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My Circus Journey

An old Tidy Cats container sits on the floor in front of the full-length mirrors. It’s no longer filled with what’s advertised but rather with a combination of chalk and rosin. Feeling the sweat slick return to my hands in our steamy studio, I march over to the container and lather my hands with the chalk-rosin mixture, then back over to the trapeze.

I ponder it a moment before leaping up to grab it. It reminds me of playing on the monkey bars as a kid. I was terrible at it. By comparison, my best childhood friend’s nickname was Monkey Girl. She had no issue pulling her body over the small trapeze swing on her playlet or climbing the giant magnolia in her front yard. Me, I was scared of heights and had the upper body strength of a chicken. I was no daredevil, unlike Monkey Girl, who seemed to be fearless.

Those were times past. Hanging from the trapeze, I engage my shoulders and contract my abs to bring my feet toward my face. Time for beats. I swing back and forth, toes passing between my hands on the bar, then pointing behind me as I temporarily become weightless. It’s my favorite part of this exercise.


Three and a half years ago, I fell in love with circus. I had worked out maybe five times over the previous decade and, despite appearing fit (read: skinny), I had no endurance. I had strong legs thanks to good genes, something that served me well when lifting things, but I felt an increasing need to be stronger. I loved dance and had been studying it off and on for years, but my clumsiness got in the way of the effortless look I wanted. So when I first saw a friend dancing in the air, I wondered if it would be a solution to my feet problem.

The initial hurdles seemed insurmountable. I couldn’t lift myself, my hands hurt from grabbing steel bars, I got hopelessly tangled in the silks, and I definitely couldn’t invert my body. And yet, I was hooked.

On my first visit to the studio that would become my second home and workplace over the next few years, I met with the director, Corey, to talk about potential collaboration on theatrical productions. Although I was there with my producer hat on, I remember eyeing the apparatuses and wondering what it was all like. They were installing the poles, which were terrifyingly tall to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would eventually climb them.

Around the same time, I walked into the costume shop where I worked and discovered my coworker squeezing into leggings in the changing area. “I’m going to silks class and you have to wear super tight clothing or you get tangled up,” she laughed. It’s true. Eventually, I got so used to wearing leggings that I became one of those people who wears workout clothing all the time. Hey, it’s comfortable.


My first performance on the lyra, also called the aerial hoop, was at a vaguely hippie music festival, where aromas of patchouli and marijuana filled the air and fairy lights speckled the lawn. I nervously approached the hoop, the crash mat feeling way too squishy under my feet, grabbed the steel bar, and began my spin. I messed up my first trick, but after that, felt completely comfortable, even blissful, on the hoop. Although I didn’t make enough eye contact with the crowd, it was an incredible experience, to be up there in a magical world that I’d woven.

As I grew more confident in performing, my fear faded. I let the back of my mind, my reptilian brain, do the risk calculation and make a backup plan. It worked. During one performance on an exceptionally hot day, my hand slipped. My backup plan kicked in and I hooked my elbow to stop my fall. I struck a pose and the audience was none the wiser. When performing, think like a cat — something goes wrong, shake it off, arch your back, and say, “I meant to do that!”
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Part of my desire to be stronger was because I was still reeling from an abusive relationship I’d just escaped. Although he famously never hit me (and made sure not to so that I would have no evidence if I went to the police, he told me), I felt battered inside and out. My entire body was exhausted from constantly fearing for my safety, having to navigate treacherous day after day with him. I felt ugly, weak, and not secure in my body. Circus empowered me to reconnect with my body and learn to love it like I never had before. Rather than feeling like I was drawing everyday, I felt like I was flying everyday.

All the same, circus involves a lot of pain and grossness, although I’d take that sort of pain over partner abuse any day. You sweat a lot, especially in Florida, and your skin rips and bruises. You get what’s called “hand rips” if you don’t take care of your hands, and they look like stigmata. You get weird looks and concerned questions about whether everything is okay at home (which was ironic, given my ex-abuser who avoided punching me) as you try to hide your bruises with long sleeves and makeup. I remember posting a picture on Instagram of my legs, which were smattered with small bruises, and feeling disgusted. A stranger, a fellow traveler on a circus journey, commented and called them “circus kisses.” From then on, I started to appreciate the aches, pains, and bruises that were necessary to my growth. The increasing intensity of my circus training had a corresponding effect in my feeling of connectedness to my own body. I started to listen to my breath, to tap into my primal needs.
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As someone with a knack for teaching, I itched to share my knowledge with people, to inspire new fellow travelers on the circus journey. I spent a lot of time reading books about the art form, its history, the muscles involved, and so on. I created a massive dictionary of aerial maneuvers and tricks. The first time I taught a full class of students, I was elated as I saw it click for them, as they learned to climb, as they mastered their first trick.

