Features Vol. II, No. 8

 

  Big Apple’s Star Clown

 is an American Who Has Seen the World

 

Rob Torres

Rob Torres was a somewhat aimless eighteen year old in 1991, when he noticed an announcement for auditions for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.  He had been doing some theatre and was trying to decide where he wanted to go to college.   Since there was no compelling choice and he had always liked the circus, he thought “why not?”  He applied and was accepted.  The road to stardom, however, next hit a temporary road block.  He did not win a contract to join the Greatest Show on Earth, a blow that left him devastated and at a loss as to what to do next.

He went back to New York until he had saved enough money to go back to Florida to find another circus job , and before long he found himself one of the ten-man Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. clown alley.  Elmo Gibb was the producing clown for the first two of his three year stint.  At that time he wore the makeup of an auguste, but, he confesses.  “I didn’t really know what I was at the time.”  To find out, during his second year on the show he experimented with many different makeups and characters.

There was no problem in doing that on the Clyde Beatty show.  “I did white face, tramp, character clown; I probably did forty or fifty different makeups that year,” he recalls.  “Which was great because Clyde Beatty was very different than Ringling in the procedures one had to follow.  As long as I looked professional, they didn’t care what makeup I had on.  I just had to look professional.  My friends on Ringling told me they had to fill out forms if they wanted to make any changes and get approval.”  Throughout his third season on the show his makeup became more and more minimal “until it was close to my own face with a touch of white around the lips and a tiny red nose.”    He was beginning to discover his “inner clown.”

Altogether he was with Clyde Beatty for two separate engagements, three in clown alley and a second session of two years as advance clown.  In between he worked with Mike Naughton and Yankee Doodle Circus and in New York for the National Circus Project teaching in schools.  He also got to tour  Australia and went down to Mexico to spend some time to learn more about theatre and pantomime clowning from Sigrido Aguilar, the man with whom both Steve Smith and his pantomime instructor at Clown College had studied.  “There was something about what they both did that I liked,” and so he decided to study with the teachers of the teachers he was interested in.  “There was something in the way they presented their work and the aesthetic about their work that was different.”

Back from  Mexico he completed his second run with Clyde Beatty.  As the advance clown he was able to begin working on some ideas he had for shows.  That brought him in 1997 to Disney World in Orlando where he worked in every one of the various themed parks within the vast complex and  wrote a few different shows for several of them.  He performed his own material in areas where the Disney people wanted to put some entertainment where there had been none before.  “I  looked at the various spaces and designed some sort of show that would fit that space and worked there for a while,” he explains.  In effect he was a street performer, the street being a veritable studio for the development of new material.

“Disney was the beginning for me of working on the basic premise I would say for what my theatre show has become.  I was also starting to work out the cup juggling act at that time.  Some of the elements of what I am doing now came from there,” he says.

In 1999 he started to do some work in Epcot Center’s   Italian village. The premise of the show he developed there involved  building a house on stage and creating characters to live inside it.  “Everything was done on the street without a theatre, so it was basic kind of stuff,” but it allowed him to see how it felt and how it worked.  Out of that material he has built a 90 minute, one-man show that he tours all over the world. “ It’s me leaving home to go on adventures, and I find a place to build a two-story house from things I pull out of my pockets.”  The other characters who are people in the audience are his neighbors and his parents, all of whom have little bits in the show.  The best thing about it, insofar as being able to play anywhere,  is that there is no spoken dialogue so there is no language barrier.

In fact he had just come back from a two night engagement in Brazil on the day we had our conversation.   He is currently starring in the Big Apple Circus’ new production Luminocity, but he was able to make the gig in South America thanks to the two days the Big Apple Circus is dark each week.    The character he plays in his show is pretty much the same as the one he plays in the circus.  The circus character he began playing early in his career, like his makeup, slowly morphed into the character he plays today. “The circus is a way for me to keep plugging away at it when I am not doing the theater.”

The transition from traditional American clown makeup to the simple makeup consisting of little more than some rouge and eye liner was, he says, a conscious one.  “I think it was the influence from what I respected and considered to be good clowning, from people like Red Skelton, the old Jerry Lewis, Denis Lacombe, David Shiner, and  Bill Irwin and the impact they had on people in this country as far as what audiences accepted, what they laughed at, and what was considered intelligent or more sophisticated comedy.”  As a student of clowning and comedy he has studied and analyzed the widely different response he has gotten by putting on clown makeup and not putting on makeup and doing exactly the same thing.  The amount of respect he was accorded in each situation  was entirely different in this country.

