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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Shana Kennedy and Sierra Rhoades Nicholls

Posted April 26th, 2019

In anticipation of our Hand to Hand festival in partnership with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, Katy and Raina sat down with Circadium’s Executive Director, Shana Kennedy, and first-year student, Sierra Rhoades Nicholls, to discuss the future of contemporary circus. Shana and Sierra walk the hosts through their personal introductions to the circus arts, the intense training required to pursue a professional career, the importance of Circadium’s professional program for the growth of American contemporary circus and how opportunities like the first-year student showcase, Circadium Springboard, is preparing students to succeed in the circus world and beyond. Read more about Hand to Hand June 28–July 1 and Circadium Springboard on May 25. Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Conversation with Shana Kennedy and Sierra Rhoades Nicholls

Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager at FringeArts.

Katy: And I’m Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer here. We invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts, our new work series dedicated to local Philadelphia artists, called High Pressure Fire Service or HPFS for short, is in full swing. By the time this episode is making its way to you, Pig Iron Theatre Company’s A Hard Time will be opening soon, and you can still buy a three show HPFS subscription for the final three shows through June. But today, we’re looking ahead. Coming up this summer we’re presenting the second annual Hand to Hand Circus Festival in partnership with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus. Today we’re out at Circadium’s campus in Mount Airy and are joined by Shana Kennedy, executive and founding director of Circadium, and Sierra Rhoades Nicholls, a current student at Circadium. Welcome, everybody.

Katy: Welcome.

Shana: Thanks, glad to be here.

Raina: So for Happy Hour on Fringe, we always have to ask, what are we all drinking? I’ll start. I’m enjoying a nice Poland spring water.

Katy: I have the chai tea today. And Shana, what about you?

Shana: I’m on Vitaminwater Zero. That is my drink of choice.

Raina: Which makes sense. We’re all healthy. We want to be hydrated. Excellent.

Shana: Very important.

Raina: And we’re a little bit between classes, but it’s really exciting to be here and to see people in the space and moving around. So we’re really just excited to be talking with you about Circadium and what you’ve been able to do here. But to just back up a little bit, you got your start in performance and so what was that like, finding circus in the United States when you were growing up?

Shana: Sure. So I’ve been doing circus in some capacity for a very long time. It did start when I was young, but the old days, gosh, it was such a long time ago. In the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up, I was growing up in Massachusetts, where the only circus to be found was traditional tented shows that would come around and set up their tent with their elephants and clowns, and spangly bikini clad aerialists and all that stuff. And every year it would come to town and I would just get so excited about it and leave feeling like, oh, I’m going to do this, I want to be this. But there was no clear path to do anything like that.

So by that time, I was graduating high school in the mid 90s and picking up little skills here and there, juggling, unicycling, on my own. There’s a little juggling club at MIT in Boston that I was attending to meet some other jugglers and I really wanted to pursue circus. To do that, I had to go out of the country. So I left in the middle of my college career to go to England where I spent a year training at Circomedia in Bristol. That was an eye opening experience for me. The European countries are much further ahead than we are in the grand scheme of contemporary circus.

And so I was able to see not only that circus was this really new and different art form, but that there was a lot of contemporary work that was being made with circus. It wasn’t just about the traditional images that I had from home. So with that new information, I came back to the States and started teaching and performing whatever capacities I could find. Back then there was a lot of just freelance gigs and I was doing everything from stilt walking and juggling and aerial performances and anything I could do to make a living as a circus artist. And I started teaching, also, as just a side thing to support my career. And my husband, Greg, is a professional juggler and he actually, his career has gone really quickly uphill. So in those years he was getting much bigger gigs, doing a lot more traveling and corporate work and big touring shows. And so I was following him along those things as well.

