Interview: Alter Circus members Zoe Stasko, Georgeanna Layton, and Jessica John Get ‘Hysterical’

One of the newest companies in the DC circus scene (yes there is one), Alter Circus, is dedicated to challenging gender norms and celebrating “the rebellious spirit, strength, and grace of women.” Their first show, Hysterical, will be part of the Intersections Festival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center this weekend. I got an opportunity to chat about the intersection of circus and feminism with three of the women involved in the show: Zoe Stasko, Georgeanna Layton, and Alter Founder and Artistic Director, Jessica John.

Under Plastic: Jessica John, Georgeanna Layton, and Katie Embser in Hysterical. Photo by Brynne Levy

Chris: How long have you been in circus and what got you started?

Zoe: I’ve been doing circus for 6 years. I started when I was 20-years old and went to the University of Puget Sound and joined the circus club. The head of the club thought I’d enjoy trapeze so I tried a class, fell in love, and quit university to go to circus school. I went to L’Ecole de Cirque de Quebec (Circus School of Quebec City) to study aerial straps and graduated in June 2017.

Jessica: I took my first aerial silks class about 10 years ago, here in the DC area. I was hooked from the first lesson. I had loved dancing when I was young, but I loved the feeling of being so strong in that expression. I quickly moved to trapeze and later rope.

Georgeanna: About 7 years. I started because I was afraid to climb a ladder to clean my gutters.

So the natural thing to do after being afraid of climbing a ladder was to become an aerialist?

Georgeanna: Yep. I thought it was stupid to be coming up on the big “50” and have to have our neighbor clean our gutters because I was starting to grow trees in them. I was watching TV with my second child and saw a flying trapeze on TV. I thought that since you had to let go and fall that would be a “controlled” sort of fall.

What apparatuses do you perform on, whats your favorite, and why?

Zoe Stasko
Zoe Stasko. Photo by Whitney Norbi.

Georgeanna: I perform on silks, lyra, spiral, and rope, but rope is by far my love. I feel safe and strong on the rope. It is like the missing piece of me that I wasn’t even aware I was missing, plus, the rope community in circus is an amazing group of people.

Zoe: Aerial straps! I feel strong and beautiful on straps — a sort of “this is what I was made for” sensation. I started with static trapeze and rope and hand balancing. I originally thought I would be a hand balancer until my coach told me to give straps a try, and I knew as soon as I tried them that I had found my apparatus.

Jessica: I perform on silks, rope, sling, cloudsling, and dance trapeze, but I am a ropie like Georgeanna. It is such a simple apparatus that everyone can relate to. Most people have climbed a gym rope. But I guess I was drawn to rope because I knew so few women doing it and it made little sense to me why. Like, it hurts too much? What sort of reason is that?

Doesnt everything hurt? #circushurts for a reason.

Georgeanna: Pain??? What pain?

Zoe: You should see my wrists. Yes, it hurts, but at some point, you don’t care or you have enough calluses to not feel it anymore.

Jessica: You get used to the feeling of your apparatus. Anything different is pain until it isn’t anymore.

Georgeanna: If you want something bad enough, pain is irrelevant. Telling your truth means more.

Jessica, you were working for the CIA up to Election Night and then became a full-time circus artist/teacher. What was the thought process behind that decision?

Georgeanna: Yeah I was with Jessica that night — fun times.

Jessica: I was already mentally on my way out. When I co-produced/directed Kick Before You Drown for Capital Fringe in 2016, I knew that this is what I wanted to be doing full-time. The election was the kick out the door. I spent that election in Santa Cruz with some of my favorite rope people, and as the results came in, I knew that was it for me.

So you leapt. Did the net appear?

Jessica: No net, no lines.

Georgeanna: She creates her own safety.

Zoe and Georgeanna, are you also full-time circus?

Zoe: Yes, once I left university I decided that I was going to go into circus as my career. I kind of felt like I was leaping off a cliff, but I knew that if I didn’t go for it I’d always regret it.

Georgeanna: I have a very unique position: I do circus full-time in the aspect that I train or condition /stretch everyday for 4-5 hours but work via computer for the company my father started when I was in high school. I am lucky, I can work the jobs I want and travel where I want. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve paid my “circus dues,” but at almost 58 I have paid my dues in another sense to be able to pursue this “second life.” I also don’t like to be gone from my grandchildren for more than three weeks. I’m a realist, at almost 58 my body would never make it for very long. I have a dream that I get in a big show, for like, you know a couple of weeks.

