New Orleans circus artist Clay Mazing continues his “Field Trip” travelogue, which chronicles his experiences with the Emergency Circus as they continue to entertain Syrian refugees across Europe.
Being a child with special needs in Turkey is even more difficult than being one in the U.S. Disabilities are more stigmatized and hidden by families fearing embarrassment. Luckily for these kids a brand new center is opening in a mystical landscape in the heart of Turkey. The Little Prince Academy is a place where children with all manner of different abilities can come for free to explore and create together.
Here, children leave their labels of autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc., behind. Differences are celebrated and encouraged. Little princes and princesses integrate to discover life in a safe and loving environment amidst the most unique geography on the planet.
Watch the Emergency Circus bring laughter and applause to christen the opening of the Little Prince Acadamy. This video shows the first time many of these “challenged” children played and danced with “normal” children. We all laugh the same.
Clay Mazing and Emergency Circus continue their video journey by capturing their recent work with the Lebanese troupe Clown Me In as they help entertain Syrian refugees.
Here’s what he had to say in this, another installment of our “Field Trip” series:
“Death and conflict surround the tiny country of Lebanon. With its north and west bordering Syria and its south bordering “the occupied land” as they say (Israel according to official U.S. policy), the Mediterranean is their only peaceful neighbor. Half the buildings of Beirut are bombed full of holes from their own civil war which just ended the year “Ice, Ice Baby” hit the charts. For 15 years, Muslims and Christians tried to eliminate each other for praying differently until one day the just decided it was a stupid idea and quit. The other half of the buildings consist of massive under construction skyscrapers ready to welcome yuppies with state-of-the-art Starbucking. The new hipster neighborhood changes every 6 months or so and the food is insanely satisfying all over.
“Five years ago, the horrors began next door and a river of refugees flooded the country. Around one million Syrians have joined the half million Palestinian refugees to make up about one third of the countries population. And they were accepted. Because Lebanon knows the horrors of war and the bliss of peace. The refugees who choose to live here say at least they can still see Syria and they can still hear the bombs so they know what’s going on. They keep hoping for those explosions to stop so they can go back and rebuild.
“Lebanon may not have much to share, but they have some kind of a heart. And they have a few clowns. Clown Me In was founded by a beautifully souled friend of mine, Sabine Choucair. We joined them for the beginning of both our tours for an Emergency Me In party that neither we nor these smiling kids will soon forget.”
“We’re trying to build a community of playful people from around the world to figure out what does it mean to be playful and why do we think that it’s beneficial for people in all kinds of situations — also in very, very difficult and hard situations — to be allowed to be playful,” said festival organizer Mathias Poulson.
As part of the video travelogue, Clay Mazing (who gave the conference’s keynote speech), interviewed members of other organizations, including A Secret Club and The Future Makers.
Come back soon for a full video of that keynote speech.
In the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series focused on New Orleans entertainers on the road, called “Field Trip,” New Orleans circus performer Clay Mazing chronicles his return to entertain Syrian refugees abroad — a journey that I chronicled here and here. In this first installment, Clay Mazing explains his need to return to help through his Emergency Circus.
Well, since the last trip I knew I needed to go back. The extreme situation these humans have to face just breaks the hell out of my heart. After discovering how impactful this clown work could be to the situation, I just constantly ached to come back. I also wanted to do a better job of documenting my experience and showing the refugees in a positive light to the rest of the world.
This new rhetoric of xenophobia used for political power makes me utterly disgusted, like my eyes want to vomit screams or something. Being on the ground, listening to, clowning for, and being playful with Arabic people of all kinds has destroyed my tolerance for prejudice. It’s extremely stupid to hate Muslims for being Muslim, for example. So I have to use whatever privilege I have to attempt to better the situation.
It’s just so important to me to show these refugees as neighbors in need, not mysterious enemies. Hopefully, through showing the smiles of children and the warmth expressed by their parents, a few more fearful and confused people in my country will be able to see the similarities of our souls.
