Get to know American Youth Circus Organization board member, Lyra Gray! As a member of the board, Lyra hopes to share her passion for circus with not only her community, but also the country as a whole. Gray holds a seat on three committees, dealing with development, finance, and insurance and deals with releases and policies for the circus community. Gray spoke on how the cohesive board has some exciting things coming up, and with dealing with the pandemic, the team has been working hard to provide a circus-filled year to the organizational members. You may have heard of one of Gray’s first projects, as she is the former owner of Aerotique, one of the only aerial studios in Columbus, Ohio. Due to covid, Gray has since moved on to focus on her involvement with the board, however was able to pass on the torch, and left her mark on the studio. Gray began her circus career in her adult years, and was able to build off her gymnastics background to improve her skills. Gray’s “strong desire to see the circus community grow” allows for her to share her passion in a meaningful way, as the AYCO board gives members the opportunity to be involved with the circus community in a different light. Gray described her circus career as “creative,” and when asked about her proudest moment, Gray responded that she loves that she was able to allow access to circus in her community.
Dr. Jen Agans is AYCO’s dedicated Board Chair. She is a passionate circus educator and circademic. She started her journey with AYCO as a youth in the early 2000s, and her involvement with AYCO and ACE grew over the years. When not working with AYCO, Jen is an assistant professor and researcher for Penn State. You can find out more about Jen and contact her at https://hhd.psu.edu/contact/jennifer-agans. Recently, I had the honor of meeting with her over Zoom to hear her circus story. I hope you enjoy reading our interview as much as I enjoyed chatting with her!
How did you get your start in circus?
I went to the Pine Hill Waldorf School, and when I was in Second Grade, the Seventh and Eighth Grade teachers brought in this cool lady who lived in the community to put on a circus with their kids. I remember watching that circus and being like, “that is the coolest thing, I want to do that.” Luckily for me, the school agreed that it was a cool thing and brought Jackie Davis on as a part-time and then eventually full-time Movement Teacher for the First through Eighth Grades. I got to have classes with Jackie, and I did a summer camp with her. I think Fourth Grade was my first time actually getting to try circus, and then by the time I was in Fifth Grade, we had circus classes, so I had juggling homework, which I did not like at the time. I was not very good at it, but thanks to Jackie’s homework and the requirement that I keep trying even though I didn’t want to, I became a juggler. That was my main circus skill, juggling. So it’s kind of fun that the thing that I did not like at the beginning ended up being the thing that I liked the most.
What is your favorite circus discipline or trick?
I don’t like just juggling by myself, I really like juggling with other people. My favorite thing is 2 or 3 or 4 person club passing. I really like the challenge of trying to work together as a group to make the patterns work and trying to link patterns together. All club passers have their own repertoire of tricks that they know, so when you get a group of three or four club passers together, pretty much everybody will have a trick that somebody else doesn’t know. They can teach the group. So it’s a really cool thing to do with other people and a cool way to hang out with people.
What is the most unique experience you’ve had through circus?
I think an obvious answer to that question would be when I toured with Circus Smirkus in 2004. Getting to travel around New England and performing in a big top tent is something that if you don’t do circus, you’re not going to do. And even a lot of people who do circus don’t get the chance to tour. So that was a really fun thing to have done. I think because I haven’t followed a circus career, my summer with Smirkus was the most performing I’ve ever done. Instead, I followed more of a circus education track. After Smirkus, I spent the next 10 summers coaching at, and then eventually directing, the Silver Lining Circus Camp, but I’ve spent a lot less time doing circus than many other people in the AYCO community.
In the 10 years I spent my summers doing circus, I was also going to college and then graduate school. Now I work at a university, and there’s no circus within a couple of hours of where I live. Given that sort of non-circus lifestyle, circus has been a conversation starter. I always have an answer when someone asks for something surprising about me; “Oh, I juggle.” It’s a cool way to find out who the cool people are when you come into a new community. If I say “I juggle” and somebody goes, “weirdo” then I know who I don’t want to hang out with! It’s not a specific unique experience, but I think circus has given me something unique that I can carry into non-circus spaces.
What’s your role at AYCO now?
My current role is Chair of the Board, which means I lead meetings, I get to be a figurehead at events, and stuff like that. I’ve been on the Board for a few years, and prior to serving as the Chair, I served as the Secretary. There are all sorts of roles within a nonprofit organization so it’s interesting to serve in different capacities.
Why did you decide and what inspired you to join AYCO’s Board?
I have been to every AYCO Festival except for 2007, which was the year that I was first over 18, and AYCO at that time didn’t have any role for circus kids who grew up. So I thought I was too old for AYCO, which was sad. For the following event in 2009, they created the work-study program, which is for people ages 18 to 26 who love circus and want to be part of the event. It’s great for transitioning into a leadership role; you’re not taking all the workshops, you’re helping to produce the event. I got to do that in 2009, and I came back to AYCO very excited. I started going to the educators’ conferences, which are held on the off years from the youth festivals. I guess my involvement in AYCO sort of evolved as I developed my career.
When I was a youth circus performer I was going to the youth festivals, but starting in 2009 I was beginning to see myself as a circus educator. That corresponded with me going to college, getting a degree in psychology and education, and then going to graduate school and getting my Ph.D. in human development. In my academic work, I study adolescent involvement in extracurricular activities and why it’s good for kids to do stuff like circus. So I actually started to get more involved with AYCO as I got less involved in directly working with kids, because I was starting to become a circus researcher or a Circademic (using Jackie Davis’ term combining “circus” and “academic”). As I became a Circademic, I became useful to the circus community in a different way. In the academic world, it’s cool and weird and random that I juggle, but in the circus world, it’s kind of cool and weird and random that I do research. So I started to get a lot more involved in AYCO through the ACE side. I was helping circus educators to conduct research on their programs, and helping them demonstrate that their programs are effective because people who give money to programs like to get evidence that they are working.
I think through that involvement, I started to take more of a leadership role as somebody who people would turn to, to answer questions about research. Around that time, the then Chair of the Board, Jesse Alford, sent me an email. He had been the leader of the work-study people when I was a work-study person, so we had known each other a while. He reached out and asked how I felt about possibly being on the board. It just felt like a logical next step, since I was already serving on a committee, and I was honored to be asked. I felt completely unworthy. I had never served on a board before and I was in my 20s. I was like, “what do I know?” Luckily, they convinced me that I should join the board anyway and I’ve learned a lot along the way.
