Go Deeper Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

Posted September 2nd, 2020

During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.

In this episode, FringeArts Marketing Manager Raina Searles and Artistic Producer Katy Dammers chat with Kitsie O’Neill, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.  The three discuss how PSCA is continuing to teach classes amid the pandemic, why being connected during this time is so important, and tightrope walking with chalk! To learn more about PSCA and how to take classes, visit their website at

Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles, and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. 

Katy: Today, we’re talking to Kitsie O’Neill, Executive Director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, developed into a full educational facility in 2008. The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, or PSCA, offers circus classes for adults and children from ages three and up. And since the stay at home orders went into place, they have been offering virtual classes in juggling, conditioning, hula hoop, handstands and much more. This June, as we have for the past two years, we would have been partnering with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts and Circadium for our Hand to Hand Circus Festival Midway event. Just one of our favorite parts of the festival. It’s an outdoor free event for families and folks interested in circus of all ages. So while we’re sad that we won’t be able to do that together this year, we’re so happy to be able to at least connect remotely with Kitsie and hear what the entire team has been up to during this time. Thanks so much for joining us.

Kitsie: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Katy: So our podcast is Happy Hour on the Fringe. And we always begin by asking, what is everybody drinking?

Kitsie: I am drinking my Lacroix. I usually drink these all all day long until, you know, I can start happy hour at maybe around 5:00 today.

Katy: That sounds great. I like being it is important. And we are doing this today at three o’clock. So we’re almost there for the weekend happy hour. Yeah, definitely.

Raina: Yeah. I’m just having a little bit of tea to keep me warm. It’s also a really rainy day on the day that we’re recording. I looked out the window and was surprised because it felt really sudden. But I also am home on the time. So any weather feel sudden at this point.

Katy: I know what you mean. Well, I’m just having some glass of water as well as it is officially pouring outside and west Philadelphia now. So, Kitsie, maybe you can start us off by just telling us, you know, what were the first couple of weeks of quarantine like for your team? How have you all adjusted to this new reality, particularly during lockdown?

Kitsie: Yeah. So, you know, we were– we had just began our spring term, which is we have about that starts in March and goes until the end of May. We do adult classes as well as youth classes. And this is recreational circus. So anybody and everybody that’s interested, capable, they may become an hour or a week to classes. Some people do it as an artistic expression. Some people do it for exercise and as well as just kind of a community that we have at the school. And so when we were kind of getting word, especially in like Montgomery County, that certain things were being shut down and happening, you know, we all were just kind of like, oh, what do we do? You know, especially being a really unique, ah, art and gym program. It was you know, we always kind of aligned with the sense we have children in the school with a lot of like the Philly school district. But then, you know, there’s definitely times like when the pope came and different things like that in the city that we are still actually more active since we’re in that recreational field. So, you know, with winter camps and summer camps and just different things like that.

So it was just really like it kind of became day by day and then it was like minute by minute of being like, oh, I mean, I’m sure everyone kind of felt this way of being like trying to make calls, trying to not contradict yourself. I’ve been like, okay, well, we’re gonna we’re gonna wait till Friday to kind of see what we’re being told or what we should do or whatnot. And so I think that Friday was– we decided we didn’t that we didn’t have a lot of classes on Friday. So we decided to kind of that weekend. We kind of like the March 13th, 15th, something like that to just not do our weekend classes because we have a lot of people in this space on Saturdays and Sundays, adults and youth as well as we share this gorgeous church in West Mount Airy with Circadium, which I’m also on the board of. And that is a three year or three year old professional circus school. So you audition to take classes with them and they’re usually off on the weekends, but they’re always training. They’re just such hard workers. So we decided to just cancel all the classes and all the birthday parties and just kind of events and just kind of wait it out. And then by that, I think it was that Friday. That’s when, Saturday you know, the schools shut down and everything was was closed. So it just kind of seemed abrupt. And then it was, you know, we’re kind of going day by day and then it was week by week. And now it almost seems like we’re month by month. I mean, I’ve already kind of thinking of the end, like, all right. June is probably not happening for anybody. Or, you know what? It’s really weird to kind of. Wrap your head around that. Just trying to think of what July and August look like as well as, you know, the fall of what that might be.

