In the center of a marquee tent in one of Chicago’s parks, somersaults tumble through a group of stacked rings, rising higher and faster as hundreds of eyes gaze upward. At the end of the circus act, two rescued bulldogs, Junebug and Rosie Rae, jump through rings and circles around their trainer. Children sitting on blankets giggle and cheer at mischief in the ring.
This is Midnight Circus in the Parks, an organization that brings communities together and helps raise funds for local parks through performances with acrobats, contortionists, wire walkers, jugglers, clowns and animal numbers.
Entering its 12th year, Chicago’s Midnight Circus has raised nearly $ 1 million for the park system as part of the city’s Night Out in the Parks initiative. Thousands of people attend the show every year in their neighborhood park.
“For us, it’s about introducing people to the circus. We really mean it. We’re a better city if everyone has access to the resources: the arts, health care, good schools, whatever, ”said Jeff Jenkins, one of the founders of the program.
Midnight Circus was founded by Jenkins and his wife Julie Greenberg, and started out as a circus and theater company in the 1990s. In 2007, the founders organized a show to help raise funds to renovate the playground. Welles Park. As of that night, Midnight Circus in the Parks evolved into 23 shows in nine parks, from Oriole Park on the northwest side to Hamilton Park on the south side. This year, two more parks and Friday night performances have been added as shows tend to sell out.
The two-hour show features a variety of solo and group acts. Years past have included the trapeze, pole vault and even a contortionist juggling act. All the performers come together to sing, jump rope or do an acrobatic act to end the show.
The peculiarity of the circus, why the marquee is so magical, is that the performers can connect with the audience in a way that other venues don’t allow. Matt Roben has performed with Midnight Circus for the past 15 years in several capacities. An example: a daring number of stacked chairs where he does a headstand at the top and pops a ball full of glitter with his feet.
“When we invite the kids into the ring, every kid in that audience rushes to the middle of the ring, they dance with us, giving us high fives because they’re not just looking at us on stage from a distance, we’re at it. same level as the public. When they get into the ring and are a part of the show, you see this transition in the eyes of the children. You give hundreds of high fives per show, ”said Roben.
Logan Kerr is a corded walker and is part of the tent team that helps move the tent from one park to another. “Being in that show and that ring, watching a crowd of people who’ve gathered in this little park that they call home to see a show, is a little overwhelming. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before, ”she said.
Midnight Circus in the Parks also has an international reputation. It was the only American circus to participate in the world famous Montreal Circus Festival, what Jenkins calls the Lollapalooza of circus festivals. The organization has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for the past three years and the company is filled with elite artists from France, Canada, Australia and around the world. Some even came from Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus and Festival Cirque de Demain.
“I think we’ve certainly had a national and international influence on what’s going on in Chicago as far as the circus is concerned. If you go to any other show or circus school in the world, whether it’s in Paris or Montreal, and you say “I played with Midnight Circus”. Eyebrows are raised, ‘I’ve heard wonderful things about the show,’ ”Jenkins said.
Part of that prestige comes from Jenkins’ mission to bring a high quality circus and develop strong community relationships with the city, neighborhoods and local residents. A lot of artists feel like they’re part of a strong circus family: “It’s such a unique thing to have in Chicago. I’m sure there aren’t a lot of cities that have this, ”Roben said. “It’s the Chicago Circus.”