Circus Amok's latest show marks 25 years of public fun (with a message)
When my then-three-year-old first saw Jennifer Miller, she blurted out, "You're a girl with a beard!" It's an exclamation the Circus Amok
founder has gotten used to hearing over the decades, whether she's onstage or off. A performer, playwright, Pratt professor,
and political activist, bearded lady Miller and her campy cohorts mix juggling, acrobatics, clowning, and other traditional circus skills with a sideshow of social justice in free, all-ages shows performed in city parks.
Climate change is the theme of the troupe's 25th anniversary production, At the Crossroads
, which kicks off
in the Bronx's St. Mary's Park this Saturday. In between hitting up the TDF Costume Collection bag sale
for matching outfits and rehearsing Circus Amok's latest street spectacle, Miller took time out to chat about the newfound popularity of circus in theatre, the evolution of gender politics, and the hoops she (sometimes literally) jumps through in order to create public art.
So I hear you and your castmates recently went treasure hunting at the TDF Costume Collection bag sale
Yes! It was thrilling in every way---the excitement of going to the Kaufman Astoria Studios movie lot
and waiting in line and overhearing everybody else talking about the theatre projects they're working on. And then the hustle and bustle once you get in there. It's so exciting to run around. Of course, we looked for everything sequined and colorful.
I've only been to one TDF bag sale years ago, and I remember there being both a sense of competition and community.
It's competitive with that playful edge, which is kind of symbolic of theatre in general, right? Probably what we were looking for was a little different than what other performing companies were trying to find. We were going for flamboyant and shiny, and matching sets. The weird thing is, the sets often aren't together on the racks. So if you come across something that looks like it might have a partner, you have to tear around the whole place to see if there are others. We got these great green elfin outfits that we're going to put on the jugglers. We have five jugglers this year and for us, costuming a multi-person act is always a challenge.
And that’s a good segue to talk about your new show. What inspired you to do it? Did you think to yourself, "Okay, it's been two years since our last production so we've got to do a new one." Or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
I could wait for creative inspiration! But theatre productions are big administrative endeavors, so first, we have to raise the money.
It always starts with the money, huh?
Exactly. Circus Amok put on an annual production for many years. The decision to go every other year had to do with exhaustion and leaving time for all of us to work on other projects. Every time we do a show I say, "This is the last year!" But we keep coming back. So I can't say that with sincerity anymore.
Circus Amok shows always have an overarching politically charged theme. How did you decide on climate change for this edition?
The hardest thing about doing theatre that's rooted in contemporary issues is that they're constantly changing. I always look for something that's got energy, that's bubbling, that people are working on or concerned about in our city. This was an interesting year because De Blasio is such a change for us, after 12 years of Bloomberg we finally have a mayor whose policies we are in agreement with. We wondered what to do about that. Could we celebrate? But it turned out that there's a huge UN Climate Summit
and a People's Climate March
in September, right in the middle of our tour. So we decided to jump on climate change knowing there will be a lot of organizing on the street around it. So that's our big
theme, but other issues will find their way into the show, like what's been happening in Ferguson, the killing of men of color like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the uprisings around these injustices. And of course I also have to figure out a way to get my own personal state in it.
Oh, you know, a character I can play who's aging and raging! One of the things I bring up in the show is my grappling with being a political theatre maker and my struggles with the meaning and value of what we're doing. Some of that dialogue does play out, hopefully in a funny, campy way.
I feel like I've been seeing less street performances like Circus Amok than I used to. But maybe I'm traveling in the wrong neighborhoods. What do you think?
Well, it's been sad seeing Police Commissioner Bratton really clamp down on subway dancers---Gia Kourlas actually wrote a really nice piece in the Times
about how she loves seeing them. But Crystal Field at Theater for the New City
is still doing her street theatre. I've noticed more companies doing Shakespeare in parks and parking lots. The dance world has been doing some things, and there are people doing environmental site-specific stuff. It's hard to say.
: Do you think it's a question of getting permits? I've heard artists grumble that the process has gotten more difficult.
In 2012 we had a lot of obstacles. This year it's actually been a little bit easier. One amazing thing is a permit still only costs $25 per park. That's what it cost when we started out! Sometimes I hear people complain, "They won't let us speak out in public." I tell them, "Well, actually, you can get a permit. and you can perform in the parks." However, during the Bloomberg administration there was a lot more privatization of parks, so conservancies got more power. While they may support the parks, there is now a lot more red tape and bureaucracy, and they have the ability to say no more easily.
Circus Amok started out in 1989. Do you feel like the neo-circus scene has changed since then?
that we got started in our early days has changed so much. All the social movements and the forms, it's really interesting and exciting and a struggle. Even the new dance I was involved in as a young person is now old
] And my explorations in gender, what it meant to be a woman with a beard... gender is sort of exploding in all of these different directions, and I kind of get put into this old-school box. It's the same thing with circus. When we started doing new circus, I was influenced by the Pickle Family Circus
and the San Francisco Mime Troupe
, and troupes like the Bindlestiffs
were coming up at that time, too. There's still a lot happening in all of those lineages, but of course the genre has grown and a lot of circus has found its way back to Broadway with Pippin
and many commercial Off-Broadway shows. We're still doing it the way we always have, as populist theatre. We draw from Ringling, too---that idea of circus as a working-class entertainment that's accessible and available to all types of people. As opposed to high-end circus, we're still interested in the low end and taking it out into the parks for free.
Raven Snook is TDF’s associate editor of online content
Photos by Shehani Fernando and Clare Hammoor