Every September since 1989, Circus Amok, a political, cross-dressing troupe, treats New Yorkers to free shows in parks throughout the city. They perform at upwards of sixteen parks in the five boroughs.
A performance of acrobatics, tightrope walking, stilts and juggling forms around a central theme that changes from year to year. The circus aims to entertain both adults and children. Brightly colored costumes (any variety of polka dot breeches, stripy shorts, luminous wigs, sequined dresses and corsets), vibrant stage set, and a jazzy Louisiana-style band make their spectacles hard to miss.
Circus Amok focuses on community politics and tackles the issues of the day. In one year’s acrobatic piece, adults dressed as school children tried to steal test scores from a teacher. In another, jugglers crack ironic jokes about the war on terror. They even riffed on the GOP convention in 2004 by making an elephant disappear. The circus has tackled the PATRIOT Act, housing, healthcare and immigration. This year’s theme is BEE-DAZZLED, a discussion of disappearing honeybees and the war in Iraq.
“The disappearing honeybees is a poetic theme for us,” said Jennifer Miller, the troupe’s founder and co-director. “Every year we have to study the topic of our political theme. It gets very depressing, but the honeybees are fun to read about. There have been mass bee die-offs and no whys and wherefores. It’s a mystery. There are theories that cellphone towers are disrupting their migration; that genetically modified crops are harming them; or that it could be caused by the introduction of antibiotics into their feeding system.”
“We’re still working on it,” she promised, “but I think at the end of our show the honeybees won’t come back until the political problems are cleared.”
This year Miller is adding some new performance elements. They plan to have juggling, tightrope walking, puppetry, and some old sideshow illusions, the Exploding Man (he explodes over and over again!) and No Middle Myrtle (she appears to have no middle!).
Miller allows the performers to have a lot of input in the show. “We start brainstorming in May and then we rent the Lava studios in Prospect Heights in August where we can rehearse more intensely. The way the show operates changes depending on what kind of cast I have.”
In the past, most of Miller’s performers were actors and dancers but because of the recent explosion of workshops in the circus arts throughout New York City at places like Lava Studio and the Streb Studio in Williamsburg, more and more of her performers are coming from a circus background.
“I usually find my troupe members through auditions but it’s often hard to find what I’m looking for,” Miller said. “The pay is minimal, we all have to work putting up and taking down the set and the men have to be willing to wear a dress.”
Miller’s unconventional circus belies a seemingly conservative background. Her father was a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and her mother was a professor of education at Central Connecticut State College. The tradition of teaching runs in the family, and Miller herself taught at NYU and will begin teaching Performance Composition at Pratt next semester.
She started clowning and juggling at an early age. She took a clown class and taught herself to juggle, unicycle and tightrope walk. Her first real job was as a clown in Connecticut. Later she went to Make-a-Circus in San Francisco and did a lot of work with outdoor political theater. She also performed at various points with The Women’s Circus, Ben and Jerry’s Traveling Circus and the Bindlestiff Family Circus.
Over the years, her New York dance and theater projects have included performances at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore, the Dance Theater Workshop, P.S. 122, La Mama, Franklin Furnace, Symphony Space, the Knitting Factory, and the Performing Garage. Miller moved back to New York in the 80s and became involved in the dance and theater scene at P.S. 122. She longed to work outdoors as she had done with other circuses. She began recruiting the artists she met at P.S. 122 to perform in her new creation, Circus Amok.
Miller has a natural beard which occasionally raises comments during the show. Children whisper, “Is that a man or a woman? Is that a real beard?” A doctor told her that her facial hair is the result of high progesterone. What most women pluck and shave, Miller casually flaunts. She had grown a full beard by the time she was in her 20s and wasn’t sure what had made it grow.
“I don’t think of it as a problem, so I’m not looking for a cause,” said Miller of her unusual follicles.
