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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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Nailed the Interactive Art Show!!

Friday was an incredible night. I have run a combined variety/art show and an interactive art show at the Civic Media Center in the past year. I was striving for a perfect blend of art showing, performances, interaction, and donation. I wanted to give artists an opportunity to show their work in a rich environment. I named this event The MageArt Experience, in acknowledgement of the real magic that art provides, both in its production and perception.

I finally got the right formula for this show, and brewed up a delicious artistic blend. We benefited from Gainesville’s Artwalk crowd, and our participating artists brought incredible energy and beauty. We had guests contributing to the collaborative canvas, purchasing art, and watching the performers with full attention.

With this show under my belt, I think that CerridwenWorks is well on its way to nonprofit status.

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Summer o’ Theatre

This summer was a particularly fertile one for theatre in Gainesville, and proved to be a major portfolio boost.

Stage Manager

On May 24, 25, and 26, the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre hosted the new Gainesville Shaw Society‘s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Geneva. My friend Krsnaa Fitch loves Shaw’s works and asked me to be her stage manager. The particular demands of the piece—even an abridged form, as we did—included furniture and costumes appropriate to the late 1930s and an approximation of three major political leaders of the era: Adolf Hitler (fictionalized as Battler), Francisco Franco (fictionalized as Flanco), Benito Mussolini (fictionalized as Bombardone), and Neville Chamberlain (fictionalized as Sir Orpheus). We partnered with the Hippodrome Theatre again and also enlisted the talents of Gainesville costume Jason Bendure to develop the costumes. Ken Brown of the Hipp worked on our set, and under short notice.

Once again, I found myself on stage as well as managing the show. In a delightfully meta twist, I assumed the role of the Secretary to the League of Nations, who is revealed to have conned the assembled dictators and plaintiffs in the final act. Calling the shots in the plot and backstage!

The most important aspect of the Geneva experience was that it revealed my capability as a production manager (and my ability to do a Swiss-French accent), especially under a short deadline. I am an excellent stage manager, but sometimes, due to a busy calendar, it’s better for me to coordinate a production team than to record rehearsals or be on-book. And I have increasingly more professional connections to get the supplies, loans, and donations that the designers need.

As such, my initial role on the Acrosstown board as Design Manager (aka master of the Props/Costume dungeon that no one else braves) was combined with this new role, as Production Manager. I also was encouraged to take on the role of Board Secretary, since I instinctively take copious notes.

Perhaps the most important role is the development of ARTiS, which I will discuss in a post to come.

Then, I partnered with George Steven O’Brien to develop the set for A.R. Gurney’s A Perfect Party, which played June 14-30. The set, a den-turned-family-room-turned-study, as described in the set, required a specific combination of swank, comfort, disillusionment, education, and artifice. You can see photos of the work here. As the theatre’s Production Manager, I agreed to serve as Production Stage Manager, but ended up getting more than I bargained for when one of our actors had to take medical leave and your trusty stage manager, the eternal understudy, had to take the stage! Now I’m experiencing a resurgence of the acting bug, and will appear in adaptations of W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw ” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” as part of the ART’s Fright Night play festival.

Producer

It has long been my dream to run an agency that combines the production & distribution of documentary films and socially activist plays with the development of workshops and curricula that use audiovisual media. This idea first germinated when I was considering career options and asked myself what my ideal job was. When my keyword searches ceased to generate results, my collage mind saw the potential in such an agency, and I began developing its model and mission statement.

However, I had never produced a show or handled any business aspects of a production. As fortune would have it, Mr. O’Brien’s company, TigerMonkey Creations, needed a boost, and I had met many talented people who I believed to deserve exposure. With the help of the Alachua County Rapscallions, I organized 14 performers and 5 artists for a multimedia variety and art show, with a silent auction and raffle, to benefit TigerMonkey Creations.  Along the way, I adopted Dragon*Con’s model of providing short parody skits to entertain the audience as performers set up; to do this, I, with four other people, created SketchyYeti, an improv and sketchy comedy troupe that parodied infomercials, drug commercials, and reality shows. We also performed a couple of live skits.

The show was a relative success, although I had stretched myself too thin. The show launched SketchyYeti and gave Gainesville poet Charles Ely an opportunity to demonstrate his choreography (with yours truly). It raised about $270 for TigerMonkey Creations. I was thrilled with the outcome and realized I had successfully organized over two dozen people (including organizers and staff) to create a socially engaging multimedia event! I was a producer, and I could make the agency happen.

Costumes and Makeup

And finally, I returned to the Hippodrome for their production of Avenue Q, as wardrobe manager. Needless to say, it was an unusual experience to be dressing both puppets and humans. The show is a particularly ripe combination of satire of American society, parody of children’s edutainment, and musical delights, and was a joy to work on. The songs, however, were quite infectious.

To bring the design work full circle, I did skull makeup on the lead singer of Braineaters A-Go Go, a Misfits tribute band, for their debut performance at the 1982 Bar in Gainesville. Considering the aesthetic of Teatro de los Muertos, this seemed a good sign of things to come.

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‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (LINK)

Fascinating example of the interaction of social biases, art, and politics.

