Cirkus is an iconic part of Djurgården, built in the early 1890s by the architect Ernst Haegglund and initially opening in 1892 as, well, a circus. Circuses aren’t quite as popular as they used to be, and over the intervening century and a bit it’s become one of Stockholm’s major venues for concerts and theatre (and in a real sign of how things have changed, will even host Sweden’s first-ever hologram concert, featuring ‘Whitney Houston’, next year). But this decade’s been one of change for the venue, having been purchased by the Pop House concern (which means ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus is now a part-owner) and they’ve just undergone a renovation, overseen by CEO Ingmari Pagenkemper). We caught up with her about what’s new at Cirkus.
You started at Cirkus in autumn last year, and the renovations took place this summer. Can you give us a rough timeline of how that has played out?
I started on September 1 last year, and two hours after I started I was presented with the project of the renovation of Cirkus. So I started to work with this project, and I suggested changes to the plans and the board said ok. As Cirkus is a listed building, you have to apply to a number of authorities before you make any changes. So it took about six months to get approval from all the various authorities, and I think we started to renovate in June, and finished in August. It’s more than just the visible, it’s not just the furniture and the colours on the walls and so it’s also the ventilation for the entire building, and the entire electrical system. It was all old, so it was necessary. That’s the boring part, it’s very expensive, and nobody can see it [laughs], but it has to be done.
Before we talk about what’s actually changed, what was it about the venue that required the changes? What were the problems that need to be fixed? What were the new things you wanted to bring in?
I wanted to bring in some care and love and fantasy. Nothing had been done since the 90s, so you can imagine. The bathrooms and so on were still functioning, but they looked like shit. The same for the walls, the kitchen, everything, it was just worn-out, it needed to be done.
So can you give me a run-through of what is new at Cirkus?
One of the new things is our rental event hall, which is a very nice room upstairs with a capacity of about 120 people, that looked like hell, and we redid it completely, and now it’s our VIP area, where you have direct access to the arena. We also changed all the chairs inside the arena, which is something like 400 new chairs, as the old ones were squeaky and not really comfortable. All the bathrooms were redone, we redid the entire restaurant, with a completely new kitchen, and the interior redecoration.
So would you say for your guests, there’s nothing that’s so spectacularly new, but the basics that contribute to a good guest experience have been re-done and fixed-up?
It would depend on how often you’ve been here. I think if you were quite a regular visitor, you would say it’s quite spectacular, as there are things like the big bar in the restaurant in the middle, that wasn’t there before. The kitchen, which was a closed kitchen, is now open. But I feel that it has been done in such a tasteful and respectful way, it feels like it’s looked like this forever, because it fits in in such a beautiful way.
So it feels like a lot of the biggest changes are focused on the restaurant part, both in the renovations and in the new programme, of how it’s going to work. You’ve said it will be open now outside of just the shows, where as previously it only opened in connection with the shows. Is that an attempt to make Cirkus more of a place where people can come to spend time, have dinner, relax and hang out, rather than just coming for events?
Definitely. That’s my dream, that we can have a restaurant and bar that is a destination in itself, where people come because they enjoy the atmosphere, and the cocktails and everything. And I think we have a good chance of accomplishing this, as Djurgården has around 16m visitors a year, through 14.5m of those come during the summer, and during fall and winter it’s quite sparse. I’ve been in this business too long to be naïve, and we won’t be able to attract 150 dinner guests on a stormy Tuesday in April if there’s nothing on in the arena to bring them in, I don’t think we’ll ever get there. But on the other hand, we probably won’t have a Tuesday night where nothing is on. That’s why I can have the balls to open [the restaurant] every day, because we have so much booked in these to arenas, so we have to stay open every day.
As the footfall will be much higher during the summer, will there be more going on during the summer, outside of the shows? Will your plans expand then?
Yes, our plans are already done and dusted. We are going to stay open for the entire summer as well, and we are going to have something in the arena that will attract a lot of people. We’re also planning on having an outdoor serving area where the parking lot is now, in front of the restaurant. It’s a dream, and I believe it’s realistic, as Djurgården wants to reduce the car traffic here. So if we present it that way, I think it will work.
In terms of your bookings. You’ve said you want to create a “cultural institution that challenges and provokes thoughts, in a way that transforms fear into curiosity”. If I think about how people perceived Cirkus before, it was a very grand and respected institution, but I don’t think people thought of it as very radical in its bookings or programme. Is it your aim to push the boundaries a little more in your bookings now?
Yes, in a lot of ways. We will always have these big shows, that we’ve always had. I know that we’re not going to change that, we’re one of the few arenas in Stockholm with the capacity to do those, and there is a need for what we are doing here. On the other hand, those big shows, these musicals run from Thursday to Saturday, sometimes Sunday. So there are at least three days a week where there is not that much going on. As it is right now, we have a number of concerts, small ones and big ones, in little and big Cirkus. But there, I can choose to say no to an artist who doesn’t have the same values, and change direction to something I feel reflects more what Cirkus stands for. We are also going to buy in our own concerts. At the moment, we are a little of an empty shell that takes bookings from others, promoters hire the venue from us, and they produce and promote and do everything, we only open and close the door. I want to change that, to start producing shows ourselves.
Okay, so it’s moving into booking, as well as taking some PR and promo for shows in-house?
Exactly. And since that is my background, that’s where I come from. The CEO part is just a couple of years old.
It’s interesting, because with the financial pressure on venues now, a lot of them are abandoning that element. So you want to stand against that? Because when you’re just acting as a host for bookers, you can’t build up your own identity very much?
Yes, and together with the new restaurant. Even there, we’re much more modern, we have many vegetarian and vegan options. We’re trying to put an identity into everything we do. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to make money. You can still be commercial and be one of the good guys. Say if you have a musical sold out, which means 1700 people, four days a week, there’s a fantastic possibility to have something going on, on top of that that then finds an audience automatically, as they’re already there. So it’s a fantastic way to co-promote things. The smaller thing can piggy-back on the bigger one.
You also mentioned in the press release, that the architects took inspiration from the house’s history? Can you expand on that? Cirkus is closing in on 150 years at this point.
Well, it used to be a proper circus, the main stage used to be the site of the stables. So the architects thought about the traditional ideas of the circus, and that influences the patterns in the bars, for example the big bar here has rings, from the trapeze.
When you’re renovating a place like this, how do you balance the need to respect the history, with the need for the new?
You really, really need a very good architect, that can balance that. The understanding that you’re almost not allowed to do anything [due to the building’s status], with the need to be modern. We try to express the modern things in little details, like having a place where you can charge your phone at the bar. Or for example, we invested 1.5m kronor into the new speakers and sound system. And now the wi-fi is very good. You have to find ways of being modern, without drilling into the walls.
So it’s a bit like making sure the function is modern?
So the final question, after these renovations, what kind of role do you see for Cirkus in Stockholm’s entertainment and nightlife scene? How would like people to think of the place?
Our vision for Cirkus, is to be the most attractive base for entertainment and food and drink in Scandinavia. We really aim high, and I want the restaurant to be a destination in itself, not only about food and drink, but also with live music and art exhibitions. Today I just finished a meeting about our new art exhibition which starts next Wednesday, as well as supervising soundcheck for a show tonight. These things have never been done before at Cirkus, and I want to do things like that every week, so that it’s worth those ten minutes by tram to come here, because you know you’re going to have a very nice evening.
Photo: Ingmari Pagenkemper, by Mats Bäcker