So, yes, it has been adapting and I’m sure so many people feel the same way. Adapting and then it’s kind of like committing, then saying, OK, I’m going to kind of put this bag down and I’m going to focus my attention on this. And this kind of project of, you know, and at first it’s it’s really hard in the in the theater and especially the performance, performance meaning theater and, you know, physical performance and delivery world where so much of what we do is in person. So much of what we do is using very special equipment. We do, you know, static trapeze, flying trapeze, things that are not at home. Right. And then it’s such a community based art form. And it’s based on having an audience. You know, it’s the audience that makes the pieces. It’s the people in your class that that give the give it the life that it deserves and needs. And so it’s a very social thing, you know. So, you know, a lot of our students are reaching out to us have been like, oh, this was my this is my happy place. This is the place that I go to is like my– and it’s funny because it’s a church, but it’s a sanctuary. This is my safe space that I can kind of work out and break a sweat and kind of go in because there’s there’s this thing that happens when we’re doing something physical like circus, where you can’t think about, like the thing that you said in the meeting or didn’t say in a meeting or like regrets or anything. You just have to think about, I just have to keep holding on because I’m going to fall. And there’s something very childlike in that. There’s something that’s liberating in that cause. Yeah. It’s meta.

I don’t know, you know, just you’re just in that moment and you don’t have to do that adult thing that you do, which is like, oh, yes, I got to remember to pick up milk on the way home and get gas because tomorrow I have to leave early or whatever it is, like all those so many thoughts that are in your head all at once, a task.

Raina: It’s funny, I’ve taken some aerial classes before, and I know that exact situation that you’re talking about where I think like especially when you’re like overthinking, like how to get from one position to another. And it’s kind of like you have to stop thinking and then you do it like take a split second and it’s like, oh, OK, that’s all I got from here to there. But I need like shut off my brain for a second in order to make that happen. And it sounds like it felt like a really good relief. And so I’m also curious, how did you make that shift online classes and what has the reception been from students who have been engaging with you online?

Kitsie: Mm hmm. Yeah. So actually, it was all on Adam Wooley, our Director of Program. He’s just amazing. He has this kind of like this inside of things. And he was like, okay, well, we should do online classes. And of course, I’m like, well, we could do juggling. But it’s like, you know, I’m like, oh, what does that look like? And. Yeah. You know, it’s kind of weird. And so, you know, I followed his lead, definitely. And he was absolutely correct in having this this thing. And so we decided to do to use Zoom as our platform, as a lot of people are. And we are doing adult and kids classes. And so the thing that’s kind of fun about it.

So I monitor a lot of the classes and that’s just, you know, making sure if somebody is having problems with technology or just anything else like that. That as well as safety, if there’s people who shouldn’t be in there, you know, whatever, it may look like that I can kind of help them out and that the teacher is just really focused on teaching. And, you know, at first we did some recordings and that way that people could kind of take a five minute video and be like, OK, this is how you kind of juggle. And a lot of that, I think it was really great for some people in our community because they could see their favorite teachers and they can watch it at anytime. There’s that. But, you know, especially with circus and theater, it’s this idea of that it’s live and it’s very real. And so it it made more sense just to have live classes where teachers and students could interact with each other. And what we’re kind of finding as we go deeper in this kind of rabbit hole of online virtual classes is that the community is then the students in the class are interacting with each other. We’re helping to facilitate that. And that’s something that would organically happen in class where, you know, you have a teacher, you have student, you have these things that they’re doing and that they’re learning, especially in younger children. There’s that parallel play in adults. There’s just kind of that, you know, you have that kind of social lubricant of feeling like, OK, we have a task to figure out how to get from point A to point B together or you know what not we’re working out. We’re working hard. You’re spotting me, whatever it may be. And then, you know, there’s kind of like these little things that you learn about people on these these connections that you’re making, right?

And I would say that a lot of the quarantine, what I hear and what I see obviously experienced very personally is that that’s that thing of like those serendipitous like, spur of the moment connections that are just they’re small and they’re little, but they’re just kind of new connections and there’s just something that happens in your brain and in your, you know, spirit that kind of lights up when those things happen. And I go, yeah, my dad was also in computers or, you know, just really we heard things like that where you learn about other people or just, you know, just human connections. And it could be very simple.

Katy: Yeah, I think people are so yearning for that connection. You’re so right. And like, how do we do that when so often that connection is physical or, you know, what I’m struggling with, as I know many people are. Is that as amazing as technology is, like Zoom? Thank goodness we’re dealing with this in 2020 not 1995 is that there’s lag. You know, and there’s like weird glitches and you can’t always understand each other. And so sometimes compute this feeling of like unexpected insecurity. Like, how did I interpret that. Right. Like maybe they just forgot to unmute themselves. Like, what’s going on. So for me, it makes me all the more eager to ultimately when it’s safe to do so, be back in public space with each other. But until then, I’m curious, you know what you think the future for circus education more broadly might be? Do you imagine, have you learned things from these digital classes that you think will continue to inform your pedagogy, or do you think you’ll pivot back as soon as you can? What do you think?

