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Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Ben Grinberg

Posted May 24th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we had drinks with Ben Grinberg, Artistic Director of Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, instructor at Circadium and Pig Iron, and the curator and host for Test Flights, a circus scratch night. Join our conversation about how Ben found his way into circus, the growth of contemporary circus in Philadelphia, Almanac’s 5 year anniversary celebration season, and a teaser for who you may see at this July’s Test Flights! Learn more about Hand to Hand Circus Festival, running June 28—July 1.

Also, this weekend (May 24th) check out the final performances of Communitas: Five Years Later by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre.

Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Daniel Kontz

Conversation with Ben Grinberg

[Music Intro]

Katy: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Katy Dammers, Artistic Producer here at FringeArts…

Raina: And I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager. 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, as we like to call it, is coming to a close. At the time this episode is coming out, we have just two shows left coming up in June: The Sincerity Project #3, in 2019, by Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, which runs June 4th through the 8th, and Circuit City by Moor Mother, June 20th to the 22nd.

Katy: But today, we’re looking ahead to some of the events happening just the weekend after HPFS closes. We are presenting the second annual Hand to Hand Circus Festival, with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, and with a dynamic performance by the Circadium first-year students on the 25th, called Circadium: Springboard, and then an exciting lineup of events happening June 28th through July 1st. Today, we’re chatting with Ben Grinberg, curator and host for Hand to Hand Scratch Night, also called Test Flights, and he’s the Artistic Coordinator and Theater Instructor at Circadium, and the Artistic Director for Almanac Dance Circus Theatre. Welcome, Ben.

Ben: Thanks so much.

Raina: So, our first question, as is tradition, is what are we all drinking for Happy Hour on the Fringe? Ben?

Ben: Well, it’s 2:30 pm, so I have an iced coffee, which is delicious. Thank you.

Katy: I’m drinking tea.

Raina: And I’m having a nice glass of cold water.

Ben: That’s pretty lame, isn’t it?

Katy: We’re doing our best. Doing our best in the midst of a work day on this Friday. Happy Hour will come soon enough.

Raina: Well, we’re always happy, that’s… We’re just happy with what we’re drinking.

Katy: Ben, maybe you can start by telling our listeners, how did you get started in physical theater and in circus?

Ben: Wow, okay, sure. I was a member of the inaugural class of the Pig Iron School, which was sort of my introduction to physical theater. I had done a bunch of theater in my life previous to that, but I really had no idea that you could think about creating your own work, or think about making work that didn’t start from a script. Until Quinn Bauriedel actually came, I was in my senior year of college, and I was directing… I had a crazy idea to do a commedia dell’arte version of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for the experimental theater company, because I was like “Oh, these characters are all such archetypes!” And it was very strange, but so, in order to get some commedia training, we reached out in the larger Philadelphia theater world and Quinn came in and taught a four-hour physical theater workshop on commedia for us, and I…

My mind was completely blown. I had never been exposed to anything with levels of tension or anything like that before, so I knew, Quinn and I knew that I wanted to go to the Pig Iron School and start getting really invested in physical theater, and then at Pig Iron, one of the classes you have to take is acrobatics, which at Pig Iron, which I don’t know if you know I teach at Pig Iron, and their acrobatics is definitely about coordination, getting strong and staying fit as a performer, but it’s also about acrobatics as a metaphor for all of the kinds of risk-taking you need to do in order to open yourself up to be an available performer.

So that was sort of my introduction to acrobatics and to circus, there wasn’t a real emphasis on technical circus, the technical circus world felt like a very different thing, when I started to encounter that, which I… At that time, Pig Iron had a relationship with the physical circus arts, so I was able to go and take classes there with Nick Gillette and Lauren Harries, which were some of my classmates that founded Almanac with me, and so, yeah, we got to start taking acrobatics classes and sort of just gone from there.

Raina: I am curious. You said you first met Quinn, like, your senior year of college, was that a path change for you? Did you have a different direction you were headed in?

Ben: Oh, yeah, I was about to go do Teach for America, and I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do, graduating from school. I had a strange college experience. I went for two years and sort of burnt out completely and lived in New York for a year and tried to be an actor, and realized I could come back and graduate in a year if I switched my major from Systems Engineering to Classical Studies, so I ended up graduating with a degree in Classics, and I really had no… I always knew that I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to be a performer, but I think I went through that thing that a lot of people go through, which is society and maybe some family and other things preventing me from conceiving of that as a real, viable career path, and so I was looking for anything else that I could be happy doing until I finally… yeah, I think that workshop with Quinn was the moment I realized, “Oh, no, actually this is what I really need to do with my life, so…”

Katy: Ben, since then, you’ve built kind of an incredible career as a performer, you have your own company, Almanac, and then you teach circus too.

Ben: Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of crazy. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, because… So, tonight actually is the five-year anniversary of Almanac’s first full-length show, that we performed in Philadelphia.

Raina: Congrats!

Katy: Congratulations!

Ben:  [crosstalk 00:06:10]. Yeah, awesome! And yeah, so it’s been crazy with everything that’s happened in five years, and yeah, I got really interested in the overlap between dance, physical theater and circus, and that’s really where Almanac’s work exists and that’s the lens through which I teach physical theater at Circadium, and I think, also, it’s what I bring to the acrobatics teaching at Pig Iron, so… Yeah, it’s kind of funny I teach acrobatics at the theater school and theater at the circus school, and I don’t know what that means, exactly, neither… I’m not… I don’t know. I’m not quite good enough to teach circus at the circus school or theater at the theater school, they’re just… Yeah, no, it’s great. I like being able to wear all of those different hats, so…

Katy: You really have feet in both worlds, and I feel like contemporary circus is increasingly moving in that direction.

