By JOYELL NEVINS | Uptown News
Fern Street Circus is taking the wonder of circus and bringing it right next door in their 2019 “Tales from Friendship Park” neighborhood tour. The social circus, which is based out of City Heights, will appear in city parks and rec centers from North Park to Lincoln.
“We’re making an impact on a sidewalk level,” said Executive Director John Highkin. “The circus is able to serve a greater good. It’s community building and community conversation.”
That’s because Fern Street’s uniqueness comes not just from its performance venue and dual Spanish-English show, but its performers. Look closely and you may notice your actual next-door neighbor – the circus cast is a combination of 10 adult professionals, and 30 local kids who have been training year-round. The youth performers range in age from 6 to 16 and exhibit a variety of skills, from tightrope to stilts to contortion.
“From the beginning of the show to the end of the run, there’s a helluva change in that kid,” ringmaster Memo Mendez noted.
Mom Marcela Mercado has seen that change firsthand. Her children Mayte, Mia and Marlon have dove into the circus for the last three years.
“Their self-esteem is much, much better,” she said. “They’ve also learned techniques to problem-solve.”
Teaching children to problem-solve in a healthy way and explore where they fit is one of the avenues where Fern Street shines. Although there are 30 performers, nearly double that number can be found in the Mid-City Gym during their triweekly training sessions. Kids are welcome to come in, investigate different elements of circus, and see where they best fit: discover their passion.
“They get to try everything first. When we get to tour season, they choose an affinity,” said freelance wire (tightrope) walker Erica Saben (see her 14-foot-high walk at this year’s tour!). “There’s no pressure, and it’s not competitive. We leave the option open – if they really want to go for it, they can choose.”
That’s what happened to Mayte. The now-12-year-old has developed a passion for contortion. She is already planning for post-high school, looking for universities that specialize in circus training.
“She told me, ‘when I get educated, I want to come back and give back like [my circus teachers] do,’” Mercado said.
Generosity abounds in the nonprofit Fern Street. It is manned nearly entirely by volunteers from training to crew. Many parents pitch in to handle concessions. All of the park performances and gym training is free to the audience and children respectively. The goal is not to make money, or even to spawn a new circus generation — it’s to help these kids develop their sense of worth and see how they fit in the world.
“They learn they are capable and special,” Saben said. “They become well-adjusted human beings.”
Mendez, who grew up in Los Angeles and San Diego, put it this way: “It’s really important to connect with something, so the streets don’t eat you up.”
For Mendez, futbol (soccer) was his connection and saving grace. He notes that like sports, the circus gives an outlet for expression, and teaches responsibility and work ethic. But unlike sports, there’s no winner and loser.
“It’s less competition, more collaboration,” he explained. “Individuals have the opportunity to show themselves, but not at the expense of others.”
Students are free to excel as far as they want – it’s individual growth, but they’re doing it together.
“There’s magic in the gym when kids are learning,” Highkin said.
Highkin, his faculty, and the parents all note that the only limits are set by the kids themselves.
“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Saben declared.
Fern Street Circus isn’t just a circus show; it’s a social circus. That means, as their website puts it, that Fern Street “reaches beyond skills training and sparkling performance to create social change.” Cirque du Soleil has even designated them its “Social Action Partner” in San Diego.
On top of the training placed in the heart of their city, shows have a theme and message behind them. Past topics have included the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) policy and government health care.
But it’s not a platform for diatribes. The DACA show used the metaphor of animals stuck in an airport, and health care revolved around a clown who broke his leg.
This year, the topic is division — how can we eliminate fences and barriers, and solve society’s problems together. The Fern Street leadership determines the overall theme and running story line, and then each performer with their students’ input decides how to incorporate that theme into their act.
For the 2019 tour, Fern Street Circus is partnering with Live Well San Diego. Two hours before each showtime, Live Well will present a community health fair at the venue.
The tour runs weekends from Oct. 4-27. To donate, volunteer, or just see the show, visit fernstreetcircus.com, follow “fern.st.circus” on Facebook, or call 619-320-2055.