“In Our Midst” is a monthly conversation profiling talented Jersey City residents who are doing something really interesting. This month we’re thrilled to be speaking with Andrea Honis, founder of CircusTalk.com, an online resource and employment tool for professional circus performers worldwide and their legions of fans. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
JCT: I’m so excited to talk to you because it’s not every day that I meet someone in the circus industry. You must be a hit at cocktail parties! How on earth did you get your start in it?
AH: Well, circus is not something I chose; it chose me. My great-great grandparents were entertainers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were in the circus, my great-grandparents were in the circus, my grandparents—all the way up to my mom. But my mom married outside the circus community, which was considered a big sin at that time because you sort of broke the business model. And my dad, who is a doctor, was very against my going into the industry. So, for many years I worked in arts marketing and management. But in 2015 I made a conscious decision to go back and serve this community.
JCT: I see that the site offers everything from job listings to performers’ videos to training opportunities to show tour information. Were you the first mover in the category? Was that the impetus for creating it?
AH: Yes, because even to these days the circus business has a little cliquey feel to it. So, you can get into the business only if you know someone who knows someone. And I thought it was really imperative to create a level playing field for the talent and also for the world to see this art form on a unified platform.
JCT: When did you go out on your own, and how long did it take you to launch CircusTalk?
AH: It started really slow. About 10 years ago the basic idea came up, and then I started to do a little research, and the research very soon confirmed that the idea was good. The biggest challenge was finding the technology for it. I actually launched a beta version of the site in 2015, but unfortunately the site soon crashed, and I had to go back to the drawing board. That was a tremendous setback. And then of course I went through am I really meant to do this, etc. But then I relaunched in 2017, and it was a huge success all the way up to COVID.
JCT: I can only imagine the effect COVID has had on the industry, and I definitely want to ask you about that. In the meantime, can you tell us a little bit about circus training opportunities? How long does it take to get minted as a human cannonball, contortion aerialist or chair balancer?
AH: There are two routes to become a circus artist. One is that you apply to a professional circus school though there are not that many around the world. These schools also introduce students into the craft of the art form … teaching them about the business, teaching them about psychology and how to take care of their body, etc. One such school is Circadium, in Philadelphia, which is the closest professional circus school to Jersey City. But this is not the only way. If you are talented and persistent enough, you can train yourself in training studios by coaches. And if you develop an act, then you can still audition. There are numerous of these training studios even locally such as Trapeze School New York, Streb, and The Muse (the latter two in Brooklyn). In Hillsborough Township, N.J., there’s The Circus Place. And terrific studio formerly in Queens, Circus Warehouse, is looking for new space.
And people can start late. They can just start taking lessons on a recreational basis, and they can take it to the next level if they want to.
JCT: You are quite the evangelist. If you were all-powerful, what place would circus arts have in the world? And does studying, say, acrobatics, juggling, or trapeze artistry have any crossover benefits?
AH: In my dream world, recreational circus classes [would be] widely available much in the same way dance classes are. They are incredibly beneficial for children and not just children, even adult, recreational practitioners.
People usually don’t know this about circus, but it’s emotionally, developmentally and physically very, very beneficial. People don’t know this because when you go to the circus and you see these jaw-dropping acts, you don’t even think I can sign my child up to school. It immediately creates a barrier. But what is amazing about circus as opposed to other sports and even dance is that circus is totally non-competitive. So, when you sign up for a circus program, it’s all about the child or their personal growth, and you measure your personal progress by your own pace, and you have your own goals.
It also helps that within circus, you can never fail, because if it turns out that you are not talented [at one thing], you can try something else. You can try the unicycle, you can try the wire walking, and then you are able to accomplish something. It’s such a tremendous confidence builder.
JCT: What’s been the most rewarding part of your adventure?
AH: The reward so far is really more like a challenge, an everyday challenge. I love to live in a world that is challenging and not simple and figure out solutions to problems. But it also gives me full satisfaction because I believed in this need from the very beginning. We have 25,000 registered users from 193 countries. It’s time to change the way the industry is perceived by the wider field of performing arts.
JCT: What have you heard from individual performers?
AH: We get the feedback all the time that what we do, what didn’t exist before and how much it helps them. Before CircusTalk, there was a lot of communication in [the circus community], but this communication happened in different bubbles. With our platform, users can see and learn about other artists from all over the world.
I have always been a great believer in the power of global information, that the more we know the better we become and the more empathy we develop for each other. And especially for the arts, our discussion inspires each other so much.
JCT: Speaking of empathy, you mentioned to me offline that the pandemic has brought the industry to a standstill. Have there been any silver linings to the pandemic?
AH: Thankfully, yes. It’s spurred a lot of discussion about making the performing arts industry as a whole more sustainable and inclusive. In fact, out of the rubble of the pandemic appeared an extremely exciting new circus company, Omnium, which is the first circus in the U.S. to provide full accessibility and full inclusion on and off stage. I find this absolutely needed and wonderful. They provide audio description, braille programs, ESL translation, and all that needs to be inclusive, including having disabled performing artists, which is which is very, very important because how can you become someone that you don’t see?
JCT: How can folks help the circus industry recover from COVID?
AH: Unfortunately, that’s the challenge of circus that it’s very decentralized. But I think people can help. They can they go to a show and pay for the tickets and maybe the tickets will be a little bit more expensive than before, but think about the fact that you are supporting the art.