Ben: I think so, yeah, and I think that is sort of… I think you could talk to a bunch of different people and get a bunch of different opinions about what contemporary circus is, but I think when you talk about the new circus as the roots for contemporary circus, you do talk about the desire to express something other than virtuosity inside a circus, and so when you talk about that in terms of performance, I think it’s so important to look to the art forms that have already been doing that, which are theater and dance, so…

Raina: I’m curious about what that scene looks like here in Philadelphia, because when you…I mean considering the fact that you started Almanac five years ago, Circadium wasn’t actually even a school yet, at that point. They’re in their second year now of having students, and so how has that changed for you, just in the past five years, but then also, what does that look like in other areas, and how does Philadelphia compare to other areas, even worldwide?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, all of us at Circadium are super optimistic that Philadelphia is going to become a real hub for contemporary circus on a worldwide level, and I think even nationally, that is becoming the case right now, and I don’t think that that was true five years ago, six years ago. So I think that’s really exciting, the audacity to start a serious three-year professional training program has started to attract lots of different artists. There are circus artists who are moving to the city, it feels like all the time. And that’s great, because that means there’s a community that’s starting to grow and there’s a sort of criticality that can come with that, and a sort of aesthetic proposition that can come as well, with time, which is something I’m really excited about. It’s something I think Test Flights is really trying to nurture, Test Flights/this Scratch Night. What was the original question?

Raina: I’m just thinking about how it’s kind of changed over the past five years and also how Philadelphia stands within that worldwide community.

Ben: Yeah. Philadelphia’s definitely in… I think in the circus world, there’s… You know, in all the different art worlds, there are these gravitational centers and Philadelphia is sort of in the larger orbit of Montréal. I think we get a lot of contemporary circus companies that come through because they’re touring to Montréal, or that are based in Montréal, but come to Philadelphia because it’s close and Montréal really is a world capital for the art form and for contemporary circus, and we’re lucky that we’re a seven and a half hour car ride away, so it’s still accessible for us to get up there. But yeah, we’re… I think… Okay, so six years ago… I don’t know, I always think of it like actually recreational circus schools are kind of a new thing in general in the United States, like now, you can sort of say “I’m going to take an aerial class”, or “I’m going to take a silks class”, and people sort of know what that means, maybe people need a little bit of an explanation, but that’s relatively common, and I feel like ten years ago, that just wasn’t the case.

And so, yeah, there’s really been this explosion of recreational circus in the United States, and I think that was partially due to a lot of reasons I mean the success of Cirque Du Soleil, and sort of people seeing the… Yeah, this physical virtuosity in performance through that and people getting interested in it, but now all through the States, you have a lot of recreational studios that have opened, and then you have people who go through the ranks and learn all of the things they can learn at these recreational places, and then they want more, and they want to know how to turn what they’re doing, which has been a really straightforward learning of technical tricks, it’s not [inaudible 00:11:21], it’s really tough, it’s fulfilling and it’s self-actualizing and all of that, but then they want to say “Oh, what can I do with this now? It doesn’t just feel like a show that has ten different people all performing the same tricks in slightly different costumes with different music, right? How can I start to really innovate inside of this form and start to express myself with it?”

And so that’s where we are now on a cultural moment of… There are lots of people who have a lot of technical skills and want to start to become artists, and I think that’s where Circadium comes in, it’s how do we yet take people who have been training in circus, maybe their whole lives, a lot of these young people have been doing circus since they were four or five and are coming to Circadium when they’re 18 or 19, and so have incredible technical vocabularies and know how to perform in a sort of more traditional showmanship kind of way, but how do we give them the tools to be able to create work that really says something and is meaningful to them and to audiences and is sort of vital for the world? Yeah, again I feel like I didn’t really answer your question, I just went off on a different tangent!

Raina: I thought that was all great commentary.

Ben: Yeah, five years ago, Philadelphia school-

Raina: Can I just give you maybe one more question? What made you start Almanac as a dance and circus and theater group when that wasn’t as big five years ago?

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, okay, so I was at the Pig Iron School, with such giants as Jenn Kidwell and Scott Sheppard and Jess Conda, all the people who are here for High Pressure Fire Service, and a classmate of mine, Nick Gillette and I started to get really interested in acrobatics, and we started to look at… “What if we could create a language of storytelling that was acrobatic inherently?” And we got inspired by some videos that another classmate, Justin Rose, was sharing with us because he had some connections to the contemporary circus world, and we started watching some videos from some French companies, like [inaudible 00:13:37] and some 7 Fingers videos and performances we were able to see, and we also were learning about clown at this moment on our, you know, Pig Iron track, and so we were really interested in this idea.

“Okay, what if we could just play ourselves and not have any real performative character-based artifice, and what if acrobatics can become kind of like task-based choreography, and so it was really hard for us. We were very, sort of thought of ourselves as folk artists in this way, we didn’t have any real technical training, but we were like, “We can learn how to do this”, right? So it really was us self-teaching ourselves in a studio for many, many hours, sometimes biting things off, like clips we found on the internet, and sometimes just contact improvising until we found some kind of lift or something that we thought was interesting, or some kind of balance, and because we didn’t really have any technique and because these things were so new to us, I think the performance of them felt really new to an audience, and then one thing that people have always said about Almanac is that we really…

The work that we make lives in this place that just vibrates between the kind of risk that makes them really concerned for the performers and also this place where they’re like, “Okay, I get that there’s some craft and some artifice around this risk”, but definitely that thing that I think a great circus does, which is it puts you on the edge of your seat, and I think the thing that you realize which was really awesome is that you don’t have to be doing the best tricks in the world in order for audiences to be engaged in that way. Actually, if you’re approaching your own limits, and if you’re testing them, if you’re letting that be seen, that’s just as exciting or can be just as exciting for an audience as seven back-tucks off a Russian swing.

Katy: But I like what you’re saying, Ben, about circus being… I think it’s so enticing for people because on the one hand, people are doing amazing virtuosic things that an average person probably looks at and is like “Oh my God, I could never do that. I could never balance in that way, I could never juggle 20 balls at the same time.” But at the same time, they’re also, as an audience member, being like “I can see myself in those people, like what would it mean to get myself there?”, or “I do know the feeling of a fear of falling, even if it’s just down the stairs”, and so circus is kind of this fascinating balance between something that’s so out of this world and yet something that is so deeply human.

Ben: Exactly, and when I think about one of the reasons why I’m interested in continuing to make circus, I think it’s because now Cirque Du Soleil, just to, you know, hate on them for a little second, not really, it’s all based in love, but it becomes so great because their shows are so amazing, they’re so spectacle-based, but for me, there’s something that’s lost, because there’s not really a sense of intimacy.

