This is a transcript of an interview that Adam Woolley, the Managing Director of Circus Now, conducted with Sidney “Pepper” Smith, an Artist Specialist in the Presenting & Multidisciplinary department of the NEA. The transcript has been edited for clarity; the original audio file is available for members to download and listen to!

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Adam: Hi, everyone. This is Adam Woolley, the Managing Director for Circus Now, and I’m on the phone with Sidney “Pepper” Smith. Sidney, can you tell us a little about your job at the National Endowment For The Arts?

Pepper: I’d be glad to, Adam, and thanks for inviting me today. We are really excited that Circus Now is taking the time to help us reach the public and let people know that we want to hear from you, we want to see your applications.

My job as a specialist is basically the nuts-and-bolts part of going through the application process. I’m the specialist for Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works. It’s a pretty broad discipline. In fact, we’re jokingly called the “kitchen sink” at the NEA because we have a lot of different applications from a lot of different areas. But basically, if you’re doing something that’s multi-genre, if it’s theatre and music — or even different disciplines within a genre — then you could conceivably apply through Presenting & Multidisciplinary works.

Basically, what I do is work with applicants to help them have the best strategy and the best application that they can have. You’re not bugging me to call me; I think that would be one of my big messages today. I’m glad that Adam invited me, because my job, I’m in a small cubicle and — I like my job — but I’m reviewing grant applications and basically trying to coordinate panels, finding panelists. We have a panel system at the NEA… I don’t want to get too far in the weeds, but I don’t make the decision whether or not you get a grant. What I do is find the panelists, and they say yes or no. So I’m working through that process; that’s my job as a specialist.

Our director, Michael Orlove, who really wanted to be here today but was called away to a conference, he has a more strategic vision and helps a lot with funding amounts once it’s determined whether or not you’re going to get a grant. So he’s a person that you definitely probably want to talk to as well. But usually, people would start with me just on, “how do you apply,” taking those simple steps and looking at what the best strategy is.

Unknown-1Adam: That sounds like an excellent job and it sounds like I’m on the phone with the right person for what I feel like the emerging community of circus artists in the United States need to learn about and need to hear. I want to backtrack a little bit for my first question, just to kind of confirm something with you: The NEA does have a category that circus artists can apply to, and it’s the multidisciplinary category.

Pepper: That’s right. We’re called Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works. Circus arts used to be received in Theater, so that might be confusing for some people. But for the last two years, we’ve been accepting applications for circus arts.

We have two deadlines: we have a February deadline; the February deadline is pretty much straight presenting, like if you’re just applying for a tour or a new production, then you’re going to go to our February deadline. Our July deadline is focused on underserved audiences or service-types of organizations. I Know Big Apple Circus has done well in our July deadline because they do clown care and a lot of outreach activities. If you’re focusing on learning activities, that’s also the July deadline.

Adam: Excellent, that’s great information. I know that a lot of emerging circus artists and circus arts schools do a lot of service work through social circus and serving underserved communities, as well as all the people who are interested in presenting their own work to the public. So my next question is the quick down-and-dirty, who is eligible to apply to the NEA? What kind of organization do you have to have in order to apply to the NEA?

Pepper: You need to be a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and you need to have three years of programming, and that’s basically it. With programming, the programming doesn’t all have to be circus arts. Sometimes you have a brand-new organization that, for the first few years, is just getting on their feet and they may not have had a tour or haven’t done as much as they would like to in circus arts. That’s okay, as long as their project is circus arts and they have that 501(c)(3) status. You don’t have to have the 501(c)(3) status three years in advance, you just have to have it at time of application. Another thing about eligibility is, you can’t have a fiscal sponsor, and that’s been an issue for some groups. You have to be on your own, a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

Adam: Gotcha. That’s really clear, and I think it’s really good to hear that fiscal sponsorship has become really popular for emerging circus artists and emerging circus arts companies in the last few years. But as you get bigger, and if you want to apply to the NEA, you actually have to go the full nine yards and get your own 501(c)(3) status. What are the other basic things about how grant-giving works from the NEA?

Pepper: First of all, we have a panel process.