So in all that time I was really getting a sense of what the circus landscape looked like in the United States. And it was not great. Like there were big traditional shows that were shutting down or losing their audiences and the artists that were remaining were really just scrambling to get gig work. The capacity to create new theatrical contemporary circus work just wasn’t seen here. And people mostly blamed it on lack of funding. Well, you know European countries, they get funding for that sort of thing, we don’t have that here. So with all that, it became clear as my circus school was growing, the recreational circus school, that we really needed to create some pathway or a true pathway for professional artists who wanted to take the circus into the next level.

And that would not only help the artists here and the young people that want to do this, but also the art form as a whole. To move the art form forwards, this is what we needed to do. And so around 2013, 2014, I started forming groups of people from all over the country to talk about it and saying, what would this look like? How would this work, what are the obstacles? And we formed Circadium in, I think it was 2013 that we incorporated the school as a nonprofit, formed the board of directors and started planning the launch of the school. So it was a long exciting journey. In that time I really felt like I got a lot of chance to see so many parts of the country, so many different types of circus education that exist right now. And it gave me a lot of information about how I wanted to start this school.

Raina: Thank you for joining us during your busy class schedule, Sierra. We’d also love to hear from you about how you got your start in circus and how you found your way and how you ended up at Circadium.

Sierra: I was born and raised in Missoula, Montana and I started gymnastics when I was eight years old. I started as a competitive gymnast and found that I really did not like competitions. They were stressful, and we did the same routine every time, and it just wasn’t for me. So I transferred to a different gym in my home town, which was called Bitterroot Gymnastics. And I stayed there for a decade, and every year Bitterroot Gymnastics put on a show. And so that’s where I started doing acrobatics and that’s where I started dancing and I didn’t even know what circus was, but we were doing circus without really knowing it. So when I was 16, a friend of mine went to ENC for auditions and that’s the circus school in Montreal. And that was the first time I heard about circus schools at all because in Montana, we’re pretty isolated from the circus world. There’s one circus company there. It started when I was 18 years old, I was a part of it for a year. And so at 16 I decided to start pursuing circus arts.

And luckily in my hometown there was a woman named Holly Rollins who was in Cirque du Soleil O. And she was an aerial hoop artist. And so she taught me aerial hoop and I auditioned the next summer for ENC summer camp in Montreal. And I got in and I went there, and it was a two week program and it was the most fun I ever had in my whole life. I got to try all sorts of circus things that I’d never even seen before. I got to do German wheel, and I got to see Russian cradle, and I got to see all of these amazing other parts of circus. So at 18 when I was about to graduate, I auditioned for ENC for the full time program and I didn’t make it in. And I applied for a couple of traditional colleges, but just decided that I needed to pursue circus while I was young and while I still wanted to do it.

So I moved to Maine and I attended a full time training program at Circus Maine and they are now out of business, sadly. But I stayed there for a year and a half and studied hand balancing under Cory Tabino, as an apprentice. And then I auditioned for 10 circus schools when I was 19 and 20, and I went to Europe and I did all of these different auditions and all these crazy application processes and I learned so much and I failed a lot, but I succeeded a little too. And I ended up in Circadium, and I’m really glad I’m here.

Raina: I wonder, Sierra, if you can tell us a little bit about the variety of training that you experienced. Both in the States, in Canada, at the École Nationale de Cirque, the ENC that you mentioned, and more broadly in Europe. I think Circadium offers something that’s very unique here in the States.

Sierra: Yeah, absolutely. So my training as a competitive gymnast, when I was very young, it was quite traditional and really intense. I was eight years old and going to four hour long practices of gymnastics and expected to pay attention and strictly point my toes and everything that a competitive gymnast has to do. And then the program that I did for a decade was a little bit more lenient. It was a lot more fun. We messed around a lot more and we discovered new movement pathways and I really didn’t think about what I was doing as an art form until I was probably 17 or 18. For me, it was just a sport, an after school activity I did. It pretty much dominated my life, but I didn’t think about it as art until I started to transfer into circus. And when I moved to Maine, I had my world rocked a little bit because I was coming from a quote unquote recreational program of, we practiced like 12 hours a week. And then when I started the full time training program in Maine, it was 30 hours a week and I was exhausted.

