Most who have been involved in circus arts have felt the benefits of such an active and creative endeavour. It might have been the endorphins released from exercise that first got you interested, or maybe it was the passion for creating a unique act. Maybe it was the connection and control you felt with you body, or the team work needed to achieve many disciplines. Maybe it was being part of a global community that kept you training. But of all the many ways that one could benefit from circus, how has it changed your life? Could circus be used to change the lives of others?
This is where the concept of social circus comes in. I’m sure you’re acquainted with it, and maybe you have even considered starting your own project. As someone who spent the last 8 months conceptualizing, founding, and co-directing a brand-new social circus project called Ropalo Circo, I have a few pointers to consider if you want to spread some social circus joy. Ropalo Circo is currently in Samos, Greece on a two month long mission to establish circus activities and social games as an ongoing program for the refugees here, and these tips would have been so helpful in our initial stages.
In no particular order, here are my top big questions/considerations to address during the planning phase of a project:
1. Set Goals
What is the overall goal of your mission? There are, of course, many potential answers to this. Maybe your intention is to provide entertainment for an underprivileged community, or to teach circus skills, or to conduct research. This phase also involves deciding who you intend to work with. It is important to seriously consider whether social circus is appropriate for the situation and demographic. Do you intend to have long-term or short-term impact? Do you want to entertain or to teach? There are infinite creative ways to weave circus into humanitarian work and the end goal of your project will dictate many big choices along the way.
2. Make a Timeline
How much time are you willing and able to put in? This is regarding your actual project and the time that you will put in before you begin to work. Do you have years to plan a big over seas, multi-country tour, or are you hoping to do a quick circus day with a local organization? The timeline of your project is crucial to map out, taking into consideration where you intend to go and what you are doing. If your goal is to entertain, your involvement will be much shorter in duration than if your goal is to educate or to research.
In my case, working at a refugee camp in Greece, we decided to stay as long as possible in one place in hopes to establish something that would continue after we left. We settled on two months at one camp, and after arriving we realized that even two months is not nearly enough time. We have started circus classes for adults which we find particularly rewarding as often adults are overlooked when it comes to having fun and creating positive pastimes (many adults in the camp turn to alcohol and drugs from boredom and as a form of escape). We have also hosted multiple workshops for the organizers of a new learning centre for refugee children, teaching them social games and ways of interacting with kids that they will use with their students. These are just two of the many missions we have been involved in, the more we do the more people we meet, and the more possibilities arise. We could easily stay here for a year and still have work to do.
3. Educate Yourself
Once you have a goal and timeline, it is crucial to become as educated as possible. Learn as much as you can about the people, scenario, and surroundings. It may be the case that you intend to work with a group you are already in close contact with, and you already know the best way to implement your circus skills. But maybe you want to work with people you have never met, in a scenario that you have never lived. While this is wonderful, it is important to be as educated as possible so as to not cause further harm to vulnerable communities. I discovered through my project that this can be so much more nuanced than expected. As an example, many of the children we work with in the refugee camp have unhealthy attachment patterns to anyone who gives them attention; they instantly become emotionally and often physically attached to a complete stranger. Though I wish I could give a child as much undivided attention as they want, realistically this can create heartbreak and a sense of broken trust once I leave, ultimately creating more hurt and reaffirming their feelings of abandonment. And furthermore, there are huge numbers of kidnapped refugee children who end up on the slave market so encouraging trust in strangers is not a healthy thing to do.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to be both trauma-informed and situation informed.
When working with complex scenarios, it’s best to remember that what is seen on the surface is not a reflection of the reality for those who are living in the situation. The dynamics of this working environment are often changing, so it is important to stay receptive to new information and remain flexible. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be both trauma-informed and situation informed. There are tons of books and online resources for this, ‘Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children’ by Cathy A. Malchiodi, is a great book that covers all sorts of creative outlets, and Caravan International Youth and Social Cirus Network has a great study about the effects of social circus. Also, Cirque du Monde’s world map of social circus organizations is great to see who is where and can be found here.
4. Find Partnerships
Reach out to anyone who might already be working where you want to go. So much valuable learning can be gleaned from an individual or an organization that is already working with the people that you intend to reach. We reached out to an NGO that has been providing refugee support in tons of ways including building a community centre that already offers many classes. For us this was perfect because we could have the support of an established NGO that has a working relationship with asylum seekers, and they have the benefits of bringing circus and games to their curriculum. Though they had no experience in circus or games they have been incredibly valuable in helping us learn about the complexities of the refugee crisis both globally and specifically on this island. Especially when entering a political or humanitarian crisis, look for support from people who may not be circus folk, but who have helpful experiences and connections.
5. Find Funding
This is a huge point, and could be an entire article on its own, but know that there are many ways to fund your project. Crowdfunding and fundraising events are go-to ways. Grants from your home country can be very beneficial but are time consuming. Reaching out to people who could be private donors is a great way to build a following for your project. Always take into consideration how your fundraising efforts could double as something else as well. For example, a fundraising event can also be a great time to give an educational talk about the benefits of your project, or a good time to grow your network of email supporters. Consider that your funding will likely come from a variety of sources so if one doesn’t work out it’s not the end of the world.
Our crowd funding didn’t raise as much as we hoped for but we received multiple grants and private donations, and with everything combined we covered the travel and living costs for three co-founders during the two month mission, and we even have enough to leave donations to other long-term organizations. Funding can seem like a daunting task, and it can certainly be a lot of work, but the support you can receive is unbelievable and why not give others a reason to feel good about themselves?
Of course, this is a very short list and there are so many other things to consider, but also many people to support you and to learn from. Whatever your social circus dream is, thank you, thank you, thank you, for taking this wonderful route in bettering the lives of others. Apply the lessons from hours of circus skill training to your social circus endeavour: be versatile always, every mistake is a learning opportunity, give attention to the sore spots, and don’t forget to breathe.
All photos courtesy of Ropalo Circo