When a bill was introduced during the 2019 Legislative session to fund circus education, Republican-led criticism and mocking followed, with one state senator even arriving at the Roundhouse with a stuffed elephant.
The bill, carried by state Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, would have appropriated $100,000 to the Public Education Department for circus arts education. And while it didn't make it through the necessary committees before time ran out, the bill did receive approval in the Senate Education Committee.
It was Wise Fool New Mexico's first time seeking state funding, although the 19-year-old nonprofit works in 17 public schools and pays for 15 of those schools' circus arts programs itself. And while the initial responses to Rodriguez' bill was "very intense," Wise Fool Executive Director Amy Christian says "it ended up being a great opportunity for us to educate people about what we're really doing here. It's not about teaching our kids to ride elephants, it's not about … training them to join a circus."
Rather, she says, through circus arts—think trapeze, aerials, stilt-walking—Wise Fool New Mexico (1131 Siler Road, 992-2588, wisefoolnewmexico.org) teaches life skills. "Kids learn teamwork, they build self-confidence, and they learn how to set a goal and work persistently toward that goal," she says. "And what's beautiful in circus arts is when they reach that goal, they get to have the performance experience and feel like they have value in their community—like they have something to offer."
Unlike traditional sports, circus arts doesn't emphasize winning or prioritize one player over another. Rather, Christian emphasizes, "in circus, everybody counts. Everybody has value. Circus really teaches a sense of 'we're all in this together.' We can really lift each other up."
In addition to its programs in the schools, Wise Fool's youth offerings include after-school programs; classes for pre-kindergarten through first-graders; youth aerial training; an open-studio family series; summer camps for kids; a teen troupe program; and a Teen BUST series for middle-school girls.
Teen BUST, now in its sixth year, Christian says, has been a "key point" at Wise Fool, and was developed after an Albuquerque middle school teacher took one of Wise Fool's adult BUST programs for women and saw the value it would have for her students.
The two-week intensive program is entirely free for participants, who are nominated by their school counselors or teachers. Teen BUST teaches circus arts, Christian says, "but within that, we also do all this delving into leadership skills. [Students learn] about how social media is affecting them, about how diet culture is affecting how they look at themselves." Working with groups such as Solace Crisis Treatment Center, the program provides curriculum around "a whole wide range of setting boundaries, how to be clear about your own body and your right to be the boss of that." All together, she says, "it's a whole youth development experience for them and, at the same time, they're doing all these circus arts, they're building trust in the group, trust with other girls. It's a super powerful program."
From there, the middle-school students can segue into Wise Fool's teen programs, then into adult workshops and classes, and into public performances. For instance, some of Wise Fool's teen participants were part of the Youth Climate Strike in March.
Wise Fool's origin story began as political street theater in San Francisco before founding members relocated to Northern New Mexico and evolved the group into an education-driven nonprofit. Performance is still a key element, though. In addition to participating in a wide range of community events year-round, Wise Fool also puts on seasonal cabarets, a beloved Thanksgiving weekend Circus Luminous performance, and other shows throughout the year. Its work was recognized last year by Cirque du Soleil, which awarded Wise Fool one of three $10,000 grants given in the US to social circuses. The award, Christian says, "was an honor," and will help Wise Fool grow capacity in its myriad programs. All together, annually Wise Fool provides hands-on activities to 3,500 youth and adults, and performs for 14,000 audience members—also a factor in why readers chose it as Best Theater Group in Santa Fe Reporter's annual poll.
Through all of its work, Wise Fool's fundamental mission remains rooted in community-building.
"Really, it's about seeing each other's humanity," Christian says. "With so much of what's happening in our world, you're on either side of the fence yelling across it at each other. The whole concept of Wise Fool is to lure people into dialogue and understanding, through beauty or wonder, through giant puppets and the circus. All of these things are a way to draw people into conversations."