One of my messages to folks out in the community is that if you love youth circus or you love circus education, you could be a good fit for the board. You don’t have to be somebody who’s been a member of AYCO for a long time. You don’t have to run your own organization. I don’t even work for a circus organization, and I haven’t for over a decade. Being on the board is a way to serve the circus education industry, and I want to see that industry thrive. So I do that by being on the board.
What is your favorite circus performance that you have ever seen?
My most recent favorite circus performance that I’ve seen is Humans by Circa. They came here to State College, Pennsylvania, and performed a couple of years ago, which I thought was very cool, because we don’t really have any circus here. Our Performing Arts Center is run by somebody who thinks circus is cool, so she brings in a circus to perform there at least once a year.
I really liked Humans because it felt very different from a lot of other circus shows I had seen. Contemporary circus is supposed to feel different. There were just so many little details that were cool. There was very little on the stage, and they were doing amazing tumbling and acrobatics. They did a lot of interesting things with the sound, like moments of silence where you couldn’t even hear their feet hit the floor. It felt very, very different from many of the circuses that I’ve seen before. That would be the most recent one.
I think maybe my other favorite circus performance that I’ve seen recently was the UniverSoul Circus, which I saw at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2017. That was just like the epitome of a fun show. Every act was riveting and energizing, and super cool. Anybody who has a chance to see UniverSoul should see it.
Those two shows are almost on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. So I also really like that circus has so much variety inside of it.
What is something in circus that you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
Through going to AYCO festivals, I’ve gotten to try a lot of the things I wanted to try. I’ve gotten to try Flying Trapeze, I’ve gotten to try German Wheel, and I’ve gotten to walk on a super high wire. Those were all former answers to that question.
I think my current answer to that question is that, being far from circus practice, both with COVID and with living in Central Pennsylvania, I just miss doing circus. I just want to do it! I like that feeling of shared accomplishment and shared struggle. You know, just being able to play in the circus space is something that I miss. Some people thrive on practicing alone, but I like the social parts. If I’m lucky, some circus youth will come to Penn State for college and start a circus club here.
To learn about all of AYCO’s board members, click here!
Performing arts have had to adapt and create new ways of performing due to the Corona virus. These include social distance shows, virtual shows, and outdoor shows. This has led to different ways of training and communicating as well. I interviewed people from different circuses and other arts about what they are doing to stay safe while still performing during this time. While doing research for this article, I noticed that some places have canceled performances completely. One example is the Kansas ballet. They decided to cancel all of their shows including their annual nutcracker in an effort to keep their audience and performers safe, but they continue to teach classes. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, has been doing outdoor shows at different parks and neighborhoods in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are also offering live digital music broadcasted from their music hall.
I talked to people from two different circuses, Circus Harmony and Fern Street Circus. I also interviewed someone from a visual arts organization to get a broader perspective on what other arts are doing during this time. Circus Harmony is a social circus in St. Louis, Missouri. Fern Street Circus also is a social circus located in San Diego, California. Both offer a wide variety of circus classes including aerial, contortion, and juggling.
ArtScape Lebanon is a visual arts organization in Lebanon, Ohio. They teach art classes and workshops from painting to music journaling. “We offered outdoor classes at our building location with limited class size and mandatory masks” says Kristen who is on the board. They also have been able to continue to plan art shows with other local organizations following social distancing guidelines.
From Circus Harmony I interviewed Maddie, a teenage hula hopper and aerialist about their virtual show, The Balancing Act (you can watch the show here). They used zoom calls to communicate. Maddie felt that virtually it was harder to understand instructions in a clear way. She felt like it was also harder to draw attention to points that people wanted to make. She liked being able to re-record because she knew if she were to mess up a trick it was easy to fix by re-recording the video, but she also felt more stressed and rushed. Maddie talks about how performing without a live audience means that there is no feedback. She usually is able to tell by the response from the people watching what they like and don’t like. Then she is able to use this information in her next show and she can take out or add tricks accordingly. Prerecording before the show made it so that she had to predict what the audience would enjoy. Usually Maddie performs hoola hoops and sometimes aerials. Maddie says, “I’ve definitely had to focus on hoola hoops more since I don’t have access to an aerial rig at home.” She has also had more time to work on her juggling which is something she didn’t have much time for before quarantine. One thing she liked about performing this way was that “it challenged everyone to do something new that no one has ever done before.”
From Fern Street Circus, I interviewed Haragni, a contortionist. They performed a virtual show and also communicated through zoom. One of the disadvantages of training virtually that Haragni mentioned was that some of the students experienced internet troubles and some people didn’t have enough room in their house. An upside is that she was able to take more classes because there was no commute; everyone was able to get from one class to another quickly and it worked better around people’s schedules. Haragni talks about the differences that recording and performing without a live audience. She says, “You got to show the audience exactly what you want them to see. Not having a live audience certainly made me less nervous but performing live gives me a different type of energy, and it makes me want to do my skills even better.” With the pandemic she has had more time to focus on her leg and hip flexibility, an area that she feels she should improve. Haragni has also been able to learn how to juggle balls and is now working on juggling clubs. “Usually, I just do strict contortion acts. I used to only take one class a week, so that’s what I chose to focus on. But now, since I’m able to take more classes, I’m doing contortion, juggling and acro/dance. Next show, I’ll hopefully be doing a physical comedy act, fingers crossed.”
