Discovering Your Story in Circus: Street Light Circus’s Julia Quigley, Louise Chase Dettman, Dani Pierce Steuber, and Christian Kloc on ‘Circus in Lines: Many Stories Tall’

A couple of things about the local circus community: One, if you show up as your authentic self and are willing to work, you will be heartily, soul-nourishingly embraced. Two, a lot of folks who aren’t born into circus come to it to work something out. Eight incredible circus performers are sharing their stories in Street Light Circus’s upcoming show Circus in Lines: Many Stories Tall, part of the Atlas Intersections Festival this Saturday. I was lucky enough to speak with one of the performers, Julia Quigley, the story director, Louise Chase Dettman, and two of the forces of nature behind the show and Street Light Circus, Dani Pierce Steuber and Christian Kloc.

Chris Griffin: Let’s start with the basics: how long have you been involved in circus and what got you started?

Julia:  I’ve been doing circus for about 3.5 years! My mom bought me a flying trapeze class as a birthday surprise, and I was hooked!

Louise:  My friend died and I took my first flying trapeze lesson in tribute the day after because he would think it was funny. He’d say I’d break my coccyx and giggle. Also, I was depressed and lonely and just repatriated with my son from Bangladesh after getting his autism diagnosis.

What is your apparatus of choice?

Julia Quigley (with Anthony Oliva, Kiersten Van Houten and Lessie Skiba Longstreet) performs a partner balancing act. Photo by Dani Pierce Steuber.
Julia Quigley (with Anthony Oliva, Kiersten Van Houten and Lessie Skiba Longstreet) performs a partner balancing act. Photo by Dani Pierce Steuber.

Julia: My apparatus is other people’s bodies. My main pursuit, and what I’ll be doing in the show, is partner balancing: the art of creating shapes and movement with other people. My secondary apparatus is flying trapeze.

Louise: I chose flying trapeze because it taught me how to trust and let go and be in the moment. It gave me my support system.

Dani: I’m a latecomer to the scene, but I started by taking photos two years ago. I was inspired by a photographer I met at a talkback during DC Photo Week, Acey Harper, who takes beautiful shots of circus people around the world. I’d left teaching and had a summer between that and working in policy full time, so like so many others Carey Dougan pulled me in and once I got to know everyone and saw how much fun it was to play and take photos I was hooked. I’d almost forgotten how crucial play was in my life until it was reintroduced into my life big time by Christian, Darren, Tony, Caitlyn, and so many others at the rig. I casually work my way around the rig and play on trampoline, silks, static, flying trapeze, juggling, etc. As Jake would say, I scored high in verbal, so learning kinesthetic skills takes me a lot of time.

Christian:  I’ve been juggling since I was six years old, so 24 years now. I started when I saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers perform and picked up some juggling balls the next day.

Dani:  Diabolo, rings, bounce juggling, clubs, unicycling, torches…Give him 5 minutes and he can learn anything. It’s annoying. Just kidding.

Yeah, the rig (Trapeze School New York – DC) is my happy place as well. 

Louise:  It’s like magic.

I’m not a Potterhead but I totally got and agreed with the reference recently when someone compared it to Hogwarts. 

Julia: Ha! I AM a Potterhead and that is a great comparison.

Louise: This show came out of the book I was working on with staff and students at TSNY.

What’s the book? 

Louise Chase Dettman, story director of Circus in Lines: Many Stories Tall. Photo by Dani Pierce Steuber.
Louise Chase Dettman, story director of Circus in Lines: Many Stories Tall. Photo by Dani Pierce Steuber.

Louise: I started to notice that everyone there had come for a reason…a serious reason: to recover from trauma. I became curious about the stories behind why people took up the circus arts. It’s not a typical thing to do, but circus has so many lessons to teach. TSNY photographer Carey Dougan and I were putting the stories into a collection to publish. I had interviewed 30 people and had 20 hours of audio.

Right.  I think if you’re not born into it, and particularly if you come to it later in life, it’s because you have something to work out. 

Louise: So many times as adults we limit ourselves. Circus helps us break out of the box we think we belong in.

I went to the Social Circus panel at the Folklife Festival last summer and they were talking about Circus Therapy.  The thing that resonated the most with me is a good circus act looks humanly impossible, so when you start to break that down and are able to do things that are impossible, then you can apply that to other areas of your life where you feel change is impossible. 

Julia: People who are hurting and healing are drawn to communities, and circus is a GREAT community. On top of that, circus is all about pushing your boundaries and self-empowerment, so it’s a powerful draw to keep coming back. A couple of years ago I did some reading about that topic – fascinating! My favorite story was a depression therapy group that picked up trapeze.

Why is this called Circus in Lines?

Dani: Because Christian likes puns and we were asking circus artists to deliver lines.

