Does contemporary circus have the potential to nurture and rightfully represent ourselves onstage: Our bodies, sexual preferences, identities and communities? Will it be effective in breaking down gender divides and heteronormativity in ways that create safer, more inclusive ways of being, and being together?

At the Contemporary Circus Festival of Chicago, Circus Now hosted a panel entitled Queer Circus: Staging Non-Conforming Gender and Sexuality exploring some of these questions. Panelists Megan Gendell, Derek Van Barham, Amanda Crockett, Adam Woolley and Jamieson Lindenberg joined moderator Roy Gomez Cruz for a lively discussion about gender, sexuality, politics and queerness in circus. Read excerpts from the discussion below, or watch the full panel at

Lady Hercules - Katie Sandwina

Lady Hercules – Katie Sandwina

On defining queer:

Derek: All of these words have different meanings for different people. What I adore about the term queer is that it is very encompassing. It is very personal for many people but also helps express something inside that may or may not have to do with sexual or gender…I grew up in Mississippi, and where I grew up there was very much a sort of railroad track for what boys were supposed to do and what girls were supposed to do. Any sort of diversion off of that track can be deemed queer in some way. It doesn’t necessarily need to be related to gender or sexuality but it certainly could be.

Amanda: It’s much more encompassing than gay or lesbian, it feels like less of a box. The word queer also tends to have a more socially active and therefore more political connotation. Inclusive of different places on the gender spectrum, and different sexualities, and different ways of being in the world is how I think of queer.

Megan: For me it’s also about transgression, rebellion, celebrating our differences, rejecting assimilation, and wanting to highlight, focus on and enjoy what is different about ourselves.

Roy: It’s related to new ideas of gender as social construction. There are a lot of common assumptions that you are born male or born female. But then people started to realize that the way we act has much more to do with being male and female than the physical body. So if gender is constructed through the repetition of acts that we do every day, the way of dressing and behaving, than it can be deconstructed and we have many alternatives… you can experience gender in a more playful kind of way.

Laverie Vallee (July 18, 1875 – February 6, 1949)

On being playful with gender in circus:

Amanda: When I first started circus I very much felt like I needed to put on a little girly outfit and act like a girl in the air. That’s the only way I saw any examples of how to be a trapeze artist. Before that I was a clown and a juggler, which are not common things for women to be, and that was a whole different kind of journey of trying to figure out what it meant to be a woman doing those things…. Trying to find the passageway through that was tricky…My first encounter with the idea of queerness was when I moved to New Mexico and started working with Wise Fool New Mexico and suddenly there were all these queer women doing circus…queer was the first way that I finally felt like I was finding a community around me that I identified with, and in that was also circus. Oh look, there are different ways of being a woman on stage. Oh look, I can wear a leotard and actually feel like myself, and not like I have to try to put on an act to be somebody that I’m not.

Jamieson: I started to do a bearded lady character about 10 years ago at the Box in New York. I really enjoyed the mind fuck that the audience was experiencing: Am I a man playing a woman, playing a man playing a woman? That was such an amazing experience as a performer for me, that you were so caught off guard and that this narrative and this linear idea that you had about what I was going to perform for you was completely thrown out the door.

Derek: For me it was the important realization that both gender and sexuality are aspects of a character just like any other physical attribute. One of the first shows that I was able to do where I was able to identify with the character I was playing was playing Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet. It was because the director asked me to describe Juliet as a character: Juliet is naïve, Juliet is in love, Juliet is young, Juliet is all of these things. And the director said, “well can you identify with that?” Whether we’re born male or born female, we can approach a character like Juliet, and think of gender as just an attribute of who Juliet is. Then I can approach it in an artistic way and either accent things or minimize things as I want to. Gender is something that a lot of people take for granted because it’s so socially constructed.

Ariele Ebacher as Leslie 'The Shim' in 'The Girlie Show', a Bearded Lady Production

Ariele Ebacher as Leslie ‘The Shim’ in ‘The Girlie Show’, a Bearded Lady Production

On queering circus education:

Megan: From the educator’s point of view, ways of including the queer community don’t necessarily involve using that word or calling yourself queer, but it can mean saying “ok kids” instead of “ok boys and girls” so that people don’t have to fall into a category, not calling kneeling push-ups ‘girl’ push-ups, letting girls base, letting boys fly. The forms of inclusivity can directly include that community without even having to use that language.