I think the scale of the production value and some of these really elaborate costumes that sort of obscure the humanity of these people. If you see people do five back flips, they sort of seem… It’s almost like you’re watching a movie, it’s almost as if it’s a special effect, right, and you don’t really get to feel breath, you don’t get to be connected with those people in any kind of human way, often, and so I think that’s why there’s a movement now in contemporary circus, to make things that are smaller in scale and more intimate and let audience members more directly interact with performers as people.

I always tell a story because when we were first making Communitas, we heard… I think it was Totem was in town, and we just overheard someone recount the story of being outside after a show, and they were like “I want my money back! If I’m going to pay that much money for a ticket, that juggler better not drop any balls!” I mean, that’s so funny, because it’s like, “Right, how have we come to a place where we watch circus performances in Cirque Du Soleil, and we expect perfection, which is the opposite of humanity, right?”

You know, there’s nothing human about getting it exactly right every single time, and for me, and I think for a lot of contemporary circus artists, the moment where something goes wrong, the moment when you drop a ball is the most important moment, it’s the moment when you can really be let in, and I think that’s to discount any traditional circus lineages, because I think lots of really traditional circus families have such an artistry around crafting that sense of “Okay, we’re going to do something and it’s going to seem really hard for us, and we’re going to craft that experience”, and the artifice around that is really useful and traditional and has been honed over many years, but I think it’s easy, for whatever reason, for artists to forget that and to say “I need to only do the things that are technically the most challenging”, so, yeah. Just reminding audiences and maybe artists sometimes of humanity.

Katy: Yeah. Well, speaking of the artists that you’re working with, tell us a little bit about who we might see on Test Flights..

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, there have been a couple of Philadelphia-based companies that have been operating for a while, in sort of circus adjacent landscapes, and so I’m really interested in bringing their work into dialogue with contemporary circus, as it sort of comes from a more traditional circus background, so I’m really interested in creating a night where we might see a performance by Tribe of Fools, which is a parkour-based theater company, or Brian Sanders’ JUNK, alongside some artists whose work is really going in the other direction from a really strong technical circus background into interpretive expression.

And so hopefully 3AM Theater, which is a new circus company that’s based in Philadelphia that is Kyle Driggs and Andrea Murillo, will be involved in Test Flights, and also Open Ring Circus, which is an interesting new circus collective that’s based in Philly. They’re making a piece about the Hartford Circus Fire, which is super interesting, because the combination of documentary, historical theater and circus is one that I think is super challenging, and I’m really interested to see how that piece grows and progresses. And you may end up seeing something from Almanac during Scratch Night as well, so… Yeah.

Katy: I know Almanac has so many things coming up as well, you want to tell us a little bit about all that’s on your plate for that.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely, so I mentioned earlier, this is actually the five-year anniversary of our first full-length work, so we’re in the middle, now, of our run of Communitas: Five Years Later, which has sort of been a reimagining and a reinvestigation of that first piece, and that is… I think there are two more performances, May 24th and 25th at the Funicular Station, and then on Sunday, on May 26th, we actually have a pretty giant outdoor family fitness, arts and culture fitness festival, and I think it’s really like FringeArts and Almanac and everyone’s sort of humming on the same lines here, because I think the Circus Midway that will be a part of Hand to Hand…

These invitations for the public to come and try these circus things, I think are such an important part of circus programming, because it’s just like what you said, when we watch circus artists, we do put ourselves in that place, and we imagine ourselves as these people who are taking on these incredible things and we really just naturally want to try it, so FitFest is going to be really great. We’re going to have participatory workshops from Almanac and from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, and juggling and wire-walking and acrobatics and also hip-hop fundamentals and the Old City Sweethearts, and dance and some martial arts forms…

Basically, anything that encourages you to creatively move your body will be there, and anyone can come, all ages, and it’s free, and then in the evening, we’re going to have some performances onstage overlooking the Delaware River in Penn Treaty Park, so we’ll have a special encore performance of Communitas: Five Years Later, and some performances from Circadium and other circus artists as well, and a few dance companies, so it’s going to be great.

And then, in June, we’re remounting the newest version of Almanac’s ensemble-devised solo show, featuring Nicole Burgio, which is called XOXO Moongirl, and it’s one of my favorite pieces we’ve ever made. It’s just Nicole and live music by Mel Hsu, and is a circus theater examination and processing of Nicole’s history of growing up in a house with domestic violence and physical abuse, and so… Yeah, there’s like a proposition for circus aerials, handstands and dance to be really used in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever used it before in my work, or I’ve seen often inside of that show, so I’m really excited to remount that, and then we’re taking it to Edinburgh in August, so I’ve got to hope that goes well.

Raina: Because you guys were in Mexico too, right?

Ben:Yeah, yeah, actually, yes, so XOXO Moongirl, Nicole was so mad at me when I told her that I told the producers that she would be performing the whole show in Spanish, but she learned the whole show in Spanish and we performed it in Mexico City, and also created an ensemble-devised work with emerging professional circus artists in Mexico as well, while we were there, so, yeah. Hopefully we’ll be going back again in the next Winter, so…

Katy: Awesome.

Ben: Yeah.

Raina: This is a little bit of just a divergent question. This idea of also speaking in circus theater, because I feel like so much of circus is that your body tells the story, and so I’m really curious, like, what… Is this one of the first pieces where, you know, also it’s like a solo show, so, like, what’s that process like building in text and language around the work?

Ben: Yeah, well, for Almanac, our first show, Communitas, didn’t have words in it, and then we started using words pretty much right after that, and I think that is something that’s really interesting, because so much contemporary circus doesn’t use any words, but some does, and… Yeah, so why do we do that? I think… Sometimes I see some contemporary circus shows and it feels like the artists have a really deep relationship with the subject matter that they’re trying to address, or they are addressing through their work, and it just doesn’t come across clearly to an audience because somehow the language isn’t as specific as verbal language can be, and so I think if you want to make work that’s really personal, it’s really about complex ideas that aren’t embodied and don’t start from a somatic place, and I don’t understand why you wouldn’t use words, actually.