“We don’t have a clown culture per se in this country, and clowns are viewed differently than they are elsewhere in the world, so for me to put on a wig and makeup and big shoes and do the exact same thing as I would without those things, some people don’t even give it a chance.”  And most amazing of all is this observation: “I can book the same gig with makeup  for one tenth that I can get without makeup, and for the most part with makeup  I would be seen as a party clown for little kids, and without makeup it’s an adult evening.  There’s nothing else different about it.  I’m still a clown.”

In Europe, it’s different, because they have more of a clown culture.  “The clowns there are paid differently, [better] and they are also paid proper respect as well.  They are the ones who do a lot of things in the show so the pay scale has to be better.  So the makeup issue doesn’t affect me either way in Europe.  It took me a little time to get through the barrier with some producers, to be able to convince them that I can do the work of a circus clown without the circus clown nose, that I can do three or four spots and be a through-line  in the show with my character.”

Now, the forty-year-old clown finds most of his circus work is outside of the states. There are not many venues that would work for him here, the exceptions being shows like the Big Apple, Flora, and maybe Ringling Gold. “ I have worked before an audience of 10,000 for a year and a half.  It’s possible, but I don’t enjoy it as much.  I like the intimacy of a little show.  So Big Apple and Flora are really it as far as circuses go.”

In Europe he has played most of the major circuses.  He is already booked for Circus Knie in Switzerland for 2015.   He very much likes the physical set up with Circus Roncalli.  “ What I like about it is that in most circuses the people who sit ringside are the VIPs, but in Roncalli  these are the lower price seats. The  VIP boxes are above in the rear.  So the people who get water spit on them by the clowns and are right there to have dirt kicked on them by the horses don’t pay very much but they are the ones with wonder in their eyes, more so than the people of privilege who come to see the show and have a certain control about them.  So the first few rows of faces that you see are filled with smiles and joy and laughter and that spreads through the tent backwards.  By design the response gets bigger and bigger as it moves back.  Whereas if you put the VIP people down front and there are lots of empty seats, and the people don’t look as if they are having a very good time, that spreads backwards, too, and keeps the energy level down a bit.  From the performers perspective, when people come in and there are no assigned seats,  it adds to the excitement, and it builds the momentum to the show.”

Two years ago Torres competed at the Monte Carlo International Circus Festival. Despite being what has been described as a graveyard for clowns, the festival provided him with one of his greatest successes, a standing ovation.  The reason it is such a difficult venue for clowns, he has concluded, is because clowns have to adjust their performance to the audience, and they need a few performances to determine what is going to work and what isn’t.  The Monte Carlo festival affords none of its competitors such a luxury.   Whereas a presentational act can do it the same every time and doesn’t need time to adjust to the space and the audience, clowns do.

Audiences around the world are different in different ways, he confirms.  Audiences in New York tend to whoop and holler.  In Switzerland, on the other hand, audiences are more willing to follow a more theatrical presentation, which is very much to his liking as well.  They let the clown take a little more time and don’t have to be so quick with gag after gag after gag.  “In New York,” he says, “it’s give it to us now, funny man; we don’t even want the set up, just the punchline.  I like both kinds of audiences for different reasons.  I like  the energy and screaming from here which I don’t get elsewhere, but I also like other kind of response.”

One of the things that is so impressive about Rob Torres circus work is that he has developed a lot of  material which he is currently living off.  “I can do two or three spots in a show and come back a year or so later and do two or three different ones.”  Even with so expansive a repertoire he is continually trying out new ideas.  “When I get free time I start to create.  I have been writing for ages, and when I have time I go back to what I have written.  It takes time for an idea to become a developed act.  I create from two different methods.  Sometimes I will be walking down a street and an idea will come to me.  Sometimes they are complete, and I write them down.  I don’t know how or when I will use it, but I continue to think about how to make it into something.  Other times I just work in a studio with some toys and just play.  Eventually, however, you need an audience.  I try to find venues where I can work on new stuff.  I think of them as workshop venues.  In New York the equivalent would be a downtown cabaret bar that doesn’t pay anything, for instance.  Or I work on the streets.  They have always been my home for working on new material.   My favorite place to work on the street in New York is Central Park.  The audiences are surprisingly better here than at Disney where the people are on vacation and expect to be entertained.  You have to work without censorship.  That’s the key.  You don’t have that in Disney, where there are lots of  rules and regulations.  The streets are my studio, and sometimes the festivals that I go to might have a late night experimental cabaret.  I seek these out.”