If you would like to support any of the organizations mentioned in this article, the links to donate are included below:
When we left off, Terry and I had just finished discussing circus in Costa Rica! You can go back to part one on the Hup Squad blog here and read the first half. Now, onto our final questions…
PART 2: J: Okay, so let’s see. What is your biggest joy of being a circus artist? T: Um, that’s a hard one to narrow down because I really like I guess, you know, there’s really two sides to it. I really enjoy the process of creating circus. The collaborative process of getting ideas from everyone and that kind of like — those moments of kind of Eureka! When everybody feels like they are bought in to the same idea. J: Oh. T: Then, also like the hard conversations too. Like that feeling a level of engagement from everybody is really satisfying to me, and then also drives me crazy sometimes (both chuckle). Um, so I really enjoy the process side of it. That, like, really charges my battery. And then I would also say that I really enjoy the kind of product side of it as well. Of, a, like doing a show. Like being on stage. Kind of like that, that moment of really being in my body. Of not having to think about what I’m doing. Um, and feeling like the audience is really connecting with me. Um, and then, yeah, I just that feeling of instant feedback for my own kind of state of like, of my own mind/body togetherness. Like, do I, do I do a trick and the audience responds well to that or do I, you know, do I trip and then, and then, um, sort of embrace that and like the audience, you know, laughs at it is such a kind of intimate relationship. So that, that part feels really special to me too. J: Oh yeah, totally! Awesome. Yeah, those points all definitely make sense. Yeah, circus is just – it’s super cool. There’s so much that you can do with it. T: Yeah. How about you? How ‘bout you, Julaine? Like what’s the most significant or the most joyful part of making circus for you? J: Oh, huh, probably the, let’s see. I really like getting out and like, going out and just like training really hard and— T: Yeah. J: Then stumbling upon something. And sort of like taking a break from like, so, I’ll be training something and sort of make a mistake and then I’ll say, like that was actually sort of cool. So, then, I’ll go back and refine it — T: Yeah. J: And then maybe I’ll have a new skill or a new sequence or maybe it’s just like stepping up to the pole in a different way but it — T: Oh, yeah. J: A different way to display how you feel.
T: Oh man, yeah. J: Yeah, and what’s funny– T: Yeah, the happy accidents. J: Yeah. T: That’s totally magical. J: Yeah, happy accidents. It’s definitely. That’s the perfect way to describe it. (Both chuckle) Nice. T: That’s how Bob Ross talks about it, the painter. J: Oh yeah, the little trees. Uh. Funny stuff. (Both chuckle) Yeah, we’re all just circus artists, and Bob Ross is just a circus artist with a paint brush. T: Exactly, exactly. (Both chuckle) J: That’s funny. J: Okay, so this one is –what is the hardest thing or the biggest struggle to being a circus artist? T: Okay, okay. Um, let’s see. Let’s see, let’s see, let’s see. The hardest thing about being a circus artist is: Well, I would say that, I mean obviously, money can be a struggle. Collaboration can be very difficult. Finding work can be really difficult. But, I would have to say that one of the most difficult things in my opinion is traveling can be really hard. Um, to like create community and personal relationships with people sometimes because, because. For whatever reason most of the world, um, is really, really set on being sedentary and like having one address. Um, but when you’re a performer, generally it makes the most sense to travel a lot ‘cuz you’re always chasing the audience, right? J: Oh yeah. T: You can’t just stay in one city because everybody’s gonna see your show and then you got no more audience. In theory. That’s the theory, I guess. J: Oh, yeah. T: Unless you have a model like Teatro Zinzanni, where you’re really pulling in the audiences forever. J: Yeah. T: Um, but, yeah, and I mean it’s one of the most fun things too, I really like touring. Um, but then when you are kind of constantly, you always have like, a little bit of like a timeline. Um, you know for me I’m in Seattle, generally. Right now it’s an exception because we’re in the pandemic. But, I’m usually like yeah, uh, in a month or two I’m gonna have to leave, um, so (clears throat), so like relationships and friendships kind of have to be put on hold or become, you know, kind of long distance. Um, so, I don’t know, yeah, that’s, that I think has been my experience if I’m really honest about it. J: Yeah. T: Yeah.
J: For sure. Yeah, traveling seems like it would be the hardest part. ‘Cuz I feel like all the other stuff is or when you know society builds up a, um, like a sort of, you know, and you kind of have to go against the grain in order to keep the work coming in you know, it might be challenging, it might be discouraging seeing society just be able to stay and do this stuff but then, oh, but I have to move to get my job. You know what I mean? T: Yeah. J: Yeah. T: Yeah exactly. J: (interrupts) – but it might mean T: yeah – society is just not set up that way, unfortunately. J: Yeah. T: What were you gonna say? J: Oh, I was just gonna say that it probably makes it way more rewarding though sometimes too. T: Totally. Yeah, really fun – to go lots of different places. J: Yeah, for sure. Awesome. Let’s see. Okay, this one should be fun. What do you have more fun as – the student or the teacher? T: Hmm. Uh, both, I really like both. Although, um, I don’t know, I think probably teacher, right now. Um, I just really like the sound of my own voice. J: (Laughs) T: (Laughs) No, um, really like, um, helping someone unlock a skill like that moment of, um, of kind of going from not being able to do a thing, like I cannot do a thing, and then at some point somebody can do it. And, being able to be a part of that process is so fun! J: Nice. Yeah that makes sense. That’s super cool. I feel like there are lots of times when you know that could fluctuate. Like maybe take a lesson from someone and they’re super good and you’re like, oh my gosh this is awesome, and then they leave and you have to try to learn stuff on your own and then you’re like, now being a student isn’t so much fun. And, then you find someone you can teach and then you’re like, yes, being a teacher is fun! And then that person leaves and you find another coach and then you’re like being the student is fun. And so on it goes. T: Yeah, totally. Being a student is also so fun because I don’t know, I really like that phase in the beginning of learning when you, when you acquire skills quickly. It’s the 80/20 thing. You know, you acquire 80% of the skills in 20% of the time. So, it’s so satisfying in the beginning when you know, it’s like, when things come really easily. J: Oh yeah. T: Yeah, love that.
