Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Circus When You Need It The Most: The New Victory visits the Rockaways


I have found that a little bit of circus can bring some much needed light to the darkest of days. This particularly rang true for me the weekend before Thanksgiving, when I found myself, along with a group of New Victory Teaching Artists and a trunk full of circus equipment, at a community center in post-Sandy Far Rockaway. As we packed into a bus to make the drive out, we didn’t know if our workshops had anything to offer this hard hit community during this tough time. Within minutes of our arrival, a 13 year old boy by the name of J barreled up to us. “I heard you were teaching people to juggle. Is that true? Can you teach me?” he asked with wide eyes. It became immediately clear to me that we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

In the days following Hurricane Sandy’s devastating path through New York City, we came back to work at The New Victory, opening the doors of the theater and doing our best to return to normalcy. But we knew that while the city came back to life, many people were still struggling, having lost so much. Dedicated to the kids and families of the city, we did what we could to raise the spirits of those affected by the storm by visiting shelters and offering tickets to displaced families to see a show at our theater. We organized a donation collection in our lobby and young audience members created cards with messages of hope before performances.  In an effort to make an even more direct impact, we found a way to bring The New Victory to places where it was needed most.

Our friends at the Innovative Theatre Foundation and the Children’s Health Fund organized a weekend of artist outreach to a community center that was serving as a food and clothing distribution center in Far Rockaway. The Children’s Health Fund had been stationed there with mobile medical units to aid kids and families who were without power, heat, and medical care. The volunteer doctors were reporting that the kids in the area were scared, confused and in need of a distraction from being cooped up in apartment buildings still without power or heat. They felt that arts experiences for these young people could provide joy, laughter and much needed respite from the challenges of the last few weeks.  We quickly organized a team of teaching artists, gathered everything from juggling scarves to puppet-making materials, and joined the effort.

When we arrived, we found the community center preparing to serve lunch. A line extended around the corner and clothing donation outposts lined the streets. We learned that while a few of the buildings in the complex had gotten power back the night before, the majority of the surrounding apartment complexes were still without electricity. We found a deserted fitness room down a long hallway and quickly turned it into a room fit for circus instruction. Once set up, we went outside and gathered a group of kids waiting in line with their families. They came inside, and while most were shy and quiet at first, they quickly jumped in to enthusiastically participate.

The kids soon had massive smiles on their faces as they learned everything from feather balancing to plate spinning to acrobatics. Many stayed with us for several hours, learning as much as they could and having a blast playing alongside the teaching artists. J, the aspiring juggler we met when we first arrived, spent hours working with teaching artist WT McRae. In that time, he worked from tossing scarves up to juggling three balls at once. WT was so struck by his conviction to learning the skill that when we packed up after our first day at the center, he gave J his set of juggling balls to keep. When we returned the following day, we learned that J spent the night teaching everyone he could find–kids and adults alike–to juggle, too.

At the end of the weekend, the young participants organized a small performance (which they titled 'Circus Sandy') for the adults at the center. A crowd of kids, parents and other volunteers at the center stood by, cheering and tearing up as they watched the young performers show off their tricks. One beaming grandmother told us how grateful she was that we were there as she watched her 7 and 8-year-old granddaughters laughing and smiling. She explained that the kids in the community haven’t been able to play outside and don’t have any safe communal spaces to socialize or interact. She said, “This is just what they needed today. Thank you.”

As an arts educator, I’m very aware of the capacity of the performing arts to have a profound impact on young people. Getting the opportunity to create, to learn an artistic skill, and exercise it with individuality and ingenuity can empower young people to see themselves as powerful agents of change. This was inspiringly evident during our special workshops in the Rockaways. In the span of our weekend together, these remarkable young people transcended the challenges of the previous weeks to express their creativity and inspire infectious passion. As I watched J grin while performing a juggling routine he had learned that weekend, it was clear to me that the performing arts have the power to uplift a community.

This blog was written by Jonathan Shmidt, Associate Director of Education/Creative Content

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