Kaitlyn Andrews hangs upside down from ropes. She is wearing a two-piece purple bathing suit.
Kaitlyn Andrews, one of the founders of BIPOC Circus Alliance Midwest, caught in midair action. Credit: Sarah Joyce

The BIPOC Circus Alliance Midwest, a thriving performance troupe in Chicago, played to sold-out audiences in venues around Chicago in February and March. Affectionately called BCAM by their members and fans, they are more than just a collective of circus artists. BCAM is an organization that emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 in order to provide performance opportunities and camaraderie for artists of color. It has since become a model of grassroots community building for other art forms and regions that might be interested in forming a self-empowering network. 

One of its founders, Kaitlyn Andrews (a theater and circus artist specializing in rope, partner acrobatics, and clown), says the organization grew organically. Equity and inclusion education increased in arts organizations around the U.S. in 2020, yet demands to inform organizations on inclusivity practices were increasingly placed upon people of color (POC). Circus was not immune to that call to examine its diversity.

After assisting local circus schools with conversations about how to include more POC, the cofounders of BCAM decided to get together on their own to discuss their experiences in the world of circus and what they could do to increase opportunities for BIPOC performers. I spoke to four of the cofounders, and each person emphasized how much joy and relief they found at these gatherings—so much so that they formed an alliance right then, creating the culture of their newfound group as a DIY arts organization that emphasizes fostering the community they need.

I asked Andrews why they chose the midwest label rather than Chicago. Did they foresee the need to expand to other regions? She says expansion is possible, but for now, the focus is the midwest (not simply Chicago) because members quickly joined from surrounding states. Still, she was surprised to discover how strong the circus community was in Chicago, where we have over half a dozen circus organizations. “Chicago is a really awesome place to be for circus. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, but we have so many different training spaces here. The community is really thriving, and we’re just going to have different needs than in New York or LA,” Andrews says.

Of those circus spaces—the Center for Dynamic Circus, MSA & Circus Arts, CircEsteem, Trapeze School New York in Chicago, Aloft, and The Actors Gymnasium—most include circus schools as well as performance space, making it an ideal environment for circus artists to share their knowledge and artistic expression. Chicago also hosts many touring shows annually (Cirque du Soleil makes it a point to stop by regularly) and is home to multiple circus-themed events and circus-adjacent festivals each year as well as recurring circus shows like Midnight Circus, which has raised close to a million dollars for the Chicago Park District. 

In spite of the high number of circus performers in town, their presence doesn’t exactly reflect the diversity of Chicago’s population, which according to 2020 census data is 65 percent nonwhite. Racial diversity in circus is something that BIPOC Circus Alliance Midwest hopes to improve not just by providing performance opportunities but also by encouraging youth with BIPOC representation to join the circus community. 

The founders of BCAM. From left: Eric Robinson, Chris Rooney, Kaitlyn Andrews, and Amanda Okolo Credit: Michelle Reid

Cofounder Amanda Okolo (who specializes in pole dancing, aerial silks, and aerial hoop) says her experiences in circus were similar to those of many other people of color. “The circus world overall is welcoming, but there are times where I feel like I can’t completely be myself. Sometimes I feel the need to blend in because I know that I stand out without trying. I also put pressure on myself to perform better and try harder than my peers because I feel like there are eyes on me and more judgment towards me.”

Visibility is a key element to increasing awareness, and BCAM is working hard on this by creating opportunities where none have historically existed. They just performed another of their themed cabaret shows in March at the Chicago Circus & Performing Arts Festival, where they made their debut live audience performance the previous year. Just weeks before that, they sold out their Black History Month Cabaret at Aloft.

Okolo speaks to the mission. “We want to create spaces for artists of color to be at the forefront, where their ideas are heard and realized so they can feel confident moving through the circus world and beyond. We want these artists to be encouraged to ask for what they are worth and to see their art as worthy to be seen.”

Another cofounder is Eric Robinson, a beloved member of the Chicago circus community with 17 years of performing and teaching under his belt. He is an acrobat and physical theater artist who also juggles. He creates awareness around BCAM by hosting their podcast The Conversation, interviewing people from circus in the midwest and beyond. He says he set the podcast up as a way to “just get more colorful faces in the room. The purpose of BCAM is to create opportunities where there haven’t been any for people who have been doing things in a silo for years. Finding out that there are people of color out there with brilliant ideas that are not being seen in the circus community is really disheartening. And what we would like to see going forward is a spotlight on those individuals.” 