And the hand balancing training was unlike anything I’d experienced so far. I was two hours of handstands, one on one, and I was pretty much on my hands for the whole two hours. I didn’t know if I was going to make it, but I did. The training at Circus Maine was very focused on the physical. It was very much about improving your technique and we did have theater, but not nearly as much as Circadium offers theater. It wasn’t traditional circus necessarily, but it’s potentially more what you would think about as a circus school and then when I auditioned in Europe, I experienced a new different kind of training that I didn’t know about and that was just an extremely artistic sort of evaluation.

I auditioned at Cnac in France, which is their national circus school. I remember feeling completely out of my comfort zone because we had to do this really contemporary exercise and be really fully committed into our theatrical presence and that was challenging and different, but I also thought it was really amazing because it was something I hadn’t felt or experienced before.

And then Circadium is also different. This audition, when I did it, was the most fun one. It was the most welcoming by far. The audition starts with a welcome dinner, which is just something no other school did. I auditioned in Finland and their audition started with a three mile run. So it’s a very different kind of culture here. And I think American circus now I feel is really still searching for its voice. You know, we had the golden age of circus, we had all the huge, the biggest and the best circus tents and all of these things that just are a little bit obsolete to the general public now. And so we have to find a new way to be grand and be great and be relevant. And I think Circadium is really at the forefront of that. And we’re excited, as the students here, to be at the forefront. And the training here is very, very artistic. We do a lot of theater every week. We do a lot of dance every week. And our training is physically exhausting, but it’s also mentally, emotionally, so full of life and challenges. And it’s great.

Katy: I wonder if we can back up for a brief moment for our listeners, and talk about what contemporary circus is. One of the reasons I love circus so much is that particularly in America, I feel like everybody has a connection to it, but it’s often grounded in nostalgia, which can be very powerful and enticing. But in America often it’s the three ring circus, the big top, the clown, the aerialist, but contemporary circus, which does have more roots in Canada and Europe and Australia, is pretty different from that. And I wonder if you can talk about that for folks.

Shana: Sure, I’d love to. And yeah, I’m noticing especially now, there’s a lot of circus nostalgia going on in the world and I do think it has something to do with the closure of Ringling Brothers and all that. But you’re seeing movies and shows and all kinds of things are these throwbacks to this traditional circus imagery, which I love as much as anybody else. I think it’s a beautiful history that we have, the circus in this country, but because it’s such a strong history, in some ways it has kept us from seeing circus as anything else. And that’s what you see, an interesting example is Scandinavia. Scandinavia does not have a very strong historical circus culture. And so when they started talking about contemporary circus, people were like, okay, sure. Like there was no baggage with it.

Katy: This is all there is.

Shana: Right. The idea that circus could be something that is relevant and modern and has more creative capacity just hasn’t been seen enough in this country. But we’re beginning to see it. So people often think when they hear contemporary circus, oh, we’re talking about Cirque du Soleil. And in fact Cirque du Soleil is not I would define as contemporary circus. Cirque du Soleil is what we call new circus, which came out of the 1970s and 80s, and that also included Big Apple Circus and a few other big companies that were trying to really take the stylistic and aesthetic choices of contemporary circus and make something different there.

