By Mira Gurock
Circus Up Founder Leah Abel on Why She Chose a Career in Social Circus
Leah Abel is the founder of Circus Up, a nonprofit organization in Boston, Mass. that focuses on making circus more inclusive, joyful, and accessible. To learn more, visit circusup.com.
Mira Gurock: How did you initially become interested in social circus?
Leah Abel: Growing up in Cambridge, Mass. in the 80s and 90s, people highly valued diversity and inclusion. These were issues that people openly discussed and debated, too. That experience and environment instilled many values in me that I eventually saw were missing in many circus communities. Social circus felt like a way of addressing social justice issues through an art form I already loved.
MG: In starting to imagine Circus Up, what were some of these personal values that inspired you?
LA: I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood both ethnically and socioeconomically, and I just thought that was the norm. I think this shaped a huge part of who I am, including my values. When I got to college and started doing circus, I saw that circus arts were moving away from being more of a family-owned business. Circus was becoming more recreational, very expensive, and exclusive. At least in New York, unlike the traditional circus families of the century before, circus was attracting a more homogeneous crowd. So the art form that I fell in love with didn’t at all look or act like the communities I grew up in. I wanted to change that for two reasons. First, thanks to my strong social justice background, I saw social inequities and just wanted to work to change them. And second, I didn’t totally feel like I belonged either. I didn’t feel comfortable in some of the circus communities I participated in. In other words, I wanted things to change so that selfishly, I could feel more at ease. Even though I looked the part, I didn’t fit the mold in terms of other social norms.
MG: What do you think is the most effective way for small or large circus schools to promote diversity?
LA: I would say by dismantling the patriarchy, working on equal access, and elevating the amount of attention paid towards valuing creativity and joy. I think the first step for people is to start learning about issues of social justice, white supremacy, and equality/equity. I also think talking less and listening more is generally a good idea. Observe what works and what doesn’t work in other organizations doing social justice work (not necessarily even circus organizations) as you build an effective strategy for promoting social justice. Also, if you’re trying to do outreach to particular communities, it’s important to watch and learn from the leaders of those communities! People don’t want to be told what to do and likewise, people don’t ever want to be told what they need. Instead, listen to people when they tell you what they need, and build an organization or program around those needs. Telling another community what they need is paramount to telling another person what their gender appears to be, or should be. Listening is key and responding to the needs of the communities that you say you want to work WITH is the most effective and respectful thing you can do.
MG: Have any of your definitions of what it means to support diversity changed for you since you started Circus Up?
LA: Yes, of course. In this work we should all be committed to continually learning and growing. That should mean our work grows and changes over time, too. If it doesn’t, that is an indicator that no growth is happening either.
MG: What aspect of social circus needs the most work at this time?
LA: Diversifying circus staff and maybe working on what is a general lack of funding for the arts.
MG: What do you think are some benefits of belonging to a diverse circus community?
LA: To me, being a part of a truly diverse community is always more interesting. It also means that you’ll have your viewpoints challenged, which is a good thing. People have cultural norms that we often assign as correct “rules” of communication and interaction. But when you have a more diverse staff and student body, dominant cultural norms are challenged and we’re all encouraged to grow. When people learn to work and play with one another while truly creating space for diversity, we build empathy, respect, understanding, and connection. Moreover, we learn to understand cultural, political, social, and historical contexts for why the world is the way it is. This helps everyone avoid making stereotypes or from oversimplifying things.