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A Circus At The Airport: San Diego’s Artist Residency Entertains Travelers

Video by Katie Schoolov

Three years ago, the San Diego International Airport underwent a $1 billion expansion and dedicated $6 million of that to adding artwork as a “calming distraction.” Now, they’ve added another form of artwork: the circus.

Three years ago, the San Diego International Airport underwent a $1 billion expansion, and dedicated $6 million of that to adding artwork as a “calming distraction.” Now, they’ve added another form of artwork: the circus.

Back in May, San Diego-based Fern Street Circus began monthly performances that the airport says have been a big hit — and a big stress relief — for passengers.

“Every time these guys are out here, we hear numerous comments about what a nice surprise, getting off the plane, a long flight, maybe tired. Just such an unexpected way to put smiles on people’s faces,” said Chris Chalupsky, who heads the Arts & Community Partnership program at the airport.

On Thursday, a troupe of eight performers gave two half-hour performances in the Terminal 2 food court. Between performances, they walked around and surprised passengers as they came through security or waited at their gates.

John Highkin is the co-founder of Fern Street Circus. Wearing checkered pants and suspenders, he strummed a guitar as people put their shoes back on after getting through security.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Fern Street Circus Co-Founder John Highkin performs at the San Diego International Airport, Sept. 16, 2016.

“It’s the fleeting moments that are the most amazing and wonderful,” Highkin said. “They smile, and I’m sure when people get on the plane and talk, ‘Did you see the circus performers there?’ Or they tell their friends when they get home.”

Nearby, another man dressed as a rabbit played the ukelele while a man in bright red pants juggled. The bright colors caught the attention of 9-month-old Charlotte Brown and her mother Autumn. Brown said the performance occupied her daughter.

“I was surprised! I’ve been to an airport once, and it’s just been like what you expect at an airport,” she said.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Autumn Brown holds her nine-month-old daughter Charlotte Brown as she reacts to a clown from the Fern Street Circus, performing at the San Diego International Airport, Sept. 15, 2016.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Fern Street Circus choreographer and performer Erica Saben performs at the San Diego International Airport, Sept. 15, 2016.

Just down the terminal, Fern Street Circus choreographer Erica Saben practiced handstands on a low table at Gate 55, then balanced a ball on her spinning umbrella. Waiting passengers took out their phones to record it.

“The audience who pays to see you wants to be there, and knows what they’re getting,” Saben said. “And with the airport you have to teach them you’re not going to chase them away or waste their time, to show them it’s going to be fun and interesting. They’re maybe not in the best mood, so you as a performer have to change the situation a little bit.”

The airport selected Fern Street Circus after putting out a public call for applications for its new artist residency program in fall 2015. Now Fern Street receives a monthly stipend for the performances, which started in April 2016.

The airport’s Chris Chalupsky says San Diego is the first U.S. airport to offer an artist residency program.

“The whole aim here is for them to walk out of this airport, this residency, with new content that was inspired by this environment,” Chalupsky said.

Fern Street's grand finale show at the airport, “The Hectic and the Still,” was inspired by the typical airport routine: hurry up and wait. Its last performance will be at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21.

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