We’re gonna choose five to six panelists: one person’s gonna be a lay-person, that’s mandated by Congress. So whenever you’re applying, remember to try to be really clear with your project, that you will have panelists who are — at least one, we hope – who has a circus arts background or a presenting background, but you may also have some panelists not as familiar with your world. So I suggest that people have a smart friend who, perhaps they’re a junior high English teacher or someone who grades a lot of papers, to review your application and look for simple mistakes, grammatical mistakes or spelling, but also just have a lay person’s perspective, to say “Does this make sense to you?”

So I think one thing is clarity when you’re applying to the NEA. We don’t get a say in if you get a grant or not. A lot of times people are very nice to me or Mike and want to reach out. I love to meet people, I’m happy to meet you and happy to help, but I really have no say in whether or not you get a grant. But what I can do is help you talk through it. Right now, we just sent out last week letters telling people whether or not they got grants. Our process is a long process. These people and organizations applied in July 2014, and they’re just learning if they got a grant or not. So the people who didn’t get a grant are really upset, and that’s understandable, so I’m talking to them and I think I can help them, because I’m giving them comments the panelists had about their applications.

But what’s much more helpful is talking to me before you apply. So again, don’t be afraid to give me a call or an email and I can help talk you through your strategy. Organizations can send me a paragraph or two and say “this is what we want to do.” I can show it to Michael, we can get back to you and say “I think you’re on the right track, this sounds good;” or say “we don’t really fund that.” I think that’s one good basic.

Also, look at our website. I’m a little embarrassed because it can be a bit of a labyrinth, but again, I’m happy to help you navigate the labyrinth. On our website, we tell you what we’re looking for. We have a list of, these are the objectives that we’re looking for in your grant, and we spend a lot of time thinking about them. So a good place to start is look on the website and see if these objectives we’re looking for match with yours.

You can also go to our website and look at recent grants, and you can see who’s received a grant doing something similar to what you would like to do. In preparation for talking to you, Adam, I just looked on our website to see who received circus arts grants in the last year: Circus Amok in Brooklyn; Big Apple Circus; the CSU Long Beach, their presenters are presenting circus arts; Discovery Green Conservancy in Houston has a circus arts program that they’re going to present; First Works in Providence, Rhode Island, also has a circus arts performance that we’re funding; Wise Fool has a circus arts performance; the Ordway Centre in Minneapolis has a circus arts performance; and Circus Sarasota. So whether its a standalone circus arts organization or a circus arts organization working with a presenter like the Ordway Centre, we are funding circus arts and we’re happy to see them.

I think that circus arts is very welcome at the NEA because one thing we’re trying to do is bring art to the American people, and I think a festival or a circus performance can be a way of getting someone interested in the arts who might not otherwise approach the arts. I grew up in a small town, and the thought of going to a true theatre performance was something I would love to do, but it was maybe once every two years you could do something like that, whereas I could see the circus. And now the more innovative circuses coming through would come through and as a child, it was so exciting and it was kind of an entrée to the arts, to later seeing dance or jazz. Circus arts in itself is a beautiful art, you don’t have to use it as a gateway to something else, but I think it’s a wonderful thing that the American public would support, or does support, and we want to support as well.

UnknownAdam: That list of organizations who are already receiving money from the NEA is really exciting to hear!

One of the questions I wanted to ask about the NEA’s process in particular is, is it always going to be best for a circus artist to check this multidisciplinary box instead of checking dance or theatre? I know there’s a huge aerial dance community that uses circus arts for the purpose of dance and bringing dance up into the air. And there’s a whole circus-theatre community that uses circus arts to build really distinctly theatrical pieces. Would those companies be better served applying as multidisciplinary companies just to avoid the glut of applications in dance and theatre?

Pepper: That’s a good question. Basically, one thing to remember is, at the NEA you’re applying with a project. You don’t really apply as an organization, you apply with your project. And if your project you feel is heavily on the theatre side, and you feel like you would get your best judgment from that, then you may want to apply to theatre. But again, a great thing to do would be to call the specialists. The specialists in theatre are Carol Lanoux Lee and Eleanor Denegre — they’ve both been there a really long time, they’re both really friendly — and just check it out with them, and you can talk to me too, and we can help you decide where would be the best fit.

When thinking about where you want to place your organization, I think one of the most helpful things to think about is, who do you want to be your judge? In theatre, you’re going to have people from the theatre world whether actors or heads of theatre organizations, those are going to be the people evaluating your application. If you come to Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works in February, you’re going to have pretty much all presenters. The July deadline, you’re going to have presenters and people with service organizations and people interested in learning programs, so it’s a little different crew that will be evaluating your application.