J: Yeah, it’s so – like the crash after is very disappointing. T: Yeah. J: Like for me, when I started pole when I was like 11, right. T: Yeah. J: And, at 13 I felt very stationary in my skills. T: Yeah. J: And I was like, well, this is a bummer. Then I started rope and I was like, yeah! Skills! T: Yeah. J: Then, I went to Smirkus and lost all my pole skills and had to gain them all back. T: Uh huh. Yeah. J: And, I was kind of like, I’m kind of at the same spot with both of these. And then I started straps and I was like, yeah! T: Yeah, totally J: So, it’s just like moving all the time. T: Yeah, I know, so fun before you get to the plateau, then it’s just like floggin’ through it. But, I guess that can be satisfying in a different way, I s’pose. J: True. Yeah, just not as like, boom, boom – the skills. T: Yeah. J: Yeah, awesome. And, I was gonna say, I think I know the answer to this question but maybe not. Do you find more joy in working alone or with others? T: Um, I guess, it depends. I would say that for the most part I really enjoy working with others. Um, um, like training with other people is really satisfying. Um, especially when it comes to aerial, I find, because I kind of don’t really want to climb up a thing and do something really hard if no one else is going to witness it. (Both chuckle). I find. Um, but. But, then, sometimes sometimes, you know there’s nothing like putting on music and getting into your own little world and uh, being able to have your own little dance party and not worry about whatever anybody else is, you know, thinking. Sometimes that can be really nice too. You know I have been doing slack rope a little bit in my house actually. And, that’s been really fun to kind of get into that and blast my music and, and do my own thing. J: Yeah, yeah ‘cuz it’s even more secluded then you know training at the park because it’s just your place.
J: Oh, let’s see. Darn it. I really shouldn’t have done this out of order. Aww, there we go, So – What do you think that circus artists have or can contribute to society that Muggles don’t or can’t? T: Wow! Are you gonna say Muggles in this interview? J: (Chuckles) Uh, Muggles, yeah. T: Right on. (Laughs) Cool. This is gonna be controversial, Julaine. I can’t wait to read this. J: Sweet. T: What do we have to contribute to society? OMG, so many things. I think that, um, inspiration, obviously. I think that people see what we do and they get inspired and they say, I can do that or do something. It’s, it’s kind of an antidote to despair, perhaps, seeing ordinary humans do extraordinary things – physically and maybe sort of inspiring them on a metaphorical level too. J: Yeah. T: So, I like that. I also think it’s also important that people remember that they have bodies and that it’s joyful to use their bodies in non-competitive, athletic ways. Um, expressive ways. Um, because I think that, you know, we are becoming a very knowledge-based society and the ways that we do use our bodies tend to be, you know, sports and um, very quantitative things and circus is not that. That is an important thing. And, then one more…I could go on and on about this. But, one more is that we live in a world where, even before the pandemic, live theater attendance was kind of diminishing. And, circus has a very unique thing to bring to live performance which is that aspect of risk – physical risk and you know, that risk of failure in a certain kind of way, you know and I think that is kind of electrifying for audiences. And, I think that it really makes them want to come and all gather in one room. Um, which is a really important thing for all humans to do. You know, Netflix and all that digital entertainment will only get us so far. I think we gotta, we gotta come together as a community, to you know, to really remember what it is to be a human being too. J: Totally. Wow, that was really, really well-said. Nice! T: (Chuckles) Wow, thanks. J: Well, of course, we are doubly isolated because of Covid. But — T: Yeah. J: But the isolation of, um, like people. If you just think about the ‘60’s and now, like neighbors would be like, “how’s it goin’ man?” They’d talk all the time. And they’d talk all the time and now it’s like “hey, t’s up?” Maybe once a week, if anything. T: Yeah, yeah. Totally. Yeah, that makes me think of like a neighbor leaning over the fence and chattin’ to his neighbor. Yeah, it’s really sad, you know, people just not hangin’ out as much. So, yeah. Circus has got that going for it. In a lot of ways too. You know, like in training we have to come together and in performing. J: Yeah. To make circus happen it’s a lot of really hard tasks. T: Exactly.
J: And you kind of need a lot of people’s help to make it work. T: Yeah. J: Like, can I hang on this? Oh, I should consult somebody. And, that person you’re collaborating with and once you figure out you can hang on it, “Great, I’m gonna train.” Uh, I don’t feel motivated. Hey, let’s get a training buddy. T: Yeah. Exactly. J: Then you’re like, Wanna make a show? T: Yeah, yeah. Totally It’s a —must be present to win– kind of thing. J: Totally. Awesome. I was gonna ask, do you have anything else that you want the — the audience for this article is AYCO members. So, yeah, if you have anything in particular that you think that audience should know, this is a very good time to share. T: Hmm. One thing that I would say is that I think that it is very important for anyone who wants to be an artistic creator, like an artistic director, or an artistic creator of their own expressive work, I think it is really important for them to see as much of their art and live art in general as possible. Because, um, your case is going to grow and you’re going to be aware of what’s out there and what’s possible and what kinds of things you can imitate or improve upon, or respond to. So, I think if you can go and see contemporary dance, if you can see theater, if you can see spectacle. Um, if you can see circus shows. And, also, you know read, like actual books (both chuckles), you know. Really important and, you know, experience art in whatever form is available to you because all of that is going to, I think, influence what you do, make it richer. J: Totally, awesome. T: It’s a lot. J: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Nice. T: Cool. J: Yeah, that was super awesome. I really appreciate it! T: You’re super awesome. J: Thanks. Well, you’re super awesome! T: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to, you know, feel like I’ve got something to share. J: Well, you definitely do! (Both laugh) T: Awesome, well, I think I’m going to go to the beach and see if I can do some slack rope between two trees. J: Heck yeah, sounds like fun! T: (Chuckles) Cool.
J: Yeah, I’m going to go out and train a little more Pole. Circus beings going out and doing more circus. T: Nice. Awesome! Well, um, I hope that you don’t get too cold and that you’re still up for some more Pole. You’ve got some pretty amazing endurance. J: Thank you. I appreciate it. T: (Chuckles) Alright. Cool, Julaine! I’ll see you soon. J: Sounds good. See you later! T: Alright. Bye. J: Bye. Phone hangs up. J: (Whispers) Terry is so cool!
In this exciting blog post, I had the privilege to interview the famous Terry Crane! He is a Seattle native, a performer known the world over, founder and artistic director of Acrobatic Conundrum, and a kind person! Over phone I was able to ask him lots of questions about his life of circus and creativity. His adventures and opinions are very inspiring. We talked so long this article is a two-parter! Stay tuned for the second half coming out shortly. Without further ado… Interview with Terry Crane, part one!
