The personal aspect of the piece was very important to us.

I see. That means you regularly adapt and update the piece?

Romy: Right. Depending on how life situations, one’s own age, or even that of the children change over time, we adapt the texts accordingly. Especially those spoken live. When I personally experienced a change in my private life, I noticed that I didn’t have any words for it at first. I knew I had to bring that to the stage, otherwise I wouldn’t feel comfortable. But it definitely took time to translate it into the context of the stage. Thinking over everything and also adapting the physicality sometimes takes a little while. At the same time, I also think that it has to be viewed with differentiation: Who changes what in the respective act? How is the mood today, how is the audience? Sometimes these are rather gradual processes.

Anke: I think that the piece really has the potential to grow even more than it already has. Maybe at some point we could actually revise it again – new visuals, new texts, and keep the structure the same. But let’s see if we’re still performing Raven ten years from now (laughs).

Lena: We use these baby dolls on stage, which symbolically represent the children. But of course, none of us has a baby at home anymore. I mean, I don’t really think anything needs to change. I think certain images just need to grow or change in our minds. I don’t think we need to portray certain things differently to fit the current situation.

And finally, what do you want the audience to come away with having seen Raven?

Romy: I think Raven opens a door to being receptive, to thinking about what it means to be a mother in our society, to talking about it, and to sharing. We want to encourage people to put on the table what’s really important. We often get feedback to that effect: People come to us after the piece, are excited and feel empowered to finally be able to talk about things they haven’t talked about publicly before. I’m always very touched by that, because I think that’s what it’s all about: people going out, whether they’re mothers or not, talking to each other and reflecting on their roles.

Further information about the piece and current dates can be found here.

Interview: Alexandra Schwirrat
Photos: Niamh O’Reilly @solasportraits