Cultivating Creative Space for Circus Artists in the U.S.

As circus artists in the States, many of us struggle to reconcile our soaring visions with perceived limitations to our options and resources. These constraints are more or less tolerable depending upon our levels of ambition, desired lifestyle, means of employment, and the social and economic obligations that shape our relationships.

One of the gaping holes in our current performance art landscape is arts-funding. For the circus artist, this challenge is exacerbated by the need for a specialized space and sufficient time to create work with the high level of training that circus inherently demands. Not an easy combination. Enter The Five Obstructions. If you haven’t had the benefit of an art-school education or have not yet jumped off the deep-end of self-production, I highly recommend you take a look at this collaborative documentary on creative process by filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth – a masterful exploration of the generative possibilities of working within constraint. Von Trier sets Leth an artistic task: to remake Leth’s 1967 cinematic gem “The Perfect Human,” constrained by a series of obstacles posed by Von Trier. It’s a fascinating and inspiring example of what happens when you strip away expectation in favor of conceptual and material challenges—and the rich creativity that results. Exert enough atmospheric pressure on carbon and it becomes a diamond.

I have come to realize that plasticity is the essential skill of the American artist and producer; what I honor so much about US practitioners is their ability to address ongoing challenges and make work in the best and the worst of times. Nonetheless, recognizing the need for flexibility in our creativity is just one part of the equation. It is equally important to know what resources are available to support artistic development. Those who provide infrastructure to facilitate the broader growth of artists and industry have taken up a noble cause, one that requires risk and a belief that this growth is possible.

Enter the scene in New Mexico.

If you find yourself at a crossroads, between sticking to familiar territory (venues, audiences, routines) or creating ambitious, original work, whether solo or with a group, you might consider taking an artful spirit quest to the mountainous desert of Peñasco, NM. There you will find a small collective of committed visionaries who provide a structure within which your creativity can take shape. Peñasco Theater’s “Artist in Residence”(AIR) program is a project of WiseFool New Mexico, based in Santa Fe. Their shared mission is to “ignite imagination, build community, and promote social justice through performances and hands on experiences in the arts of circus, puppetry, and theater”.

penascoI consider myself fortunate to have been accepted for six weeks in residence at Peñasco, from May-June of last year. I arrived at this choice after having run into all of the obstacles I imagine others must face—limited time, money, and access. The hard facts are that most circus facilities make ends meet with recreational teaching, leaving little time for the seclusion professional development requires. The few available open time slots often conflict with work schedules, and in fact I have quit or turned down many jobs because of this. Having produced short experimental pieces and some larger collaborative projects on my own, and having arrived at the decision that my next step needed to be solo—there wasn’t much of a choice to be made. I’d been considering opening a small theater just to have the space, but, thankfully, over the course of about a week that fell through and my opportunity with Peñasco materialized.

What Peñasco provided me with was time and space—not just a physical structure, but meditative space—which in my opinion are the two most crucial needs for developing mature work. I came from a rigorous studio arts practice which had prepared me with my own research interests and the tools of experimentation. From there, it was a matter of entering the environment both directed and open minded, allowing my visceral reactions to penetrate and the choreographic process to build upon itself. In this harsh desert territory, so different from the lush greenery I grew up with, I found myself running, climbing and hiking, noticing the difference in atmosphere, air and water, in how my energy adapted and changed. I value travel as a way to remove myself from anything I might take for granted, and this was was truly what I experienced at Peñasco. In a sense, the desert landscape provided my “Five Obstructions”, its challenges and differences creating, if not forcing, a generative response. I found myself painting ships, whales, seeds, and earth…their value changed as they became scarce and distant. Meditations on water emerged throughout the show I developed; I learned that I must adapt certain monologues to each new environment I perform in. I also felt encouraged by the social mission of WiseFool to address issues somewhat politically, and felt as if I was creating something for an engaged and compassionate audience.

To fill in the details for those who might want to consider this option: the residency is run by the Peñasco Theater Collective, a small group of multi-talented artist-activists who live on the compound, including artistic director Alessandra Ogden, performer Serena Rascón, and managing director/visual artist Rebekah Tarín (who is responsible for the fantastic murals that cover the outside of the building and domestic interior). Once a movie theatre, the hand-built, 1940s adobe building has been transformed into a combination circus theater, community home and restaurant (Sugar Nymphs). This enchanting space and the surrounding mountains are quiet catalysts, creating an environment in which one simply has more to express.