Counterplay, a conference on play in difficult situations in Denmark, invited me to be a keynote speaker earlier in April. I took the plane ticket as an opportunity to do another month and a half of work. I’m linking up with about 20 other clowns and performers from all over Europe to tour refugee camps and schools in Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Germany, France, Belgium, and Holland. Linking up with local clowns is a great way to begin establishing regular clown missions in the area. We learned this from our last trip.
We’ll be visiting areas where the refugee situation has been complicated by terrorist attacks and camp closures like Calais, Brussels, Beirut, Istanbul and others. Since the last trip in November 2015, the situation has become much more difficult for refugees. Nationalism, xenophobia, racism and economic concerns have led many governments to close their borders. Last time we traveled alongside the refugees, getting a small taste of their experience while spreading as much joy and entertainment we could along the way.
This time we’ll be visiting places where they have been stuck, trapped with the inability to move forward or back. Aside from Denmark, our first stop is Lebanon, where we are joining forces with a local troupe called Clown Me In led by a clown who I worked with in Lesbos and previously in Lebanon. We are visiting mostly refugee schools near the border of Syria.
April 20 (see photo above): Sometimes I start to wonder why I work so hard booking, planning, raising funds, and traveling for days on end for $0 an hour. Then I have a day like today where 900 refugee kids go to their tents excited to dream about the circus that came to school today. So happy to team up with Sabine again and Clown Me In. This is the silly, sweaty, sunburnt life I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Now he wants to go back, and he needs a little help from his friends. His “Emergency Circus Strikes Back” fundraiser on Saturday night (Feb. 13) at the Castillo Blanco Art Studios on St. Claude Avenue (home of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus) seeks to raise funds for a springtime return to Europe where he hopes to bring a troupe of fellow performers to continue their work. That work began with a partnership through Clowns Without Borders, and the work never ends.
On Saturday night, the fun begins at 8 p.m. with an art-crawl led by Afro-Brazilian troupe BateBunda starting at Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Ave.) and will pass through the traditional second-Saturday art crawl, down the boulevard and to the Castille Blanco for a big dance party, art auction, and circus show featuring local and touring circus artists (including those from Cirque Copine and the recent “Vaude D’Gras” show at Happyland Theater.
What was the most rewarding aspect of the first trip that has inspired you to come back for a second tour of duty, so to speak?
Well, honestly when I first arrived I didn’t know how my clowning would be received by these people going through such unimaginable hardships. I mean, these people were fleeing war, walking for miles, spending their life’s savings, and losing loved ones. I didn’t know how they would feel about a foolish American clown showing up to make funny faces and play music. But as soon as I did the first show, as soon as I made that first smile, I realized how imperatively important this work was not only for the refugee children but for their parents, the other aid workers, my own soul, and for all my friends, family, and strangers back home who needed to know the hearts of these struggling humble folks.
What if any feedback did you get from relief or aid workers about your work? Did you have much interaction with “official”-type people who were dealing with this crisis?
The aid workers were always pleased to see us. It’s very hard on them to work with this constant surge of refugees who are mostly only there for a day or two while the aid workers have been dealing with death and hardship for months. It’s a magical feeling when you can get Syrian refugees, UNICEF workers from Norway, and Greek border police all laughing at the same pray fall. It proves we are all connected at the deepest level.
Let’s talk about your needs with the fundraiser. What kind of budget are you looking at for this trip? What are the cost breakdowns, if you can do so generally? What’s the plan and how much will it cost to go back again?
Our plan is to bring three circus performers along the entire refugee road from the Syrian border with Turkey to refugee camps in the Netherlands. We will be documenting the journey because I think it’s important for people to know what compels these refugees to make this journey, to hear their stories, and to realize how close we all are. Of course it costs a lot to do such an epic journey. Luckily I was offered a gig as a keynote speaker for a conference in Denmark on “play in difficult situations,” so they’ll be paying for my ticket but I’ll still need at least $5,000 for travel, room and board to bring three circus performers the whole way.
I know we won’t be able to raise all the money needed with this one fundraiser but I think part of the importance of this project is to raise awareness, especially after hearing some of the xenophobic rhetoric recently spread by some of our political leaders. I experienced first-hand how kind, sweet, funny and loving these excellent souls are, and I want to share that. I want to show the ways in which we are the same. I want to show that we all laugh in the same language. That’s why I’ll be sharing stories, videos, and pictures from my experiences between acts at the show.