In circus, you learn humility, patience, and you learn to appreciate small victories. You learn to accept the inevitable plateau for love of the incredible feeling you get when you finally nail that trick you’ve been working on for months…or even years. It’s a long game but one in which the prize is your own self-discovery and membership in a centuries-old art form with performers around the world.

It really is the greatest show on Earth.

Cross-posted to Medium.

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Level Up: Master’s Degree

This year, I finished my 144-page, 40,000-words master’s thesis. I have never written anything so long in my life. It was 6 years of off- and on-work. I left graduate school for a long time after being broken down by an abusive relationship, and I had to request special exception to continue in the program. Since then, I have been working full-time and trying to launch my own theatre company, plus training in the circus and trying to get my life overall on track. I spent countless evenings reading 20-page academic papers just to write 1-3 sentences in my thesis (isn’t academia fun?). I stared at Excel spreadsheets far longer than normal. I spent hours transcribing interviews with awesome people. And finally, on September 7 of this year, I successfully defended my thesis and was approved to graduate with my Master’s in Cultural Anthropology, with a concentration in Film Studies.

I’m very proud of the research, which included a unique combination of media effects research with ethnography. This was, as far as I know, the first paper to approach bullying from this combined perspective and to bring respondents’ narcissistic attributes into conversation with their attitudes toward bullying. My findings were that people with such attributes were more likely to pay attention to the effects of bullying behavior, and that people who were exposed to media portraying bullying were more likely to identify it as such.

I produced one short documentary on bullying as part of this research, and I hope to continue my visual anthropological work post-degree, albeit independently. While I do not plan to seek a job in academia, I do plan to use what I have learned to hopefully effect real social change in the movement to stop bullying. This is the power of anthropology when applied to real-world issues: to inform people why they do what they do and empower them with knowledge to change it.

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Immersive Theatre 101

This Halloween, I got to celebrate in style — by stage managing/wardrobing a murder mystery dinner theatre production! This format is a classic example of immersive theatre: the audience becomes part of the show and the set is actually the totality of audience’s and cast’s surroundings, not isolated to a stage. Our production, Halloween Moon Rising by Kelby Siddons, was produced by Y-Not Theatre and hosted at the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville. It was my last non-circus production in Gainesville, and it was fantastic. The play’s characters are inspired by historical figures in north central Florida, including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Although I had done quite a few immersive shows, this production proved to me that immersive theatre requires a firm camaraderie among the cast and crew. Everyone has to be on board with each other to make it work, in tune enough to fix things when they go wrong. We were all lucky to have actors, crew, and a director with a great attitude.

I also had fun making props that the audience looked at for clues. Imagine my delight when someone picked up on the tiny detail I’d hidden in a newspaper clipping and correctly guessed the murderer!

Overall, a delightful production, and I hope to be able to work on a murder mystery again.

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A Journey With DreamQuilt

Over the past few years, I have dedicated much of my time to building and launching DreamQuilt. After two years of producing independent alternative theatre, including Gainesville’s first “mixed-media variety show,” tribute shows to Jim Henson and Joss Whedon, and a rock musical revue, I had my efforts derailed by the closure of my home venue.

I regrouped and shifted DreamQuilt’s focus to creative team-building and the workshops that were previously housed under the nonprofit project CerridwenWorks. We launched the workshops at the Gainesville Mini Maker’s Faire.

With the help of UF Warrington College of Business’ Big Idea Competition, I developed a business plan, and DreamQuilt will launch in its full capacity this year. I’m excited to have two new business partners and a pilot program that will allow us to finally begin growing.

