Why Philly Is a Perfect Fit for America’s First Pro Circus Arts School

The first full-time school for training circus performers is scheduled to open in Philadelphia next year. It wouldn't work in New York. Here’s why.

A 15-year-old man from Philadelphia performs on the steps of the Art Museum

Brian Ungar, 15, a student at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, performs on the steps of the Art Museum | Photo: HughE Dillon

This time next year, the first full-time professional training school for circus artists in the United States will be preparing for the start of classes. And it’ll be in Philadelphia. That’s right: City Hall is about to have some competition. And soon Penn won’t be the only school in the city educating clowns.

Okay, got the easy jokes out of the way. Today, the founders of Circadium announced its first day of classes would be on September 5th, 2017. “We’re beside ourselves,” says Shana Kennedy, founding director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. “It’s been a long time coming: We’ve got the people, and the team, and the teachers and the materials.” The current School of Circus Arts is in Germantown; Kennedy said she’s currently in negotiations to take over an old church in the area for Circadium. There is a kickstarter, with groundbreaking expected sometime this winter.

“The United States lacks a dedicated facility for circus higher education,” Circadium says in its Kickstarter. “In a few cities, recreational schools host ‘pro-track’ programs, which offer a 1-year full-time training to serious students. None, however, come close to the standards of higher-level circus education programs in Canada, Europe and Australia. Students want to study circus intensively for multiple years, and by doing so, deeply explore the history of the art form, their own physical capabilities, and their creative potential.”

Nicole Burgio performs on the trapeze

Nicole Burgio, an instructor at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, performs on the trapeze at the Philadelphia Museum of Art | Photo: HughE Dillon

Per current Philadelphia School of Circus Arts head coach Adam Woolley, Philadelphia is the perfect place for a school dedicated to the circus arts. “New York isn’t capable of supporting this school,” he says. “New York really is still the center of performing arts in America. But just in terms of the facilities that this school requires, the cost of space and the affordability of creating art, Philly is not even up and coming anymore. It is much easier to create new work and innovate new work in Philly than it is in New York.”

Basically, all the reasons for young people to move to Philadelphia also apply for Circadium: The facilities Circadium needs — 60-foot ceilings, thousands of square feet of space — would be cost-prohibitive in New York. But put it somewhere else and it’s not close enough to the home base of Broadway and many touring performance companies.

“People love New York, but no one can afford to live in New York,” Kennedy says. “And that makes a big difference when you’re doing very avant garde work, that you’re not sure if it’s going to get off the ground or not. You can’t go to New York unless you have a success already. So when you’re in that experimental stage, when you’re going to try to create some new things, you’ve got to be in a place where you can get some work done.”

Woolley agrees. “New York has become too expensive for rehearsal space,” he says. “It’s a great place for established companies to go and show work. But if you look at a lot of major companies, many are creating new work outside of New York right now.

“We can bring in really high-level coaches and promise them a great quality of life. And then when our professional students are ready, New York is a hop, skip and a jump away. They get access to all the major company auditions, they have access to Broadway auditions, they have access to the platforms that New York provides for the performing arts.”

Shana’s husband, Greg Kennedy, also appeared at today’s announcement. He performed a juggling routine in a giant clear cylinder; by the end, so many balls were going around him that it looked like he was about to draw the daily number. Kennedy — an engineer with a degree from Drexel who took a leave of absence for six months in 1997 and never looked back — worked with Cirque du Soleil in developing its Totem show. Kennedy’s act — “The Scientist,” loosely based on Charles Darwin — is still performed in Totem. Kennedy has a fringe show next month.

“We’ve been doing the recreational program for 10 years,” Greg Kennedy said. “But they only come in for one or two classes a week. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Europe and in Canada right now, but there’s nothing really that’s a true professional program that’s going on in the United States. I’ve been doing modern circus for 25 years now, but there’s a whole new generation of people who have such wonderful ideas. Sometimes they just seek us out, but we wanted to set something up that’s more formal.”

The Kennedys both say Circadium can help push modern circus forward, and Philadelphia is the place to do it.

“Philadelphia has a really rich artistic scene,” Shana Kennedy says. “There are tons of artists here, and artistic organizations, and places you can go for support and funding. But it’s also an affordable city. We found that, especially being in Germantown, we’ve been able to buy and rent big spaces that can accommodate our needs. Students can find affordable places to live. There are part-time jobs available. It’s all just much more accessible for people training in the art.”

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