By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
With COVID restrictions still in place, many artists are only holding events virtually but a few groups have found creative ways to bring their audiences outside while maintaining safety precautions.
Blindspot Collective and Fern Street Circus both held creative in-person events that promoted civic engagement.
In lieu of its typical neighborhood tour, Fern Street Circus brought its performers out to meal distributions at local schools. This pop-up entertainment brought joy to families dealing with the financial strain and hunger exacerbated by COVID-19 but served a dual purpose — the jugglers, clowns, acrobats, musicians and drummers carried signs about filling out the census.
“When the cars are in line and they see what we’re doing, they will often roll their windows down and they’ve got kids in the back and we’ll wave and talk with them and we talk about the importance of the census, what benefits the census will bring to their communities,” Fern Street Circus Executive Director John Highkin said.
Participating in the census is essential for San Diegans as it dictates federal resources for the next 10 years, meaning it could affect funds for things like free meals and other assistance these families need as well as government representation.
When the Supreme Court allowed census counting to end sooner than advocates wanted, the circus pivoted to promoting another form of civic engagement: voting.
Meanwhile, local theater company Blindspot Collective toured its original audio production of “Good Trouble.” The play, titled from late Rep. John Lewis’ famous words, was an oral history of sorts about the protests and activism of this summer in San Diego.
Since Lewis began his activism early in life, the play focused on current experiences of youth activists who are following in his legacy.
“I am so hyper-aware that the people we are interviewing now are the age that John Lewis was when he became an activist. For us, there is a direct sort of lineage of activism… you can trace from the Civil Rights movement and figures like John Lewis to today,” “Good Trouble” co-writer Blake McCarty said.
Returning to in-person performances came with challenges. After its first pop-up event, Highkin felt the performers were too crowded together. The next time, they moved to sidewalks across the street from the school so there was more space to spread out.
Blindspot Collective decided against having live performers at its tour. Instead, audiences gathered in a public park to listen to a stream of the pre-recorded play on their individual devices. After the stream finished, the audience gathered in a large circle to discuss what aspects of the play were meaningful to them. The stream called for audience participation, including chanting, singing, standing, raising a fist and, at the end, dancing.
“It was a bit experimental and we weren’t sure how it would work,” the co-founder of Blindspot Collective, Catherine Hanna Schrock, said.
As people sat on their own blankets and chairs throughout the park while participating in a collective experience, it felt similar to a group meditation as the words of the activists washed over them.
The co-writers decided against holding a live performance because of the ever-changing COVID restrictions but still wanted to provide an opportunity where people could at least lay eyes on other humans amid the isolation.
“At least we can gather as a community and be in physical solidarity,” McCarty said.
The pre-recorded play was unique in that it sounded much like a series of interviews with activists interspersed with songs and sounds of the protest. In reality, the entire play was scripted and performed by actors. The playwrights interviewed 40 young activists in San Diego about their experience then created a handful of composite characters based on those interviews. Voice actors were hired to play each of the characters.
“A lot of the actors who were drawn to this were already activists. One of the actors was an interview subject herself. There was a communal vibe during the rehearsal process because they would reflect on how much things resonated for them,” Schrock said.
Blindspot Collective and Fern Street Circus both pay their performers, which is especially important as artists face significant income loss during the pandemic. The Los Angeles Times reported in October that an estimated 284,000 creative jobs have been lost since March.
“To be able to employ artists — that’s a real key thing for us. We believe that artists need to be paid, that we have to pay them and that that is a way that we’re able to contribute to the economies of quite a number of people,” Highkin said.
Highkin said no one is getting rich from performing in the circus but he hopes that over the long-term, artists’ lives are improved by being paid to uplift their communities.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.