Brave Space, Chicago’s New Circus Show, Opens October 6

Photo courtesy of Nancy Behall

Chicago, the incubator for the arts, hosts many interesting and experimental productions, hatching seasoned comedians from its thriving Improv scene, and Hollywood actors from its storefront theaters. But a lesser known secret is that it also produces quite a few circus professionals from its burgeoning contemporary circus scene. There’s a new show in town that is evidence of this called Brave Space, produced by Aloft Circus Company, which also doubles as a circus school. Brave Space premieres at Aloft this October 6-7, although it is technically capable of being a mobile show and promises the intimacy that only a show under a parachute tent can deliver—the Facebook invite states “Brave Space is the building of a blanket fort, the act of sneaking under a hoop skirt, an impulsive congregation in the tiniest of tents.” I sat down with founder (of the company and school) and director (of the show) Shayna Swanson recently to discuss why she made the show and its timely message.

Where did the show concept come from? 

I’ve had this show growing in my head for probably four years now and it came from me wanting to make peace with a very personal experience that I had at one point. So originally it was going to be a show for four women about group dynamics and how we can use our community in the wake of a traumatic event to enact revenge on a person (which is sort of relevant with #metoo and that sort of thing now) and how communities can kind of rise up to take their own forms of justice. I worked with this idea for so long and then I had this series of images as well. I wanted to have this big blanket-fort thing. I wanted to have this cool trapeze act where the trapeze gets cut down as a part of the act and it had all these intense images that I wanted to put into the show. I kept working and working to make the narrative lineup with the imagery and it just wasn’t happening.

Then I started working with this business consultant/adviser person and she had me sit down and do this wheel of satisfaction where you rate parts of your life in terms of how satisfied you feel you are or how well you feel like you’re doing in those aspects. It was so enlightening and it was terrible. All of my satisfaction levels were at the bottom, and my creativity level was just the lowest because I was putting so much time and energy into running Aloft, running the full-time program and administering and dealing with people’s personal dramas and then being a mom, and everything was getting in the way of me wanting to do the one thing that I started this company to do. She just really encouraged me to do it. So in June, I invited basically anybody who wanted to come and work with me and help workshop these ideas that I had. Sometimes there were 15 people there, and just going through all this imagery that I had in my head and working on different ideas, and more ideas came from the workshopping and it helped me solidify things. There are now seven people in the show.

So what was the process of elimination? How did you pick the core group of performers?

Photo courtesy of Nancy Behall

It was just certain people were bringing certain ideas and skills to the table that I was like, yeah, that. I really enjoy working with them and I feel like they’re easy to work with. They’re fun, they’re talented, they’re creative, they are very open and vulnerable and beautiful on stage. I also went to England in April to do a workshop with No Fit State circus. I talked to Firenza Guidi who’s their director, and she works so strongly through imagery and she sort of inspired me to just let go of that (original) narrative. These two ideas were not lining up. I don’t really feel like I have to make that show any more and I feel like this show now says so much that I wouldn’t have had that show say, but is totally valuable.

Why did you decide to name the show Brave Space?

It’s a social justice concept. There used to be this whole idea of safe spaces. We did this staff training with Aloft about a year ago with a group called Standing up for Racial Justice. We invited them to come in and do racial justice training with the staff members. It was really interesting, but I said to them, “I really want this to be a safe space.” And they said, “That’s not really a term we use any more. That’s the term we’re trying to get away from because people use that concept to just not challenge themselves and white people use it to just feel comfortable. And white people shouldn’t feel comfortable in the face of injustice. So you want to make your space be a brave space where people feel empowered and emboldened to stand up for what they believe in, and when they see something that’s wrong they can say “That’s not right!” and where they can support marginalized members of the community. So it just fits in perfectly. The show is essentially about creating something in this world that we live in now that supports the people around us and takes us out of our comfort zone to ensure their safety.

Do you have marginalized populations represented in the show? 

Photo courtesy of Nancy Behall.

Sarah is biracial. But when I first cast the show, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re a bunch of white people. This is weird.’ There is a cast member who identifies as non-binary, and it’s all women, but like white women, which is the second least marginalized population. But I mean with circus in Chicago, there’s not a huge pool of talent to draw from, and I was drawing from the people that came in to workshop with me.