I also limited CerridwenWorks to its film-related endeavors, and released its first mini-documentary, A Million Moments, last fall, as part of a series on anti-violence activism. The next two films in the series are a reflexive ethnography of the antifa movement and a faux-documentary about intimate partner abuse. I am also working on a documentary about the cirque and puppetry movements.

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2016: A Year of Variety Entertainment

This year, I pushed myself to new limits and began to develop variety entertainment through my company, DreamQuilt. Producing variety entertainment is an exciting combination of theatre skills in action: you’re casting, creating a through-line or theme, writing performer descriptions and occasionally the host’s lines (or performing them yourself), and creating a marketing plan. You also end up doing front-of-house stuff and perhaps a wee bit of stage management. I was lucky to have some great crew managers this year to help all productions run smoothly.

I also firmly believe in giving back to the community, so the majority of this year’s shows were either benefit shows or tied directly to a community organization. After all, the performing arts can transform the world.

Rock Musical Revue (October 2016)

Zombieville (July 2016)
 Well-received variety show that featured burlesque, music, and comedy in an immersive, post-apocalyptic environment that blended with the activities of local LARPing group Dystopia Rising. Also included film fest.

Bizarrelesque (June 2016)

Happily Ever After: Fairy Tale Variety Show (March 2016)
 This production was part of Red Soul Days, the anti-violence festival I singlehandedly produced twice a year between 2014 and 2016. The festival also included a concert, an art show, and workshops.

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Summer Spectacular: An Incredible 2 Months in Theatre Education

I costumed 132 children this summer. All the pin pricks, hot glue burns, and carpal tunnel syndrome are worth the level of adorableness. I heard so many people praise our shows for Summer Spectacular, the education program at the Hippodrome Theatre. Campers love their costumes, props, and music, and so do Hippsters! I heard patrons in the hall saying these were some of the highest quality productions they’ve seen for Summer Spec! That is to say, my costumes were a part of it. Of course, Roald Dahl is great source material, and our kids are ROCK STARS! I was very grateful for the opportunity to design costumes for this shows as well as teach costuming and costume history, and super pleased that several kids told me I was their favorite teacher / the best costume designer they’ve ever had. Truly a proud moment for me—I felt that my training, knowledge, and skill in costuming had finally coalesced, and I could have a positive impact on kids’ theatre education.

Our kids were very lucky this year to have incredible directors (Niall McGinty andMatthew Lindsay), incredible teachers in creative writing (Rachel Abrams), film (Eric Martin), acting (Pablo J. Milla), great workshop leaders (Daniel,Marionne, Kelli, Elizabeth, Mariama, and many more), amazing tech by Jed Daniels and Amanda Yanes, props by Karen Arnold, videography and stage management by Ed, and all under the leadership of Gabby Byam. This is how you do summer!

A little moment of theatre magic took place during camp:

I had been working hard to exceed expectations and complete amazing costumes for all my kids, but had been met with multiple challenges both situational and personal. At times I felt very distressed and disappointed. In an improv game today, I had a student curl up into a ball of despair, moaning that he didn’t know where he fit in and felt disrespected and ignored. I pulled him aside and told him that I sometimes felt that way too. I begged him to participate in the game, telling him he would never know if his ideas would be heard and his personhood acknowledged until he tried. At the same time, I was feeling ambivalent about my words, wondering if there was any hope for those of us who are hypersensitive to others, or perhaps a little too strange for most of our peers. All the same, I asked him to take a moment to gather himself so we could play the game. He responded by hiding even more in the corner and shrinking into a ball. He was still upset when the game began and each team was building a story together. My kids were not all on the same page and the scene, which was supposed to have an inspirational message, was not going anywhere. Suddenly, the sad kid burst out of nowhere and sealed the story with this quote: “when you think lovely thoughts, the sun will shine upon you and you will look lovely.” We could all see the happiness take over his face as he realized the truth of what he was saying. He then came and hugged me. And I remembered why I was in theatre, to witness moments like this. This is why we do art…where platitudes and empty promises fall short, the catharsis of performance reminds us that it’s not all bad.