J: What is your main discipline? T: My main discipline is climbin’ ropes! J: Sick! And, how long have you been doing circus? T: Um, I began doing circus in 1999, no that’s not true, it was 2000. It was 2000. J: Nice, cool, cool! And what was the first circus thing that you did and how old were you when you tried it. T: Well, I thing officially, I started juggling when I was like 13. But basically the first aerial thing I tried in the aerial world was static trapeze. J: Nice. T: Yeah, and I really liked it but I really wanted to get into rope. J: Groovy, okay, cool, cool! What made you attracted to rope? T: Oh man, there was something kind of magical about it and I couldn’t figure out how the person doing it was, um, was doing all these different wraps. There was something quite mysterious about it and I just really wanted to wrap my head around it. And, actually the first time I saw rope was in a circus show at my college, Oberlin College, and someone was performing and I saw this act with this kind of puzzle-like quality to it and I thought , OMG, I just need to figure out how to do that.
J: Nice, oh sweet, Let’s see what was the first circus school/and or company and or circus group that you were affiliated with? T: Um, good question and what do you mean by that? Like that I was hired by as a professional or as a -(speaking over – indistinct) J: I just mean who you trained under or worked for, basically what group did you start in? T: Well, what group did you start in? J: I guess I’d say I started in 1-Ders (the youngest performing group, ages 5-8, at my circus school, SANCA). J: Nice, okay, cool, cool, cool. What other groups have you been a part of? T: Word. Umm. Wow, okay. Fairly long list. J: Yeah. T: When I was at ENC I collaborated with 7 Fingers a little bit. J: Sweet. T: And then when I finished ENC I was part of a collaboration called Honolulu Punch. J: Oh, cool. T: That was all other ENC grads. And then after that got a contract with Circus Starlight in Switzerland. Um, oh then, I came back and I worked with Kevin O’Connor on a show called the Sunlight Zone. J: Oh, nice.
T: It was another very collaborative, kind of grass roots thing. J: Cool. T: And, after that, oh my gosh, I don’t know. I went to China and I studied at the Beijing International Arts School. Um, doing more acrobatics. J: Oh, sick! T: And, I worked a little bit in Thailand as well. Um, Then I got a job, uh, working for a circus in Finland. Um, I might need to spell this for you. Um, It was called “talvisirkus huurjaruuth” J: (Laughs) T: Yeah. Um, and, then I worked for Circus Flora in St. Louis. Then I went and worked for Teatro Zinzanni a few times. I was in like 6 different shows at Zinzanni. 4 kids shows and 2 main shows. J: Nice. T: Yeah, that, like took a long time for me to kind of break into that, um, little mold there at Teatro Zinzanni. J: Most of the time when you look up “Terry Crane” on the internet what you’ll find is your Teatro Zinzanni act where you do it to Paper Planes and you have the glasses and the collared shirt. It’s so funny! T: Oh yeah, man, I did that act for so long, for some many years! Um, let’s see. Oh yeah, that reminds me that I performed at Moisture Festival for like 6 or 7 years. And then I also did another Swiss circus, I was at Circus Monti. J: Oh yeah. T: And, um, I’ve done lots of corporate events. And, then yeah, I formed my own company, Acrobatic Conundrum. And, that’s all the stuff I can think of right now. J: Awesome! Well, that’s super cool. J: This one here is kind of deep. What five or so most meaningful projects have you been a part of? T: It was the second show that I did with Circus Syzygy with Ben Wendel, Rachel Nehmer, Marieve Dicaire, Giulio Lanzafame, and Mick Holsbeck, all those guys. J: Oh, yeah. T: When we went to France. We were all living in trailers around this one friend’s circus space called “la grainerie” and we — and it was so good and, like, because we were all the time we were talking about our ideas. And we actually took this contract with Circus Monti before we did this show and for the whole year, you know we probably did 300 shows for Circus Monti and all 6 of us were there and we’d have these meetings where we would just talk and talk about our ideas. And, we also just got to know each other really well too, over the course of that year. J: Oh, nice.
T: And, then we, when we were in France we were working really hard on it. We had this theater like 24/7, like for 2 months. Then we finally performed it. And so it was really good! It was also really difficult because we didn’t have a director. J: Oh. T: So, we were like, all the director, in a way. And we were constantly trying to get our own way. And, um, so that was really hard. And, in some ways I think that that made it so we had to take a break from working together, because we were all kind of wrapped up in our own view points and it had just been such a difficult process. Um, and that we kind of had to—well, I’ll just speak for myself. For me personally, I was like, okay I gotta take a little break from this. J: Oh yeah, I gotcha. Makes sense. T: Yeah. J: Yeah, cool, cool. Thank you. T: Wait, you said top 5, right. J: Yeah, top 5. If you can’t like narrow it down to one, then like top 5 or so. T: Okay, let me give you a couple of more meaningful experiences. J: Sweet. T: Um, I have really enjoyed making my own work with Acrobatic Conundrum. J: Oh yeah! T: Um, performing “Love and Gravity” has been really — was really meaningful and getting to tour that to different circus communities. And, something that I love about that show was the way that we got to interact with the audience. And in some ways we got to kind of make them be part of the show. That was always really fun for me. And, then another really meaningful one was, shoot, drawing a blank. Well, I’ve done some pretty meaningful street shows. Um, which I think have been really fun because it’s pretty magical to perform for someone who was not really expecting to see a show. J: Oh, yeah. T: Um, yeah, so working with like Melissa Knowles and doing some street shows has been super fun. Oh yeah, and so I have also traveled to Costa Rica and done some collaborations with the Costa Rican circus community there. J: Oh, yeah. T: And that has been really meaningful for me too to be able to like share um, kind of like my flavor of circus and represent you know, North American circus, and also to, to get to see what they do and also to merge that on some different collaborations. J: Nice. That’s super cool. T: Yeah.
