Jerry Snell is a man who wears many masks. With a professional career spanning more than two decades, the interdisciplinary artist has worked variously as an actor, director, choreographer, and composer. Yet he's known mostly as a singer and musician, whose tunes are tinged with social commentary and a political edge.
Over the past few years his evolution as an artist has taken him back to his roots when he was a performer on the streets of Montreal working with friends in an experimental medium called new circus. The fruits of this transformation can now be seen at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall plaza where Snell has gathered a wide range of performers for the Spotlight on New Circus festival.
The idea for the festival emerged two years ago when programming directors from the National Theater went to Montreal to watch new circus performances. At the time, Snell had just completed his own project with the National Theater School of Canada and encouraged the delegation from Taiwan to mount a new circus festival of their own in Taipei, of which he would be a part.
“About six months ago [the National Theater] said I could do my new production, but I've got to program the festival too,” he said.
With no experience of running a festival, Snell was intimidated at first by the amount of work he knew it would involve. But because the National Theater gave him carte blanche to run the show — from auditioning performers to hiring established acts — he dove into the project with gusto.
In addition to running the show, Snell is to perform at the festival. With a mixture of foreign and Taiwanese artists, Flash is a pastiche of live musicians, live video, pre-recorded video, hip-hop, break dancing, kung fu, acrobats, and contemporary dance.
Snell said his evolution as an artist has paralleled the transformation that new circus has taken over the past few decades.
“I was with all the people who began Cirque du Soleil, so I knew all those people, but I went away from it for 15 years and I just came back and I said that this is not the circus I knew a long time ago,” he said. “This is physical theater, this is risk, experimental theater, it is clown, it is cabaret.There is no limit.”
Bringing foreign and Taiwanese performers together involves a special kind of communication.
“We work by action ... . When I worked with the traditional musicians putting them into more progressive rock songs, it was by doing it. I didn't explain what they had to do, they just got the feel,” he said.
Snell emphasizes that his collaborative style makes all members of the troupe feel like they are active participants in the decision-making process.
“I don't tell them I'm the boss, I'm the director ... . I say, ‘I'm going to work with you as I'm going to work with my band. You are my friend, you have to help me. You don't want to watch me go down and get all frazzled. You are your own boss on the stage. I've brought you the best musicians, the best lighting the best acrobats.’ That means we work as a creative team,” he said.
Snell's socialist roots are apparent in his management and creative style. Regardless of the medium Taiwanese are performing in, he chose them because their style was unique to Taiwan.
“They are street performers, they are hip-hop artists, they are kung fu artists — they don't come from a circus school, they come from what is Taiwan. I did auditions specifically for that reason — auditions for everyone,” he said.