Now that he is sought out internationally, for Rob Torres the sting of the Ringling rejection has worn off, and it is possible to appreciate the irony that a seeming failure can provide the possibility for a much greater success.

Photos by Maike Schulz

 

 

Always the Showman, Ward Hall

Turns Himself into the Most Interesting Character in the Show

Ward Hall and his long-time partner Chris Christ

As  a sideshow entrepreneur for seventy years, Ward Hall  is well versed in the business of shocking and surprising people, even in polite social settings when he is far from the bally platform.  In a dinner one evening with a couple of married circus fans, the wife asked Ward if he had ever been married.  “No,” he replied, “but I’ve had two husbands.’  So it should come as no surprise that he was ready and eager to shock the other evening when he and Jennifer Miller, the bearded lady and founder of Circus Amok had a public conversation about Gay Life on the carnival lot.  He was, for most of the evening,  up to his usual tricks.

“I am not a homosexual,” he began by way of deflating the expectation of  hearing any revealing details of the subject under discussion.  “Neither am I a heterosexual.  I am asexual. “  And then later in the evening he capped off the discussion of his personal life with the most  the shocking revelation of all.  “I am an eunuch,”   he announced in the same tone and manner he would have used on a bally stage. By way of explanation he claims to have had an operation twenty-two years ago when he was suspected of having cancer, and as a result  he was castrated.  The only thing left to say or do at that point was to buy your ticket for the show inside.

Actually the show came before any “conversation.”  Ward did one of his ventriloquist acts.  In this version aimed at a very specific audience, the material was entirely lavender and the comedy derived from the fact that all these gays jokes were coming  (according to the illusion) out of the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

 

Ward with Pete "Poobah" Terhune, who stayed under Ward's management for 55 years.

Jennifer Miller who initiated this conversation was somewhat at a loss to steer the talk onto the announced subject , hoping for some titillating revelations of the sort she presumably had in mind when putting the program together.  But Ward would not be coaxed into anything more sensational than the “revelation” that carnival and circus people are a broad minded group which pretty much minds its own business and is not much given to being biased toward anyone based on their sexual preferences.   More than tolerance, gays were met with non-judgmental acceptance.  So lacking in personal strife or conflict was his show business life that at one point Ward was reduced to dragging out that old bromide that insists that circuses are one big happy family and if the world’s politicians would model their actions on how circus peopley manage to get along there would be no need for armies because there would be no wars.   I suppose that is shocking reverse, since it was hardly what was expected given the prejudice and antipathy which gays faced in all other walks of life during Ward’s lifetime.

So when you come down to the reality of it there really isn’t very much shocking about Ward’s personal life.  At least none he was willing to share.   He has had two long-term relationships with men.  The first lasting nineteen years right up to “death do us part.”  His current partnership will next year celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  How much more bourgeois can you get?

At Jennifer Miller’s urging  Ward did discuss prominent  drag performers whom he knew only by reputation, stars  like Zazel, Barbette, and the various “hermaphrodites” he has employed in his many sideshows, but only to confirm that they were all, indeed, men in drag.

In discussing one aspect of his life, however,  he may have revealed more than he knew.   Growing up he had almost no opportunity to associate

Ward accepts his enshrinement at Sideshows by the Seashore in Coney Island

with children his own age.  He spent most of his time earning money to help with family finances, so in effect he had no childhood.  He joined a circus when he was a young teenager, where he continued to be isolated from conventional  society.  Gunther Gebel-Williams had a similar childhood.  He wound up working with animals.  Ward Hall wound up producing sideshows.

A highlight of the evening was the announcement and dedication by Dick Zigun owner of Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore  of the Ward Hall Wall.

