As the inventor and main face of the Functional Juggling movement, Craig Quat has traveled long and far to seek out new perspectives and build a more inclusive world—within circus and beyond it. In our latest podcast, “Portraits of Inclusion,” he and his guests will take us along for the ride. Here, Craig relates his own inclusion journey… and lets us know what to expect from the upcoming series.
A self-described civil disobedient and “social hacker,” global denizen and Quat Props founder Craig Quat has made it his life’s mission to bring about equality for all people… and circus is his means to do that.
Raised during the 80s and 90s in the New York City suburbs, Craig comes from a poor, mixed-race family with Welsh/Chinese parents who immigrated from Britain to the US. In his first year of school, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and placed in a special needs classroom. “Ultimately, I would go on to excel in education, but starting out, the whole experience was a bit of a challenge for me,” Craig admits. His first encounter with circus happened at around age nine, when he took part in an afterschool enrichment program that combined chess and juggling skills as a form of social intervention for at-risk and terminally ill youth. This introduction to juggling taught him to view it as a tool to provide joy and personal enrichment.
He practiced juggling throughout his childhood until reaching his early 20s, when he became involved in the performance world. “I’d never really had much interest in being on stage. However, I do consider myself to be a performer of the educational arts,” Craig says. It was around 2010 that Craig first became curious about trying to share juggling in more inclusive ways. At the time, as he explains, his only goal was to be able to experience the activity with more people; “I wasn’t really trying to pioneer anything new.” But through human connection, play, and a bit of tinkering with balls and a table, Craig helped to kick off a brand-new movement to make circus tools and skills accessible for all people: Functional Juggling.
Of course, in this digital age, word of the breakthrough spread rapidly throughout circus culture. Before Craig knew it, he was being invited to present and share his work at circus centres and universities around Europe and in both of the Americas. He did a four-year development tour of Europe, followed by another three years spent traveling around Latin America (where he remains today, in Argentina). “The journey,” Craig reflects, “has been one of a lot of serendipitous events and chance encounters. Kind of like that movie, Forrest Gump, but with circus. Getting to be part of the first generation of circus people to discover their global community through the Internet really felt amazing, and [it] is something that clearly explains a lot about the rapid growth of the functional juggling project.”
We turned to Craig to learn more about functional juggling, as well as about his work, his life, his mission—and his upcoming podcast series.
CT: How did your adventures with functional juggling start? When did you start embarking on this interesting journey and brilliant invention?
CQ: I feel that the adventure of functional juggling started for me from the time I was born. I believe that identity is not something we choose or construct, but rather, it gets formed out of the conditions of our environment. I see myself as a person who managed to overcome some pretty extreme circumstances, which is ultimately what shapes my perspective on the world. It had never really occurred to me that juggling was not something that should be shared with everyone, so I didn’t know not to try.
Honestly, I was a bit surprised and disappointed to learn that the solutions I was finding had not already been discovered. I think that a lot of the things I create are pretty simple and obvious, once you take a look at them, and this is kind of something that begs an important question for me. Why was an idea that seems obvious to me so surprising to everybody else?
As mentioned, my intentional research process began around 2010. At the time, I was still living in the United States and feeling in desperate need of authentic interactions. Since juggling was already a tool that I had used to connect meaningfully with myself, I started to wonder if it could be used to connect meaningfully with others, as well.
I managed my explorations by working with as many different types of groups of people as I could find and trying to approach the problem-solving process from their perspectives. I also collaborated substantially with cross-disciplinary groups such as doctors, therapists, clinicians, and artists. I think the truest things in life require us to discover them as a community, so that is basically what I did.
CT: What have you learned about inclusion during this journey?
CQ: The creative process of discovering ideas through collaborations with others is one that has always come naturally to me… but the leadership role of representing and spreading ideas around the world does not.One day, I went from being a person whom society stigmatised for having cognitive disorders to being someone who was celebrated for their unique perspective and creative state of mind. It was an emotionally confusing process that provoked a lot of Imposter Syndrome and references to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I immediately felt the need and pressure to pretend to be something I wasn’t, as I was being given a lot of opportunities to present at universities, hospitals, and clinical centres that would tend to end in standing ovations. But once these audiences found out that I didn’t match their expectation of what a person in my position should be like, the doors of opportunity would start to close again.
For that reason, I worked really hard to avoid taking responsibility for the project from the start. I didn’t like the greedy types of people it was attracting or the hierarchal types of relationships it required me to form. Additionally, I had discovered the ideas through play, so the transition into being a person who could describe and explain them would require quite a bit of reverse engineering from me, and this requires a lot of space and time.