I feel like, lots of times, not using words makes things feel distant and feel unclear, and if you feel really strongly about what you have to say, you should say it, and I think that circus is a really great way to express a lot of things, and sometimes it’s just not the best way. So, for example, in XOXO Moongirl, one thing Nicole says is “Last year, my dad hit my mom”, you know, and I think you could see a theatrical dramatization of that, but it’s not the same thing as being able to understand how Nicole feels about that by hearing her relate that to an audience, and so after that detail was clear, the movement that comes afterwards can be grounded and contextualized in a way that makes it reach an audience more, I think, than if that was never there in the first place.

Raina: Yeah. And I think it’s very much an ongoing thing that we have just within the contemporary art sphere, you know, not every artist wants to explain their work in the same way and so a lot of times, and people want the art to speak for itself, but it doesn’t always translate the same way, and sometimes having that language jump can help people get there much easier, or just possibly like more effectively, depending on what it is you’re trying to convey.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely, I think so. I mean, yeah, I think some contemporary dance suffers from this thing, which is that it’s quite academic and quite hard to understand for an uneducated viewer, and so I think one thing about circus is that it’s sort of always been a popular art form, and I think that it should stay that way. I think it should be the sort of thing that anyone can kind of come in and understand, so…

Katy: And contemporary circus rides this line between having a narrative, which sometimes can be a really easy way in for people, but also in terms of traditional American circus, it’s often a display of physical feats, which doesn’t always have a narrative. So I think contemporary circus is pulling from many different genres to create something that is interdisciplinary and has many different ways that an audience member could engage with it, which is cool.

Ben: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s one reason why, when we do Test Flights at Circadium, it is an interdisciplinary works in progress show, so we have dance, theater, spoken word, music and circus all together, because it’s so true. All of us need to see each other’s work, we need to be inspired by each other.

Katy: Yeah, and likewise, why we include circus in our programming at the Fringe, so it’s all very good. And what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations, Ben? We ask everybody on the podcast this question.

Ben:  Oh, my goodness… Yeah, I was prepared for this and I still don’t really have great answers. Okay, so lowbrow inspiration, I think I can answer because I’ve been a little bit obsessed recently with shitposting.

Katy: So for our listeners, explain what that is.

Ben: So, shitposting is basically, like, innocuous sort of trolling of people on social media, like it is trolling, but it’s not like white nationalist trolling, or anything like that, it’s like…

Raina: Great!

Ben: Yeah. I mean, I’m in a group called “Fishtown Shitposting,” and it really is just a place where people can come and make mostly absurdist comments about this other Facebook group (I’m a Fishtown resident) which is called “Fishtown is Awesome, Old, New, Everyone,” and so, you know, where is the steam valve for society when we all have to behave decorously on these neighborhood Facebook groups, and someone’s like “Oh, somebody bumped into my bumper and I’m calling 911”, or whatever, you know, you can go and you can sort of let off the steam by making shitposts. And, yeah, so I’m really… I think shitposting is awesome, and I really am interested in what live-action shitposting would be, and how that could translate to performance, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time in some shitposting spheres.

And then in terms of highbrow, I really love the contemporary circus company Finzi Pasca Company. I’ve seen a handful of their works and the way that they integrate spectacle, storytelling and heart into everything and make it sort of really inspiring. They made a show called Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, which was sort of Daniele Finzi Pasca’s relationship to this, to Chekhov and all of the themes that are in Chekhov’s work, exploded into contemporary circus, and it was really a moving piece, and, yeah, I don’t know… We just performed at a benefit with the PA ballet, and now I definitely want to go and take ballet classes, so I don’t know what that’s about, but that’s another highbrow inspiration right now.

Katy: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.

Ben: Yeah, thank you so much, it was super fun.

Raina: So, we will be having Ben Grinberg back here on July 1st, so Monday at 7 pm, and we’ll be hosting Test Flights, and we’re excited to see what that lineup of artists will be.

Katy: Yeah, and in the meantime, check out the rest of our Hand-to-Hand Circus programming, join us for our midway the Sunday before on June 30th and performances by a number of other companies. In the meantime, make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and to download the FringeArts App.

[Music Outro]

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Ben and Sydney Camp

Posted May 10th, 2019

On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, listen to Team Sunshine Performance Corporation artist Benjamin Camp discuss getting older with his four year old daughter Sydney, featuring some dynamic costume changes and a rendition of Let It Go from Frozen. Read more about The Sincerity Project #3 (2019), running June 4–8 at FringeArts. Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.

Feature Photo by Jen Cleary. Pictured: Ben and Syndey Camp in the second iteration of The Sincerity Project (2016).

Conversation with Ben and Sydney Camp

[Music Intro]

Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe! FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara Calem, Audience Engagement Coordinator at FringeArts. I 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 works series dedicated to local Philadelphia artists called High Pressure Fire Service (or HPFS) is in full swing. At the time this episode comes up, Pig Iron Theatre Company’s A Hard Time will be wrapping up, and you can actually still buy tickets for A Hard Time. It wraps up this Sunday, May 12, and then we’ve got two more HPFS shows going through June. But before we head on into this week’s episode, I’m joined by a very special guest. Special guest, can you say who you are?

April: Hi I’m April Rose, and I’m the Fringe Festival Coordinator.

Tenara: Amazing. So April, you’re joining me today to let our listeners know about a special program that they can be a part of, correct?

April: Yes! So this is a program that we’ve created this year to make up for some losses in microgrant opportunities for artists. So there’s lots of artists participating in the Fringe Festival, and we want to make sure they have access to funding, so we created something called the 2019 Independent Artist FestiFund. So – fun combination of Festival Fund.

Tenara: Yes!

April: So we are crowdsourcing funds and working with some community partners to fundraise for independent artists participating in the festival. Artists can register to be supported by the FestiFund on our website under the Artist Resources tab. We ask you to go to festifund.wedid.it. The Independent Artist FestiFund is a project of Culture Trust Greater Philadelphia – so we thank CultureTrust. Go online to donate and if you’re an artist, head to our website to see how you can apply for some funding.

Tenara: Amazing! And when is the Festival registration deadline for independent artists for the Fringe Festival?