Robinson has interviewed over 25 individuals so far, with a focus on artists as well as facilitators in the circus community. He listed some of his favorites: “Jessica Hentoff from Circus Harmony, Tim Shaw from the Chicago Boyz, and Adrian Danzig [founder of 500 Clown] come to mind as memorable [interviews]. All of these guys created their own circus companies and/or companies in the theater communities. Hearing their stories and how you could just start from a single moment in time to working with the most talented people on the planet is amazing to me.” 

Robinson sees the world of circus opening up for BIPOC performers. “Up-and-coming circus artists Alizé Hill and Danny Trinidad come to mind. Alizé is two years away from a doctorate in social work, and Danny Trinidad at a young age has already done a Rick Bayless show [A Recipe for Disaster with Windy City Playhouse] and Cabaret ZaZou in such a short time. It shows you how striking while the iron is hot is everything.”

By starting in 2020, BCAM did just that, recognizing the moment to call out (and in) the circus community for its lack of diversity. When asked if interest in engaging BIPOC circus artists has waned from the circus industry since the original wave in the early days, cofounder Chris Rooney (straps artist and flying trapeze performer/instructor with Trapeze School New York in Chicago) has a practical perspective: “I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the tension has waned. I will say there are other big looming priorities, like . . . a global pandemic . . . I think there’s still positive intent . . . and we acknowledge and respect that recruiting diverse staff should continue to be a focus and conversation.”

Amanda Okolo performs on the silks. Courtesy the artist

Andrews says, “As a group we’ve sort of pivoted to ‘OK, we can create our own opportunities, right?’” BCAM fully self-produces their shows but recognizes that the circus community in Chicago and beyond is showing up, both as an enthusiastic audience and with concrete means of support. “CSAW [Circus Students Around the World], they’ve been a meaningful benefactor in supporting our recent show financially,” Andrews notes. CSAW has awarded $43,500 in funding to 32 different BIPOC circus artists since 2020 when they officially became a nonprofit. That included a special $2,000 grant that CSAW provided to BCAM in order to help them pay for the expenses of producing their Black History Month Cabaret. CSAW also provides microgrants for U.S. Circus Artists of Color, a program that awards $1,000 every month for a year to individual BIPOC circus artists. Since September 2020, 26 microgrants have been awarded.

Along with CSAW providing production funding (and Aloft and Chicago Circus & Performing Arts Fest providing the venues), the local social circus organization CircEsteem acts as a fiscal sponsor for BCAM, allowing them to operate as a nonprofit. Rooney notes that this arrangement “takes a lot of administrative burden off of us so we can focus on the mission.” 

Plans for the future include expanding their administrative roles so that the founders don’t burn out and looking for new opportunities for the organization. Rooney says that although his love of being a performer keeps him rooted in that process of creation, he also sees potential for BCAM to reach beyond performance only. “I love mentoring and helping others. . . . We’ve talked about having BCAM host or sponsor open gyms, so that feels like a more casual space for cotraining to happen and community to be made and to just share space.”

Andrews, who has a background in theater and dramaturgy, hints at the potential for show development to “get a little more structure in place and then create a container for ourselves to have spaces to develop with the same consistent core group of people.” To date, their performances have been act-based cabarets, but she says, “Every time we do a show, we ask ourselves, ‘Do we want a narrative through line here? Do we want to explore a central theme or topic?’ And usually, in the interest of time and schedules, it just made more sense to go with the cabaret format. But that would be a really interesting future exploration for us to actually ask ourselves, ‘How are we weaving the stories that we all want to tell together into a story to then share?’”

Chris Rooney Credit Kriss Abigail Photography

Rooney has further ideas to help BIPOC artists network. He’d like to create a nationwide database. “Then if you’re trying to bring in performers, you could access this database and say, ‘OK, here’s an awesome POC artist who could perform with us.’ I think the sourcing of BIPOC talent and the connecting between organizations looking for performers and the talent they may not always find is a beautiful connection we can help make. Because we want to make those connections and create a pathway for people that may not otherwise have the visibility.”

Okolo agrees that more visibility for BIPOC circus artists is a key mission for BCAM. “I would love to see circus performers of color at the forefront of circus. I would love more spaces for performers of color to create shows, acts, and to express themselves in ways the circus world hasn’t seen yet. Ultimately, I would love it if when people think of circus, the image they see is diverse!”