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Fern Street Circus Tackles Health Care In New Touring Show ‘Pre-Existing Condition’

Community circus celebrates nearly three decades of performing

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Zoe Irvine (center) is one of the performers in Fern Street Circus' "Pre-existing Condition: A Funny Bone Saga."

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Circus on film

"Charlie Chaplin's The Circus" (1928)

"Freaks" (1932)

"The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952)

"La Strada" (1954)

"Trapeze" (1956)

"Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away" (2012)

Fern Street Circus is coming up on three decades of performing and will be launching its 2018 Neighborhood Tour Friday.

Reported by Beth Accomando, Kris Arciaga

Not that long ago, circus was defined by PT Barnum and Ringling Brothers.

"The first circus I saw was when I was 9 years old, Ringling in Portland, Oregon, I think. My memory is that the elephants had polka dots painted on them but it was not theatrically careful," said John Highkin.

But Highkin’s perspective on circus got a radical readjustment when he experienced a Cirque du Soleil show years later as an adult.

"Oh, my god," Highkin recalled. "I am seeing what circus can be because they were so careful in how they approached every moment of that show."

That inspired him in 1990 to create his own show and name it after the street he lived on. So with funds from the city of San Diego and Commission for Arts and Culture, Fern Street Circus was born. But he wanted it to be a circus with a social agenda.

"It came out of my interest in Bertolt Brecht, who had a very political purpose in what he did and was always about entertainment," Highkin said. "So to have a means of being in a neighborhood compared to asking people to come to an actual edifice was really important, and so it was partly political. It was really the notion that theater and art need to be where people live, where people work, where they play, where they learn. This was a first major step for us in being able to do this.

Memo Mendez has been with Fern Street Circus since 1996 and serves as its bilingual ringmaster.

"So we work in a working-class community with the problems that a working-class community have, and this time around, we are going to be dealing with the issue of health care," Mendez said. "As we all know very expensive especially for poor, working people, and we are going to address it in 'Pre-existing Condition: A Funny Bone Saga.' So it’s really nice to see artists involved in community issues and also how to teach kids how to address these problems in a way that’s very productive, very peaceful, very educational. And that’s what we try to do, to use theater for what it is supposed to do to raise the issues of our day."

The idea for the show came out of the very real issues one company member had getting her hip replaced. But then another company member came up with the circus twist.

"Zoe Irvine, who is our trapeze artist, said she had a vision in the shower that was a clown falls and breaks his funny bone and goes through all sorts of machinations to get it fixed," Highkin said.

Valentina Martin has the challenge of bringing that story to life through choreography that mixes humor, the individual skills of the circus performers, and a social message.

"Talking about these social issues, issues that we deal with every day and integrating them within our storyline of this big circus that we are making, it makes art about it and allows us to think about it and process it but it also allows the audience to do the same thing and actually start to think about what it is we are dealing with this issue and how we can make it better," said Martin.

Circus has a unique appeal that can break down barriers when trying to reach audiences.

"It suspends reality," Mendez explained. "It’s very interesting when we do shows all over San Diego in tough neighborhoods and some of the tough guys around looking at us when we are setting up like 'What are you doing here?' But as soon as the show starts everything changes. No matter where you are in life or how old you are, when a show when it starts happening, when you see the magic of it, you just leave reality for a minute and watch what’s going on."

That’s what Fern Street Circus does with a clown’s humor, an acrobat’s grace and a ringmaster’s panache — it gets people and kids to understand that we all have a civic responsibility we need to embrace.

"Come down and see if our clown Otis fixes his funny bone," Mendez said with the enticement of a true ringmaster.

And while you are laughing at his comic plight, you can also learn about health insurance, emergency room visits, and what you can do to improve the conditions we live in.

Fern Street Circus is coming up on three decades of performing and will be launching its 2018 Neighborhood Tour tomorrow. Here's a look back on its past and what fuels its social purpose.


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