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Red Soul Days: Two Years of Anti-Violence Events

One exciting part of Alachua County is its annual festivals. For years, we have had the Downtown Arts Festival, the Thornebrooke Arts Festival, the Micanopy Harvest Festival, the Lubee Bat Festival, Labor Daze Fest, Jest Fest, and more. We also have local representation of national events such as V-Day and National Anti-Bullying Month. We also have monthly Artwalk and First Friday events and a weekly Farmers’ Market that includes arts and crafts. In consideration of these artistic traditions and to ground more of these festivals in social activism, I decided to combine several ideas I had for unique and socially conscious events into such a festival, and one that celebrated all types of arts. Thus Red Soul Days was born. While events such as the March for Peace and VFest used music, and the Vagina Monologues spoken word, to benefit anti-domestic violence and anti-bullying organizations, no event addressed those issues through stand-up, dance, straight theatre, or other performance types. Always one to rise to a challenge (and I admit, a workaholic), I decided to do it all.

Red Soul Days, named for the color of an aura that is angry, aroused, wounded, or proud, was an extraordinary week. I was blessed with a variety of artists who wanted to participate in the events, and with several exceedingly generous venues who opened their doors to us for free or for a steep discount. Our incredible roster for 2014 and 2015 included:

  • A burlesque show at the Jam—a packed house brought in several hundred dollars for our charities and great tips for our performers
  • Two variety shows at Market Street Gainesville–incredibly passionate artists and a generous, adoring audience each time
  • An art show at the Midnight–profoundly cathartic and socially emotional event sharing the art of survivors of violence
  • A girls rock concert at High Dive—woefully underattended, but with amazing artists
  • A movie night at High Dive—also underattended, but with a very responsive audience
  • A comedy show at Rockey’s—The guest comedians were champs who made the audience pay them—and by extension our beneficiaries—for offensive jokes
  • A punk show at 1982—more amazing women performed to raise money for our beneficiaries
  • Guest speaker Jen Moff—a friend of mine from undergrad who has become a successful motivational speaker

I chose the beneficiaries, out of the many organizations dedicated to stopping school bullying and intimate partner abuse, based on their local activities, variety of services, and multigenerational/multicultural approach. To fight bullying, I chose PFLAG Gainesville, the local branch of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which addressed both the challenges of coming out and the risk of suicide for LGBT youth. To fight intimate partner abuse, I chose Peaceful Paths, which provides shelter, counseling, legal assistance, health information, and dozens of other services for abuse and sexual assault victims. And to fight teen dating abuse, I chose Break the Cycle, which provides information and services to help teens identify unhealthy relationships and to stop abusive and bullying behavior while the perpretrators are young.

Although Red Soul Days could have been better attended, raised more money, or gone more smoothly at times, it was a groundbreaking start, as a cohesive, multifacted event that raised $897 for our beneficiaries. It was an emotional journey for me, for sure: I began work on the project, which quickly became a second, unpaid job, in April of 2014, while recovering from intimate partner abuse, and I put up a week’s worth of entertainment while caring for an ailing pet who died during the event. I am eternally grateful for my colleagues and friends, Jill Dumas and Jennifer Vito, both of whom are extraordinary artists and activists, who worked hard to ensure Red Soul Days was successful. Our full week of entertainment, the money raised, and connections forged was an amazing springboard to what I plan to be a new Alachua County tradition.

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Dearly Departed: A Postmortem on Directing a Delightfully Dark Comedy

In June of 2014, I directed (and also designed sound, costumes, and publicity for) Dearly Departed at High Springs Playhouse in High Springs Florida.

I was invited to direct this show by talented Gainesville playwright-director Leroy Clark, with whom I had worked on his challenging and emotional play Outburst, based on the experiences of gay rights advocate Rodney Wilson. At the time it was offered to me, I had no idea how many personal challenges I would experience in the year between my accepting the offer and beginning work on this show. This tale of a dysfunctional family dealing with their patriarch’s death is surprisingly realsitic, but laced with dark humor and darkly situational comedy. Authors Jessie Jones and David Bottrell satirize Southern hospitality and modern materialism while tapping into the deep-seated fears and taaumas associated with death.

The play was produced at High Springs Playhouse, which I had worked at previously, but I knew very few of the regulars, and had to cast a show with ages spanning 20 to 90 and persoanlities as different as night and day. I was thrilled to have a splendidly ethnusiastic group of women audition, and as usual, it was difficult to say no to any of them. Yet the ones who landed the roles were so breathtakingly similar to how I imagined the characters when they read, that the show basically cast itself.