Adam: When I’m teaching circus to kids, the reason why they’re doing circus always has to do with feeling like they can be themselves or feeling like they belong…That’s what I see a lot of kids experiencing, because in circus we’re not putting on characters… primarily you are valued in the act for things that are really valuably specific about you. If you are a kid who is hitting puberty before all your friends, and you’re bigger, than you are suddenly a base. And you realize that this thing that is a physical attribute of yourself, whether you are a boy or girl, is proving a valuable asset to the group…If you feel yourself aspiring toward a discipline that your body is telling you not to go towards, that’s encouraged too, it’s cross-training.

Fe Fox, Amaya Alvarado, & Anthony Oliva. Photo by Terry Brindisi

On why it is important to stage queerness:

Derek: People look to the arts to be the leaders of that sort of thing, to a certain extent…Even if it’s not something that makes it to the production, if it’s a member of the ensemble who says ‘I’ve wanted to be a base for years, there’s something I’ve really wanted to try, can I try it in the safety of the rehearsal hall or process’…it’s a slight domino effect. Even if it’s an echo of something we hope to see years from now, I think it’s important to start planting those seeds and pushing bit by bit.

Amanda: To me, in anything that we do, in anything that we present to other people, the main thing is just to stay true to ourselves. That can be really hard sometimes, but I think that often can be the best way to break down barriers. Anytime a boundary is crossed, especially in any kind of public way, people go “oh, you can do that! Maybe I’ll do that too”, and then suddenly there is a domino effect and things become accepted…

Derek: I think audiences sometimes, even subconsciously, when they come to a performance there is an expectation that I will see something of myself on stage. But also performance can’t help but be at least somewhat political. When we challenge our audiences, they have this realization that I think you as an audience member can handle it…and it’s not intended to shock, even if in the moment it shocks you, but you can go back and think about it later and find something that resonates with you…it’s important to push the audience a little. Otherwise we’re just doing the same thing over and over again, and that’s not satisfying.…/boylesque-all-part-of-the-bizar… Photo by Sean Young

Photo by Sean Young

On challenging old narratives and creating new ones:

Megan: There are so many, especially of the bigger contemporary circus companies, of mostly-male casts with one token female who wears a purple or red dress and spins really fast. And I would like to see some other stuff.

Amanda: Why couldn’t the love story be two people of the same gender? People will still recognize it as a love story. But when money gets involved, people get scared. When you look at the big contemporary circus companies, they’re looking to make money.  So therefore if they take a risk and put something onstage that hasn’t been “approved” by a larger audience they’re potentially going to lose money.

Adam: We have to own the fact that circus is doing really well at this in many ways, and the question is how can we do better? Part of that is just not being lazy artists. There are more stories than the story of the two lovers, there are more stories than the girl who falls into a dream…If we want to work with narrative in circus arts we have to start digging deeper, and not just to better represent gender, but because the art of circus is relatively unexplored…How can we start to tell more interesting stories? I don’t have an answer other than do better work and hold ourselves to higher standards.

Megan: It’s about making different choices. I can’t decide what the next Seven Fingers’ show is going to be like, but I can decide what my ensemble show is going to be like and decide that we’re going to represent ourselves honestly, and choose gender representations that feel real and true to us, and explore what we’re interested in regarding queerness.

Travis Spackman & Troy Lingelbach, ©2015 Sue Brenner Photography

Thinking about don’t be lazy, the other side to that is take a risk, be true to yourself…How do you manage those values of wanting to get the work, and wanting to represent yourself, your community and your experiences? The more we can be brave and make those choices the more we are going to increase queerness in circus.

Amanda: It is happening, it is just a gradual process. Finding the connection between getting the work and being true to yourself isn’t always clear, but sometimes it is the little steps…We don’t always have to call attention to it in a big way, but just get it in there and then people get used to seeing it, and then it’s not shocking. Like ‘oh that’s a cool acro act, and oh, I guess those girls did kiss at the end’. It’s the little steps that we don’t always think are important, but they are sometimes the only ones that we can take forward.

Circus Now is a volunteer-run, member-supported non-profit organization. Please consider supporting us by becoming a member or donating.