The process of learning to socially navigate the world through this lens has taught me a lot about just how unequal society wants us all to think we are. I’ve gained a better understanding of why it tends to be so challenging to make real social change in the first place.
I spent a lot of time during my journey trying to fit into the expectations of different industries and, although I learned a lot in the process, at some point I realised that it shouldn’t be me who changes for them, but they who should learn to better accept diversity and objectively recognise talent when they see it. I make it a point in my career now to flaunt myself as being a type of person who is different, as opposed to trying to conform to others’ expectations. It might seem like an obvious and simple step to take, but in reality, it isn’t so easy for people to practice.
CT: What are your goals and hopes with the functional juggling project, and how can the circus community help and support you and your cause?
CQ: Since the publication of the Functional Juggling book in January 2021, a lot has shifted in the way I view the project and how I see my role in the community going forward. The book has been downloaded over 4,000 times and, during the pandemic, we also managed to produce a series of technical lecture videos, which are meant to accompany or enhance its reading experience.
Looking back at the last 12 years of work and seeing the journey from where I started to where I am now, I kind of feel that I got everything I ever wanted out of the deal. I see myself in a position now to take a step back from being in the centre ring and focus my energy on supporting the next generation of practitioners in discovering and creating their own journeys. This is really what makes me happiest, and where I wanted to be from the start… I guess that I had to take a detour and build that community first before I could become a part of it. (That makes sense, right?) Right now, I kind of feel like a kid who spent all of summer vacation building a treehouse, and now I finally get to play in it!
I am starting to open new branches of partnership development with local groups that involve me mentoring them to be able to deliver their own hybrid versions of the officially recognised Quat Props teacher training seminar. The community response and interest in this project have been great, and it should help keep me busy for the next few years.
I also plan to start traveling Latin America again with a group of friends starting in February 2023.The original tour was interrupted by the pandemic, but during the break, we were able to reflect and come up with an idea for a new project called “Esta Pasando,” which means, “This is Happening.” The basic goal is to expand the scope of the Quat Props project from being only about sharing inclusive juggling ideas to being more broadly based around creating community networks and opportunities for professional development gatherings. A good friend of mine from Spain, Miguel Manzano, has been collaborating with me on the concept, and he will be managing the project alongside the Quat Props tour. We plan to pilot the first phase in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia and see how things go from there.
The ultimate dream is to create a sustainable touring social circus conference that could be organised and modeled in the same image of classical tents and caravans traveling around to different communities and bringing ideas from around the world with them. Imagine Big Apple Circus, but instead of a show, the tents act as a conference centre for professional development courses. The market isn’t huge for this type of thing, but with sponsorship, the right teams, and a few creative solutions, I really think we could pull it off, and I look forward to trying. You will need to check back in a few years to hear how things go.
CT: Do you offer training for teachers?
CQ: Yes, we have in-person and online courses throughout the year. Thelast online course of 2022 will take place from Oct. 23 to Nov. 20. Course participants will gain a stronger understanding of the sensory elements most responsible for stimulating the juggling experience, and how we can better apply them as a creative source of social, emotional, cognitive, and physical forms of intervention.
CT: Tell us a little about the podcast series, your guests, and topics.
CQ: The series is titled “Portraits of Inclusion,” and aims to take a look at some of the changing mentalities and cultural movements happening in and around circus today. Each episode covers a different discussion topic related to the shifting paradigms and demographics of who, how, and what circus is about.
In Episode 1, Miguel Manzano and I take a journey through the Quat Props project and discuss how its path of emergence embodies some of the leading shifts in circus industry perspectives.
In Episode 2, we visit a group of circus researchers from North America—Adam Woolley, Dr. Veronique Richard, and Dr. Dean Kriellaars—to discuss their academic work in promoting Circus as a tool for social change.
In Episode 3, we take a look at the feminist and LGBTQIA+ conversation by setting up a dialogue between those of the Latin American and European experiences.
And in Episode 4, we bring things back down to the local level by listening to personal stories from five individual circus practitioners, each of whom is living and making changes within circus in different parts of the world.
Overall, the hope of this podcast is to paint a small picture of what it’s like to be working and building on the frontiers of new, socially based circus practice. I am really excited to have had the opportunity to create this series and look forward to sharing it on CircusTalk.
Images courtesy of Craig Quat and the Quat Props website