April: Independent artists should register by June 3rd. If you’re still looking for a venue, things like that, I can certainly help you, so hit me up at april@fringearts.com and I can help anyone out interested in registering.

Tenara: June 3rd is coming up! Oh my gosh, so many things going on.

April: Yes, and there’s lots of ways you can participate – as a visual artist, as a digital artist, you can register your poetry performance. It’s not just theater and dance.

Tenara: Awesome. Thank you April! So now we’re going to zoom back a bit to High Pressure Fire Service, out of Fringe Festival land and back to HPFS. I want to give some context about this podcast episode, which you will notice has a bit of a different tone. So we’re gearing up for Team Sunshine Performance Corporation’s third installment of their 24 year performance experiment, The Sincerity Project. The show, which draws material from its creators real lives, follows the seven-person ensemble through the passage of time. As the piece reflects on aging and growing older, we thought it might be interesting to get one of the creators, Ben Camp, in conversation with someone who’s at a very different life stage than he is – namely, his four year old daughter, Sydney.

So in this episode you will hear many things – cats, some tunes from Frozen, four year olds leaping around the house, Sydney’s mom, and tricycles. Listen in on the sweet pre-school musings on what it means to be older, and also to be Elsa.

Sarah (Sydney’s mom): But this is one of the harder things to do on a kid’s head.

Sydney: Play!

Tenara: Play?

Sarah: Play what, what are you asking, Sydney?

Sydney: I was asking play.

Sarah: Like do you want to play? Instead of me doing your hair?

Sydney: Uh huh.

Sarah: Okay, guess what, I’m going to be done in about one minute. Can you wait one more minute?

Sydney: Yeah.

Ben: You can say, good job, mom, thanks for your help.

Sydney: Good job, mom.

Sarah: You’re welcome, kiddo.

Tenara: Have you ever seen your mom or your dad perform in a show at FringeArts before?

Sydney: No.

Ben: Did you see me in a show one time?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: What show was that? Do you remember?

Sydney: No.

Tenara: What was it like watching your dad perform in a show?

Sydney: Um. I think it was fun.

Tenara: You think it was fun?

Sydney: And just like a little boring because we didn’t get to play!

Tenara: Yeah, that’s tough.

Ben: That can be a real problem with shows.

Sydney: I go to Elaina’s show with Nana one time and when I just got to sit it was boring but when Nana let me take off my shoes and get to dance and like play during the show, it was more fun.

Ben: My sister Elaina, her show had a sensory-friendly/relaxed performance evening and that was lots of fun.

Sarah: Alright Sydney, guess what. You did it. You have double braids that look incredible.

Ben: They do look incredible!

Tenara: That’s so good!

Ben: Whoa.

Sydney: I’m the teacher, you two are the students.

Ben: So Sydney, let’s do a couple more questions and then we’ll play school or we could try to do them at the same time, but if we could do at least one more question before we play school, that might be good.

Sydney: …How was your day?

Tenara: Oh that’s a really nice question to ask, my day so far has been pretty good, but I actually have a question to ask you.

Sydney: What?

Tenara: Well, this is an interesting moment, right, because your dad is working on a show that as far as I know right now they’re talking about getting older, so I thought maybe I could ask you some questions about getting older. Do you remember being a baby?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: What do you remember about it?

Sydney: It was fun.

Tenara: It was fun? What was fun about being a baby?

Sydney: Because I love crying.

Ben: Yeah, when you pretend to be a baby now, you do a lot of crying.

Tenara: You remember crying when you were a baby? What’s the first thing you remember?

Sydney: Um…crying.

Tenara: Crying? Ben, what’s your earliest memory?

Ben: My mom – [to Sydney] I see you, you’re sitting on the table, I’m letting you get away with it. My mom was an opera singer, and she was in an opera in which someone utilized a firearm and she passed away. And 30 seconds later, in the opera, she is resurrected.

Sydney: I’M ON THE TABLE.

Ben: I see that. But I, I became hysterical.

Sydney: MAMA, I’M ON THE TABLE.

Tenara: How old were you?

Ben: Like two and a half or something? I became hysterical and they had to take me out, and so I never saw the part where she was resurrected. So I remember being in the car with my like – I don’t remember who it was, with someone in my family, but not my dad – being sad that my mother was gone forever, but also being happy that I was allowed to play with the steering wheel. So that’s my earliest memory.

Tenara: So both of your earliest memories are crying.

Ben: Yes! I was hysterical. And then my mom came back and I was like, I was super thrilled.

Tenara: I bet.

Sydney: Would you like to play?

Tenara: You wanted to play school? You wanted to be the teacher. Is that something you want to do when you get older?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: Have you thought about it at all?

Sydney: Yes.

Tenara: Sometimes it’s okay not to think about it.

Ben: What kind of things do you like to do, Sydney?

Sydney: Um play fair!

Tenara: Play fair? Like play like you’re at a fair? Is that what you mean? What kind of things are at a fair that you like to play with?

Ben: How many fairs have you been to? When did you start going to fairs?

Sydney: Let’s play!

Tenara: I know, you really want to play. You’re really jonesing to play.

Sydney: Let’s play doctors!

Ben: That’s far more common than teacher. Go get your doctor kit, Syd.

Sydney: I can’t get down.

Ben: Well, you got up, so you gotta figure out how to get down. One time, like a year and a half ago, I mentioned like, ‘oh when you’re a grown up and you don’t live with us, you can get whatever pet you want’, and she like, totally teared up and was like, ‘I’m not going to live with you?!’

Tenara: Yeah, I used to get scared about moving away from my parents and living somewhere else.

Ben: With this economy, you’ll never move out! Sydney, can I ask you a question? Do you remember when you were in a show with me? When we were in a show together and we were kind of like under the stage? And we would peak in and see the people getting ready? And sometimes you got to eat a donut? And then we went onstage and we waved at the people and you got to hang out with Aunt Rachel? That was in the second version of the Sincerity Project.

Sydney: No!

Ben: You don’t remember that?

Tenara: I remember seeing that show, Sydney, but it was for one of the performances that you weren’t there.

Sydney: Were you there?

Tenara: I was there, but it was for one of the performances that you weren’t there for. There was a pillow, instead!

Ben: Oh that’s right. Was it during the day, or was it late at night?

