Big Apple Circus Serves The Community
Recognized and beloved for its magical, intimately scaled, one-ring themed shows, the nonprofit Big Apple Circus (BAC) is perhaps less well-known for its community service programs. Believing that joy and laughter can soothe and heal, it sends dedicated performers with special skills to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. Dina Paul-Parks, Harvard grad and BAC Vice President of Community Programs, explains that the circus serves 300,000 children, families, and seniors each year. Best known of its five main community programs is “Clown Care,” which brings the circus to children in 50 hospitals around the country, including Memorial Sloan Kettering, Harlem Hospital, and Bronx Lebanon in New York City. In collaboration with doctors and other staff, the performers do “clown rounds,” that might include juggling, music, and humor. Paul-Parks relates what she learned while accompanying a team on “clown rounds.” “I was blown away by how much more it was, how valuable, how magical. They know what they’re doing. They personalize each interaction, from sharing a loud belly laugh where appropriate to offering quiet company when peace and comfort are needed.” Another initiative, “Circus After School” (CAS), is a 12-week free program for at-risk students. Held at PS 442 in Brooklyn, PS 43 in the Bronx, and Union Settlement in Harlem, the program teaches circus skills culminating in a student show for friends and family. The structured program is designed to develop trust, teamwork, commitment, and responsible risk-taking. Tanya Turgeon, a seasoned performer and circus arts teacher, is Coordinator of CAS. She explains a low student-teacher ratio allows adjustments to the needs of each child. By the culminating performance, she reports, “the kids are comfortable on stage and, most important, they’re having fun.” Paul-Parks takes pride in the new confidence of a friendless, quiet kid on stage, saying, “See what I can do.”
“Circus of the Senses,” enables children and adults with vision or hearing impairments to enjoy the circus. The 75 minute version of the regular two hour show includes American Sign Language (ASL) translation and headsets with audio descriptions of the action. Two such performances will be offered this season. A recent initiative, “Big Apple Circus Embraces Autism,” a 75 minute adaption for families on the spectrum, is quieter and less stimulating. Calming centers are available and staff and volunteers are specially trained for this one-time performance. A program for seniors, “Vaudeville Caravan,” brings performers into nursing homes for individualized interactions. Working in pairs, actors representing familiar iconic characters, such as Elvis, a bride, or an opera diva, interact with residents, hoping to counter loneliness and isolation with humor and laughter. Finally, “Circus for All” partners with other non-profits who distribute free tickets to those without means to attend the circus.
Noting what makes Big Apple Circus “special,” Paul-Parks explains, “We strive to be very personal, whether ringside or bedside. . . Our programs are unique because we meet people where they are. We can tailor our programs, understanding what is going on and what is needed.”
This season’s Big Apple Circus, “The Grand Tour,” will be in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park from October 21 through January 10. Set in the 1920‘s with a backdrop of ships, trains, autos, and airplanes, it will delight an audience of 1700 in the Big Top with highly skilled clowns, jugglers, acrobats, and aerialists, as well as an assortment of animals, both exotic and domestic. Sounds like fun!#