Making Connections: Acro-Artists Sabine van Rensburg and Brin Schoellkopf Talk 'Passengers' US Debut

by Sam Cronin

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 4, 2019

"Passengers" is a contemporary circus performance that blends acrobatics, theatre, illusion, music and dance. It's been performed worldwide for ten years, but is about to have its US premier at ArtsEmerson in Boston this September. EDGE spoke with two of the eight acro-artists about the show, their history performing together, and working with The 7 Fingers, the artist collective/circus troupe that created "Passengers."

Sabine van Rensburg is a South African performer with a background in aerial silks, trapeze art and Chinese pole dancing, and Brin Schoellkopf is an American performer with a background in tight wire acrobatics.

"Passengers" makes its US debut September 25 and runs through October 13, 2019, at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.

EDGE: Thanks so much for joining me today. I'd like to start by asking how you both got involved with "Passengers?"

Brin Schoellkopf: Sabine and I both attended the National Circus School in Montreal. We were in the same year, and we graduated last year, 2018, and kind of started this project almost right away after. We were both I think approached by people in the company. I think the 7 Fingers is very, you know... they like working with people based off their personality and who they know rather than just basing it off of being the best and kind of the skill level, so I think we had both met people from the company through different experiences and they were interested in us doing this new creation.

EDGE: Oh, so have you two worked together before?

Sabine van Rensburg: So this is our first show together, unfortunately during our end-of-year school shows we were put in different groups, so we —

*Brin Schoellkopf cuts in*: That's not true we did "Les Minutes!"

Sabine van Rensburg: Oh, it's true! We did a summer job where we performed together in the street for a month and a half.

Brin Schoellkopf: So every summer, there's a Montreal Completement Cirque, which is a ten-day circus festival. And each year they put on a show called "Les Minutes" which is kind of produced by the government actually and often people from ENC (French acronym for National Circus School) audition to do this show that lasts a couple weeks long. So we were both a part of that for two years. So we've actually performed twice together. She's wrong, haha.

EDGE: Were you already familiar with 7 Fingers before working together on "Passengers?"

Sabine van Rensburg: I was familiar with the director, Shana Carroll, she had come and worked with us on a project at school. So I really had a great connection with her so she really was able to push us really interesting directions, so I knew I wanted to work with her. I'd seen a few of the 7 Fingers shows, mostly on video because I'm from South Africa so we didn't really have access to the live performances. I was a little bit familiar, but I definitely have learned so much more about the company working for them.

Brin Schoellkopf: For me actually the first 7 Fingers show I saw was in Boston in 2012 so it kinda feels like a full circle moment to be performing here now. I would say that was one of my first introductions to the contemporary circus world and since then I've followed all of the shows and performances of the company. We're really grateful to be given this opportunity to work with them now.

EDGE: Director Shana Carroll worked on "Cirque du Soleil," is that correct? Would you say there are similarities between "Passengers" and "Cirque?"

Sabine van Rensburg: I would say no in the sense of the size and the scale of the show, but I think her approach- she always has an incredible approach and she really gets to know her artists that she's working with. She really makes an effort to, you know, invite us for dinner and really use our personal backgrounds to enhance the performance aspect of the show. I actually have never seen "Crystal" (Cirque show) so I wouldn't be able to tell you if there were similarities or not.

Brin Schoellkopf: I think in general Cirque du Soleil is very much on a bigger scale and just more about entertainment, and what I think makes 7 Fingers special is the intimacy in these performances and getting to know the artists as people telling real stories about their lives.

EDGE: How would you say "Passengers" is similar or different to previous projects of yours?

Sabine van Rensburg: We had a four month extensive creation process which was something really new to us. In school for example we would create on our own or just with the director one-on-one, so to work in a group setting... you have to be as open to eight other people's ideas and bodies as well as your own. [It] was super interesting to us.

Brin Schoellkopf: I think also learning a new process of 'How do you approach something in four months versus when you have three weeks?' And three weeks often becomes this stressful experience of 'Go, go, go, go, go' and to have so much time and see how Shana Carroll used that time really smart (sic) was I think an eye-opening experience for all of us. The first month we would go in each morning and sit down for a decent hour and just tell stories about our experiences about traveling and what we remember of traveling. I think that's what blossomed the idea of the show or kind of where the show went.

EDGE: I have experienced that working on projects for a longer period of time can make sticking to a schedule harder. Do you prefer working with a longer timeframe, or under pressure of a shorter time schedule?

Sabine van Rensburg: I'm all for taking our time and getting to know each other, and doing a lot of stressful creation processes, I really believe creating under stress affects the work, even if you try for it not to, and so I was so, so happy that we had a really healthy environment to express ourselves in.

Brin Schoellkopf: I feel like I really work in layers of kind of creating something or creating an outline and then taking the time to step back and see what it looks like from the outside view. Whether that's just watching a video or something and then kind of being more clear to go into it deeper and deeper. So I think that this outline of our creation process really gave us the opportunity to go deep into the work and to feel really comfortable with each other as well and to learn new skills which is a big thing when you're only eight people and you have to do an entire show. Of course there's this period of learning things you're not maybe used to doing and, cause you only have three weeks that can be a really stressful and people can get injured, so I think that the whole process was really natural and safe as well.