Tenara: It was like 11:30, it was one of the late night performances. And I was like oh, look at the pillow that’s supposed to be Sydney.

Ben: You don’t remember that because it was over two years ago. So you were only one and a half. You were very small.

[Sydney coughs. A cat meows.]

Ben: Ah, the sounds of my house. Coughing, meowing, the dishwasher.

Sydney: Now I’m a bad guy.

Tenara: Sydney, do you ever think about what your dad might have been like when he was three years old?

Sydney: No.

Tenara: Did you know that your dad used to be three years old?

Ben: Did you know that I used to be a kiddo?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: Have you seen pictures of him when he was a kid?

Sydney: Did I?

Ben: Maybe only a little, like at Nana’s house or at Granddad’s house.

Sydney: How old was I then?

Ben: Good question. I don’t really remember a specific incident, so I don’t know.

Sydney: [to Tenara] Do you know?

Tenara: I have no idea.

Ben: Yeah, I think maybe not a lot of pictures. It’s kind of hard to imagine that your parents were kids, huh?

Tenara: Let me ask you another question. Do you like getting bigger?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: What’s your favorite thing about getting bigger?

Sydney: Um…look how strong I am! [flexes her muscles]

Tenara: Whoa so strong!

Ben: Wait, show me again.

Sydney: [flexes her muscles]

Ben: So strong. How did you get so strong?

Sydney: Cause I’m three and a half.

Tenara: How strong do you think you’re gunna be when you’re four?

Sydney: Stronger.

Ben: When’s your birthday?

Sydney: March 8th.

Ben: And on March 8th how old will you be?

Sydney: Four.

Ben: That will be very exciting.

Tenara: That’s big. That’s really big.

Ben: Do you think we will have a birthday party?

Sydney: Yeah.

Ben: What friends should be at the birthday party?

Sydney: Everyone but not the bad guys but Gray.

Ben: Okay. So not the bad guys but yes Gray.

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: (to Ben) Do you still have birthday parties?

Ben: For myself? I love birthdays. I think birthdays are great.

Sydney: You should come to my birthday!

Ben: I will absolutely come to your birthday.

Tenara: That’s so nice to invite Dad to your birthday!

Ben: Thank you for the invitation. I definitely plan to attend.

Sydney: Let’s go upstairs to play now!

Ben: Well, I think we’re going to hang out downstairs because Tenara’s still here. I love birthdays, I think birthdays are the best. I think everyone should get a week during their birthday.  Sydney, do you remember when you saw me pretending to be somebody, and I was pretending to be someone angry? Remember that part?

Sydney: Tell me about it.

Ben: So I was onstage and I was pretending to be very angry and you thought that that was an exciting part.

Sydney: Who were you?

Ben: I was playing Fidel Castro. In an unlikely turn of events.

Sydney: Who were you in the game?

Ben: When I was in the play? I was pretending to be a person named Fidel Castro. He’s a famous person from another country, and I was pretending to be that person but it was more complicated than that.

Tenara: He’s pretty famous for being pretty mean and angry.

Ben: And that show was about 90 minutes long, and she made it through 35 or 40 minutes of it, which is pretty good!

Tenara: That is pretty good! Which is your favorite kind of show to watch, Sydney, is it one where your parents are on stage or one where you get to watch with your parents in the audience?

Sydney: With my parents in the audience. [climbing on Ben] Okay! Grab on! Pull it off!

Ben: What’s your favorite show that you’ve ever, ever seen?

Sydney: Um, Elaina’s show that I went to with Nana, it was cool.

Ben: That was cool? What was cool about it?

Sydney: STOP IT.

Ben: I’m doing what you told me to. You’ve gotta be more specific about your instructions.

Sydney: STOP IT.

Ben: But you have to tell me what you want.

Sydney: BUT I WANNA GO DOWN.

Ben: Oh. Well, thank you for communicating that. I can’t read your mind. What was your favorite part of Elaina’s show?

Sydney: My favorite part was when Elaina got to be in there.

Tenara: Seeing Elaina onstage?

Sydney: Uh huh!

Ben: If Elaina hears this she will melt. I think Elaina liked having you at the show too.

Sydney: Now pull up!

Ben: You want me to pull up now? Sydney, I have one more question for you.

Sydney: What?

Ben: Who’s your favorite character to pretend to be?

Sydney: Ummm…Elsa.

Ben: I knew you would say that.

Tenara: Elsa from Frozen?

Ben: Can you show us some Elsa?

Tenara: Oh yes please yes please.

Ben: Can you show us some Elsa?

Sydney: Yes.

Tenara: Elsa’s the one with the magical powers, right?

Sydney: Yes.

Tenara: Okay. I saw that movie once or twice.

[Sydney goes to her costume drawer to prepare for Elsa]

Ben: So Sydney’s favorite thing to do right now is costume changes. On an average day she changes into probably 10 outfits and costumes. It can get up to 20 or 30. It’s constant.

Tenara: How many costumes do you have in there, Sydney?

Sydney: A lot!

Tenara: A lot. How many costume changes have you done in a row?

Ben: I guess Bienvenidos was a lot of costume changes. Cause most of the Team Sunshine shows weren’t costume heavy until Bienvenidos. So that was the most costume changes I’ve ever done in a long time.

Tenara: So I asked Sydney what her favorite thing about getting bigger was and she said it was getting stronger, but I want to ask you what your favorite thing is about getting older.

Ben: That’s a harder question from this age. I don’t know that I am getting stronger. For me personally – and I don’t think this is going to be true for everybody, but I have felt like a parent since I was 14.

Tenara: Are your siblings younger?

Ben: Yeah. But – we didn’t get along, it wasn’t like that. It was just something in my brain that self-categorized as like, parent for a long time before I had a kid, and so for me getting older and having Sydney has been living into an identity that I already secretly was in. For the listeners, Sydney has arrived in a princess dress on a tricycle. Are you gunna do some Let It Go?

[Sydney changes her dress again]

Tenara: And we’re back to another costume change.

Ben: Yep, another costume change. That dress was just for that entrance on the tricycle. Mission accomplished.

Tenara: So, growing into this role of a parent.

Ben: Yeah, I feel like I was meant to be 35 and a parent.