Photos, except where noted, by Paul Gutheil

Coming Home

Reflections on the 2013 American Youth Circus Festival

From August 14-18th 2013, 250 circus youth, educators, parents, and supporters from 3 countries, 30 states, and 50 circus organizations gathered at the USA’s largest circus school – the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts in Seattle.  They were there for the American Youth Circus Organization’s (AYCO) biennial Youth Circus Festival.  It’s hard to imagine what this gathering is like without being there – but who better to describe the experience than the participants themselves?  Below are four essays by participants from different walks of circus life – a youth circus artist, a volunteer, a coach, and a parent – who attended the festival. 

Closer to the Impossible

by Doug Stewart

  I first arrived at the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA) on Tuesday for the pre-festival intensives, I was blown away by the training space.  Three giant rooms filled with trampolines, aerial silks, German wheels and a flying trapeze rig. Soon SANCA would be filled with circus youth and adults from all over the country. After attending two regional American Youth Circus Organization festivals in New York I wanted to attend one of the biannual national festivals that the organization puts on. This year, I signed up for AYCO excited to finally see what this program was all about.

In the months leading up to the festival, the whole thing seemed to get more real. Plane tickets were purchased and intensives audition were submitted, but the idea of flying across the country from Boston to Seattle to meet hundreds of circus people still didn’t feel real to me. The festival began to feel real as I excitedly signed up for classes like “Cyr wheel” and “advanced rope”.  As I read through class descriptions and required skills I could not wait to train with the amazing coaches that were offering workshops. It hit me that I would have the incredible opportunity to work with some of the best circus artists from across the country. I had the honor of working with coaches who had attended the Quebec Circus School, the National Circus School in Montreal, alumni of Circus Smirkus and Cirque du Soleil, and coaches who had started their own circus schools around the country. For a youth circus artist, working with top of the line circus coaches was a dream comes true.

The AYCO festival exceeded my expectations in every way possible. It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to look around a gym and see hundreds of people, young and old, all doing circus. Walking down from the stairs of the “Chill Out Room” I would look to my right and see people rolling across the floors of the North Annex in German wheels. Looking right below the stairs, a unicycling class was taking place. On the far side of the room people would be learning to climb a rope for the first time. While on the floor next to the rope, kids learned to stand on each other’s shoulders. To my left people were climbing fabrics or spinning like a top on a Cyr wheel. Coaches and parents were spread throughout the room talking and watching all the classes.

Although there were a million different things happening all around SANCA a few things were the same in each class. I constantly noticed the smiles on every face in the building. As someone who has taught younger children, one of my favorite things is the smile on someone’s face when they have learned a new skill. Around the space everyone was having a great time. People from across the country all had the chance to try new skills and share what they could do. In most of my classes, I didn’t know anyone, but by the end of the class we were all friends.

The AYCO community was one of the most welcoming and friendly communities I have ever been in. From the first night’s opening ceremonies, which included activities such as making street art in groups and walking in front of hundreds of people in a ridiculous way, to training with people of all different skills levels, to something as simple as sharing a bus seat with a stranger, I never felt judged or uncomfortable. I personally think that the ability to freely express oneself is an integral aspect of circus, and one that AYCO captured perfectly.  During the festival you could see everyone was relaxed because there was no social pressure to “fit in”.  Because at the circus everyone is welcome. I think this might be one of the best things that youth circus has to offer – a place where everyone is welcome and safe.

One of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life was the AYCO youth showcase – two nights of performances by participants of the festival.  I was blown away and inspired by the incredible talent of the performers, and thrilled at the opportunity to perform. However, what inspired me the most was the audience. This audience was the most supportive audience I have ever seen. Everyone in the room was cheering one another on. If a mistake was made then the audience only cheered louder to show support for the fellow circus artist. As a high school student, I have never seen that much peer to peer support for youth before.

Another thing that was present at the festival was passion. The passion for what everyone was working on and towards. Passion for the people they work with. Passion for the circus. To be surrounded by that much unified sense of passion was an incredible experience. All the people at AYCO, no matter what age, no matter where they were from, no matter what skill level or experience all had a passion for circus.

One question I have always asked myself is, why Circus? Why do we do it? And I think the answer is that circus brings us closer to the impossible. Most people think that hanging by a single foot 15 feet in the air is impossible but for a circus artist, it is part of a daily routine. Or that juggling 7 objects can’t be done – but in circus some juggle 7 with ease.  What I find impossible is the idea of over 250 circus youth from across the country coming together and in under 5 days having the experience of a life time. I find it impossible that there can be so much support in a teenager’s world. I think it is impossible to get artists from across the world to perform on the same stage for 2 nights.  And it seems impossible for lifelong friendships to be formed in such a short time. However unlikely those might seem, AYCO brings the impossible to life. This is why I have become so drawn to AYCO. The concept that there is a circus community that is extremely welcoming, and that I feel I am an integral part of it, makes me want to keep coming back and encourage as many people as possible to experience it.  AYCO makes the impossible happen.

