After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus put on its last show yesterday in New York. But for this artist and a new generation of performers, the work of spreading joy through the circus arts goes on.
by Allison Watman
Our 2000 forest green Chevy van is a Frankenstein monster. A huge gash runs along its side, its rear door is missing its handle and opens by pulling a string connected to the unlocking mechanism on the inside. The side doors are held together with duct tape. But it’s a reliable friend that runs strong, despite being overloaded with heavy gear, the tools of our trade packed with Tetris-like precision. The peeling sticker on the back window reads in faded primary colors: The Give & Take Jugglers.
What a passerby might view as a pile of junk in the back of our van are the contents of our vaudevillian circus show: an 1800s steamer trunk, a Guatemalan box, an antique German calliope, speakers, electronics, duffle bags stuffed with juggling props, a trapeze, and a tight wire. Setting up our little circus, unloading and carrying the gear, we jokingly say this is how we make our money. The show is free and our audience pays for the schlepping. We are our own roadies.
As a little girl, the circus was a weird hobby of mine: my dad taught me how to juggle at a young age. I twirled batons, along with fire at summer camp, and practiced other sorts of object manipulation in my front yard after school. In my 20s, I started aerials classes and learned the art of trapeze and fabric, just for fun and for the workout. My whole life I had considered myself to be completely ungraceful and un-athletic, and yet here I was flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
Our Give & Take Jugglers show is not what you might imagine a circus to be – not Ringling Bros., not Cirque Du Soleil. We pull inspiration from vaudeville and the street performing tradition more than a three-ring circus. There are no animals, nor a ringmaster.
Our gear unfolds into a vaudevillian wonderland, rich with wooden tones and primary color accents. We juggle, walk on tight wires, and tell corny jokes, all underneath our four-legged aerial rig, whose pyramid shape evokes the feeling of a circus tent. It is from this oversized swing set that I fly through the air on red, billowing silks as the grand finale. I tie myself in knots, pull a split, dangle from my ankles, and execute a daring double drop that makes the audience gasp every time.
I love my job. My partner and husband, Eric, and I perform in every sort of community—rich, poor, urban, rural, religious, academic— with one purpose: to spread joy. It’s a heartwarming and playful show. Kids line up for hugs afterwards, and adults whisper that they enjoyed themselves as much as their children. Our 45-minute show is always evolving based on the context of the performance and the energy of the audience. Even on stage, we are constantly improvising, because every volunteer is different and each event carries a unique feeling.
It never fails, someone asks, “So, what do you do?” and a half an hour later we are still talking about my job. I understand. The circus is a fascinating art form, full of mystery and excitement. It is unique from dance, theater, or visual arts, yet combines all three art forms into one. It showcases the beauty and power of the body and the limitlessness of spirit. It is the celebration of human potential, the intersection of danger and beauty.
When I first started performing professionally, I was my harshest critic. Every show commenced with a battle of nerves. Butterflies in my stomach turned into snarling tigers and with the adrenaline of performing, I morphed into a stiff and trembling mess onstage.
Shaking hands plus juggling? That equals a lot of drops (a juggler’s worst enemy). I could tell when I was really nervous because my tongue became numb.
It sounds silly, but I got my nerves under control by tricking myself. I trained my mind to believe I wasn’t doing a show that day. How could I be nervous if I’m not doing a show? I literally ignored it until it was too late. I would be onstage and say “Whoa, I’m doing a show!” like it was a surprise.
It is an art that takes tireless dedication and practice, cooperation, and trust. People always ask me: how much do you practice? Truthfully, not enough as I should (shhh, don’t tell the kids). Instead, the more important practice in my life as a performer is the practice of mindfulness.
I think of our show as a form of meditation. While performing, I try to stay in the moment and breathe. As soon as I start thinking about how I appear to the audience, whether or not a joke was funny, or what I’m having for dinner, I lose momentum and am jolted out of the moment. I’ve lost the connection between myself, my partner, and the audience. I have to keep the energy flowing. There are no thoughts, no past or future, there’s only the moment I’m in right now. This way, I can genuinely react when a volunteer does something unexpected, or I can catch a ball that’s flown off course. And if I do drop it – as I still do – I can swiftly move past it without judging myself, and stay connected to the show.
In that way, doing a show is like therapy. It’s an invitation to step into the moment and hold it for a full hour. Worries about the future dissipate, annoyances from the morning forgotten.
When we arrive at our destination of the day, my husband and I pull our trusty van up to the entrance and take a deep breath together and whisper in unison, “Let’s put on a show.”
Many thanks to Nina Mingioni Photography for the aerial shot above taken at Abington (PA) June Fete Fair, an annual carnival fundraiser for Abington Hospital. Also thank you to Liza Meiris for her photo of Allison juggling. Lisa is a frequent photographer for the Give and Take Jugglers.