Kitsie: Definitely. I mean, and I feel this like, you know, flip-flop every time a feeling like there are things that are happening in these these classes. And again, you know, it’s this thing of making it free and trying to reach as many people as we can so that it is something that’s free, that they, you know, can experience. One of the things that I find that I deal with a lot. And we do this a lot in the office. Is that a lot of people, when they call the circus school, they’re asking permission. They’re asking permission to be a participant. They ,you know, and they ask it in very different ways of being like, we’ve never done this before. So can I do it? And, you know, and it’s just kind of like our job is to say, yes, come, you know, and you’re allowed, you’re allowed to play, especially adults. And, you know, the idea that we have this new platform that people it’s very easy for them to access. You know, for the most part, coming on to the class, watching it, I see a lot as I’m monitoring, I get to kind of what I call “porch sit,” you know, and I love that of just taking in these little, tiny moments of things that I that wouldn’t be happening where it’s like there’s kids in there watching other kids.

You know, I think it’s hard as a teenager, I would hate to be a teenager right now because it’s almost like you’re walking through the world when you are on these visual platforms of classes, whether they’re Zoom or MindBody or, you know, Skype, where you’re walking through the world holding up a mirror in front of your face as you’re walking. So you’re like you’re seeing yourself real time. And it’s very weird and can be like watching myself talk. And this is weird and. And the thing, though, that we can kind of tap into some things where it wouldn’t be possible in person, like clowning. It’s really cool to kind of see yourself and play with yourself in the mirror. I mean, and with other people in the class. And that you’re all equal, right? You’re all the same kind of size screen. The teacher can easily mute everyone, that really works, especially for like eight year olds if they’re kind of. Yeah. And, you know, and to get it going, you’re in a comfortable space. That’s your home. So there’s that. So there’s a lot of, like, really great things that have adapted from this. But the challenge is still there. Right? And we try to lean into creative problem solving. Right? And there are some really funny things. And we can really say, I’ve been like, yeah, how funny is it right now when you sing Happy Birthday that everybody is not in sync at all. At all, no matter what form, you know. That can be kind of frustrating, but it can also be really hilarious, right?

And so it’s just like one of those things where I think that moving forward, some of the things that we’re looking at is that it’s it’s not going to be like when we when we closed that it was just like, OK, Friday we made the announcement and then we’re done. You’re done. You know, we had on Thursday, we had a full all these classes that ran and then we’re done. And I think that it’s gonna be a mixture. And, you know, we will probably– we’re looking forward to that. We’re going to keep doing these free online classes and these moments and creating genuine connections. And you know as well like these lessons. Right. And some of these you can take it for what it’s worth of, you know, sometimes with tightwire. We just did a thing about tightwire and it was taking chalk and drawing it on the ground and just trying to walk a balance and look at the– like your end point. Right. And there’s something kind of you could you could look at as an analogy of being like you just have to put one foot in front of the other and that’s your only job. And it’s you’re very safe. You’re not going to fall, but is just trying to keep your balance right. And it’s really fun with kids. They love that. And and it’s kind of nice to be reminded of the little things as adults right now as we kind of are, like I said, almost examining ourselves in these meetings because we see ourselves, right?

And so we think that when we really re-start and it’s safe to kind of open up, I think it’s going to be, you know, like a slow open. I think that seems like it’s the safest, um, way of doing it right, once we kind of get the green light and we’ll probably bring the cameras and the online classes into the space with some of these other people and really kind of have that mixture happen to, you know, and and, yeah, it’s it’s there’s gonna be some awkwardness. And I think it’s finding the the safety and the humor in the awkwardness. There’s a lot of things with our, uh, with with circus anyway, or with moving like a physical movement, that is awkward, right? Sometimes you’re your butt kind of lands on top of your head or you’re kind of in this position and you’re like, oh, this is not pretty. You know, and you can kind of either quickly adjust and adapt and, you know, like fix yourself or you can kind of hang out there for a little bit longer and make it a little bit where that discomfort becomes either humor or it becomes like a different kind of moment. Right. So, yeah. So it’s it’s a really interesting space to be right now.