J: And, I’m going to ask a bit about the Costa Rican circus community you’ve been a part of. Is, um, when you say, like, represent North America. Do you do, is there, um, I know there is sort of like, uh, American, you know Everybody has the idea of American circus that’s like the ring circus, or like Trad circus in a way, you know. T: Yeah. J: Then there’s like the more European circus which is like, um, sometimes Trad but also sometimes more Contemporary, and much more, I don’t know, seems a bit more from the heart, you know. T: Mm-hmm. J: And so, what would you say is the Costa Rican circus vibe? T: Oh, okay, um. Well, I would say that Central America has a really strong contemporary dance theme. J: Nice. T: And, theater as well. And, I think circus is like relatively young there. Um, so I think that in some ways, um, they feel – well, and you also have the traditional circus, um, you know, thing going on there too. They have tented circuses there that travel there from Mexico and other places so there’s definitely that vibe. And, a lot of people would, I think, still associate circus with that kind of traditional format. But, then there is also kind of an up and coming kind of aerial dance scene and circus that is really influenced by contemporary dance and that is just more abstract and in some ways pretty dark too. But, always like very acrobatic, um, as well and super, super like intense, I would say. Yeah. Also a lot of heart. My experience working with, um, with like the aerial dance community which is mostly based around a school called “Danzaire.” J: Oh cool. T: Um, it’s been like, yeah, just like a lot of heart and soul there too. J: Nice. Sweet! Thank you. T: Yeah.
On that note, we will end the first half of this interview! Tune in for Terry’s opinion on what is the most rewarding and most difficult thing about being a circus artist, what young people wanting to be circus artists should be doing, and other burning questions!
Art is typically divided into different categories and mediums, but often the skills from one art form overlap with others. Circus is no exception. Experience in other artistic mediums will help circus performers of all levels and ages.
Music and circus have always gone hand in hand. Songs enhance the energy and tone of an act and are much more than just a backing track. How well the choreography works with the music can make the difference between a mediocre act and one that receives a standing ovation. A circus act that is well timed with the crescendos and percussive drops of the music will always have a greater lasting impact on the audience. Circus artists with a musical background are likely able to identify and describe more subtle musical cues and timing when working with other artists or a composer. Not to mention, if you write music, you can compose for your own act to get the perfect sound!
Sewing is a ubiquitous and important life skill — one that I do not have. Despite how much I personally dislike sewing, I have come to appreciate its value in the circus community. Sewing skills can save you in the moment if a costume loses a button backstage and needs a quick fix. They can also be extremely useful in the longterm for costume creation and adjustment. Finding the perfect costume for your act is not only a difficult and tedious task, but also an expensive one. You might spend all day looking for costumes (on Amazon, dance wear stores, or independent sellers of circus-specific costumes) and still not find what you’re envisioning. And whatever you CAN find might be way out of your budget. Any freelance artist knows that independence and autonomy are just as important as cooperation and community. While it is great to perform with a costumer on hand, that is often not an option. Being proficient in sewing will help any circus performer in the long run.
Art is often divided into two forms: performance art and visual art. But really if you think about it, most performance art is also visual, since the audience is looking at the performer. Experienced visual artists have a better understanding of how to harmonize different colors — which can be useful for making decisions in lighting and costuming for an act. Additionally, an eye for balance and an understanding of graphic design helps with promotional work like making posters to advertise a gig.
Most circus is performed live in front of an audience: on stage or in the ring. However, with the rapid growth of social media, youtube, and other video sharing platforms, many performance art forms have adapted to be compatible with these services as well. Not to mention that over the past several months — with social distancing regulations in place — most live performances have been out of the question. Combining circus and video is more important now than ever before, and film is certainly a medium with advantages and limitations. On the one hand, a camera can never offer the same energy as a live audience which makes it harder to be engaging and connect with the viewer. Without applause, it can be challenging to maintain pacing and stamina. On the other hand, film can provide unique perspectives and angles of circus acts that are not traditionally seen. Cropping, scaling, and changing the speeds of clips can offer countless creative opportunities not available to live performance. Not to mention, if you mess up a trick, you can just try again.
There are countless other art forms that intersect and overlap with circus, and these are just a few examples. Hopefully this blog post has provided some recognition to artists of all types in the circus community, or maybe it has inspired you to pick up a new artistic hobby. Or maybe it’s had absolutely no impact on you, but you’ve read this far, so I hope that you moderately enjoyed it. Keep training and keep creating!
This is an act I performed and edited for the Circus Smirkus online season premiere at the beginning of the summer. I was very disappointed to not tour this summer, but I appreciated this opportunity to combine my interest for videography with act creation. Music: Tristan Moore
Rating: AAA+++ I would definitely recommend this book!
Thom Wall’s latest book Juggling: What It Is and How to Do It is definitely a must-read for any aspiring juggler. Beginners and seasoned jugglers alike can all benefit from reading this comprehensive guide to the all-too-much-forgotten art of ball juggling.
Here are a few different reasons that I think you will become obsessed with this book from the second you turn the first page:
The Why Factor
Whenever I am learning a new skill, I will often be asked to perform some minor change in form. I often counter this with a “why”. I know that I will be 10 x more likely to do this change every time if I know what will happen if I don’t. One of the great things about this book is that it explains “why” you should do something, which is an area I find many similar books often fall short.
Another great feature of this book is the appendices. They include some great information and really help you dive deeper into certain subjects. For instance, if you want to learn about all different kinds of juggling balls, just head on over to Appendix C. This lets you choose when you want to learn more about a specific topic which leads to you thoroughly enjoying your juggling practice.
Circademics (circus-academics), a term coined by Jackie Leigh Davis, is the study of circus in development and science. Thom frequently features studies about juggling in this book, which is great! He even gives you free access to the short book he wrote all about circademics, called What Scientists Have to Say About Juggling. This way if you’re really into it you can continue to study the research he briefly touches on in this book.
A Few Extra Things That Make This Book So Special:
Jay Gilligan & Fritz Grobe
Two amazing jugglers and writers, Jay Gilligan & Fritz Grobe, each write a chapter in this book. Fritz Grobe gives you a few of his inside tips on How to Juggle In Front of an Audience. While Jay Gilligan teaches you 10 Ways to Make A Trick. These writers add an extra element that you just can’t find anywhere else!
An In-depth Siteswap Explanation
Siteswap is often one of those things you’ll never really learn as a beginner or hobby juggler. You might have been taught a few different siteswap patterns and maybe even what the patterns were called. But chances are you didn’t and won’t learn how these patterns were developed, many using a numerical system that is the foundation of many intricate patterns. Siteswap is almost definitely not what you heard from your friend who’s brother knew someone who watched a YouTube video from some guy who didn’t really know what he was talking about. This book explains siteswap in great detail, teaching you the science of siteswap.
