When the big top goes up, you know what to expect: high-wire artists and jugglers and clowns, all played in by a band as lights spin and the crowd roars.
The Big Apple Circus, which arrives at National Harbor on Thursday for 3½ weeks of performances, has all of that. But that doesn’t work for everyone.
“If you’re blind, you can’t come to a general show because you’re not going to get anything out of it,” says Lisa Lewis, a former clown who’s now the director of community programs for the New York-based circus. “Circus is one unifying art form that can reach every human person. It’s a uniting force of entertainment, [and] it has to be accessible for everyone.”
In addition to its regular shows, Big Apple Circus offers two modified performances aimed at reaching people with special needs. For 37 years, its Circus of the Senses has provided descriptions in Braille, live narrators to describe the action onstage through headsets, and American Sign Language interpreters dispersed throughout the audience. The audience can even get close to the performers with pre- and post-show “touch tours.”
“[Tightrope walker] Nik Wallenda brings out a low wire,” Lewis says. “You should see these blind kids with their canes walking the wire. His wife Erendira brings on a lyra [a hoop used in aerial performances] and holds kids and pushes them” like they’re on a swing.
Since 2013, Big Apple Circus has also offered autism-friendly shows. The band plays without amplification, the house lights stay on and each child is given a “manipulative,” a tool used by many people with autism to calm themselves in stressful situations. There are also calming areas and certified autism therapists; in advance of each show, families receive a “social story” that explains what happens at the circus.
“Many people on the spectrum don’t like having their routine changed,” Lewis says. “This way, families can go over what’s going to happen and give their kids an idea of what to expect.”
For these shows, audience participation is kept to a minimum, Lewis adds. “I’ve learned that it scares children on the autism spectrum to think that they might get called [to the stage],” she says.
While Circus of the Senses and the autism-friendly shows were intended for children, they also reach parents in a special way.
“They never get this experience, to be able to bring their children to what’s considered almost a rite of parenting,” Lewis says. “The mission of circus is entertainment for everybody, and we try to be as inclusive as possible.”
National Harbor, 165 Waterfront St., National Harbor, Md.; Thu. through April 1, $29-$92.50. (Circus of the Senses: Fri., 10:30 a.m.; for details on tickets,
go to bigapplecircus.com. Autism-friendly performance: Sat., 11 a.m.)
Frankie says ‘relax’
When Jenny Vidbel was hired seven years ago as the animal trainer for Big Apple Circus, Frankie came with her. The 350-pound American miniature horse, named after Frank Sinatra, has been with Vidbel all of his 17 years. He may be small, but he’s no pushover — Vidbel says he bosses around horses that outweigh him by more than 1,000 pounds. So when Frankie was offered a spot in Circus of the Senses, Vidbel was hesitant. “I was expecting him to be too antsy,” she says. “So I said, ‘We’ll try it for five minutes with a small group of children and see what happens. He just totally relaxed and took it all in.” The semi-retired Frankie appears in the opening number and for pre-show pictures, but his primary job at Circus of the Senses is giving audience members an up-close and personal cuddle session. “He walks into the ring and it’s almost like he’s showing off, like, ‘Yep, here I am,’ ” Vidbel says. “And then the kids come up and start petting him. He soaks it all in. I think he feels like, ‘Now I am treated like the star that I am.’ ”