Tenara: This is your golden age?

Ben: I wonder. I wonder what will come next. I don’t know, I’ve always known I wanted to get here. To like, 35 with a 3 year old. I’m like, this is right. So I don’t really know what comes next.

Tenara: Wow. I feel like a lot of people don’t have that experience – like, they might be 35 and have a 3 year old and they’re like, wow how did I get here? Or at least that’s the cultural narrative.

Ben: Yeah, that is the cultural narrative. I don’t feel that way. I was like, how do I get to here? And I had a strategic plan, and it worked. But I think that’s also just what I bring to the table. Perhaps unusual.

[Sydney re-enters in an Elsa dress]

Tenara: Wow, that Elsa dress is beautiful.

Ben: That one’s common.

Tenara: When I was Sydney’s age, my Elsa dress was a Snow White dress, and I did birthday parties number 2, number 3, number 4, and number 5 in that Snow White dress.

Ben: Amazing. When I was Sydney’s age, I didn’t care about costumes at all, and would wear whatever was presented to me. But apparently my mother always used to say that I was going to be an executive or a director because I would never play by the rules presented, I would always adapt them and tell everybody how the rules should change.

Tenara: What do you think she’s going to be? When she gets older? If your mom can say what you were gunna be.

Ben: Maybe a gymnast – she lives to climb and jump, she lives for it. But I think – honestly, she’s incredibly observant, she just notices so much. She’s incredibly argumentative – she like gets the loopholes. She sees systems. Honestly, I think lawyer would be a great fit. She’s very observant. And she can really pick your argument apart. She’s very compelling. But I could also see her in journalism.

Tenara: I was going to say – observant, maybe science.

Ben: Yes, also science. We do lots of experiments. I could see her in science, or engineering. She likes to build and she likes to construct things. Really, anything but the arts would be great.

Tenara: Maybe this is a reductive question, but what kind of life do you hope she leads? What kind of person do you hope she grows up to be?

Ben: I mean, I hope she’s as brave and confident and powerful as she is now. I hope the world doesn’t break her down at all. Cause she’s doing pretty darn well. But when I say that I hope she’s not in the arts, I only mean that if the state of the arts in this country continues. I mean honestly, I wouldn’t advise young people to go into the arts right now.

Sydney: YOU GUYS ARE ANNA AND GO INTO THAT MUDROOM HOUSE OVER THERE TO PLAY THE GAME TOO.

Ben: We’re going to have a tiny bit more conversation.

Sydney: NO.

Tenara: I know, it’s so boring.

Ben: It’s boring. Such is the way. Grown-ups like to talk to one another. It’s how we play. Weird, huh? Will you sing a little bit of Let it Go?

Tenara: Please, please, please, please, please?

Sydney: When you guys go into the Mudroom House.

Tenara: Then you’ll sing?

Ben: Good negotiating.

Tenara: What if I go into the Mudroom House, Dad stays here with the microphone, and you sing?

Ben: If Tenara goes into the mudroom, then will you sing a little bit of Let it Go?

Sydney: Yeah.

Tenara: Okay cool I’m gunna go to the Mudroom House right now. Okay I’m in it!

Sydney: She’s the Anna and we’re the Elsa’s.

Ben: Perfect, let’s sing Let it Go together.

[Sydney brings Ben a glove.]

Ben: Thanks for this glove.

Sydney: Put it on.

Ben: This glove does not fit me.

Sydney: I think it will, try it on.

Ben: Um…what if I just put in on my fingers like this?

Sydney: No, I think it can fit you.

Ben: That’s as much as it’s gunna go on, sweetheart.

Sydney: No, I know it can fit you. I know. Try it on.

Ben: Baby, look at how big my hand is and look at how big this glove is.

Sydney: Okay, I’ll try to help you.

Ben: I really appreciate it, I just don’t think it’s a matter of desire, I think it’s a matter of physics.

Sydney: Let’s try together. Put your thumb in.

Ben: I don’t want to break this glove, sweetie.

Sydney: It’s not gunna break. It’s not gunna break, honey. You have to be in there.

Ben: That’s as much as it’s gunna go. I promise you.

Sydney: No, it’ll go more if we do something.

Ben: I have 35 years of glove experience and I’m telling you –

Sydney: Okay THERE’S your glove on.

Ben: Perfect. Alright, should we sing together?

Sydney: No I can’t, I have to put my glove on. Or maybe you’ll be an Elsa without a glove.

Ben: All that work and you just took it right back off?! Okay, I’m an Elsa with no gloves.

Sydney: You’re the partner Elsa.

Ben: Okay. I’ll always be your partner, Elsa baby.

Sydney: Thank you, partner Elsa.

Ben: You’re welcome.

Sydney: We will always make ice and snow for people except our sister Anna for people to play on and our sister Anna.

Ben: That’s very kind of us.

Sydney: We will always do that.

Ben: Even when you’re old?

Sydney: Yeah.

Ben: Okay.

Sydney: You will still be my partner Elsa.

Ben: Great. Ready to sing?

Sydney: Yes.

[Sydney and Ben sing Let it Go from Frozen.]

Sydney: Hey, where is she?

Tenara: I’m here, I’m playing with the cat but I’m listening. Do you want me to stand up?

Ben: Yeah, you need the audience. Let’s just go to the chorus! Do you know what the chorus means?

Sydney: No.

Ben: It means the ‘let it go’ part. Ready? Let it goooo. What are you doing, kid? For the listening audience at home, she’s in a full Elsa dress, including tiara and gloves. She’s using her ice powers to freeze Tenara. And I think she’s looking for her tricycle, though it’s not clear.

[Music Outro]

Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and download the FringeArts App! There’s still a couple more chances to catch Pig Iron Theatre Company’s new piece, A Hard Time, running through May 12th. Buy tickets for this and for Team Sunshine’s The Sincerity Project at www.fringearts.com. Thanks for listening!

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.

A Look Back at the History of Contemporary Circus

Posted April 19th, 2019
By Lexi DeFilippo, Communications Intern Spring 2019

This summer, FringeArts’ annual circus festival Hand to Hand returns to bring the wonder of contemporary circus to the heart of Philadelphia. In partnership with Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, the first and only diploma-granting circus program in the US, we’re excited to highlight some of the new and innovative performers taking on the circus scene. And in honor of World Circus Day (third Saturday in April, ie. April 20, 2019), we’re taking a look back at the history behind contemporary circus worldwide.

