Evelien van de Sanden. My Baltic Circle experience

And suddenly there I was in Helsinki. Thanks to the Urban Heat project, where SPRING Performing Arts Festival and Baltic Circle festival are both part of, I was invited to come and work for the festival in Helsinki for four weeks. All I did beforehand was take a close look at the festival program online. A few practical things appeared to me, for example that Baltic Circle is a only 6 days, compared to 11 days of SPRING; that all performances of this year festival are inside and not in public space; that, the same as SPRING, Baltic Circle programs shows that are critical about society nowadays and/or tell stories that reflect on social and political behaviour.

With this first bit of information about the festival, there were three things I was wandering about, concerning my work-stay in Helsinki: What is it like to live and work in Helsinki? Are there any big differences in how Baltic Circle organizes the festival compared to my experience? Who is this Baltic Circle audience, is it comparable to SPRING audience? With these three questions in mind I walked up to my apartment in the snow (on 26th of October), welcomed by Hanna Nyman, managing director of Baltic Circle.

The City

Because I arrived on a Thursday, I had a first day of work on Friday, and then two days of sightseeing in Helsinki. I was prepared for colder days, and I fell with my nose in the butter, as we say in the Netherlands: there was snow/rain and cold wind with a temperature of between 3 and -5. Not the best weather for sightseeing. But the Finnish people are prepared for this with big shopping malls, a coffee shop at every corner to warm up, everybody with caps and little kids in their ski outfits. And sauna’s: many public sauna’s, bars with sauna’s and private sauna’s for house blocks. I visited only(!) three different sauna’s in four weeks. Helsinki in October and November is all about the indoors. I feel like people are rushing to go from inside to inside, because inside it is cosy and warm. The one other thing I noticed about Helsinki is the space: streets are wide and there are many little parks and two big lakes inside the city. It’s nothing like the old city centres of cities like Utrecht with their small streets and crazy curves and corners. And although I missed the characteristics of such an old town a little, I also really like the space for air and movement.

The work

After a nice weekend of rain, cold and grey sightseeing, it was time to work. And there is one room to do this: the whole team of Baltic Circle works in one room in Q-teatteri building, at one big table. The team is almost too big for the table, but the moments that everybody of the team is there, are rare. Everybody works with their own laptop and shifts places on the table, whatever suits best for that moment/meeting. It’s very modern and very easy to find each other for questions or help each other find answers. Another advantage is that everybody is easily up to date about everything going on. A disadvantage is that is gets crowded and loud very fast when many colleagues are talking to each other and/or on the phone. I think the one room office fits the Baltic Circle organization: there is no hierarchical structure, everybody assists each other without getting irritated and the atmosphere is very friendly. Yes, there is stress to make the festival deadline, but even then there is room for jokes and time to talk to each other and/or meet somebody walking in. Especially this last thing I found very refreshing and I started to reflect on the way I work around festival stress. I’m in the last weeks before the festival a lot of times so into my own work: head down, isolated to concentrate, not responding to anything in the room unless people call my name. Because I have to be as fast as possible, as effective as possible. Which is funny, because the main thing about my work and also the reason why I love my work is the exchange that happens between people and the people I meet or meet each other along the way. I would love to be more open to this meeting and exchange when I have festival stress, too. Off course, things need to be fixed and emailed, but the best thing would be to do this, and be more really present at the office and open for also jokes and people coming in.

Another thing that made me reflect on my own way of working, and is in line with what I just mentioned, is my emailing. I work very structured and therefore also make general emails that I can send to all artists with info about times, locations, e.o. I was talking about this with my Baltic Circle colleague Hanna Parry and learned that she had a more personal way of communicating with all different groups. She communicated the same important info, but made the email more personal, according to the way she had been communicating with them so far. I think this invites better to create a connection between her and the artist or technicians or any other. I can again try to communicate more from person to person instead of these dry summary like general emails.

Many things are quiet similar organized as I’m used to at SPRING or any of my other jobs in The Netherlands. There is a weekly meeting, in this case with everybody because the team isn’t that big; all documents are on one drive or server so everybody can check it; people are coming in and go out according to their own schedule; there is guest service; passes; a kick-off; different locations and therefore flags and posters for all locations. But I guess the differences are more interesting to mention. For example there is one big schedule with everything on it, which is possible because the festival and team isn’t as big as the festivals I have worked for, and this is very nice because you can see who is where at all times. This makes the already close group even more close and the feeling of working together stronger. Also, there are only 8 volunteers working for Baltic Circle this year, compared to about 80 volunteers for SPRING last year. We have volunteers checking the tickets, selling the tickets, helping out with visibilities and/or production and a few runners. A little difference in this amount of people is explained by the fact that SPRING is more days, and more shows that start at the same time, so more people are needed. And the runner and ticket sales co-worker of Baltic Circle are paid and not volunteer. But still, I find the difference in the amount of volunteers needed very big.

Transport options are also a difference. At SPRING, we ask people to come to Utrecht by train from the airport, unless they are with too many suitcases. At the hotel there are bikes ready for them to travel in the city. In November in Helsinki, nobody bikes anymore. So artists and sometimes also the colleagues are being picked up and/or driven from one place to another by the transporter car Baltic Circle has or by taxi. The last difference I found remarkable is that for all festivals I work for, scanning the tickets is very important, so they know exactly who was there and who wasn’t, for mainly marketing purposes. At Baltic Circle, we only checked the date and title at the ticket, what is much faster and easier, but does not give you the information who was there exactly.

The program

At last but not least there are quiet some differences in the program. Shows can start in the early afternoon on a workday and still be attended by a lot of people. And because lunch is way more important than dinner, shows can also start at 18h and last until 21h, what is in The Netherlands the normal time to have dinner and would maybe mean that people will not attend. A similarity in case of the audience is that I had the feeling that a lot of the same people came to the shows, so that there is a group of regulars, who see as many shows of Baltic Circle as possible. SPRING also has this group of people who see a lot of shows, and not so much a very divers and/or general audience.

One of the things that I loved about the Baltic Circle program was the Baltic Circle Club: every night something completely different, but there was always a possibility to stay and talk and/or be surprised by the band, dj or vj paying or artist performing. The evening didn’t end after the show. At SPRING, we also have the ability to stay and talk, but somehow the evenings are not as appealing as the Baltic Circle Clubs. Maybe this also has to do with the space: Cirko’s Maneesi is a very exciting space to be and therefore inviting to stay and maybe also have a little (or a lot of) dance.

There is one more thing worth mentioning: the language. I’m normally quiet fast in learning a language or picking up on at least some words or sentences, but I could not manage to do this with Finnish. It is too hard to learn in only four weeks. I knew this, so I was afraid this was going to be a difficulty. But thanks to the effort that all colleagues made to speak English, what they all could do perfectly fine, I could find my way in the organization and in the city. I think this effort to speak English was a big part of me feeling welcome and having the idea to really add something to the team.