I would also say, if you have an established relationship with a department, if you have been applying in dance, and you’ve been doing successfully, then I wouldn’t leave dance, because that means that world of judges and panelists probably already know you, and you’re known in that world. However, if you’ve been applying in dance for a while and you had a dry spell of two or three years, then you may want to look at coming to Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works and see if you have a better review there. But again, that’s something I would talk to the specialists about. In Dance it’s Juliana Mascelli and Janelle Ott Long, these are really nice people as well, and I’m glad to refer anyone to them.

Adam: I think it’s so lovely that you’re so emphasizing the “Just call us, just reach out, we’re just people, this is our job to help you make your art” — and I just hope you know what door you’re opening yourself up to here with United States circus artists (laughter).

Pepper: I remember, my background is more in literature. I was a teacher and I quit my job and moved to Paris and tried to write. You can apply to NEA for literature grants as well, and I remember thinking the NEA is just this faceless, huge government organization. Now that I’ve been here 10 years myself, it’s about 140 people, which is big, but for the government is really small. We pretty much know everybody and this is filled with people who used to be dancers or actors and are very sympathetic to the arts world. If I’m too busy, I just won’t pick up the phone. But I enjoy talking to people about their passion and how they can have a great application. That’s a happy part of my job.

Adam: That’s so great!

The one thing I wanted to go back to just a little bit was the idea of who’s eligible to apply for grants from the NEA.

I wanted to create a small hypothetical situation, which I think a lot of circus artists in the United States are facing:

They want to create their own work and they’re high-level circus artists.  They maybe even want to have their own company. They have a bunch of friends who do a bunch of different circus things, and they all perform at corporate events together or maybe even a 45-minute show, but DON’T have the 501(c)(3) status. Or if they do, they don’t have the three years of fiscal history yet.

What’s the best way for an emerging company like that to start to build a relationship with the NEA, or partner with another organization and apply that way? What’s the best access for that kind of emerging-level company?

Pepper: That’s a great question. You’ve got some options. I think partnership would be the first suggestion, which I think you alluded to as well. If you look at the list I read of grants we’ve given recently to circus arts projects, a lot of them are with presenters. So it may be that your best bet if you’re small and you’re not incorporated yet would be to work with the local university or presenting branch of wherever you are and see if they’ll put forth a project where you’re included in it. You can’t apply for seasonal support, but you can apply for special programs, and maybe the state university’s going to have one theatre piece, one festival, and one circus arts performance as part of a series. That would be a good way. They’re actually applying and you don’t get the money directly, but in their grant they write, you know “$10,000 for this circus arts group.” I think that’s one good way.

Fiscal sponsorship is not a horrible thing, you just can’t apply to the NEA with it. One of the challenges with the NEA is that you do have to reach a certain level. Before we had our big schism in the early ’90s and were almost abolished, we could really reach out and give sizable grants to brand-new organizations, but we really can’t do that now. It’s more once you’re starting to get on your feet, you’ve been around for three years — that’s when we can really help. So you want to be establishing a track record.

I have a lot of goofy aphorisms, but one I like is: Slow is real. I think as artists, we’re really excited to get where we want to go, but it may take a while. So what you may want to do starting off is apply for smaller grants locally, and then when you are ready to apply to the NEA, maybe three years or seven years, it may be a while, you have this track record where your application, one of the things the panelists are going to look for is “who is supporting this organization, who else is supporting this project?” And if you just apply to the NEA and you don’t have support from other places, it’s hard to get a grant. But if you have support from local foundations or the state arts agency, then that’s really in your favor and the panelists say okay, this is legit. I know that’s maybe not what people want to hear, but I would say first thing is look for a partner; second thing is start building a foundation for successful grants in the future.

Adam: I think that’s great advice. Whether or not it’s what people want to hear, if it’s the thing people should be doing, just hearing what the next steps should be is super valuable for the circus arts community right now as we work through this tipping point of new emerging circus arts in the United States and seeing all sorts of different types of work coming from the community, from very traditional circus to very experimental circus.