What’s the name of the conference and which three other performers are joining you? And what’s the time frame of the trip?
The trip will go from April 13 until May 25. We’ll be joined by New Orleans performer Moniek de Lieu, who went on the trip last fall and has spent a lot of time here in New Orleans. We’ll bring other European-based artists as well and link up with local musicians and clowns in each area we visit. We’ve got great connections in Athens, Germany, and many places along the way. I’m really excited to be working with such amazing talent for this extravaganza. We’ve got BateBunda marching through second Saturday’s art galleries, with jugglers and circus artists reveling the whole way. The show includes some of the most famous artists currently pushing the envelope of bringing a new consciousness of love to American society, like “Americas Got Talent’s” Special Head; Joey Cook, the New Orleanian who just killed it on “American Idol”; and Matthew Silver, the incredibly viral Internet wild man — not to mention local favorites Nick Williams (Guglielmo), Chatty the Mime, Sam Aquatic, and of course Clay Mazing.
(NOTE: A complete list of upcoming circus-related events can be found at the bottom of the post.)
For LadyBEAST, the goal is pretty simple.
“I want to hit the big top with circus” in New Orleans, she says. LadyBEAST, an escape artist, aerialist and fire performer, is with fellow performer and producer Liza Rose, talking over coffee at the Who Dat Café in Faubourg Marigny. “And I don’t mean Barnum and Bailey circus or Cirque du Soleil.” She pauses and then says with a little laugh, “I want to be a big weirdo for the rest of my life and create a platform that will sustain us.”
For the circus artists, trying to create a sustained scene can be a fun but daunting challenge. At first blush, New Orleans would seem like a logical mecca for variety performers, drawn to the port city’s bohemian and creative spirit. There have been moments in the past where the circus arts has drawn attention, especially in the late 1990s, but it’s never made a consistent mark.
The beginning of 2016 offers some tantalizing glimmers of hope, building on the success experienced in 2015. LadyBEAST has confirmed a regular monthly circus show at One Eyed Jacks that will feature many of the performers with whom she’s collaborated over her six years in New Orleans. And there’s no better way to kick that off than with the return of Cirque Copine, her collaboration with Liza Rose, and “In Wonderland” on Jan. 29 — which will hold down one of those monthly dates four times out of the year to give the all-female troupe a quarterly presence inside One Eyed Jacks.
And then, in the spirit of Mardi Gras, LadyBEAST returns with her other, Carnival-themed circus and sideshow project that has been re-branded as “Vaude D’Gras,” to run Feb. 5-8 (ending on Lundi Gras) at the old Happyland Theater in Bywater. (The first two productions were called “Cirque du Gras.”) Other events include two fun affairs on Thursday (Jan. 21) — “Cirque di Pasta,” a gathering at Arabella Casa di Pasta on St. Claude Avenue featuring most of the “Vaude D’Gras” cast; and “Circus Darling,” the debut show produced by Darling Darla James at the Hi-Ho Lounge and described as a “sexy circus cabaret bizarre.”
Add to that Liza Rose’s monthly “Fly Movement Salon” inside Café Istanbul, several training spots around town like La Motion — and the desire for a permanent performance venue — and the seeds are there to bring the big top closer to the foreground of New Orleans’ variety scene. It’s a scene that’s created increasingly attended audiences for everything from burlesque and drag to cabaret and comedy.
“We are a movement of people who want to make regular work that utilizes our skills as circus artists, but one that is an all-encompassing theater experience,” says LadyBEAST.
Liza Rose has no delusions of grandeur about the potential of growing such a scene. She says she’s at a point where doing it for the fun is just as important as doing it for a paycheck.
“I want to enjoy the process,” says Rose. “If you don’t enjoy the process you have to quit. Ed Sullivan is not calling. It’s not a thing. You have to actually enjoy the work that you do.
“We want to get to the point where work is fun.”