As the circus community continues to grow, I believe AYCO will be leading the way. AYCO is a great organization, and I was thrilled to be a part of it this year. AYCO changed my view on the circus world, and has inspired me not only to keep training to reach new levels, but to share my joy of circus with my community. I know AYCO will be something I look forward to every year!  I highly recommend AYCO for everyone, any age, and any skill level. If you decide to attended an AYCO festival I recommend two things: Bring your passion, and be ready to “Crush It”.

 Doug Stewart (18) learned he could fly five years ago and his feet haven’t touched the ground sense. As a youth aerialist circus has taken over his life. He juggles jobs with Circus Smirkus camp and Aircraft Aerial Arts while performing with the Diamond Family Circus. 

Icing on the Pinstriped Cake

by Jessica Miller

 When I first heard that I was accepted to the AYCO’s work-study program, where I would trade volunteer hours and work behind the scenes for a pass to the 2013 American Youth Circus Festival, I was ecstatic. It was actually going to happen! I spent the next two weeks waiting in anticipation for the workshop sign ups to open. I wrote the date and time on my calendar – July 12th, 5pm mountain time. I researched all the workshops and their presenters to help pass the time and sooth my anticipation. I couldn’t believe all the amazing workshops that were listed and who was teaching them! German wheel! Aerial rope with Jaron Hollander from Kinetic Arts in Oakland! Commedia Del Arte! There were so many that I wanted to take! How would I take all of them? Some of them were in the same time block – for example, Advanced Rope Transitions was in the same block as Duncan Wall’s round table discussion about where the coolest circus in the world was happening. I had just finished reading Duncan Wall’s book, The Ordinary Acrobat, and couldn’t wait to meet him. There was no way could I give up hearing him speak, but I also desperately needed to expand my rope vocabulary. Well, I decided I’d just wait and see if Jaron’s workshop filled up and then decide.

When the day finally came, I sat ready and waiting at my computer at 4:49pm. I left a little extra time, just in case the clock on my computer, which was connected to the internet clock, which, I suppose, is now the absolute clock that everyone refers to, could be wrong. The workshops opened at exactly 5pm as promised. I was able to sign up for everything that I wanted to take.

 The summer drags on painfully until August 11.  After driving 30 hours over 3 days, my mom and I arrive in Seattle. The festival is the next day. I don’t sleep that night due to excitement.

 I walk through the doors of the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts and inhale deeply. It smells of chalk and sweat, exactly as a circus school should smell! The time is 8:15. There are 45 minutes until the workshops begin and 15 minutes before work-study were instructed to arrive. I like being early. It makes a good impression. After signing in, I spot Jess, the festival program director, across the gym in her signature pink tutu. I adjust my blue bandana, which I wore proudly to identify that I was work-study, and hurried over to her to see if I could be of assistance. I don’t want to seem like a slacker already! And maybe if I am extra helpful now, Jess won’t mind if I slip away to take that Vaudeville workshop later.

As time goes on, more and more people trickle into SANCA’s warehouse-sized facility. Soon the entire building is bustling with circus people of all ages, races, and skill sets. Everyone is warming up for the classes ahead.  Hand balancers press into inverted straddle positions, clowns mingle, acrobats run laps on the enormous spring floor, contortionists sink into their first splits of the day, and LOTS of people pass clubs. I get plenty of practice dodging through passing patterns while running from one end of the gym to the other on various errands. I can feel the excitement in the air. The room is full of new friends and new skills, just waiting to be made! I spot a few old friends stretching. I would have time to catch up with them later. As work study, I have important responsibilities to take care of! I help sign people in and try my best to answer questions people ask me.

 AYCO, day four. The last workshop has just ended and I am heading into the gym to help restore it to its pre-AYCO state.

