I’ve always been a clown. But I didn’t own up to it until I went to Oberlin.
I first heard about OCircus in Oberlin College Singers. One day, before choir rehearsal began, I started chatting with the girl next to me. As we spoke, she mentioned that music was secondary: her main passion was circus.
“An actual circus? Really?” I asked, picturing elephants and a flying trapeze.
“Really,” she said, and eyed me. “And we need clowns. I think you would make a good clown.”
I was a terrible clown. I had no skills, few dance skills and little stage presence. The night before the show, I fell on my face. For the next week, I sported a terrific black eye, only barely covered by the white make-up.
I wasn’t very funny. But I had fun.
As the clowns served as little diversions between the impressive skill acts—acrobalance, juggling, stilting, gymnastics—I watched the whole show nearly onstage. I sat only a few feet away from a tumbler in flight, within striking range of a length of poi. I crouched right next to a stilter’s peg legs. When I watched the unicyclists wind around each other in more and more complex circles, my jaw dropped.
But the incredible part wasn’t the skills, or the talent and showmanship–it was the attitude. Everyone was there to have fun. No one had to audition; no one had to know a set number of skills. There were no lines to forget. Backstage, there was a buffoonery I had never seen before–everyone warmed up in wacky, silly dances and stretches.
The show was free. Everyone was invited, even untalented, wide-eyed me. I could hear children giggling at the stilter’s antics, and hear them sigh when the unicyclists nearly collided over and over again. At the end of the show, the band kept playing, so the whole cast started dancing on the stage.
There were over 80 people in the circus, close to a hundred when you included set builders, musicians, tech and composers. Each act had live music accompanying them, written by students in the Conservatory. During the last dance party, I remember looking around and thinking I was in some sort of flash mob filled with my closest friends.
I wanted this to happen again.
Two years later, I was one of the folks in charge. Not completely, but I gripped the Ringleader hat tightly. Circus stood for the things I valued: inclusion, family, daring, theatre without drama, strength, flexibility, clumsiness, music, love. If anyone asked me what I cared about, circus would be one of the first words out of my mouth. When I traveled, I sought out jugglers and tumblers. My people.
This year, I produce the shows. I taught a Circus Arts ExCo. I lead meetings. I marshal troops. I help write budgets. I plan. I dream. I wonder. I recruit. I publicize.
This year, we started holding “office hours” on Fridays at 4:30 in Wilder Bowl, when most of campus gathered in the grass to listen to live music and chill out after a long week. We struck it lucky, attracting a crowd of energetic freshmen who fell into all categories of circus–they juggled, balanced, spun and lifted each other. More than that: they understood circus, the idea of creating something playful that’s also entertaining for an audience. The more fun they had, the better they were to watch.
It’s strange to think how much the circus has impacted my life. More than giving me friends, exercise, bruises and hours of entertainment, circus has given me a sense of belonging. I’m glad to know that the thing that has given me so much support through college will continue once I’m gone.