When the Art Guys married their sapling, “the whole thing was an environmentalist gesture,” The Believer expressed in their profile of the duo. Yet critics of the work refused to see how the act could exist separate from the heated climate of the gay marriage debate, even though both artists were already married to women. Many accused the work of belittling gay marriage and encouraging homophobic logic, namely former Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt. In his review, Britt, who himself is gay, argued the work “reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.”

Britt was so offended by the work he created a performance piece of his own to show, in his words, “what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like.” For his piece, “The Art Gay Marries a Woman,” Britt found a straight woman he had never met via Twitter, married her at a gay strip club, and changed his last name to Britt-Darby.

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

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Photography and Making Meanings

Currently at UF’s Harn Museum of Art is the wonderful  “Modern Impulse” photography exhibition. It’s a stunning collection of beautiful, sometimes disturbing images from America and Europe between WWI and WWII. This was a period of great creativity in the medium; photography shifted from being a means of documentation to an avenue of expression. The work of the featured Czech artists, especially Josef Sudek, is particularly lovely and fascinating; their manipulation of the camera makes one rue the concept of “snapshot.” The collection demonstrates how social meanings were shared, deconstructed, and reconstituted in this period, especially in the images of unsafe factory conditions, segregated public buildings, and homelessness. The raw, emotional work of Walker Evans, featured in the show, causes the eye to linger.

Photography became a means of social change in this era, and has continued to mediate meanings and inspire activism to the present day. Consider the work of Pieter Hugo, Sebastião Salgado, and Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, in addition to filmmakers like the late Tim Hetherington.

The Harn collection also features the gorgeous work of Group f/64, who championed unedited, naturally lit photographs as expressions of truth. (Hm, would Walter Benjamin agree?)

Additional reading:

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Go On, Get Cultured: Big-T Theatre vs. little-T (movie) theatre

I once went with a friend to see a production of Proof at my university’s theatre. I was a student there and worked both in the shop and on the production crew for productions. Like any theatre geek, I had read and seen many plays both for study and entertainment purposes. My friend, however, rarely went to the theatre, opera, or concert hall; she consumed many movies and TV shows and listened to music on her iPod. Yet she expressed a desire to accompany me to the theatre.

After the play, which is a highly intellectual and emotional drama, she emerged not with comments on the philosophical themes of the play but with the simple statement: “I loved it! I feel cultured now.”

Before you walk away thinking my friend was not too bright, let’s consider the importance of the play in her mind: as a “cultural” experience that was somehow distinctive from all the rest of the cultural products she absorbed. She referred to the movies, TV shows, and music as part of her “lifestyle” or for the purpose of “relaxing.” It is odd to consider that theatre was once such an escapist medium, and moreover a social opportunity. While there was a certain social hierarchy in the Globe that was expressed in the seating, it was simple entertainment for all audience members. And prior to that theatre had a religious purpose or was laced with philosophical themes…and prior to that it was alternately “smart” entertainment, soapy drama, or frothy comic goodness.

What had happened to theatre, then, that it is now, to some people, a specific and limited opportunity for “culture”? My friend, despite her massive consumption of popular culture, did not consider herself as “cultured” before seeing the play as after. Yet she did not say she felt “more” cultured. This suggests that she felt “cultured” as a direct effect of seeing a play…a relatively exotic medium to her.

As both a theatre geek and a film buff, I have seen duplicated over and over certain snobbery or ignorance on both sides. To some playgoers, theatre remains the one true dramatic art; to some filmgoers, the theatre is archaic and limited. And to some, the experience of the two is conflated, and the differences misunderstood: I am not entirely convinced that no one assumes that stage actors cannot hear or see their audience, hence their lack of decorum.

Yet one can speak of a certain intimacy and authenticity to the theatre experience. Indeed, Walter Benjamin, in a chapter of his Illuminations entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” observes that a stage actor more directly imparts the “aura” (his word for the original yet transient essence of an idea, character, or artifact) to the viewer than a film actor, who does so through the processes of filming and subsequent cutting and printing. This makes theatre a more authentic art…and while many filmmakers, scholars, and fans today might disagree with any suggestion that film is inauthentic, the different social constructions of playgoing versus moviegoing suggest something.

I propose that the difference stems from film’s capacity for duplication, dissemination, and destruction. A movie we’ve seen, we may purchase a copy, recommend to a friend, or simply forget if we don’t care for it. Indeed, I would venture that most movies are forgotten, not even included in the “canon” built by film critics and scholars, but retained simply as a product by their distributors. Their eternity is belied by their phosphorescence. Plays, on the other hand, stem from texts and are then wholly reproduced again and again; they are long-lived despite any given iteration being seen only once by most of their viewers. Their eternity is bought by their transience.

Or, in simpler terms, people can easily take a movie and make it their own; they can view in any room, in any state, with anyone. They have not submitted to a communal experience with strangers, nor been immersed in a fake world. It’s easier to forget you’re not in 19th-century France, for example, when you can see only a representation of that world, than if you’re able to see the edges of the giant screen showing you a series of controlled images with popcorn in your hand.

So in the end, I couldn’t fault my friend for finding the theatre exotic. It’s honestly the reason I return to it year after year. Sometimes you grow weary of the iPod, the Netflix, the Hulu, and the Kindle, or even of your comfy chair or couch and your big-screen TV. In those times, you may retreat to the theatre, the opera house, or the concert hall and soak in the authentic arts, just to get a little “culture” in you.