 The energy in the space is very different from the first day.  The air is hot and thick, and everyone is exhausted from the week. The long tumble track, which had previously been occupied by musclely acrobats hurling themselves through the air, is now covered with horizontal circus people. Some are having in depth theoretical conversations about their art forms, some are chatting with new friends, and most are simply snoozing. I smile. I can’t blame them. I actually feel a mild twinge of jealousy. I could use a nap. The exertion of the workshops, the late evening activities, and the bustle of work-study responsibilities has left me slightly sleep deprived. But I have more fun things to do.  I hurry to catch up with my fellow work study members as we begin clean up. We move tables, mats, tightwires, food, mats, people, papers, trash, mats. Did I say mats? We moved a lot of mats! Finally, it seems as if everything is back in its proper place, at least as close as it could be for the time being. It’s time to go home.

The workshops are what people focus on at AYCO. But they are more like the icing on a giant pinstriped cake. What the AYCO festival is really about is meeting new people and making lasting connections. You can take techniques away from the workshops and incorporate new tips and tricks into your normal circus life.  However you can’t make heaps of physical progress in the 75-minute span of a workshop with a brand new coach. That takes more time. The workshops take the spotlight and draw the most focus, but their true purpose is serving as a magnet that brings us all together under one big top.

 Jessica Miller (17) is originally from Golden, Colorado. She spent a large part of her childhood living on a boat with her parents sailing around the world. When she discovered circus, it was a natural transition from her previous occupation as ship monkey. She has been an aerialist for 4 years and has followed her dream to Vermont where she is currently part of the professional development program at New England Center for Circus Arts.  

Think Globally, Act Locally

by Lisa Godin

 The AYCO Festival was in Seattle this year. It was my first time attending the event and my first time visiting the city. There are several reasons that this particular combination struck me as incredibly poetic.

Throughout the city, two themes persist. First, art is everywhere. Posters, sculptures, murals, and even graffiti remind us that the people here possess a deep desire to express themselves and encourage others to do the same. Second, everywhere where there would normally be only a single trash can, there were three: one for what can’t be recycled, one for what can, and one for food and other compostable matter. It’s clear that Seattle takes “Think globally, act locally” to heart.

As we worked through our first day with AYCO, these themes become clearer and they begin to resonate with more intensity than I could ever have imagined. An organization dedicated to promoting the participation of youth in circus arts and to supporting circus educators, AYCO works to bring people from different communities together, to celebrate circus, to share knowledge, and to impart a greater appreciation for circus as art and as a mechanism for social change.  Some are here to teach, but all are here to learn.

Surrounded by people from other youth circuses—some social circuses like ours, others privately owned circus schools, but all centered on teaching the circus arts to children—I appreciate the genius of our organization’s founder more than ever. As it turns out, Roy Coble, was way ahead of his time when he started the Great All-American Youth Circus in Redlands, California in 1929.  He knew that circus could bring people together, that it could inspire people to achieve what they once thought was impossible, that circus could heal the soul. Roy knew that through circus, the weak could become strong, the awkward could become graceful, and the lost could become found. But even Roy Coble may not have realized that circus would become a global endeavor and that our circus could have the power to help effect that change.

The more people circus touches, especially children, the more those people recognize the value of imagination, cooperation, hard work, and achievement–the more they believe in themselves and in one another. And the best part is that they take these values with them wherever they go. They have faith in themselves and they work with others to achieve things some would only dream of. And if we’re lucky, they share their stories and their skills with others, fostering the same kind of wonder and amazement that enchanted them in the first place. Thinking globally is what AYCO is all about, extending the reach of each group’s circus to others across the country and across the globe, helping them share tricks, techniques, and perspectives while nurturing circus as an art form.  AYCO is about thinking globally and acting locally. Each circus can make a difference. Each person can make a difference, and everybody should try.

As both a sport and an art, circus generates a rare intimacy amongst its members. As a result, each circus, no matter how big or small, becomes a family. Each circus serves its community by providing enrichment of the body, mind, and spirit, as well as entertainment for the senses, but the reach of a single circus only extends so far. AYCO helped me realize that circus itself is a family, a living art form, and for it to grow and flourish, we must nurture each other. We must think globally and act locally.

 Lisa Godin is President of the Community Circus Arts Corporation (CCAC), which supports the Great Y Circus in Redlands, California. She is also a Head Trainer, performer, and Circus parent.