Christian: First off, it’s a storytelling show, and I felt that our main goal was to use a few lines (recorded, projected or spoken live) to somehow convey the grand power of circus in the illustrious lives of our cast. Rarely do circus artists get to directly address an audience with their words. Circus usually means putting on an act, or playing a character. In this show, the characters are their real-life selves. This idea of sharing lines with the audience while doing something spectacular peels away at the traditional pretense we put on as circus performers. Secondly, ‘in lines’ is a trapeze term for in safety lines, and part of this show is revealing how circus, in spite of its daredevil and larger than life reputation, can actually provide a very safe space for people to overcome insecurities or rise above something in their past. I hope the show opens that door for our audience that yes, I can do that too! And our cast ranges in age from 18-70+, so it’s a safe and welcoming space for all generations. So in short form, ‘in lines’ is a testament to discovering your story and also knowing that there is a place for you to start your circus journey.

What are some of the stories we’ll be hearing in Circus in Lines?

Julia: My story is about how circus helped me recover from a destructive marriage and how the circus community helped me heal and grow in ways my prior community wasn’t able to.

What was your prior community? 

Julia: Christian churches, which put you in a box. So many boxes, rules, limitations on my personality and how I could manage my marriage.

Louise: My other community is the DC storytelling community in which people tell true stories from their lives onstage.This show combines both my loves and is made possible by Christian’s vision and our performers and their willingness to be vulnerable.

I was going to ask about your connection to storytelling – I saw that you judged at Story District this week. 

Louise: I am a big part of that community, having discovered and embraced it at the same time as circus as part of my recovery. I have told 7 or 8 stories onstage throughout the area. I am a big booster for Story District, Perfect Liars Club, and other shows. I credit the first with teaching me what I know about what makes a good story.

Is everyone who’s performing local?

Dani: Darren (hand balancing) got back from Rwanda recently and works in Trenton, NJ at a circus school now. He’s living in Philly. Anne (foot juggling) lives in West Virginia.

Oh cool!  I don’t think I’ve seen anyone locally do foot juggling!

Dani: She had reached out to us a while back to collaborate and this was the first opportunity that made sense. Didn’t Gwynne tell us she learned to stage fight in Japan?

Louise: Taiwan. She spent 10,000 hours learning her art in China.

Is there a future for Circus in the Lines beyond the Intersections Festival? I love the combo of circus and storytelling. 

Dani: I think so. The Kennedy Center asked us to keep creating and mentioned potential for a bigger stage after we collaborated with Sweet Spot for Millennium Stage.

So last year, when Ringling closed, I heard a lot of folks (who weren’t involved in circus) say “I guess that’s the death of circus.”  Obviously not true. How do you think circus is growing and evolving since Ringling left the scene?

Julia:  I think it’s the time for contemporary circus! More Cirque du Soleil and small circus shows, less animals and big Ringling style productions.  Ringling shows were SO big and impersonal, whereas contemporary shows (even Cirque) are more intimate.

Dani:  That’s how SLC got started. We were sitting around eating pie and decided that we wanted to create something contemporary here in DC.

Christian: I think that when my dad started taking me to juggling festivals and I saw the variety of ideas that could be expressed through circus, and how wide a definition ‘circus’ really has. There was a European Showcase at the 1997 International Jugglers’ Association that blew me away, not just for the technical juggling but the beauty and dance-like nature of many of the acts. That moment probably told me all I need to know — people are what create incredible stories and circus performance, so that will never die.

I do think that right now there’s a decentralization of sorts happening of the bigger circuses, and we can use that moment to find ways to make circus more accessible to everyone by utilizing those available talents and perhaps creating sustainable incomes for circus artists who are not touring internationally (says this local juggler!).

If people want to know what all of you are up to next, they should …

Julia: I’ll be in the Clowns Without Borders show (Take Laughter With You), two weeks after this show with a re-casted version of this act! I also teach flying trapeze if someone wants a hands-on experience with a performer from the show.

Dani: I’m always down to take photos of circus artists. I’m on Facebook, Instagram and Street Light Circus has my info too.

Louise: I’m on Facebook and Instagram.

Christian: I’m also in the CWB show. Yay clowns! Visit Circus District because I try to attend as many of the events I advertise, and check out my website.

Yes!  Definitely want to give a shoutout to Circus District!

Julia: I didn’t realize how much DC circus there was until Christian started Circus District.

Christian: Yes, the Circus District was born from the idea that DC’s circus communities are in some ways in silos like other DC arts communities, and that if we start putting events in aerial, acroyoga, burlesque, parkour, clowning, juggling and sideshow all on the same page, we’ll start hanging out with those different communities who all share the core investment in building people up either through skills or artistic performance. Charlotte Byram (now with Circus Harmony) was a co-founder of Circus District.

Any last thoughts?

Louise: Taking the idea of circus stories and bringing them to life onstage through spoken word and physical acts will make for a show like no other. It’s such a subversive concept for a town like DC, circus and storytelling are so essential for giving this company town a soul.

Dani: I also think we’re demonstrating the restorative nature of circus and the diverse cast of characters drawn to the art.

Louise: And that we don’t need to limit ourselves. With this show, I feel like we’re trying to help audiences understand why someone would pursue any circus art. Storytelling has the power to connect us all.

Christian: I’ve been so blown away by how much these performers have been willing to share, and how much it makes me want to continue bringing these stories to audiences and changing the conversation about circus artists being this weird novelty or some unattainable gods. I’m feeling so lucky to have all of these folks in my life.

Circus in Lines: Many Stories Tall plays March 3 at 12:45 pm 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.