Based on the description of these upcoming shows, it would be difficult to imagine any of this being anything but fun. With Cirque Copine’s “In Wonderland” — which premiered in 2015 — the pair hopes to create a turn-of-the-century atmosphere, with versatile entertainer GoGo McGregor serving as a kind-of hostess and Penelope Little performs as a clown. LadyBEAST and Liza Rose each will perform, as will Sarah Stardust. The whole production will be performed to a live soundtrack created by the local band Opus Zeo.
The co-producers try to keep details to a minimum, hoping for a surprise factor, but do say there will be local artists out front selling trinkets.
To underscore what they describe as the old Belle Epoque era from Paris, the pair are encouraging guests for the Jan. 29 show to come dressed for the period, hoping for an absinthe fairy here, and a Mucha girl there.
These monthly and quarterly shows in the heart of the French Quarter, especially inside One Eyed Jacks — home of the monthly Fleur de Tease burlesque show — represent a kind of planting of the flag for circus artists. Being able to work in a space where much of the technical aspects — hell, even having someone handle selling the booze — takes a huge load off the shoulders of organizers too often burdened by the “Y” part of a “DIY” existence.
“Every other space,” LadyBEAST says, “I’ve had to direct it from nada.”
The two separate shows will be followed by a late-night dance party with a DJ.
LadyBEAST’s regular monthly show,“LadyBEAST’s Cabaret,” will have a more mid-20th century feel, with a steady rotation of local and some touring circus artists. Live music will be provided by the G-String Orchestra and other musicians, and vendors again will be selling their wares at the front.
“We’ll be inspired by the old ‘big top,’” she said. “For me this is about being able to have more opportunity to be a producer and the best boss I can be to those people.”
The four-night “Vaude D’Gras” show will have more of a mix of circus and sideshow performances inside the old Happy Land Theater. So while LadyBEAST, GoGo McGregor and Sarah Stardust will be on hand, so will Guglielmo, the opera-singing clown; his wife, the knife-throwing Madame Daggers; Clay Mazing, the whip-cracking clown; and music by the Vaude D’Gras Band with “maestro” Sarah Jacques (of both G-String Orchestra and Opus Zeo.
In keeping with the previous productions, there will be a distinct narrative feel for the show, this time featuring a meta-fictional “show within a show” scenario in which inner turmoil among the cast members will lead to shenanigans.
“Now I really feel that this is our part in Mardi Gras, our way to give to Mardi Gras, which is important if you a performer or artist in this town,” said LadyBEAST, who estimated last year’s attendance was as high as 700 over the four performances. “As for this year, it’s my longest-standing production, and it’s the thing I started in my head five years ago, and I want to keep having it evolve and having it become a bigger production.
“I see growth. I see evolution.”
INFLUX OF TALENT
That’s due in part to recruiting such game performers as Guglielmo, who moved to New Orleans in early 2012 after several visits from New York City, where he’d gained experience singing opera and emceeing circus and sideshow productions. When LadyBEAST offered him a slot in the inaugural “Cirque du Gras” in 2014, he jumped at the chance. (He and his wife, Madame Daggers, perform together and separately.)
“Anytime I’m asked to doing something ‘out of the box’ that I like, without question will give it a shot,” he said.“Risks are what I live for, and its been quite a ride! What I love about what we do is take a bunch of circus, vaudeville and sideshow and turn it into more of a theatrical experience.”
The growth of New Orleans’ circus scene overall has included a modest migration of talent in recent years, with performers sometimes put off by the larger scenes in which they’ve worked and intrigued by New Orleans’ free, creative and communal spirit. These aren’t just wandering souls, either; they come well trained. Sarah Stardust, who moved to New Orleans from New York City in January 2015, spent several years studying ballet and modern dance in Texas before switching to aerial performance and studying that and acrobatic dance at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Brattleboro, Vt., beginning in 2007.
She spent about two years in New York performing and teaching before deciding to move to New Orleans, partly because she’d tired of the “sexy cabaret style” and “joke acts” that were prevalent in New York but also because she enjoyed visiting her brother in New Orleans and decided to move “on a whim.” She currently teaches at Ashtanga Yoga Room and aerials at LA Motion along with Liza Rose.