Finding Her People

by Beth Ching

 My daughter McKenna found circus and aerial through a local circus summer day camp. She fell in love with the trapeze, the Spanish web, and eventually, the silks. Her form and technique can be flawless, but there has always been something holding her back – her fear. No release or fallbacks on trapeze, no drops on silks. She wanted to advance but her fear blocked her. Different teachers, different gyms, it didn’t matter. She was her own worst enemy up on that equipment. And then, she wanted to try the flying trapeze.

The owner of the circus studio where she trains told us about the AYCO Festival last winter. “You should go,” she said, “she’d have a great time, meet new people, try new things, like flying trapeze.” I looked online – Seattle. The festival was going to be across the country – literally. “She could perform in the showcase ,“ her instructors told us. “It would be so good for her,” they insisted. Over the next few months, she worked on a trapeze routine, chose her music, her costume. We booked our flights, our hotel.  Her granddaddy decided to join us, from North Carolina. About a month before the festival, she decided she needed her coach to be there to spot her on-stage. I knew he would be able to keep her calm, pull her best out of her. So again, I made reservations, planned a cross-country trip for the fifth member of our little circus party.

 Sign-ups for workshops were next. I found myself poised in front of a computer during a family wedding, waiting for 7:00 to tick closer so I could sign her up for hula hooping, stilt-walking, grace in the air. And of course, flying trapeze. Everyone at the wedding was intrigued by her passion. “Circus, really?” they asked. Most definitely, I answered. “Flying trapeze?”  “Well, we’ll see”, I told them. At least she wants to try.

McKenna’s  first workshop, the first day of the festival – flying trapeze. As she climbed the ladder to the platform, I couldn’t breathe. I wanted this for her so badly. She hesitated, tried to find me on the ground but couldn’t without her glasses. I was quiet, willing her to just go for it. When she had insisted on registering for this class, my heart broke. “This is beyond you, baby”, I thought. “You’ll freeze and refuse to try it, then beat yourself up about it for months. Why don’t you take a class you already know how to do?” I said to myself. Within seconds, a second instructor was up the ladder, gently coaxing her to trust the bar, reach, and fly. “You can do this, baby, trust yourself,” I told her silently. I could feel all of the other acrobats, parents, and trainers willing her to do it, too. She took a breath, grabbed the bar and suddenly, she was FLYING! Back and forth, she missed the call to hang by her knees and release the ropes. One more swing…she did it! She let go, hung by her knees, then executed a near perfect back flip into the net. And then I breathed again. She hasn’t stopped smiling since that moment. I haven’t either.

My daughter found her people up on that platform that day. They encouraged her, cheered for her, high-fived and clapped for her. They, too, knew what it meant to have conquered a fear in such a dramatic way. They, too, knew the exhilaration of flying. They had come from all across the country, some even from different countries, to share and learn and play and work. They were teenagers and tweens, young adults, coaches, performers, organizers, and studio owners.  But for those  five days, they were circus.

My daughter is a quirky kid, unwilling to follow the lead of others, preferring to go it alone rather than compromise who she is. It means wild outfits, crazy hairstyles, weird fingernails. And circus. Always circus. She’s only ten but she knows exactly who she is.

At AYCO, she found others like her, not exactly like her, but different enough from other kids to be familiar. There was no judgment, only support, encouragement, and friendship. She loves drops on the silks now, begging her coach to teach her a new one at every class. We are working with a local rigger to have silks and trapeze properly installed in our home. And she performed at the showcase. My, did she perform! She was all smiles and poses, asking the audience to reward her with their applause, their approval. Her circus people came through for her, roaring their delight, shouting and clapping so loudly. That night, nobody knew she had been consumed by fear. That night, she was truly a circus performer. AYCO gave her that moment, and so many more that weekend.

As we flew home to Atlanta, she wanted to know why AYCO didn’t last a whole week, why we didn’t stay later on Sunday, why the festival is only held biennially. “Mama, these are my people. I wish we lived at AYCO.” Me too, baby, me too.

 Beth Ching is a stay-at-home mom by way of a career as a corporate litigator and a brief stint as a children’s librarian. She has one daughter, whom she is positive will one day run away and join the circus. She has never tried the flying trapeze – and never will.

 AYCO is a not for profit organization that has been dedicated to promoting the participation of youth in circus arts and supporting circus educators since 1998.

To learn more about the American Youth Circus Organization, visit www.americanyouthcircus.org.