EDGE: What has been the most fun part of working on the show so far?

Sabine van Rensburg: I think the most fun part comes in the performance and the touring. Also just getting to know the people we work with and having them surprise you with all their interesting quirks.

Brin Schoellkopf: Learning the intimate things about the company as well and, you know, the founders of the company are still so involved in creating the shows and they have so much history and so many interesting stories to tell and they love telling stories, especially Shana. And that just makes it more motivating to do the show for these incredible people.

EDGE: Has there been one show or performance you've been a part of that sticks in your memory?

Brin Schoellkopf: Of course there's like, crazy adrenaline with the opener of the show. So the first time we ever did it in Montreal was like a crazy experience and it's also where we've created this community throughout the years. So it's intimidating but also special to have all these people that you know supporting you in this new adventure in our lives, but I think that each place that we go brings a new excitement of not knowing how a new culture will experience and what they'll dig out of it. Especially this year we've gone to such drastically different places like Moscow to Chile.

EDGE: Did you find that audiences react differently depending on where you performed?

Sabine van Rensburg: It really varies, because, for example, they have different ways of expressing applause. So in Montreal, there's a culture of a standing ovation right away, whereas in France they might not stand but they do this rhythmic clap that goes on for like five callbacks, and then [in] Moscow, for example, they have this beautiful culture of showing appreciation with flowers. So the audience members would buy flowers before the show, and then they'd call out their favorite performer and there would be people choosing who they would wanna give their flowers to.

Brin Schoellkopf: During the bows, they would run up and scream our name and hand us a bouquet of flowers.

Sabine van Rensburg: I think all in all the show's been received really, really well, and I think that's what's so special about it is because it holds such a universal and global message and theme. Everybody can take away something from it.

EDGE: What's one thing you'd hope audiences would take away from the show?

Sabine van Rensburg: I think that there's less of a message and a moral, and maybe more about a reminder to look up and remember to make a connection, because life is a fleeting journey, and sometimes we're just so focused on where we have to get to that we don't take the time to get to know the people that are right next to us.

Brin Schoellkopf: I think what's great about this show is that everyone has a relationship to traveling in some way, whether it's just traveling to work or you're traveling the world, and there's stuff you can find in that experience that maybe you're not seeing because you're just going through this repetition of, you know, going on the metro and going on your phone. But maybe you will meet an interesting person on the way and make this connection. You never know what that can do, so I think that there is a sense of nostalgia of reminiscing on past experiences that people have had when they come to see the show, but also [an] opportunity to think about where their lives are going or where their lives can go. Maybe the show's motivation can be like, 'You know what? I'm gonna go do that thing that I've wanted to do!'

EDGE: That reminds me of how you both described the extensive creation process, working on a small team and getting to know the people around you. Do you see parallels between the message of the production and the method by which it was created?

Brin Schoellkopf: I think that the show is so closely related to lifestyles as well where we're always traveling and we're always experiencing that, so for us to do the show, we have a lot of experience that we can use to motivate the performance and give to the audience.

EDGE: "Passengers" is described as a mix of circus, theatre, illusion, music and dance. That's a really comprehensive list! Would you say the show has equal parts of all of those media, or does it stem from one primarily?

Sabine van Rensburg: I think it's definitely stemming from a more acrobatic, circus perspective, but there's a lot of choreographic elements present in the show. We have two pieces that are sung live and one of the girls plays the ukulele during one of her songs. I think theatrics is present throughout the entire show. We worked really hard in how to portray emotion and a feeling to the public through not only physical elements but also facial or text.

Brin Schoellkopf: I think it's all mashed together. It's not like we have separate scenes — I guess there is one text scene that's very individual in that sense — but for most of the show, it's all very intertwined with using this theatricality into your circus performance that's also involving movement and dance.

Sabine van Rensburg: Also the main signature of 7 Fingers was — it was one of the companies to first blend all these different art forms together.

EDGE: This sounds like a very unique blend of art forms and a unique performance. What should the audience go in expecting/looking for?

Sabine van Rensburg: I've a personal policy about trying to not hold expectations when going to see a performance. I like to be completely open minded and really have a blank canvas for the artist to express and to paint onto I guess. But... If you wanna give them a little teaser, I think they should really just come in with an open mind of what circus can be and what the future can hold for them as an individual human in the world.

EDGE: Thanks so much for your time. Where can people go to find more about you guys/the show?

Brin Schoellkopf: We have an Instagram account called @The7Fingers as well on Facebook @Les7Doigts. They have different names, in French and English, but I think if you search The 7 Fingers anywhere, on any platform, it's gonna come up.

We're really excited to be here in Boston and to do our US premier and the 7 Fingers has had a really close relationship with ArtsEmerson and the whole Boston community for a long time now, so we're just really happy to have this experience with all you guys!

Sabine van Rensburg: Thanks so much for having us!

"Passengers" makes its US debut in September at ArtsEmerson. Click here for more information on the show from The 7 Fingers' website.