Famed circuses Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Bros. may have shut their doors for good, but the popularity of circus is actually on the rise. This is in no small part due to the increasing accessibility of the circus. What used to be only witnessed on the stage — or in the ring, as the case may be — is now a participatory activity. Circus studios have been opening all across the country, where people can not only watch high flying acts but actually learn the art themselves. So with this increasing popularity, why is it that Providence is such a desert for circus arts? Providence should cultivate a circus community and engage with this national trend by welcoming local circus schools. To make this happen, we need to let the city know that this is what we want.
Circus schools provide instruction in a number of traditional performing arts that used to be found under the big top — aerial silks, lyra, trapeze, tumbling, tightwire and many more. Many people now take regular classes in these once esoteric skills as part of a regular fitness routine. But circus is about more than the need to “stay fit” — it’s an art form in its own right.
Many cities are home to at least one circus school for interested students. In fact, in most of the places I’ve lived, I’ve had my choice of multiple circus schools. Unsurprisingly, Chicago, the cultural center of Illinois, offered numerous different circus venues, from the artsy Aloft to a flying trapeze school, which requires significantly more space and different safety procedures, to more yoga-based, fitness-style circus. But even the smaller college-town of Ann Arbor, MI boasted at least three different places to train and study in the circus arts.
But Providence, the state capital and self-styled “creative capital,” offers almost nothing. In fact, the entire state of Rhode Island is almost barren of circus opportunities. A quick Google search uncovers only one standard circus school in the area, Arielle Arts in Greenwich. I’ve taken classes there, and it’s a good circus space, but getting there is inconvenient — it’s not within anyone’s definition of walking distance and more than an hour away by public transportation.
So why doesn’t Providence have any circus schools? Perhaps this has to do with Rhode Island’s location between Boston and New York, two hubs for the circus scene. It’s also mere hours away from the Vermont-based New England Center for Circus Arts, the premier full-time circus school in the country. But New England isn’t small, and studios in Vermont and Massachusetts are not readily accessible to the Providence community. We need our own circus space.
Brown does offer a student circus group, the Brown Aerial and Acrobatics club. However, this group is severely limited in the frequency and type of instruction it can offer based on practice space availability. Many circus arts in particular have stringent space requirements due to the necessary rigging of the apparatus, so lessons are not easily movable. The restrictions on space, due to the nature of circus arts, and availability, as the group is subject to the scheduling requirements of the University, make participation inconvenient. Furthermore, this group is only accessible to students from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. The benefits of having a full circus studio available to the Providence community include having a much wider variety of times for instruction, and individualized attention from trained instructors.
Addressing the lack of circus instruction in Providence may be as simple as working with one of the local rock climbing gyms, where much of the necessary infrastructure for installing aerial apparatus is already in place. Better still would be a new venue dedicated entirely to circus in one of the many buildings currently standing empty around town. But neither of these solutions are possible unless circus instructors, business owners and city institutions know that there is a demand. The city could offer tax breaks to entice new studios to open, but only if they know that there’s a need and a desire for them. Practitioners looking to open their own circus school could set up shop in Providence, but they won’t do so unless they know that we want one.
So consider this column my official plea: Providence is a community ready to welcome the circus. With little other access to instruction in these arts, it’s a notable cultural lacuna that is ready to be filled. The community of students — from Brown, RISD, Johnson and Wales University, Providence College and Rhode Island College — ensure a wide pool of potential participants. Out-of-state students — like myself — may already have exposure to the circus arts, so there is likely an undercurrent of demand for the circus that is currently not being met.
But it’s not just the students — I think the wider community is ready for a circus school too. I attended “A Magical Cirque Christmas” show at the Vets Theatre last year, where I watched a packed audience of all ages admire the thrill of the circus. Here was an audience that might enjoy trying their hands at juggling, swinging, climbing or flying, but without a circus school in the area may never get the chance. Our community is ready for more circus, so it just remains for the city to cultivate this aspect of its arts scene and work to bring more circus to Providence.
E.L. Meszaros GS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.