Managing safety, egos and space.
With the rapid growth in the recreational circus sector, studios must be competitive and find their niche while students navigate their loyalties, and teachers and performers establish relationships and find work. Most communities experience at least some division – some more than others – but it’s important for all of us to co-exist, learn and support each other to further advance circus arts. Suzi Winson and her studio, Circus Warehouse in NY, have a reputation of being approachable and vastly supportive of the circus community.
Women & Circus asked Suzi for her perspective on managing a busy studio that prides itself on being an open door to working aerialists who come and train their acts, retired pros, accomplished athletes in various disciplines, and of course, students…managing safety, egos and space.
Women & Circus: Many studios require visitors to be approved for training or classes at other studios by sending in videos, meeting with the owner, etc. CW workout guidelines say ‘We welcome anyone who knows enough to train independently and who can follow the Warehouse guidelines’. Many of which are simple no brainers like ‘You are responsible for your own safety.’, and ‘Be aware of your skill limitations, and stay within them.’. Can you speak a bit more on how this method works and is managed?
Suzi Winson: It is indeed tricky to make these distinctions. You can’t tell from a video what someone’s practice habits might be. We’ve had comparable incidents with experienced aerialists and acrobats as we’ve had with relative newbies. We have a highly trained professional faculty and desk staff who make judgement calls. The front desk is not a work/study position. They are all first-aid certified, have taken rigging courses, are acrobatic practitioners, have knowledge of the facility and its operations, and are custodially responsible for the space. They evaluate equipment, students, pros and anyone and anything that is not a Warehouse staple. The practical guidelines are rather stringent once you are in the space and we don’t hesitate to tell people what they can and cannot do. Where it gets interesting is when people try things that we didn’t expect. Along with myriad routines that facilitators have witnessed, there are always new and improved ways to get yourself into trouble. Our team watches everything that goes on at the Warehouse, initial approval doesn’t guarantee future workouts. When something does go wrong, we have a specific protocol for how that is managed.
W&C: In addition to normal classes and workouts, CW can be rented by photographers, troupes on tour, etc. Was there one scheduling or space issue that particularly stands out that went from being a frustrating to a proud moment? How did it work?
SW: We usually rent sections of the space. We once rented out the entire space for 2 solid days for a commercial shoot when we first started out in business. It seemed like a terrible idea but we needed the rent money. One frustration was to figure out what to do with the newly developing professional program, which had a dozen or so participants in those days. It was messy and unsettling for them and for the space. Some of our staff/faculty stayed at the Warehouse to manage the shoot and to be sure our equipment was safe and out of reach. Meanwhile, I took the entire program on a field trip to see Big Apple Circus and Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake Ballet and we had a big dinner and compared notes on everything. It was quite satisfying after all.
W&C: Your bio highlights many of your past incarnations such as professional ballet dancer, Broadway gypsy, street clown, small press poetry editor/publisher, political speech writer and, in recent years, aerialist, dance teacher and arts champion/impressario. You’ve worked with choreographers/mentors Agnes DeMille, Peter Gennaro, Tommy Tune, and trained with flying stars Peter Gold, Miguel Cáceres, Tony Steele and Arturo Padilla. Has your background in dance and theatre helped you to better manage a circus studio?
SW: Dancers are by nature, organized and hard-working. Having trained as a classical dancer has informed pretty much everything I’ve ever done. The life of practice and performance has built-in structure. I don’t do it alone either. I have a managing partner (Michelle Arvin, the co-founder) and an office manager (Keith Herron) who have skills and smarts!
W&C: You’ve said that you pride yourself on being a connector and supporter of the community – can you share any advice on how to maintain relationships with other studios when everyone is concerned about paying their rent and being *the* go-to studio?
SW: I can’t take credit for the movement, though I’m proud to be an active part of it.. The instigator of the new era was Hurricane Sandy! We had 3 feet of water in our space, and we were virtually wiped out. (We had sand-bagged and prepped like mad, but that water was forceful and destructive). Everyone in the community came to help us. Industry people whom I’d never met in my life came with mops. After that we had the ability to bail out a few groups who had lost their spaces to either rising water or rising rent, and then we had 3 seasons of The Trapeze School NY renting space from us as their indoor space was being developed, and that furthered the cause of unification. It takes a generosity of spirit on everyone’s part to explore these connections. If we all do well, then the business of aerial arts thrives. If one of us can’t make it, it does damage to all. That’s the only way to perceive it.
W&C: Can you tell us a little bit about the interaction between artists and students – what are the benefits of having professional circus artists and amateurs training in the same space? How do you maintain an appropriate balance for both types of training in the space?
SW: Everyone should have the option and privilege of professional-style training. The aspiring acrobats and aerialists all train in the same mode as the pros, with warm-up and conditioning as part of every class and one very experienced professional running each class. We don’t allow students to train each other, they must work with our elite faculty. It’s a traditional hierarchy. Our students are either pros, on the pro-track, or are what I like to refer to as serious athletic practitioners. There are other solid studios available to have fun and learn the various forms with less structure.
W&C: What advice could you give to studio owners who want to have better relationships with other studios in their communities?
SW: There is some information that is vital to share with others in the community in terms of safety standards, and general practices. For example, if there is a piece of equipment that someone else has ruled out, I want to know about it. We send each other students, we speak frequently, we go and see each other’s shows. It’s been so positive.
W&C: Do you have a utopian vision of how studios and schools should interact and create community? Where is the biggest room for growth?
SW: I’m not big on Utopia, I’m entirely practical. I just do the best I can with the space and the people whom we attract, and try to continually create a scene in which one can practice, create and imagine, and where the students who commit have a path forward to find their dream jobs and projects.
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