In a typical Circus Amok show there’s a lot of gender transgression. Miller may be a woman with a beard but she’ll also wear sparkly evening gowns for the show. The men frequently wear dresses, corsets and bras. Are they ever worried about homophobia? “At first we were worried about it,” said Miller, “but we were pleasantly surprised. If you’re not confrontational you can get away with it.”
In a book called FREAKS AND FIRE by J. Dee Hill, a circus performer, Scotty the Blue Bunny, described as a “homosexual bunny in high heels” mentioned that when the Bindlestiff Family Circus travels to small redneck towns he picks out the most uncomfortable-looking person in the room and calls them an honorary homosexual. He says he can get away with it because people expect strange behavior at the circus. Miller herself said, “With the circus you’re dealing with another kind of reality. We’re allowing people not to be homophobic by rewarding them with entertainment.”
In fact, Miller wishes there were more heckling at the Circus Amok show. “Occasionally you can hear people talking but there’s rarely any heckling,” she said, “sometimes we have a drunk person come onstage and we have to deal with that impromtu but generally there’s not as much banter as I would like between the performers and audience.”
Last year, the theme was immigration. To stir things up, Miller planted one of her own performers in the audience to heckle during the show and make anti-immigration comments that her onstage performers would respond to.
“As New York gentrifies, our audience is changing,” Miller noted, “I’m talking about areas like East Harlem, Fort Greene and McCarren Park. The audience is whiter and younger. We’ve been performing at McCarren Park for years now but it’s getting very booked and it’s harder to get a permit,“ she said.
“What’s interesting about playing to different neighborhoods is that there’s a different vocabulary in each one,” Miller noted. “In some neighborhoods they don’t have public schools; in some neighborhoods they have direct experience of police brutality so reactions to our political themes can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.”
One year, a performance in a Hasidic neighborhood had locals concerned about modesty. The trope assumed that the concerns were over whether the women performers were sufficiently covered. Since all the women performers were clothed in that show, Miller told community leaders that it would be fine. Halfway through the performance, “one of the men came out in a white furry bra and the Hasids got up and left. Fortunately they’ve come back to our shows since!” Miller explained.
Circus Amok is only playing in eleven parks this year as opposed to sixteen parks as it has in the past. Although they have been dependent on grants from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, in general governmental support has been going down and the group is becoming more and more reliant on private support.
Miller is excited since this year the circus has a whole new set for the first time in thirteen years. It is easier to haul around as it fits into a couple of carts. “The transformation is great. I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years and it has become tiring to set up, take down and carry around the set. This will make everything much easier.” It is also a benefit to Miller since she stores the set, costumes and props in her South Williamsburg loft. The smaller set will give her more space. As is always the case with Circus Amok the performers designed new set through a collaborative effort.
If you want to know why the honeybees are disappearing and witness a man repeatedly explode, Circus Amok invites you to a day of fun and distraction starting in September. They will be playing at parks around the city.
2008 Tour Schedule for Circus Amok
Thursday, 9/6 Union Square Park 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
Union Square West and 17th St., Manhattan
Friday, 9/7 Columbus Park 12:30 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.
Mulberry St. b/w Worth and Bayard, Manhattan
Saturday, 9/8 St. Mary’s Park 3 p.m.
St. Ann’s Ave. and St. Mary’s St., Bronx
Sunday, 9/9 Prospect Park 1 p.m., 3 p.m. 5 p.m.
Behind the Tennis House, enter at 9th St, Brooklyn
Friday, 9/14 Marcus Garvey Park 5:30 p.m.
Madison Ave & 124th St, NYC
Saturday, 9/15 Fort Greene Park 2 p.m. & 5 p.m.
DeKalb and Washington Aves., Brooklyn
Sunday, 9/16 Tompkins Square Park 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m.
7th St. and Ave. A, Manhattan
For more information and updates go to www.circusamok.org.
Marie Carter is the editor of Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland and author of forthcoming creative non-fiction book, The Trapeze Diaries (Hanging Loose Press, Spring 2008).