The rehearsal process was driven by my Pirandello-influenced approach to character creation as a feedback between a living character and a living actor. I asked the actors to share what they thought abut their characters, and to tell me what the important things were that they said and did. I discovered this process somewhat organically, as I felt very invested in the play and very fond of both the characters and the actors. After the first couple of rehearsals, I received these emails from a couple of cast members:
“I really enjoyed the practice today. Thank you so much for your input and your direction. I’m certain that you are aware I have never done this before, and I am open and certainly appreciative of anything that you can tell me, and any advice that you can give me to make this production be what you want it to be. Since I am the new kid on the block, I am honestly open to whatever I need to do, and what things I need to do to be a good actor.”
“I was telling [folks] tonight how much I liked the rehearsal today: the direction you gave, the chance to discuss my thoughts about my character, and the food for thought you gave me. I think it’s going to be a fun run.”

As part of my philosophy for CerridwenWorks, I wanted to add a dimension of social consciousness to the production that had a real-world effect. So I recommended to the Board of the theatre that the show proceeds go to benefit a hospice, and to offer talkbacks after each Sunday matinee. We ended up raising several hundred dollars for Hospice of the Nature Coast.

I met several challenges through this process that were essential to my learning, if painful to deal with. I had a cast member take offense to some of the textual content given by the playwrights, and had to balance my desire to do right by the playwirght with my concern for the actor’s comfort. In the end, I changed a couple of curse words but did not change a racist comment; you can adjust the language more than you can adjust the character.

I had spite and jealousy emerge among some members of the theatre, and found it more heartbreaking than the usual clash of egos. While sarcastically appropriate for a show with dialogue that is primarily bickering and passive aggression, there was a certain weight to these incidents that reminded me that the otherwise magical theatre cannot solve these human foibles simply by its inspiration to get along. I very much learned to not “take it personally”—even if it was at times.

I was very grateful to have a pleasant production team that got along…however, I could not find a costume designer or sound designer, or marketing director, so had to wear all those hats. Previously, I had cherished the opportunity to show all that I could do, and gladly wore multiple hats. In this case, doing all that while directing and feeling both internal and external pressure to prove myself was exhausting, and put me in the uncomfortable position in which, as all the productivity and entrepreneurship bloggers note, I appeared to be more of a big-hat director than a team player. Even though the show turned out beautifully and I did get “all my stuff done,” I knew I would never again be able to simply take on an extra role if I couldn’t find anyone else. Volunteer-run theatre should not have to impose such demands on any one person (nor should any theatre).

All the same, I wept with happiness at both opening and closing, and at each of our (many) full houses). I don’t plan to direct another show soon, as I want to develop the applied, multi-genre, and educational aspects of my artistic endeavors, and at this time, I am more interested in avant garde or experimental theatre, cabaret-style shows, and new play workshops.

 

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Anti-Bullying March for Day of Peace

Believe it or not, for someone so socially conscious and politically active, I’ve never participated in a rally. Today’s Day of Peace rally was glorious. From the incredible music by Be More Heroic members to the chants and cheers of both humans and their dogs at Bo Diddley Plaza to the adorable skits done by students at my research school, Duval Elementary, today’s event was A+! I wore a shirt bearing words such as “slut” and “nerd” and carried a sign that read, “Words DO hurt me.” I was interviewed by a local paper, which was nice, but most of all, I got to see firsthand the passion and joy that stirs the hearts of those who speak for compassion and peace. Let’s face it, those people who rally for hate just don’t have that same joy.

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A catch-up post

A catch-up post: Recently I’ve been hunting footage for my minidoc on puppetry, which I’ll hopefully be submitting to a festival, working on my thesis project, which involves interviewing public school educators about #bullying, directing Dearly Departed, which opens June 13 at High Springs Playhouse, planning Red Soul Days, a multimedia anti-violence event in August, and producing Work is Cheap, an applied theatre and “rapidtheatre” project, which has a public play reading on May 17 8pm at Broken Shelves Books and Art in downtown Gainesville. It’s bound to be a thrilling summer!