They kept the format of tent, acts, clowns. Like some of the standard formats remained in new circus, but they did play a lot around with different music and costumes and just choices of presentation. Contemporary circus is the next stage of that and that is where we’re seeing almost all of the rules of circus being broken and played around with. Contemporary circus is often shown in a theater. It’s often shown in other alternative venues, site specific works, outdoor works, those would all be contemporary circus. And contemporary circus mainly needs to have something else besides circus tricks to hold it together. So there can sometimes be partnerships with other art forms. You’ll see a lot of blends with circus and dance or circus and theater or circus and puppetry, there’s all kinds of blends that are happening, but the main thing is it needs to be trying to say something. It needs to be trying to communicate an artistic concept. Sometimes that’s a very abstract artistic concept, sometimes a very clear narrative concept, but it is treated as a piece of artwork that has a similar research process, development process, influence from other people. It goes along a much more … a pathway that you’ll see in modern dance or in modern theater than what was traditional in circus. So it’s really exciting for us as artists because we are … In some ways we feel like in surface we’ve always been inventing the wheel, always been doing things from scratch for the first time, and now we’re learning that actually these other forms have been doing these things for a long time and we can learn from them. And we can learn from their processes. So contemporary circus is super exciting and we are especially excited that that’s being seen more here in Philadelphia. That’s very neat.

Katy: And Philadelphia is actually the home of the first American circus. So it’s exciting for us to have this history but also push towards this more contemporary way of seeing it. And I wonder if, Shana, if you can talk about how Circadium, particularly your accredited academic institution, is paving the way forward for people. And what people might expect to see at Springboard, which is the student showing included as part of the festival.

Shana: Great. Well, as you can imagine, circus in history was passed down in a family way, so if you wanted to become a circus performer you had to learn it from your parents or your grandparents. And then there was the concept of running away with the circus that happened in the golden age of circus. We could run away and join the circus. But circus education is a relatively new concept. Circus education, it actually began in Russia in the 1920s, 1930s, they were the first school to develop a circus school, that happened in Moscow. That evolved into circus schools in Europe and Canada, but still not til much later. We’re talking about the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s as these schools are becoming established. It’s made this entirely new way for people to approach circus. You don’t have to have a history, you don’t have to run away. You can do circus because it’s something that interests you and something that excites you. In our time in the United States, there’s actually two or three hundred schools of circus in the United States that all the students are at a recreational level. If you’re a kid or if you’re an adult that wants to just try stuff for fun, there are schools like that in almost every city in the US now. Everything from pole dance studios that have maybe a silks class, to after school circus programs that are part of regular schools. The whole gamut is there. There’s some really wonderful, amazing recreational circus schools, but still we want to take that next step like, okay, I love this, I want to do this professionally. There has been no place to do that in the US. There are a few other schools that offer what are called pro tracks, and they’re intensive trainings where you can go for nine months or a year. There’s one offering a couple year program now. They will allow you to just do that more, right? But none of them still approach what is real higher education. Higher education has lots of components to it, higher education means you’re getting all different types of classes, that you’re having many more ideas to bring into your practice. It means having a level of accountability to the accrediting bodies, to the state that offers your diplomas. All these things are checks to make sure that you as a higher education institution are really meeting the needs of students.

Now we formed Circadium as a vocational college, which means that our levels of accountability are much more on the professional front. They want to see that we are preparing students for jobs, which is quite tricky in circus. So as our students graduate next year, with our first graduates in 2020, we’re going to be really carefully tracking their professional pathways, to make sure that we can show we’re really doing what we say we’re going to do, which is to make sure students can leave here and work. So that’s how that’s going. Circadium is in its second year of operations right now. It’s a three year school, so that means we have first year students and second year students in the building right now. And our class three will start next year.

Raina: And you are teaching them things like entrepreneurship and bringing in your own … like the business side of circus.

Shana: We are. We teach a good number of academic classes and all of them are tied to circus in some way. So that’s everything from music and writing and theater to some of these business classes. We do everything from photography and stage tech to web design and business planning and financial management.

Katy: So Sierra, how are you feeling about the vocational focus? So much of Circadium is preparing you for a job after graduation. What are your dreams, in the next two years when you graduate?

