Feats of political theater in Santa Fe
Twisting and twirling from an aerial fabric suspended 15 feet above the floor, 10-year-old Aneena Clinger was feeling alive.
“It’s pretty fun,” she said of the acrobatics, part of a performance piece she helped create for Wise Fool New Mexico’s Winter Circus Cabaret, which opened Saturday at the troupe’s Siler Road studio and continues with an afternoon show Sunday. “I don’t think it’s scary at all.”
Aneena’s Parent Trap-inspired piece is about two kids from broken families who use aerial acrobatics to try to help their parents reconnect during the holiday season.
“In the end, we learn that the holidays are all about family,” she said.
Wise Fool, founded in Santa Fe almost 20 years ago as both a performing arts and social justice advocacy organization, combines clowning and circus artistry with storytelling in its popular productions, some of which have become holiday traditions — such as the Circus Luminous show held at the Lensic Performing Arts Center each year on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Shows often address political and social issues, said artistic director Amy Christian and board member Kate Marco.
“Circus is a medium through which we can speak to these issues,” Christian said. “How do we look at those issues through the eyes of the clown, with raw, vulnerable compassion … and understanding?”
The group’s approach has ancient roots. The term “wise fool” comes from the medieval tradition of court jesters using humor to address controversial political topics without fear of retribution from the king.
Occasionally, however, the serious themes of a Wise Fool production will catch audience members off-guard.
Last month’s Circus Luminous show, called Clown Alchemy, drew criticism from a few parents of schoolchildren who watched the performance during a field trip to the Lensic.
Michelle Sisneros, the mother of two Nava Elementary School students, ages 4 and 6, was infuriated by the show’s political messaging about immigration, LGBTQ rights and other topics. She went along as a chaperone, expecting to see traditional circus acts — acrobatics and trapeze work — but found instead what she called “message theater.”
“It shocked me, that’s for sure,” Sisneros said.
A performance that focused on the debate about public bathrooms for transgender people provoked more questions about the issue from her children than she was ready to handle. After she and her children returned home from the show, Sisneros said, her older son asked about the skit, wondering why bathroom doors were painted different colors.
“He is 6 years old and shouldn’t be asking those kinds of questions,” she said.
Sisneros wasn’t upset with Wise Fool, she said, but was dismayed that the Santa Fe school district had approved a viewing of the show for young children who might have been confused by it.
Some of the group’s material is a bit mature for younger children, Christian said, but is designed to provoke thoughts and questions, like those from Sisneros’ son.
Marco agreed that the Circus Luminous production spotlighted issues that youngsters might not understand. But, she said, “we weren’t trying to be political. To me, political means ‘us, them; Democrat, Republican.’ We didn’t go near the White House” for material.
“It was a show that shone a light on current issues — the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, gender rights, gun violence, love,” Marco said.
Gibraltar Farrell, 11, who appeared in the Circus Luminous show with his brother, Magnificent, said he heard some people did not like the uneasy mix of social issues and slapstick clowning.
“We’re not trying to make everyone like the show,” he said. “Our job is making them feel. And if you make them feel something — anything — then you’ve done your job.”
Wise Fool New Mexico evolved out of the California-based Wise Fool Puppet Intervention troupe, which began around 1990 and used giant puppets, masks, stilt walking, fire performances, songs and colorful costumes to draw attention to community and global social justice issues.
In 1999, several members of the group relocated to Northern New Mexico, where they began their own nonprofit.
Wise Fool New Mexico, which employs 15 teaching artists and five administrators, and operates on an annual budget of about $450,000, has since developed a school program and studio workshops for children and adults.
The artists teach their students about life skills, Christian said, and help them build self-esteem and learn to work with an ensemble.
“We want to create a brave place where kids and adults can shine in life as well as on the stage,” she said.