Great Diagrams and Photos
One of my favorite parts of the book is the great charts and photos that really enhance your juggling experience. There are long-exposure photos, taken with LED juggling balls, that actually illustrate how your juggling balls will travel. If you’re a mathy person or like numbers, this book has you covered, with number charts that will tell you how and when to throw and catch a certain ball. But if not, don’t worry! Thom also included some very simple, easy to understand, diagrams just for you!
The Icing On Top……It’s Not Boring At All!
By now, maybe you’re thinking, “with all this information, isn’t this just a big, boring textbook?” Well think again! Thom writes this book like he’s in the room with you, teaching you the ins and outs of juggling. He’ll give you inside tips on technique and presentation, so it honestly feels like you’re having one of his top-notch private lessons. It’s really great to have a super-amazing juggling Cirque Du Soleil performer write a book in such a personable, down-to-earth way.
In short, I truly wish I had this book when I was first learning to juggle. Excellent information is presented in an eye catching, easy going fashion to support you on your journey to ball-juggling mastery.
Reviewer: Rachel Ostrow
Juggling: What It Is and How to Do It is an absolutely spectacular book written by expert jugglers that compiles everything there is to know about juggling technique, history, progressions, performing, and more. It especially focuses on being creative and building a good juggling foundation that can be added on to. I mean three ball tricks, four ball tricks, 5 ball tricks, balancing – this book teaches you the easiest way to do them, what you could be doing wrong, and what you never knew you were doing wrong. It has perfectly selected diagrams for the visual learners, and even mathematics to understand conceptually. I also found it fascinating how many of the tips could also be applied to training and performing for people who are professional circus artists or those who have no prior experience whatsoever. Wall eloquently explains the steps for creating an act, including how to avoid stealing sequences, which can and should be used by every performer. It was so evident that everyone writing, especially Wall, is so passionate and carry such expertise in all aspects of juggling, such that it was a complete pleasure to read.
But the true test, did this book really help with juggling? It totally did! This book is honestly such an amazing source of learning and inspiration that could get anyone excited about juggling, and the tips are so extensive and useful, anyone with a bit of motivation (which this book certainly gives you) can up their juggling skills exponentially!
I feel like Act Creation is one of the most important things about Circus. It’s a way to express yourself through your moves and motions, your music choice, your certain style. And there’s no such thing as a bad act. Everyone expresses themselves in a different way. Putting the moves together in an order that you like, picking music (or no music) to go along with the act, and your movement quality are all creative pieces used for act creation. Now I’d like you to imagine this: You’ve been asked to perform at a show happening in two weeks time, and the person asking would like you to create an act for the show. You’ve agreed, and immediately move into an act creating process to make an act. You start trying to get somewhere. And then… nothing. A block, cutting off all valid sources of creativity outlets. You’re unable to get anything done, and move nowhere with this process. You can stop imagining now. I imagine that felt pretty real for a lot of you right? I know it felt real for me. These moments have different names for different situations.
Writers block, for example, applies to the creation of a written subject of some sort (I had a major case writing this article.) In situations like Circus, I’d call it a Creative Block. I guess the best way to imagine it is like a huge wall with you on one side, and all your creative ideas on the other side. It’s terrible. If I were to put down a list of all the times this has happened to me in a crucial moment, I don’t think I could. Too many occasions to count. But in a sense, it’s kind of a good thing how many times this has happened to me. Mainly because I’ve had time to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. I’m not here to tell you what doesn’t work though. That’s kind of pointless. If you’d allow me to cut this intro here, I’d love to share what did work for me.
I’d imagine emotion is a big part of your life. It’s human nature. And you can use that to your advantage. When you experience this creative block, try to take that emotion you have for it and use it to your advantage. For instance, I’m mainly a Static Trapeze Artist. Whenever I experience a Creative Block, 9 times out of 9 I feel anger towards this hideous monster known as Creative Block. So I take that anger and associate it with moves that fit well with that emotion. I guess I’ve taken towards a fast style of Trapeze Acts because of this. Then I’ll take a song that I can move at a fast pace with, such as Astrothunder by Travis Scott. The song goes fast enough where I can keep up with my moves I’ve chosen, and has a hard enough beat to express where the emotion is coming from.
Say I felt a sort of sadness towards Creative Block. Same concept, different expressiveness. Something I would do is pick more slow moves as well as a lot of poses. A song I would pick to represent sadness would be something like How Close You Are by Mamoru Miyano. The song is slow enough for me to move at a reasonable pace with my moves, and has a lot of places for poses.
If I had felt happiness (for whatever insane reason) towards Creative Block, It would look something like a mix between the Angry and Sad expressions. A medium paced move set with poses wherever it fits. Now I don’t listen to a lot of “Happy Music” (I guess I’m just emo like that). If I had to choose something however, I’d probably choose a song like All My Friends by Owl City. It’s just fast enough to convey something that isn’t sadness, and just slow enough to convey something that isn’t anger. It’s got an optimistic tune behind it too.
And something I can’t stress enough is that this is just MY way of expressing emotions. Everyone does it differently. However you convey your emotions isn’t my place to decide, but yours.
Going with the flow
When I say this, I don’t imply free-styling. Nothing wrong with free-styling, I do it all the time. That’s just not what I’m talking about. I mean, like, letting something other than just YOUR ideas carry you. I feel like I should go ahead and say I’m not implying plagiarism. Often with this method, I’ll do one of two things: The first thing is a music method. Often with this, I’ll grab my speaker or headphones, blast my favorite playlist, and lay face down on my bed. My goal here is to find inspiration beyond the ideas I have on the other side of that imaginary wall. Finding something about the tune of the song, the tempo, the lyrics, something and/or anything. If I end up finding inspiration from a song, I’ll often use that song. Taking that inspiration from the song, I’ll also take moves fitted best with that inspiration (in a similar fashion to the Emotional Method.)