At Circus Now, we just don’t want this work to be recategorized into theatre and dance all the time — we want the word “Circus” to come to mean something in the American psyche. Circus is a very exciting, accessible form of art that you take your kids to, that you go to as an adult, that is really something exciting about performing arts for everyone. Even just hearing, “partner with a university,” I think we’re getting to the point where emerging circus companies could approach local universities and approach them for partnerships on projects, either social outreach and educational-type projects or specifically arts presenting projects.

Pepper: I hear one thing you’re mentioning, it sounds like circus arts would really like to have its own category at the NEA. Right now we don’t have that, but I do know my other hat of Artist Communities lobbied for that for about 20 years and finally five years ago they got it. So I think that’s something circus arts could, it’s going to take a while, but kind of keep in the loop and don’t give up and perhaps one day we’ll have a special category for circus arts. But that’s over my pay level. Like I said, I’m just the specialist. But that would be great, that would be maybe a goal of you guys in the field. Don’t give up on that, because it just takes persistence.

UnknownAdam: You actually guessed at my next question, which was this little checkbox. How can circus arts be recognized as circus arts, so jugglers don’t have to apply as theatre and aerialists don’t have to apply as dance, but actually having our own category.

I think you’re right, I think we as a community need to realize that as we step into the larger arts world in the United States, it’s going to take some time for us to build both the true scale of the industry that we need to have in order to justify our own category, and also just to be gathering the data and the performers and the companies to really merit having our own category. Having our own checkbox with any government organization or with any grant-giving organization is always a goal for circus artists, to feel that special recognition. I think it’s something we as a community all have to work together towards achieving, both with the caliber and the amount of work that we as a community are producing and performing, and the scale of the projects that we do.

Pepper: I think some of it is just numbers. As we start to get more and more circus arts applications, then I think it’s more likely that there might be a Circus Arts discipline. But again, I feel like I’m in shaky waters even speaking to that since it’s not my level. But I know that’s what happened with Artist Communities. Once you start to get a lot of applications, then the disciplines are saying, most of our applications are this, so we should have a special discipline for it. I can say that I think that for now at least, in Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works, circus arts has a good fit. We don’t really, the July deadline, there’s not really a majority of any type of application. We’ve got service organizations applying, and we’ve got a lot of different arts organizations finding a way to do outreach activities, and I think circus arts fits really well in there. Presenting is always multidisciplinary, so it fits well there. But it would be nice to have its own discipline for Circus Arts.

Adam: And that may just be years down the road. I think even knowing there is an access point, even having this conversation is a great way to get started with getting more applications in to you guys, just to show that the community is really big and really vibrant.

I just have one last question for you, which is a more general question about the performing arts in general in this country:

What do you find is the biggest challenge that performing artists and companies and presenters are facing in the United States today? What do you think is the thing that circus artists and dancers and theatre artists all as performing artists together, as this category of the performing arts, what do you think is the biggest challenge that we’re facing these days? Or what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing as you go through applications at the NEA?

Pepper: That’s a good question. I feel like nationally I’m not really sure. But from my window, I think it would be funding.

It’s kind of heartbreaking sometimes because I’m seeing the larger organizations have a development staff, and maybe they’ve got three or even four people, and that’s their job, to seek out funding and write grants. And they’re often good at it. So we get these amazing grants from some of the larger organizations, and then I see these small organizations that are filled with passion and doing amazing things, but it means one person who that’s not their primary job working after-hours to try to throw together a fifteen-page application and find good work samples and find letters of support and things like that, and that’s frustrating on my end. I hope that we at the NEA can make the process easier, and maybe that will help, but that’s the big challenge I see.

Just as a side, since I thought this might be helpful for people listening, the work samples are a really important part of our process. We’ve changed our process in the last few years. It used to be, you would send in three copies of your application and we would send those off in a big manila folder, then we would have a cardboard box with work samples and FedEx it to one of the panelists. Now everything’s electronic and so you’re submitting these work samples and your application electronically, which is great because it saves paper, but the panelists don’t even fly into D.C. to discuss around a table as we used to do in the old days. To save money, now we’re doing everything electronically. So the work samples that you send in, everyone sees them as they’re reviewing the applications. So the work samples are becoming more important in the process than they used to be. So what that means for you is, another thing you can be doing as you’re thinking about applying for an NEA grant is, anytime you have a performance or an event that you’re going to be really proud of, if you can get some video footage of it, that would be really helpful, because the work samples are pretty important in the review process. And that’s another thing that’s harder for smaller organizations. Bigger arts organizations also have videographers or a photographer there taking pictures, so if you can do that yourself or have a friend do it, that can be really helpful for you in your process.