Sometimes known as new circus or nouveau cirque, contemporary circus can be perceived as an enigma. On a structural level, contemporary circus challenges the traditional circus by rejecting the use of animals, acts without any connected through line, and (in most cases) the big top tent as a performance space. Another notable difference from traditional circus is the shift in who is performing contemporary circus acts. Instead of the circus family model where skills are passed down generations to produce family units that travel with a circus and live on the road, contemporary circus productions employ conservatory-trained professionals from all over the world. These conscious steps away from the kitsch of traditional circus have helped push contemporary circus into the spotlight as a more intention-driven form of entertainment that highlights the excitement, finesse, and true artistry of the circus arts.

Contemporary circus began to emerge in the late 1960s-early 70s when groups in Australia, France, United Kingdom, and the West Coast of the United States began to combine the circus arts with more theatrical elements. One of the earliest circus companies credited with incorporating theater into their routines is the Royal Lichtenstein Circus, founded in San Jose by a Jesuit priest in 1971. They were also one of the first groups to use a one-ring format which allowed for the performers to create a more intimate connection with the audience.

This clip from their side-show in 1984 is an example of how the Royal Lichtenstein Circus used theater as a to tell stories through their performances. The choreography acts as a vessel to bring an abstract idea to life while showing off the physicality of the performers.

Another early contemporary circus group, the Pickle Family Circus, formed in 1975 by members of a mime troupe, was one of the first groups to start threading social commentary into their work. The troupe prided itself on being a democratic organization in which all of the performers received equal pay and played an integral part in the operation of the circus as well as the production. The Pickle Family Circus is known for telling a narrative with their productions and using circus acts to move the story along while keeping the audience at the edge of their seats with amazement.

This clip of highlights from their show, Cafe Des Artistes in 1988, shows off the troupe’s multi-faceted performers with the ability to seamlessly blend their circus skills with character work and humor.

As American contemporary circus continued to develop on the West Coast, Britain experienced its own circus revolution. In 1984, Ra-Ra Zoo Circus was founded in London and became recognized for being an integral part of the experimental circus movement overseas. Ra-Ra Zoo incorporated surrealism and satire into their politically-driven productions. The group also challenged the of circus by maintaining an equal number of male and female performers. Nofit State Circus of Wales was founded in 1986 by a group of friends looking for employment during an intense political climate. They developed the Nofit State Circus to act as a political reaction and outlet for creativity and expression. Similar to the American New Circus movement, these British troupes replaced animals with drama, music, and dance as integral parts of their circus productions.

The most well-known contemporary circus, Cirque du Soleil, was founded in Quebec in 1984 by street performers Gilles Ste-Croix and Guy Laliberte. The duo, which led a group of street performers, proposed to create a full-length show for the celebration of 450th anniversary of the discovery of Canada by Jacque Cartier. The show, called Circus of the Sun, was chosen to extend the anniversary celebration through a province-wide tour. Since that first tour, Cirque du Soleil has been creating new shows and touring the world ever since. The company is known for its sleek, high-end productions that use abstraction and ornate visuals that continue to push circus to entirely new heights. Cirque du Soleil is even responsible for Las Vegas on the map as a world-class entertainment hub with over six resident productions currently running on The Strip. This clip, from resident show, The Beatles LOVE at The Mirage, shows how each element of the productions is elaborately designed and constructed to bring the concept to its most heightened reality. The technical capacity of Cirque du Soleil’s state-of-the art venues is also highlighted.

Archaos, founded in France by Pierrot Bidonin in 1986, is known as being an alternative, punk circus. Although the company disbanded in 1991 due to financial problems fairly quickly after its conception, Archaos’ wild, spirited, and crazy circus left a huge impact on contemporary circus. The company brought danger into the circus in a way that was never seen before with the use of motorcycles, chainsaws, and metal deathtraps. This clip provides a taste of the debauchery that helped the rule-breaking Archaos build a cult following.

Newer companies, such as Montreal-based group The Seven Fingers, are continuing the rule-breaking rebellion of contemporary circus in the 2000s with work focused on each performer’s personal characteristics. The performers use their circus abilities to express personal stories and emotions, similar to the way modern dance embodies the human experience. Unlike the dreamworld of companies like Cirque du Soleil, The Seven Fingers create work from a realistic lens and highlights a genuine human experience. This teaser clip from the show, RÉVERSIBLE, is an example of contemporary circus with a specific kind of “stripped down” stylistic aesthetic.

These are just a few of the contemporary circus companies that helped save the legacy of the circus arts by adapting to economic, cultural, and artistic shifts in order to produce a more dynamic and forward-looking form of circus. Contemporary circus has now become a recognized and celebrated art form around the world and is accessible in ways traditional circus never was. Although some of the biggest circus companies in the world are no longer around, circus is very much alive and well thanks to contemporary circus.

At FringeArts, Hand to Hand kicks off with a showcase from Circadium’s first year students  entitled, Circadium Springboard, on May 25. The performance will showcase works by these  students who have completed the first of three years of intensive interdisciplinary study.

Swiss duo Compagnia Baccalà acts as the centerpiece of this year’s festival lineup and is bringing its world-renowned show, Pss Pss, to the FringeArts stage this June. The production, inspired by the theatrical world of Charlie Chaplin and other silent film stars, incorporates the key components of contemporary circus by using circus skills, abstraction, and humor to dazzle audiences of all ages. The pas de deux provides the perfect display of the unbelievable physicality and enchanting artistry behind the success of the New Circus movement.

There will also be an opportunity to try out popular contemporary circus skills with Philadelphia School of Circus Arts at Circus Midway on June 30. Juggling, plate spinning, and tight wire are just a few of the skills you can learn from this fun day of outdoor workshops. Then come see the skills in action during Test Flights, a circus edition of our works-in-progress series, on Monday, July 1.

Experience the tantalizing magic of contemporary circus at Hand to Hand June 28–July 1 here at FringeArts.