Sierra: That’s a great question. I applied for 30 circus schools and auditioned for 10 and I knew that I wanted to go to a full time program that was going to end with some sort of degree or the vocational professional training. And I’ve actually started an initiative called CSAW, which is Connecting Circus Students Around the World. We have partnered with CircusTalk and our goal right now is to collect ambassadors from every circus school internationally. And so what that will do is just make information about circus schools just more accessible because especially in the United States, for me, coming from Montana, I only knew about three circus schools in the entire world. There are so many more and it’s just difficult to find information right now. And part of that is because in Europe, every country is so much closer together and so they just know a little bit more. So we are in a way more isolated here. And then part of it is just that circus and circus schools are a little bit newer than other art forms and other schools. And so we don’t really have a great way to access information about them yet. So I’m really passionate about helping circus school information become apparent for future me to be able to type in a Google search like we do for everything else in life and find actually the answers that you need. So that’s part of my dream here and that’s something that I’ve already started to do. And then, yeah, I think that in a lot of ways Circadium is preparing us to become artists and to start on our own and to struggle and to fail, to keep going anyways. I didn’t know it before, but I know it now that I am passionate about American circus in particular. And so I do think I would like to stay here and try to start a small company and change the way that America views circus in whatever way I can. I don’t know if I will succeed in that, but it’s time. It’s time for the US to have a bigger, louder circus voice and to have companies that are from here, and we’ve already started in some ways, but there’s so much room to grow. And I’m excited to start that.

Katy: Tell us how Springboard comes together. What is the process of creating the end of year?

Photo by Raina Searles

Shana: Circadium Springboard is the end of year show for our first year students, so this is the end of the first nine months of Circadium and it’s been a really eye opening year for all of them. They’ve tried so many different things they never expected to try, and we want to reflect that in the show. So every Friday the students do presentations here and presentations are mostly theatrically based. It’s often some kind of theatrical concept that they have to perform and then they tend to bring contemporary circus into it from there. And the pieces that we show in Circadium Springboard are a collection of those works that they have then refined over the course of the year. So it’s a fun, eclectic mix of pieces that all come from somewhere very new for them. It was important to us when we created the show that it was not about a recital of students’ individual best circus skills. No, that’s not what we want to see in the show. We want to see them getting out of their comfort zones a little bit and trying some new things. So whereas their audition pieces, getting into the school, were much more what they brought here to us, this show is what have you learned in the last nine months.

Raina: So for you, Sierra, what things have you learned over the past nine months and what are you bringing to the table for your Circadium Springboard piece?

Sierra: So the Circadium Springboard is, Shana mentioned, I think, going to be a compilation of our Friday presentations. And Friday presentations, we do every single week and they are theatrical exercises to help us improve in what we’ve been learning in theater class. But also just approach our art in a new sort of way. That is, it’s very easy as a circus artist to pick a three minute song and just put every trick that you know into a three minute act and then you have an act and it’s great, but it’s just like everybody else’s. And so the Friday presentations really push us to think about things from a new perspective and use other artistic tools like rhythm and composition and animals and elements. And so those are all things that you’ll see in the Circadium Springboard show. We are bringing back our best Friday presentations and we’re changing them and stringing them together. And one of the rules of the show in the creation process is that there aren’t any solos. Our entire school experience is extremely ensemble based, so it makes sense for our show to be ensemble based as well. We live and breathe together as the students here and it’s important that we support each other, but it also just opens up so many different avenues for expression when you have other people on stage. And so I think it’ll be exciting to see exactly the way that it gets put together. It’ll most likely be different from what you’ve seen from quote unquote circus.

Raina: Is there anything that you were really surprised to learn or really challenged by?

Sierra: Everybody has their challenges in the first year of this program, I think, and for me, I came into the school really, really knowing what I wanted to major in, minor in. Or so I thought. And I had been training in handstands for about two years really intensely. And I just wanted to keep doing that and I didn’t get to. The program starts at a very generalist focused way, which is really fantastic because it forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you learn new things. So coming into the school I could juggle three balls and now I’m working on five balls, and I had never touched a unicycle, but now I can ride a unicycle. And I didn’t really ever think about walking on a tight wire cause I just didn’t think I would want to. But it is a lot of fun. And now I can do that. So I learned things that I wasn’t really anticipating to learn, and at first was a little bit reluctant to learn, maybe. But I’m really grateful that I did, now, because it’s just opened up new ways to express myself and new techniques and it’s helped me with my hand balancing and just with life in general, to learn things that you didn’t really think you’d want to, but then get the most that you can out of them.

