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A Big Top Makes Space

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on the Vermont Arts Council website on May 9, 2019 and was written by Susan McDowell

CIrcus Smirkus“There truly is room for everyone under the big top.” Jennifer Carlo, executive director at Circus Smirkus posits that the history of the circus is a story of inclusion. “Circus really is all about celebrating differences and bringing it all into a cohesive whole.” Often performers excluded from more traditional art forms have been recognized and given a home. Circus, as she describes it, is built on “bringing different talents and different people together to create something that is just magical.”

Jen is guiding the organization, with strong support from the board and their newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Committee, in renewed efforts to expand their residency program. The work stems from intentional strategic decisions. From a birds-eye view to feet on the ground, personnel at Smirkus strive persistently to eliminate barriers.

William Forchion, newly hired summer camp director, is one of many staff focused on bringing change the way he can. He boldly posted “… We can show off the same diversity and uniqueness that we each bring to circus and I want to help find new spaces for each person to fit. I do believe the big change will come from the younger ones, and we can instill this sense of belonging in them, and they will carry it through their lives.”

More Than Stairs or Ramps

We tend to think of increased access in terms of architecture. Smirkus staff has done their work in this regard; they report making it a priority to greatly increase physical accessibility of the Big Top Tour. Early seating is arranged for those needing assistance, the entire first row is reserved for those who can’t climb, and wheelchair seating is provided at a number of points throughout the tent—accommodating families being seated together. They also

  • provide ASL translators for the deaf and hard of hearing when made aware of the need with sufficient advance notice
  • post information to advise people with sensory sensitivities about potential sound and lighting concerns
  • provide sound-dampening headphones or earplugs to audience members upon request

In addition, the new Smirkus Camp facility has been updated in ways that take physical accessibility for campers and their families into consideration.

Jen and William are both quick to identify an additional barrier. It’s money. Jen says, “We’re always looking for ways to broaden our reach so that every kid out there who wants to explore circus arts will have the opportunity to do that.” Funds for scholarships and residencies are built into the Smirkus budget.

Jen wants that known, because “Sometimes it’s not an economic barrier, it’s a perception barrier—kids thinking that they can’t afford it or they can’t do it, or they won’t have access to it. That’s one of the things that we have to help kids understand. There are opportunities out there and they are for everyone.” The why is simple: “That way kids can be exposed to all the wonder and excitement of the circus arts within their schools.”

William describes what increased availability looks like. “For all of us—when we learn something new—the learning curve is the same. Whatever the color of our skin or the money in our bank accounts, the struggles are similar and rewards are similar.” Prior experience informs his observation: “Kids from the same neighborhood who did not know each other because they were different were all together and learning something new.”

William with Gypsy Snider.

William Forchion with Gypsy Snider.

And Gender

When William wrote about finding space for all, he was addressing concerns about gender. “I would like to see changes in what is ‘normal.’ In the past there were always male roles and female roles in circus. The line needs to be blurred.” Men, not women, have long been given the roles that require more strength. William has witnessed talented women being “quite often been pushed aside because they didn’t fit a feminine role.”

He speaks of Gypsy Snider of The Seven Fingers—“one of the first people I stood on in that way” (referring to human pyramid building). “It took me taking a risk to do so; even my eyes were clouded by gender roles.” When he felt how solid she was he saw her differently. “That’s one example of our need to look at people as the individuals they are. When you need a big strong person—that’s not a gender decision, it’s a personnel decision.”

Remember the learning curve William mentioned? He offers that circus is all about learning from mistakes and gives the evolution of juggling as an example. The activity has traditionally been based on throwing and catching rings, balls, and clubs. Now it uses all parts of the body. “You might catch a club, or drop a ring, then bring it back in the pattern. All that is taking what were once mistakes and capitalizing on them. The whole gender stereotype is one of the mistakes we can learn and evolve from.”

Always there are stereotypes. And circus—with its demands for commitment, risk-taking, flexible perception, and willingness to learn—beautifully informs the act of making room for all.

Circus Smirkus is one of the Vermont Arts Council’s Arts Partners. The organization was also awarded a Special Project Grant in FY2018 to support the creation of a sensory-friendly Big Top performance guide book.