Stardust, who performs with Cirque Copine and in “Vaude D’Gras,” loves the collaborative spirit in New Orleans, whether with Liza Rose and LadyBEAST or musicians such as those in Opus Zeo — with whom they collaborated in last year’s first “In Wonderland” performance.
“We sat down together and developed a storyline based on Liza’s concept,” Sarah Stardust recalled. “We found our characters and mostly our own choreography, but had each other for feedback, which is important! The best part for me though is that Opus Zeo met with each of us to talk about what we envisioned for music and what they made was such magic.
“It just made everything come to life!”
While she embraces that collaborative spirit, Stardust says, she wishes the New Orleans scene had more cohesiveness, at least in the aerial community, and perhaps more dedication. Part of that challenge is the lack of a common venue to serve as the kind of hub that scenes in New York or San Francisco enjoy.
“I would love for there to be more opportunities for everyone to work hard and train together,” she said. “I think that’s one thing that’s really holding us all back from being better!”
Clay Mazing, a whip-cracking clown most notable for his appearances in “Cirque du Gras,” has traveled around the country and (more recently) overseas with his Emergency Circus, performing for Syrian refugees. He moved to New Orleans seven years ago, and also notes a growing and increasingly vibrant scene here after watching the burlesque scene become so big. But he still feels New Orleans is in catch-up mode to scenes in the San Francisco Bay area and Portland, partly due to those cities because of the training and competition going on.
But he also notes the downside of developing a scene in the wrong direction.
“I see the potential, and hope to be able to shape the scene in a positive way,” said Clay Mazing, who will host a benefit, “Emergency Circus Strikes Back,” on Feb. 13 at Castillo Blanco Art Studios.
“I can see a surge of circus coming and I hope our scene can remain cooperative and add to the magical charm and culture of this excellent city,” he said. “I don’t want to see some homogenous scene pop up equal to the Bay Area or Portland here. I’d hope that our circus culture will remain unique, accepting and adding to the vibrancy and even the grit that makes New Orleans so exceptional and alive.”
Chatty the Mime, a popular clown who blurs the lines between circus and burlesque performances, sees a growing scene for the circus arts.
“When I started five years ago, there was only one show that was a full variety circus show,” she said.“The scene back then was mostly burlesque shows with one variety performer. Now there are probably around 8 different circus shows happening at a given time. 2015 was my busiest year performing.
“So I do have high hopes for 2016.”
She participated in holiday play recently, “A Christmas Carol” at the Bayou Playhouse, and was heartened when the director wanted circus performers to add a new dimenstion the show.
“It was great to see an audience who may not have ever experience something like that have so much fun,” she said.
VALUE AND COMMITMENT
Liza Rose, who along with balancing herself with her aerial work, also balances a professional mix of teaching aerial work to others at La Motion and to students in the Circus Arts program at the International School of Louisiana. This is life for a professional who’s worked on both the East and West coasts before settling down in New Orleans, where she’s performed with such varied settings as the New Orleans Fringe Festival and “Freaksheaux to Geaux.” She’s seen other scenes compromised by producers hiring lesser-trained performers at cheaper rates, and doesn’t want to see that happen in New Orleans.
She wants to see value and commitment placed in the New Orleans circus scene.
“Everybody keeps saying to me, ‘Liza, let me know when there’s something going on that I can be a part of,’” she said. “I need people who will come and help me make the scene.”
She has a strong collaborator in LadyBEAST, whose creativity and energy complements Liza Rose’s talents as a skilled performer and choreographer. As long as they keep moving forward, together, they’ll be satisfied.
“The main idea,” LadyBEAST said, “is evolution. I come from visual-artist background, so without change, you’re stagnant.”
“Cirque di Pasta” Thursday, Jan. 21
Arabella Casa di Pasta Performers: Guglielmo, LadyBEAST, Clay Mazing, Sarah Stardust, Madame Daggers and GoGo McGregor
“If you’re in New Orleans you’re probably seeing more of the edgy Clay Mazing, the cowboy who’s cracking his whip, and with the flaming shotguns,” Clowns Without Borders’ Molly Levine says of Clay Mazing. “It’s fun crazy stuff. And when he is doing the Clowns Without Borders shows, he’s in character, but as a really child-friendly clown.” (Photo by Mike Shane)
Each month, New Orleans’ top circus and variety performers get together and showcase their latest works at the Fly Movement Salon over at Café Istanbul. But next week they’ll get a chance to showcase their work while supporting the very timely work of a fellow performer helping Syrian refugees.