While six to eight weeks is the estimated length of full-time work necessary to create a show, each artist and company works differently—so to accommodate a range of needs, Peñasco’s program is flexible, open to hosting artists for days or weeks. If you come with a small crew, the house (attached at the back of the theater) is set up with several bedrooms and numerous couches, plus an outdoor live-in trailer for use in the warmer months, so that multiple artists can be accommodated simultaneously. A large kitchen, dining, and living area are included for additional, multi-purpose communal space.

The theater hosts a few circus lessons, as well as a monthly Open Stage, but these are fairly easy events to work around—and you may want to participate as well! Speaking from my own experience, I found this meant more-or-less full-time access to an empty theater that’s spacious and easy to rig.

The nitty-gritty aspects of what you get and what you pay are listed on the website application form here, which I’ll leave for you to check out in more detail. The bottom line of comparison for me was that, for the equivalent of a month’s standard housing costs (depending on where you hang your hat), you not only get a place to live, but full theater access and the opportunity to stage a show. Production specs are:

  • 16 ft. rig height (points are all over)
  • 27’ wide and 27-35’ deep stage (with raised stage at upstage wall)
  • 70 seats on risers/ 40 that can be arranged on stage
  • Tech and house manager for your show (70/30 income split with house)
  • Basic lighting and sound equipment
  • 2 microphones and speakers
  • Projector and a large projection screen
  • Cozy wood-fire stove

penasco2Some things to know: Situated in a rural town, Peñasco offers the undivided time and space you need, but other resources are up to you. The nearest city is Taos, a 40-minute commute north, which provides your closest standard grocery and other miscellaneous supplies. In my case, I found myself painting on the back of used canvas that I’d been carrying around for my nomadic year-and-a-half—trash picked by an art collector I’d met in Philadelphia—and I was downright thankful to have it! When I ran out of black paint, the dollar store next door to the theater had the right color nail polish, and since I am not a purist in any way, this suited the art and assemblage that became my set—each choice reinforcing the conscious-sustainability message of the piece itself.

Upsides: Taos is an amazing place, and if your mind and muscles need the downtime, there are natural hot springs to be found and a local labyrinth where you can meditate on your decision to live an artist’s life. I shot a walking meditation video there, and as it turned out, one of the directors of the church that built the labyrinth was in my audience and happy that I’d included it in my piece. On the whole, the culture is extremely creative and diversely spiritually focused, and I found it easy to enter deep and meaningful conversations with a wide range of interesting and engaged people.

Downsides: Hand-in-hand with the rural aspect of Peñasco comes the difficulty of pulling in an audience. No matter how amazing your show is, it’s best to keep your sights on the fact that this is an incubator and safe-space for creativity, giving you an opportunity to test work and receive feedback in front of a supportive audience. Additionally, training at altitude is challenging, but will endurance-prep you for the ongoing life of your show. You must be self-motivated to stay on task in a space like this, but if you’ve been praying to Ganesha to remove the obstacles of time and space, there’s nothing in the States that really compares.

The production landscape in the US is a challenging environment for any performing artist, but I firmly believe that many of our obstacles can be largely overcome with time and determination. What I have found for myself is that environment and community really shape my work, and are more important than (and in fact usually enhance) the work I thought I came to do. Peñasco Theater’s AIR program allowed me to make this discovery. My hope is that by sharing this resource, I can help some of you to find what I found: the means to visualize creative possibility, and to take your first steps to actualize those dreams.

sarahSarah Muehlbauer is a gypsy nomad art savior with a serious affinity for circus. She stages hybrid acrobatic narratives by herself and in collaboration with the world. When she’s not scheming on how to artfully adopt animals and plant gardens in your neighborhood, she’s taking photos, writing, petting a cat, or climbing a rope. She got her Bachelors and Masters in Visual Art, studied yoga with Joan Hyman of YogaWorks, and interned with Circa Contemporary Circus, who taught her that to make it happen, you’ve got to be “all in”.