We are seated in a circle in one of the beautiful studios overlooking the hustle and bustle of Times Square in the New 42nd Street Studios building. I’ve just finished teaching a Circus 101 Family Workshop, which includes some juggling, clowning, and partner acrobatics, and the room is full of smiles. The participants are a broad range of ages, but they represent a cross-section of the New Victory audience. I pose the question: "Did you learn anything new about yourself or someone with you during today's workshop?"
"I had no idea my dad could be so fun!" says a tween girl with braids in her hair. "We've never seen our son work so hard or achieve so much," agrees a pair of parents grinning and nodding as they hold the shoulder of a rambunctious eight year old. "When we started, I thought I couldn't juggle, but now I'm really good!" says a young man. We close the workshop with a balancing exercise to thank each other for our work. My perception as a teaching artist is that the room is filled with gratitude and joy.
This is just one of the ways circus education may look at The New Victory Theater. In our education programs, we teach a range of artistic workshops related to the shows that come across the stages here. I am lucky to be a part of the Teaching Artist ensemble, and have the joy of facilitating circus workshops in the studios, as well as in many of our partner schools throughout New York City. The TA Ensemble offers kids and families an opportunity to try their hand at circus skills including clowning, juggling, partner acrobatics and tumbling.
Circus education is alive and thriving in the United States. The American Youth Circus Organization estimates between 8 to 10,000 youth circuses are practicing in the U.S. alone. These programs represent everything from introductory experiences like those we provide at the New Victory to full scale touring shows with teen performers. But these programs are not just here in the U.S. The first show of our season, Urban, is performed by Circolombia, a company entirely comprised of graduates of Circo Para Todos (Circus For All), a four-year circus training program in Colombia. This troupe will take the stage with an exciting blend of circus feats and Colombian culture. The training that these young people received and the circus programs I teach for probably have a great deal in common.
I love teaching circus for many reasons. First, there is very little illusion in the skills of circus. Balancing on one foot and spinning rings on the other while juggling fire is exactly what it looks like. I think that watching people do incredible things makes us feel connected to our sense of possibility and human achievement. Learning to do those things can build a great deal of self esteem and self worth.
Second, circus skills are difficult and leveled. There is a basic concept to every skill, but if you can achieve that, you can make it more challenging. If you can learn to juggle three balls, you can teach yourself to juggle five, and eventually perhaps you can light them on fire. If you can learn to stand on one foot, you can do it on a tight wire; if you can learn to stand on one foot on a tight wire, you can learn to spin a ring on the other foot. There is no end to the possibility of advancement. The reality is that it teaches us much more than just a circus act. Learning circus skills helps us develop our appreciation of practice and our ability to break a complex skill into multiple pieces until we have mastered the whole. These skills can take people far in life whether they pursue circus or any other profession.
Third, the circus is a collaborative form that makes space for people exactly as they are. In fact, it thrives on diversity. In many areas of our life, being tiny and light, big and sturdy, silly, or even meticulous and mathematical can create feelings of being left out. In the circus, we need tiny light people to fly at the top of acrobatic wonders as much as we need big sturdy people to hold up the team as bases. The silly and funny folks make great clowns, and the meticulous are perfect for rigging or juggling. It’s fun to offer students an artform that asks them what they CAN do, and requires a diverse team of skilled specialists.
In my years teaching circus, I have seen students gain work ethic and self esteem, and become caring, committed community members who help each other learn. Each summer, I teach partner acrobatics for Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Alaska. On the first day, students might be reluctant to give their weight to another student and leave the ground. I spend these first few days working hard to make sure that students stay safe. By the end of two weeks, students in a circus setting begin to be conscious of safety without my prompting. I'll see a group trying a challenging trick and four of their peers rush over to spot them. For me, that conscientiousness - paired with the smiles I see from people learning circus - inspires me to keep teaching and making art.
Seeing Urban last week – and being enthralled and inspired by their work – brings me to my favorite reason to be involved with circus. It connects me to a global community with one thing in common: the desire to do something incredible.
WT McRae is a clown, mime, actor and circus educator. After training in theatre at Adelphi University, WT went on to teach ‘Theatre as Conflict Resolution” for the Bronx Arts Ensemble. He has performed school shows including ‘Peter and The Wolf’ for over 40,000 kids in 200 schools in the NY area. Off-off Broadway credits include companies like Boomerang Theatre Company and Oberon Theatre Ensemble. In 2006 WT joined with Christina Gelsone to form Fool’s Academy and bring shows that activate curriculum through clowning to Tri-State Schools. When he is not bringing his particular brand of comedy high jinks to school children he is probably teaching them. WT teaches circus and theatre for Sitka Fine Arts Camp, The New Victory Theatre, Circus Minimus and others.
Photos by Alexis Buatti-Ramos