Raina: Awesome. And then I think our final big question is we would love to know from you, what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations when you’re making work?

Shana: That’s a good question. I was on tour with Cirque du Soleil for a number of years. My husband had a contract with them and so we got to tour around the world with Cirque du Soleil. And what I learned from that is that Cirque is such a giant scale operation that they can do amazing things that no one else can do. And so when we sometimes dream about the biggest capacities in production, in lighting, in staging, if you had all the artists you could choose from and all this support you could choose from, you’ll see that in Cirque du Soleil. And one of my favorite Cirque du Soleil shows is O in Las Vegas, because it’s a transformative world that they make for you there. That’s something they can do when they have a theater permanent in Las Vegas, that’s just for them, it’s full of water. It’s an amazing, amazing production.

So lately I’m finding much of my inspiration from some of the smaller companies that are doing really unusual things. There are quite a few in Quebec right now who I just love the work they’re doing. And we’ve got a few Australian companies here recently too, who are doing exciting stuff. I see shows all the time and so it’s hard for me to pick one or two. What have I seen recently? Gravity and Other Myths is a wonderful show that we saw recently. On a small, even smaller scale than that … as a solo show, the new Almanac show xoxo moongirl is going to Edinburgh Fringe this year and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommend that. For me what is most inspiring I think about circus is not one or two highlights but just the range that is coming out right now. There’s so many different ways people are thinking to present circus.

Raina: Awesome. What are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations?

Sierra: So for me The 7 Fingers based out of Montreal is one of my favorite companies and I really respect and admire the work that they’re doing. The reason for that is two years ago now, I had auditioned for ENC in Montreal the third time and for ECQ in Quebec the second time and I didn’t get into either school again, and I was feeling so lost and frustrated in the circus world and I was coming back from doing a gig in New York and on the way we decided we were going to stop and see this 7 Fingers show and I was just coming into it like, whatever. I was so done with circus and I thought I would just quit and go to normal college, and call it there, and I saw this show, Cuisine and Confessions, and I just knew I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop doing circus after I saw that because it was the first time for me that I saw something and I was like, that’s it. That’s what I want to do.

Because I’m motivated artistically through auditory medium a lot as well as through text. And it was one of the most theatrical circus experiences I’d ever had. And one of the most real and honest ones as well. The show is just about the people and you could tell that what they were saying was hard and vulnerable and true. It just was really amazing. And so I decided not to quit circus, to keep trying and keep trying and I’m glad I did. That show really changed my life in a lot of ways. Other than that, yeah, text is always inspirational to me. Like I made a handstand act based off The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And the newest work I’m working on is from Kate Tempest’s album Let Them Eat Chaos. I just think that circus can be really transformed through story and some of the best stories are written down. And so that’s a great source of my inspiration for sure. Other than that, David Stark, who I grew up with, the gymnastics owner of my gym is one of my greatest inspirations in life. He was really one of the first male figures I had who was strong and steady and just guided me through so much, and through the 10 years I spent there, showed so many incredible examples of leadership and of kindness and was always just steadfast as the helm of the gym. And they’re succeeding so much right now and it’s so great to see. So he’s definitely an inspiration for me as well. And my mom.

Raina: Yes, shout out to moms. [laughter] Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Shana: I’m so glad you came out here and I’m glad you get to see a little bit of the school in action today. There’s a lot of great classes happening right now, we have dance and I think juggling happening in the building, and many artists in residence training. So do take a look around before you leave.

Katy: A reminder to everybody to make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and to download the FringeArts app. The Hand to Hand Circus Festival presented in partnership with Circadium is coming at the end of June, and you can catch Springboard as the prelude to the festival in the end of May.

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