I guess for me, I know that’s maybe not as sexy an answer, but just basically money. It’s frustrating, and I’ve just seen how in a lot of levels of American society, there’s a small percentage of the populace that get to decide for everybody, and that’s not fair. But that would be my challenge that I see. How does a small, struggling, passionate, wonderful young circus arts organization get that grant? I’ve seen it done. It’s hard, but I think one thing is to get a plan and know, this is what I’m shooting for. You can slowly start working, getting other grants from smaller organizations, then come to the NEA, talk to me, talk to my colleague Lara Allee. I work with organizations that start with A and end with E, and she goes F to Z, so she has more of the portfolio than I do. And Lara’s super sharp and also great to talk to. We want to help you, but I think that’s the biggest challenge.

Adam: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head of what not only circus artists but also small dance companies and small theatre companies really feel about their experience of trying to be artists in the United States. How do you break through from this small emerging level into that mid-size thing where maybe you’ve gotten your first big grant and you can really start doing the work the way that you’ve always wanted to do it and showing it some different places. I think it’s the middle-class of artists and companies that we at Circus Now are trying to find ways to support and that I think you’ve pointed out as the stumbling block in the path of an artist in the United States. I think as a society, we’ll have to be looking at and solving these problems in the next five and 10 years and coming up with whatever the best solutions are. That’s always going to be a struggle in the United States.

That was my final question, but if you’ve got a final comment, I’m happy to have you talk more!

Pepper: Once again, I really appreciate you asking us to participate. And again, Michael Orlove was sorry he couldn’t be here, and he’s also very happy to talk with people. Just let people know my number is 202-682-5790, my email is, and please give me a call. You may be working with Lara Allee, I may refer you to her, she’s super sharp. We’re here to help you, that’s our job. We’re government employees and our job is to serve the American public. I think that circus arts definitely deserves a place at the table, and I think you’re doing great work, and I want to help. That would be my final comment.

Adam: That’s just so encouraging to hear. Pepper and I, and Michael Orlove and Duncan Wall, who’s our Creative Director at Circus Now, we all attended a workshop that they (the NEA) did at the American Performing Arts Presenters conference, which is where all of this came from.

I also want to thank everyone who’s listening or reading the article for supporting Circus Now. I think connections like this have only started to happen because Circus Now allows for the appearance of cohesion within our community. Our community’s hugely diverse and we have so many different viewpoints, and I think that even just having an organization that can have a conversation with someone like Pepper or someone like Michael and even getting this information out there in any form is only happening because you guys who are reading or listening have helped to support Circus Now.

So if you are reading to the article or are listening to the interview and you aren’t a member of Circus Now, I would totally encourage you to become a member and help us continue to bring resources like this interview with Pepper and maybe even bigger stuff in the future. Circus Now is just getting started — we’re entering our second year — so we can use all the support that you guys can give us. If you’re excited about the possibilities that are coming up, or with the work that Circus Now is doing, then please give us a donation or become a member. Without your membership or your support, we really couldn’t do any of what we’ve been able to do in the past year-and-a-half.

I think we’ve been able to accomplish a lot and really start to represent how large and vibrant our community is to organizations like the NEA and through our different events across the United States. We only want to get bigger and better and educate the public more and help you emerging artists as much as we can.

So a big thank you to Sidney “Pepper” Smith. As he said many times, please give him a call and talk to him about how the NEA might be able to help your organization or your company and how you could strategically plan so in three years you could apply to the NEA. This has been a wonderful conversation, and I want to thank you again, Pepper, so much for your time and expertise.

Pepper: You’re welcome! Good luck to Circus Now.

Adam: Thank you so much. I’m going to stop our recording and just say a couple final words of goodbye and thank you to Pepper, and everyone who’s listening, thank you so much for tuning in. I suppose I should call this “Circus Now Radio,” but we don’t really have a radio. I’m not going to start a radio station. So thank you so much for listening or reading the interview, and I will see you all hopefully at the Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival this coming June 15-21! I hope I see everyone who’s listening there. Stop by to say hi, and I’ll talk to you all later!

Check out Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works on the NEA website! They have all sorts of webinars and educational materials, including one specifically about the guidelines and how to write the application.