Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1991
It may not be the greatest show on earth, but how about the greatest show in Golden Hill? The Fern Street Circus is coming to town, with a semi-big top, one ring, and a whole heckuva lot of community spirit.
This is the brain-child of John Highkin, a 40 year-old Cambridge-educated Golden Hill resident, local actor and director, co-founder (with Judy Forman) of Project Theater, which periodically presents pungent political plays at the Big Kitchen, a community meeting-place for artists, activists and a wide assortment of others (Whoopi Goldberg once worked there).
Highkin studied at Brecht’s theater in East Berlin , was a directing intern and later, an assistant director at the Old Globe, and lived some former lives as a fry cook, a waiter, a country-bluegrass musician, an English literature major and a circus stage manager. It was Cirque du Soleil that first turned him on to things circus-y. “It took my breath away,” Highkin recalls. “Coming from Brecht’s theater, I was interested in ‘gestic’ acting — very physical and very specific. I was looking for theater that relied less on language. Interesting for an English lit. man, huh? But I was amazed at the potential of circus. It celebrates the incredible physical things people can do. There’s also the potential for wonderment at the same time, in telling a meaningful story.”
It’s the story element that runs through Cirque du Soleil’s productions, and those of Circus Flora of St. Louis, where Highkin spent some time. “But our story,” he says of “Pino the Barber”, which he wrote, “is more powerful, not narrated, essentially non-verbal. It’s loosely based on mid-nineteenth century San Diego , when one group came in and put pressure on another group. The dramatic conflict, in a very quiet way, reflects on what San Diego is.”
The ten-member troupe of clowns, acrobats, jugglers and musicians will have as a backdrop a visual design created by internationally-known San Diego artist Deloss McGraw, whose work has often featured circus themes. “He’ll put the play into a parable-like setting,” according to Highkin, “a real fantasy locale, using very strong primary colors.”
To Highkin, what really makes a circus is the community spirit, and that’s been a major focus of his effort. The community itself has had a checkered past. Golden Hill is one of the city’s most ethnically and culturally diverse communities. “It ranges,” says Highkin, “from very funky to very, very affluent.” Grape Street Park , where the circus puts down its tent-pegs, was, in 1984, the scene of two police-officer murders. That left a stigma on the park and the neighborhood. Highkin wants to change all that, to bring people back to the park, to reinstate neighborhood pride.
A main event heralding the Fern Street Circus will be a circus parade (September 21) which Highkin describes as “a hand-made, people-scale spectacle.” It will be formed by “local businesses, service organizations, school groups, pets and other interested parties.” To help the parade along, the Fern Street gang has been providing classroom workshops in how to create a circus parade (at Brooklyn Elementary School), as well as after-school programs for latch-key kids. There have been classes in circus-making and performing arts, and a neighborhood mother of nine has formed a girls’ precision drill team (85 teens showed up at the first meeting).
All this doesn’t come cheap. Highkin, thinking big, set a $46,000 budget, admittedly “high for a new operation. But I’m very insistent that all of us be paid — not a huge amount, but more than just a token.” A tent alone costs $40,000 to buy, or $3000 to rent.
Fern Street has gotten a $15,000 one-to-one matching grant from the City’s Commission for Arts and Culture. A mass fundraising effort has included a giant auction “cum” yard sale, a dance, a wish-list for donors, a limited-edition poster by artist McGraw, numerous dinners in private homes to motivate neighbors to contribute and, adds Highkin, “calling Aunt Betty and old girlfriends to ask for money.” It hasn’t been easy. “It’s difficult to interest people and corporations when you haven’t got a product to show,” Highkin admits. “But we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of local support.”
If the first effort goes off without a hitch, Highkin plans to make Fern Street Circus into a permanent touring organization, tied to communities. “We’ll go in for a period of time,” says Highkin, thinking big again. “To teach, organize a parade, prepare the neighborhood. We’ll start with San Diego county. But I’d love to go to Tijuana , Los Angeles , Orange County , Riverside County .” And he’s off. “It’s mobile entertainment for communities. I want to find a broader audience for this live, professional low-priced entertainment, both culturally and economically. To get people out of their houses, into the neighborhood, outdoors to see each other. As an artist, this is one way I can contribute to increasing a sense of community and making my own neighborhood a more effective, relevant part of society.” Those could be the greatest goals on earth.
“ Fern Street Circus appears at Grape Street Park September 19-29. The Golden Hill Circus Parade takes place Saturday, September 21”.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.