I feel like I had to grow those performers through our full-time program–this show is 80 percent graduates of our program. I wanted to have artists who were really skilled but also really emotionally open on stage and everyone that I was seeing was one or the other. This is the fifth year or sixth year of our full-time program, and we’ve been able to foster that and the people around us and so now I have the people I want to work with. Yet, it’s absolutely not (all about) the skill. If it was about just skill, I could go hire a bunch of people from Montreal. They can do a four high or something. I do care about skill and I do care about tricks–those things are important to me. I get really bummed out when people are like, “It’s not about the tricks,” well it is because it’s circus. You have to have some skill level or else it’s an experimental theater project.

What’s the significance of the tent fort/parachute in the show?

It’s so beautiful. It takes you to a different world. You come in, and the first thing that you encounter is just 250 yards of fabric laying on the floor. The way that I’ve been picturing it in my head is that we were involved in a terrible plane crash and we parachuted out of the plane and we landed in the middle of nowhere and now we have to create this world. We have an opportunity to create the world that we want to live in based on just the raw materials laying around us. So that’s the setting. The whole parachuting out of the plane thing is not literal at all, but in my mind I keep thinking of that and metaphorically it speaks to the Trump election. So it starts on the ground and then with the audience together, we build it up into this blanket fort and then everyone goes inside of it and it’s like enveloping yourself in a cocoon. Everyone who’s seen the previews says it feels like we left the earth during the show, and a number of people said it feels like we’re back in the womb and growing, and then at the end of the show, I don’t know if I want to give away…

No, don’t! I’m not trying to prod you, but just the thought of it being a brave space means that even though you feel safe in there, there are going be some challenges that everybody has to face.

Yeah, well the performers are literally standing on top of the audience at times and the audience is literally sitting or laying underneath the performers at times. So in a very real sense, we’re all trusting each other to keep each other safe. We’re literally putting ourselves in harm’s way so other people are safe during the show.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Behall

Who’s the audience for this show? 

Whoever will pay $50 for a ticket! I didn’t do a Kickstarter for this because that would feel awkward to me. I want to save my Kickstarters for bigger projects. I poured more money into the show than I poured into any show before. It’s been really expensive just to build that tent. I did actually get a grant to help pay for the blanket fort, and there are seven artists in the show and circus artists aren’t cheap, so I have to pay those people a competitive rate. They’ve been really generous with their rehearsal time and so I want to make sure I compensate them well for the shows. Also, I feel like I’ve been doing really cheap circus shows in Chicago for a really long time, putting on shows for $10 or “pay what you can” at the door.

The show is for people who are interested in arts and dance and theater and that sort of thing. It’s not a family show, but I think kids will be really taken in by it. The one thing about the show that I should definitely mention is that you have to be able to move around. You stand up, you sit down, you lay down, you move during the show and so there’s a certain able-bodiedness that I’m not 100 percent comfortable with. It feels wrong, especially with a show that’s about what it’s about, right? But I think that we will be able to make the accommodations that we need to make for people if people need a chair or something. And that’s actually on the ticket, when you buy your tickets you can ask if you need any assistance.

What have you learned from this process about directing?

I don’t know if it’s that I learned things or was reminded of things. It’s so important for me personally to work with people that I love and that I feel a really personal sense of attachment to. I’m working in the show with Brian Dailey who I’ve been friends with for 15 years, you know? Then I’m working with people that just graduated from the program last year, but those people were like magic. We did a show once and we needed a cast member to take Jan Damm’s place because he was not available. And so I flew in some guy from Montreal. He was nice and great and super talented, but there was not a connection. I really love working with people that I love and that I respect and it’s so important to listen to people’s ideas. But then also to be able to say “That’s a great idea. That’s totally not the direction I’m going in.”

What can circus do in this show that dance or theater can’t do? 

This show in particular can make people feel really visceral feelings inside of themselves that you can’t get with a show with a fourth wall at all. Sometimes you’re standing so close to the other people in the audience that you’re feeling like you’re on a subway and then all of a sudden, the space expands and you feel, “Oh, I can move. I have some space.” Sometimes, as an audience member, you’re actually holding a piece of equipment and if you let go, that artist is going to fall down. We’re really asking a lot and there may or may not be some backups in place in case they do let go, but they’re feeling their connection to the performance through the rope. They move and you feel your rope.

Brave Space premieres at the First Congregational Church of Flight (AKA Aloft) on Saturday, October 6, at 7:30pm and 9:30pm, then has one more show, Sunday, October 7, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $50 and available here.

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Kim Campbell
Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.