Performer Jennifer Miller takes two different formats — political theater and traditional circus — and mixes them up in one ring for people of all types to enjoy. “It’s a big spectacle,” said Miller, “and it’s in a ring and it has a big band — and I’m the ringmaster.”
Miller helms Circus Amok, a New York City-based performance troupe delivering fun and social justice through circus hi-jinks. Miller is also a professor for the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, an Obie and Bessie award winner for her performances, and subject of the documentary, “Juggling Gender,” which chronicles her work as a talented juggler and fire eater skillfully skewing the American perception of women with beards as oddities to put on display.
Circus Amok brings jugglers, stilt dancers, rope walkers, acrobats, clowns, dancing tea cups, and all kinds of puppets to public parks all over New York City and the surrounding boroughs to perform free shows. The troupe began in 1989 as Miller gathered a group of peers who she had taught circus skills. Miller started juggling and clowning in high school.
“I spent a lot of time in L.A. going to street fairs,” said Miller. “I was always attracted to that outdoor, groups of strangers forming community having fun in the sun. But I also got introduced to outdoor political theater early, the work of Bread and Puppet and Outdoor Pageantry and it all came together.”
In the late 1980s, Miller began performing the Coney Island Sideshow as a bearded lady, fire eater, and escape artist, which served as a way to do research while honing her circus skills. She joined after a chance meeting with Dick D. Zigun, the sideshow’s founder.
“He was out on the boardwalk when I walked by,” said Miller “and timidly asked me if I would be interested in working there, thinking I would scream at him because he had only seen me previously in a very other context, a not downtown, non profit art world context, and here he was asking me to be in his sideshow.”
Miller had the opportunity to work with the last of the sideshow old-timers, as well as explore theater ideas and concepts, and issues of gender and difference.
“I was this woman with this beard,” said Miller, “and always working against the imagery and the idea of the woman with a beard as a freak. I was very interested in the aesthetics and I was interested in the history and I was interested in confronting that history. I thought I would give it a try, it was very mysterious and interesting, and I was really interested in the fact that it was such a non-art world audience there.”
The revival of the sideshow was part of the ’80s subculture of neo primitivism, the forebears of the current youth culture of tattooing and piercing, and one that cross referenced the sideshow as it was on its last legs. The dynamic began to change to “made freaks” rather than “born freaks.” Nowadays, the sideshow is not such a huge influence in daily life and opinions, but it helped set a tone in the early 20th century that was shaping American perceptions of outsiders.
“It was delivering a disempowering message, very racist,” said Miller. “Black people were on display as wild Africans, there were whole communities of peoples on display with the contextualization that was just full of lies, racist lies. I found the whole thing quite problematic, fat people on display, skinny people on display, women with beards on display, so I was addressing all that in my act.”
In the ’70s, the circus had also made a comeback as with counter culture overtones that were grounded not only in the trappings of circus style presentations, but the social set-up as well. The old style representations of circus and sideshows often present traveling social structures.
“It seems to be attached to this search for community and alternative lifestyle,” said Miller, “but it tends to be very de-politicized, so in a way it’s also somewhat escapist.”
It’s no wonder that such entertainment structures would be embraced by a segment of the population that many Americans would consider alternative. A troupe like Miller’s takes the naked concept of a sideshow — presenting those who do not fit into what is perceived as the American mainstream — and twists in favor of the performers through the on-message circus setting.
“The circus is situated on a very queer landscape,” said Miller, “and there’s a certain amount of drag or cross dressing or camp and, in some ways, that’s challenging for our audiences, but we’re New York’s homegrown local people theater, which is just a lovely thing to be able to have with those two things together. It really helps us to meet our audiences because, sometimes, they haven’t met people like us before.”
The circus is also a form of theater which meets ordinary people on their own level and creates a sense of collaboration between performer and audience, rather than the strict confines of traditional theater.
“It’s a really useful form,” said Miller. “It is a popular form, it’s got a history of being a theater for people outside the elite and outside of the art world and it’s exciting. It’s big.”
Miller is not just offering togetherness as a wacky party — she is also presenting activism as a form of fun.
“It’s just theater that happens to be about the super interesting topic of housing, why can’t it be fun?” said Miller. “There is so much energy and excitement in these forms, so why not put them together representing interesting ideas?”
The success of Circus Amok serves as a good model for creating togetherness among various groups and giving people the experience to make social justice an achievable goal born of that unity. The hope for Miller and troupe is that the crowd stays united long after they leave the dazzle of the circus.
“It all comes together somehow,” said Miller, “and people will say, ‘That woman with the beard, she was funny,’ or ‘She was talking about things we all need to talk about, who cares is she has a beard?’ or ‘It’s exciting about the beard!’”