Clay Mazing, known to some for his work at Cirque du Gras (which I covered here for NOLA.com) has taken his initial project work with the nonprofit group Clowns Without Borders in Greece and is continuing to perform with Syrian refugees as they continue on their journey. Right now he’s in Macedonia. And because now he’s supporting himself on the journey — working with his own troupe, the Emergency Circus — he needs some help, and his friends back in New Orleans are ready to go.
Molly Levine, the director of the New York-based Clowns Without Borders, performed with Clay Mazing and a couple others during their project trip to the Greek island of Lesbos, which included 32 shows over 16 days for Syrian refugees who have already endured major hardship.
“If I could say one thing to my close friends, that I wish people would understand, is the sheer enormity of tis crisis,” Levine said. “The people who are arrive in Greece, these are middle-class people, they’re children, they’re old people, their families, and they’re coming knowing this is a dangerous trip for them. The choice for them in taking this trip often is between dying and maybe dying, and so they chose maybe dying, so they chose these trips.”
For Clay Mazing, it’s been an emotional and fulfilling journey.
“I feel so blessed to be following my dreams out here,” he said via message. “It’s obvious that people need this kind of empathy out here. When someone is starving and you offer an apple they take it hungrily. The same is true for people starving for joy. Some of these people (not just children) haven’t laughed in days because they are constantly moving through boats, tents, trains, and busses without knowing what’s next.
“It’s really this focused attention we give to them that they appreciate. The Red Cross and others give them blankets and tea but we provide some simple relief from the constant stress,” he continued. “And we all make instant friends. Tonight we all laughed and played music and danced around the fire. These friends are so damn full of love it’s insane. I don’t know how they keep it up honestly after being treated like cattle they offer their cookies and blankets to us.
“I’ve had so so many heartfelt hugs and deep eye contact thank-yous. There’s too much to say.”
(It should also be noted that Moniek de Leeuw of the Balcony Players also is performing, on violin, with Clay Mazing.)
Fly Movement Salon co-organizer Liza Rose has worked with Clay Mazing on several productions and sees him as a perfect fit for this kind of work.
“He is a delightful raconteur, a shameless ladies man, the penultimate poster boy for the Peter Pan complex … And he has, without a doubt, the shiniest heart of gold you’ll ever meet,” she said. “When he’s here, he spends a lot of his time arranging and performing shows for kids in hospitals, folks in nursing homes, at special needs schools, and wherever else it’s needed. As a sometimes guest performer with the Emergency Circus, I can tell you that it’s a special kind of thrill to bounce up in the Sh’zambulance (when stateside, the EC travels in a converted ambulance) and hear Clay on the megaphone saying, ‘It’s an Emergency Circus!'”
As for Clay Mazing’s work, Levine said, “He’s is a very special performer. He’s also really versatile. If you’re in New Orleans you’re probably seeing more of the edgy Clay Mazing, the cowboy who’s cracking his whip, and with the flaming shotguns. It’s fun crazy stuff.
“And when he is doing the Clowns Without Borders shows, he’s in character, but as a really child-friendly clown. He does comedy,” Levine added. “He does slapstick. He loves to perform with the charango (a lute-like string instrument). The reason that Clay is the best performer to be doing this tour for the refugees he’s performing for is because, when he’s going, he never stops. If there’s a kid nearby, he’s always on. We’ll do two, three, four shows in the morning and be wiped out and will be going to lunch, but if he sees some children, those fake teeth will come on, and he’s performing again.”
Liza Rose echoed those sentiments: “He is doing what we all wish we could do, what we all think about briefly right before we think, ‘… but what about all this other stuff that will be hard and all the things I have to give up…?’ Clay’s not thinking about that. He’s living in the moment and using his talents to make a real change in the world, human to human. He should be a national fucking ambassador.”