You both are also traveling a long way to do this show. Is that part of it? A lot of taking gigs away from home?

Zoe: Traveling is definitely a big part of it. Circus has taken me all over: France, Sweden, Denmark, London, Montreal/Quebec City, and now DC. You go where the work is, where your skills are needed, and where the companies want to hire you.

Georgeanna Layton and Thomas Martin in Hysterical. Photo by Brynne Levy

What does feminism mean to you?

Jessica: I won’t lie. It gives me a bit of anxiety to answer that question. Will I misspeak? Will I forget to credit someone? Will I get it wrong? And then I think, that’s exactly why we’re still having this conversation. Feminism is equality. It’s that simple.

Georgeanna: I’ve been through some different phases. It boils down for me to respect. People hate to hear that word. It puts the hair up on a lot of peoples’ necks — why?

Zoe: Feminism means that I could stop asking myself “but would you say that to a man?” It means that I get treated the same way as everyone else. It means that I don’t have to worry that accidentally making eye contact with someone on the street is going to mean I get followed home and catcalled.

How feminist do you think circus is? I see a lot of women performers and teachers but most of the folks running the show, as far as I can see, are men.

Zoe: We had a conversation recently about Cirque du Demain. There were absolutely no female soloists. It’s been that way repeatedly.

Jessica: And that’s like the Olympics of circus.

Zoe: Women remain an object. There’s a stereotype that I think a lot of women in circus struggle with: that we are meant to be small, and thrown around, and pretty. A lot of hiring looks at aesthetic, not just capabilities, but we are so much more than that.

Jessica: I really wanted to challenge that notion directly in Hysterical.

Georgeanna: I see a lot of strong females in circus, but like in the other segments of the population they are not given the same voice or opportunities as men. I have actually been told that I will not be hired because I am not “the look” they are going for (code for “too old”).

Zoe: I’ve been that told that so many times — that I don’t have the look! — It annoys me so much. What about the amazing things I can do? That’s worth watching! Why is it just about my body type?

How do you change that and even the playing field?

Zoe: How do I change that? I emasculate the motherf***ers. By that I mean I keep going. I believe in myself and I create the work I want to create, even if that means I “look like a man,” and then I gain their respect.

Jessica: I’d like to say that the solution is for more women to direct/produce but that’s not enough. You have to get presenters on board with a different type of programming. That’s a societal sea change and that takes everyone doing their part wherever and whenever they can.

Active listening is a hard skill for a lot of people.

Georgeanna: So true. Changing peoples’ minds is always an uphill battle, but I agree with Jessica, getting more women in the production side of shows would help, and I agree with Zoe in the sense that I am just going to keep doing my own thing, supporting women in whatever it is they are trying to achieve. I stopped caring what other people think about what I do or why I do it.

What do you want people to take away from Hysterical?

Georgeanna: That women are powerful. We always have been but we are done sitting back waiting for someone else to decide to play fair. If you won’t invite us to your table, we will make our own, and it just might be bigger and better than yours. We don’t care.

Jessica: I want women to know that it is OK to be angry and that it is OK to be strong, and if we can stand behind our anger and strength then men will have to listen.

Georgeanna: I think what people see as “abrasive women” are just us wanting to be treated equally. In this production, no one is “mean” to men, just frustrated and not willing to just sit back any longer and be happy with what happens to be offered.

Zoe: I think if we start asking why and looking critically as a society at the problems we are facing, at the anger and fears of women, we will see that it’s all unnecessary. That, in the end, our own strength and ingenuity and presence is what matters, and it’s always been there, it’s just been suppressed. I want people to ask why. Why do we do what we do? Why do we destroy ourselves physically and mentally to achieve an arbitrary standard of beauty imposed by society? Why do we let our value be defined by something outside of us? Why do we feel rage and why do we feel the need to suppress it? And I want people to really listen to the answers to those questions; as you said, active listening is hard but it is so very necessary.

Georgeanna: Come on Zoe, you know nice girls don’t get mad.

Zoe: The best girls get mad.

Hysterical plays February 25, 2018, at 3:30pm at the Atlas Performing Arts Center Lang Theatre – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 x 2, or purchase them online.