And, you know, we had this really great moment that I saw in one of our juggling classes. And there are more of our teenagers, and the teenagers there, they’re amazing because they you know, they– I’m gonna sound really old. OK. So here goes. They just get like how this online world works. And some of the things that they are capable of doing in Zoom, I’m like, how are they doing that? Or what are where are they at? What are they doing? You know? And I had this juggling class and there were some some teens in there and, you know. It was really interesting because they were kind of communicating with each other. And later I got a, you know, just very civil or whatnot. And later I got an email from one of the mothers of the teen, a teen boy. And it was just like, oh, thank you so much. Like, he’s an only child. And, you know, and it was just kind of nice to have this late play date of sorts for our teenagers and meeting new people in a safe kind of place, you know, and later, like a couple weeks later, he brought his grandfather to the class and the grandfather was like in another like, there were palm trees, wherever he was, you know. And it was just. It’s just really amazing, these kind of moments that are happening and you get to kind of watch them and be a part of them. And I don’t know.

Yeah. So it’s just really cool. But it’s hard. It is really hard because it is this flat surface. Right. There’s two two dimensional world and we’re. And, you know, and it can be really hard when a lot of people are just watching. And then there are some people participating in there, just some people who are watching and they’re not like creepers or anything. They’re just other kids and they’re just kind of taking it in. And I think that we all, especially in this quarantine, we all kind of go through those phases. I know I do. Where I’m like, oh, I am a big participant in life. But I have found myself just being like, I’m mean, a sun on my porch and I’m just going to my neighborhood. Just take it in. This is very soothing, you know, and the same with some of these classes of just I mean, I get to be behind like a logo, right? Nobody really sees me. And but I get to kind of watch these classes and watch these people kind of interact. And, you know, I mean, to go in a little bit of another kind of world, there’s something also validating about or reassuring maybe is the right word of for as long as we had said, you know, before all of this kind of happened of being like, oh, yeah, like, you know, virtual reality is going to take over a real reality. You know, that fear of, like, people are just going to not go in and see live arts or not. I mean, and it’s I don’t even know who’s saying this, but, you know, they mean like just that chatter in media or anything like that, right?

Raina: Yeah. I mean, there are– it’s there. Yeah. And I think we’re like we’re seeing people now wanting to go back the other way.

Kitsie: And it’s like it’s not even close though where I’m like actually know a lot of people are not it’s not that they’re not doing well, but it just kind of like there isn’t a substitute, it’s not a substitute, it’s not a great substitute for it.

Raina: Yeah. So, Kitsie, what can our listeners do to help support PSCA to engage with you and keep circus alive?

Kitsie: Yeah. So we are even though we’re on this big campus and everything, we are a small business. So, you know, come to these classes that we have that you can pay or Venmo or donate for the class. And I keep telling people just to come to these come to these classes and participate. It’s this idea of like our teachers have this knowledge, you know, and they want to share it and they want to see people. It kind of opened doors and everything. And that is, you know, obviously we love having a career in the arts. And what is that going to look like in three months? What that’s going to look like in a year? We don’t. All of us don’t really know. But. Of being an audience member and being a participant, you know, and if people are capable of, you know, throwing five bucks for the class or so, that’s great, too. But, you know, it’s really seeing other people and seeing other human beings in the class for our staff as well as other people, other students, you know, that are there. And a lot of classes are kids. Classes are about a half an hour long. So just enough time to kind of get in it. And then we also have some of our other classes that are about an hour long. So just enough time, especially if you’re doing abs, more than enough time to kind of get through it. And, you know, we’re experimenting, too, with trying to get people to partner up in class and do like secret handshakes, like secret things of being like I see you, you’re my partner and I’m going to cheer you on when you’re doing your abs if I finish before you kind of things and, you know, creating these kind of relationships, you know.

But, you know, it’s hard because you don’t want to put people on the spot, it’s similar to anything of like of with audience members. Right. There’s part of us and I feel this, too. There’s part of us that feel like, well, we want to go to a webinar or go to different things online, that we just want to kind of zone out and listen, you know. And then there’s other parts where we find ourselves like saying something out loud or reacting, you know, and and getting kind of inspired or are into it, and it’s just trying to create this platform that maybe not up to us as human beings of it, you know, awesome we are in advance of, you know, kicking it up a notch up. How can you manipulate Zoom, Skype or these other things to kind of be a platform for both of those types of personalities and or moods that people have.

Raina: Yeah, definitely.

Katy: It sounds like you are an amazing job, Kitsie, and it’s so generous that you’re able to offer the classes, you know, in a sliding scale so people are able to do what works for them. So I really do encourage our listeners to check out those classes and participate, maybe even make some new friends, which is so needed in to me. So thank you again, for joining us on this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, everyone who’s listening can find fringe thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. And we encourage you to download the FringeArts app and of course, visit our website, To everybody on the call and to all our listeners out there at home. We encourage you to stay safe and stay well. We’ll talk to you soon.