The second thing I’ll do is a visual inspiration. Something about the sunrise has never failed to give me inspiration for whatever it might be looking for. Something about experiencing the sky go from total darkness to being completely bright within a few hours is inspiring. Sunsets work equally as well. And it doesn’t have to be just those. Find someplace with a good view and try getting inspiration from that. Paint something, or draw a picture. Even cooking works. Something, anything, that you can see will work. From that abandoned house that your town has legends about, to a crack in the sidewalk. Or maybe you don’t have to see anything at all. Total darkness is a great variable for creative methods. I’ve used it multiple times. Darkness was once an inspiration for an act I did. I used as little light as the lighting crew would let me, and it turned out great. I actually had Creative Block that week.
I say spitballing with no reference to baseball whatsoever. Nor the thing that elementary schoolers do with paper and straws. I mean spitballing like throwing out random ideas. And it’s basically that. I do this whenever I get writer’s block, and essentially it’s exactly what it sounds like. I’ll start typing random words that come to my mind until one of them eventually strikes me with an idea. So with Circus, I’ll do pretty much the same thing, but with Circus Moves. I’ll do random moves out of a sequence (Circus moves lined up for a particular skill level) until I find a few I like, and I’ll go off of that. Picking a song off of random moves without a set emotion is difficult for me. How do I get past that? I shuffle my playlist and I do an act to the first song that comes up. I do actually do that, yes. I’m not kidding, no.
Those three methods are simply my ways of dealing with Creative Block. You don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, you’re not obligated. I just thought I’d share. I can’t stress this enough, but everyone expresses their emotion differently. Don’t feel obligated to use these methods exactly how I do, it might not work the same. Find emotions, songs, visual themes, and random words that fit you. The thing I want you to take away from this the most is that Creative Block is normal, and there are ways of getting over it. After all, a wall is a wall. There’s always a way to get over one, no matter how high. Oh, and Creative Block is the worst.
Jesse Alford is the Board president of AYCO, instructor at Suspend, lighting designer for many different events including Big Apple Circus, Circus Flora and Louisville Ballet and also the head coach at My Nose Turns Red Youth Circus.
Jesse started circus at 6 years old at the Great Y Circus in Redlands, California and continued all the way through high school. He started coaching at about 16 and still coaches today! Jesse’s favorite circus discipline is unicycle and his favorite skills are any partner acrobatic work on a unicycle. “I think adding a second person to a unicycle just serves to exponentially highlight the skill that unicycle takes and opens up so many creative pathways to new tricks.” One of his favorite circus disciplines outside of his wide range of skills is Russian Bar! “Russian Bar exemplifies so many critical elements of circus and is just wildly impressive.”
I’ve gotten to have Jesse as my coach since I started unicycling 5 years ago! He coaches us mostly in unicycle, juggling and partner acro but he also teaches us and works with us on other important skills like teamwork, act development and how to coach. Huge thanks to Jesse for the interview!
My favorite picture! We have no idea what we were talking about before our performance but pictures like this show that Jesse is always there to motivate us!
How did you get involved with AYCO?
I attended my first AYCO festival in 2005, in San Francisco. It was a world-opening experience for me. Logically, I knew that there were kids all over the country doing circus but getting a chance to meet them in person (and to do circus with them), kind of exploded my understanding of what the circus community was.
In 2008, I took a semester off of college, to do as much circus as possible. My main goal was really to figure out if I wanted to continue to pursue circus, and if so, in what capacity. One of the many things I did in that time was to intern for AYCO, basically helping David Hunt (the Board Chair at the time) put on the 2008 Educators Conference. Pretty quickly I was then the Programming Director for the 2009 AYCO Festival, and then joined the Board of Directors in 2010.
What circus-y things have you been doing in quarantine?
I’ve been mainly trying to keep up with my own fitness in ways that I don’t always have time for. So more running and weight training, and less unicycling. But I’ve been watching a lot of fun circus and am enjoying the evolution of livestream variety entertainment.
What were some of your favorite quarantraining tricks of the day you did on Instagram?
Ha! Yes, I did 50 days in a row of silly #quarantraining tricks on my Instagram stories. The goal was to keep them appropriately dumb and silly, and yet be challenging enough to be impressive. My favorite by far was the sandwich flip, where I had all the ingredients of a sandwich laid out on a tray, and then flipped them up in the air and caught them all on the tray as an assembled sandwich. I’m currently taking a break from those, but I’m sure they’ll reappear soon.
How do you see circus in the future after all of this clears up? Do you think it will go back to normal or will it be different?
This is a big question! I think it will be a very long time before we get back to “normal.” We will definitely see a modification of circus as we know it, and it will certainly affect the skills and disciplines that we train. We are all separated from our apparatus, coach, gym, or some other component, and those things will not all come back at the same time. For example, we might all be able to go back to our circus gyms well before it’s safe to have a spotter close enough to be teaching you a new skill on trapeze. I hope that the silver lining of this situation is that we all find (or invent) a new skill that we had otherwise overlooked. It’s incredibly valuable in circus to be multidisciplinary, and maybe this is the kick in the pants we all need to finally get good at diabolo, or rola bola, or any number of other skills.
Circus overall will certainly survive, and this experience will only give us more stories to tell, reasons to tell them, and a chance to stop and think about what we love about circus, and why we want circus as a part of our lives.
Do you have any advice for circusers out there struggling in quarantine?
It’s important to take care of yourself as a human first. It is very easy to focus too much energy on the things we feel we are losing right now, such as your pull-ups, splits, progress with a juggling or acro partner, and so many other examples. Your pull-ups will come back, you can regain your splits, and your juggling and acro partners will still be there, ready as ever.
So use this time to build and maintain the things you can, and the things that keep you happy and healthy. Go for a bike ride, do some yoga, walk the dog, and don’t worry about how those things relate to your circus. Do the things that keep you happy and healthy. I know for many of us, circus was that outlet for physical health and happiness, so it may mean that you’re trying something different, such as trying to skateboard for the first time in 20 years, and making a fool of yourself (yep, that’s me), and that’s okay.
It’s a hard time for everyone, so make sure that you’re staying in touch with your circus family. Go to the zoom classes, because your friends want to see you! Send each other snapchats about how you’re getting better at skateboarding, but you’re still hilariously bad. And get your quarantined family in on the circus! Teach someone how to juggle and teach someone else how to do a headstand. Our circus community is not something that we need to lose during quarantine. The pull-ups may be missing at the moment, but we still have each other, and we have so many different ways to be in touch.