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It’s never too late to join the circusFeatured

Once upon a time, I had a bright idea– and ended up producing and performing in a circus show at the Atlanta Fringe Festival.

Here’s what happened and why I collaborated with a team of creators and performers who were WAY better than I will ever be. As it turns out, ‘be the weakest link on your team’ can be an amazingly effective goal under the right circumstances.

But first, I should back up and give some more context.

I’m a pretty solid amateur static trapeze artist. I’m not and never will be a professional. But, I’m solid. And I know folks who are REALLY good.

So, when I had a sprout of an idea and happened to be talking to one of those folks, she peered at me over a cocktail and said, “Well, let’s do it. The Fringe submission window is about to open. We can do the whole thing as improv. It will be fun!”

That’s how I found myself applying to the Atlanta Fringe Festival.

Fringe festivals are incredibly cool. They’re grassroots, community-driven, and tend to be highly experimental and collaborative. You might see anything from a circus tragicomedy to a one-act play to tap dance. Some places, like Atlanta, literally draw acts out of a hat as their selection process.

We applied. We got in. And it was on.

We had five months to pull everything together - recruit performers, figure out what we were doing, talk to our musicians, sort out costumes, plan for marketing and promo - generally, do All The Things.

I had zero production experience.

I did a (tiny) bit of summer theater as a kid, and have been IN a few shows, but that is a very different thing than being nominally in charge of anything.

So, I actively decided I wanted to be the weakest link in the show.

As I said, I’m a solid aerialist. Skillwise, if I was our minimum acceptable baseline and everyone else was better, I knew the show would be good.

I also just plain needed help. I knew I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Having everyone else involved know more than I did helped protect the entire show from my weaknesses.

The sneaky other reason is that I knew this was a fantastic chance to learn from everyone else.

Here are some of my takeaways.

Bring together a great team. Then trust them.

We recruited carefully and directly. We wanted a specific combination of skills and personalities. On top of our minimum baseline (know more/be a better performer than me), we wanted people we knew were kind, reliable, and easy to work with.

(Quick caveat here: from a DEIB perspective, recruiting solely from your immediate network isn’t great for many reasons. In this case, with a very small local community to pull from for this project, it made sense.)

That said, power dynamics can get weird when working with friends and people you care about.

So one of my goals was always for everyone to still like each other at the end of the show.

Hold space for your team to be creative and co-create with you.

My core vision was largely high-level, conceptual, and atmospheric.

I didn’t know how to translate that to a run of show. The process of nailing down what was actually going to happen on stage meant that the best ideas in our show were usually not mine.

That openness of vision meant our process included a lot of conversations and questions along the way, both individually and as a group. The simple act of asking questions ultimately shaped the entire show.

When you truly trust your team’s expertise and are actively co-creating with them, everyone’s voice DOES matter. Active listening matters.

We had a lot of, “hey, what if we….” or, “hey, have you seen this really neat stilt character approach before?” conversations.

I’m positive it was not easy. I often didn’t quite know what I was doing or have something specific in mind when I was asked for direction. That’s tough. To this day, I’m grateful to everyone for their kindness and generosity.

Ultimately, the whole show was essentially an improvised performance with live music. We had themes, a run of show, and loose choreography, but the music and acts were different every time. Each show became a conversation happening on stage between performers and musicians.

Fringe was perfect for this type of performance. It is the perfect forum to try things out and to take creative risks. Even if something fails completely, you’ll learn from it.

Trust your team and cede control - but not responsibility.

Ultimately, I was responsible for the show and needed to know what was happening- but I couldn’t and luckily did not even try to control everything.

That’s the point of being the weakest link, and a gift of being in that position.

If you are working with the right people on the right project and empowering them, just let them do it. And always remember that the ultimate responsibility to your team is still yours.

I have often thought that we are rarely encouraged to be deeply realistic and honest about our strengths and weaknesses. And that can rob us of some of our most profound growth opportunities. We’re taught to be self-deprecating about our strengths, to fake it until we make it, or to use our weaknesses performatively (ahem- job interviews, ‘tell me about your weakest areas.’).

This was a time when I HAD to be honest about my weaknesses. There was no way to hide them, and trying to pretend otherwise would only have made things harder for everyone else.

Plus, I knew I was safe with the people I was working with. I knew they had my back, and hopefully, they knew I had theirs.

Right! So, that’s how it happened. Now, you probably want to know: how was the show?

It was amazing.

Our audiences enjoyed it, but most importantly, so did we.

It became an incredible, magical moment where we were working with the right people on the right project at the right time. And I got to see, hear, and feel something beautiful come to life over the course of a few days - and then we released one another to other projects.

To this day, I am still awed and honored by the fact that these people were willing to work with me on this project. It was a good show, but it became a magical experience because they were part of it.

What if’s are always hypothetical thought experiments, but I’m quite sure that it would have been a hot mess without everyone involved. I could never have created a show like that on my own or without an intensely talented group of people working on it.

Among other things, I learned you don’t always need to be the one with the answers to everything.

Be good at what you do and surround yourself with people who are good people, more skilled, and have different skills than you do.

Your call to action here is very much a ‘choose your own adventure’. My takeaways may or may not apply to you. And being the weakest link isn’t always your call to make.

I’ll leave you with a few questions instead.

  • Where do you have opportunities to be the weakest link?
  • SHOULD you be the weakest link in a given situation or project?
  • Do you have a deeply honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What have you not done because you don’t quite know what you’re doing?
  • Should you take a circus class? Or really, whatever happens to fill that joyful, creative space in your heart– be it circus, dance, writing, basket weaving, or foraging?

And if all else fails… it’s never too late to join the circus.

Thanks for sharing, Abby! Great story and great lessons!btw I also do static trapeze, is there a video of your show? :)
Wow, these pictures are amazing! What a production 🤩
WOAH! You all look totally pro! :)
Ah, thanks! It was a lot of fun. :)
Hm- I should have at least clips kicking around, but I did have a computer melt down on me in there at some point. Pictures instead? :)
Loved this story a lot. It's a great perspective on bringing teams together. Thanks for sharing!I'm part of my own local circus community too so if you're ever in the Denver area hit me up and we can do something!
I love finding other circus people. What do you do?
Cool- my sister has pretty deep ties out at Estes Park! :) What kind of circus/apparatus are you into?
Love it! I do flying trapeze, duo lyra and handstands. If you're ever in the Boston area let me know. I would take you to the flying trapeze rig as my guest, but that is seasonal April-Nov. My lyra partner and I have entered competitions. Here's an online one we did last year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVi5GeA8hEQ
I love Boston! I'm actually in the process of figuring out how/when/what to move back up to the New England area so I can be closer to family, but I try to get up there a few times a year in the meantime. Where do you usually train? I'm mostly a static trap person, but I've been playing around more with a two bar trapeze and a bit of rope lately. My handstands are awful. Possibly because I never do them at all consistently. :)