The Circus Comes to Town

Mon, Nov 16, 2009

Listen to what happened on Saturday, November 7, when members of the Cirque d'Art Theater in Portsmouth, Ohio, traveled up to Columbus to see themselves in Liza Johnson's short film In the Air, which screens until Nov 30 in The Box.

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Special thanks to Pegi Wilkes, Trisha Schmidt, Lee Brown, Daphany Bauer, Hayden Schmidt, Autumn Thompson and everyone from Cirque D'Art Theater who were so generous with their time.  Also thanks to Jean Pitman in our Education Dept and Paul Hill in Art & Tech.

Liza wasn't able to join us so we asked her a few questions about the evolution of this project and what's ahead. Read her answers after the jump.

How did this film come about?

Almost two years ago I spent some time in Scioto County, Ohio, researching a feature film script I'm shooting this spring. I grew up there, but I haven't lived there since high school, and I thought I should get up to date. I met Pegi Wilkes, the director of the circus school, and she introduced me to a lot of fabulous people from all over the county, who go to different school systems, are all different ages and types, who can do amazing things with their bodies. The thing that really compelled me to do the movie was the sense of atmosphere or community that happens at the school—it's very special, and made a big impression on me.

How did you prepare for this shoot?

We had a series of workshops with a core group of circus students.  We agreed that it would seem fake to just tell a sentimental story about how great the circus is-- in fact, the students had been on a regional TV news magazine recently, and that segment had focused on the work the circus does with physically disabled students.  We all agreed that their work with physically disabled student IS amazing, and heartwarming, and something to really be proud of.  But there are other aspects the students wanted to show.  People really enjoy the atmosphere of the school because it's a reprieve from things that are hard in everyday life.

Teenage life is hard everywhere because you're not really in charge of yourself yet, even though you feel like you should be.  Plus, Portsmouth is like many other places in the U.S. right now that have been really slammed by the new demographics of economic crisis, methamphetamine and prescription opiates. So there are a lot of things that can be especially hard in people's everyday family life.  But we also didn't think it seemed right just to make a movie about how things are hard or annoying.  We thought that the only way to really explain how special the circus atmosphere is would be to dramatize that environment in relation to the things that are boring or challenging about the rest of everyday life.

So everyone submitted ideas, often from their own lives, about things that are really fun about the circus school, or elements of conflict or annoyance from the rest of life.  Then I remixed these ideas so that no one had to act out their own particular joys or traumas-- we all were working collectively on a group experience, but not necessarily reenacting biographical experiences. The things in the movie could happen or have happened, but not necessarily to the exact people who are acting them out.

In South of Ten, which was shot in post-Katrina Gulf Coast (and which we showed in The Box in September 2007) you also worked with local, non-professional actors.  Can you elaborate on this strategy and what it lends to your story-telling process?

When I went to Mississippi with Anne Etheridge, everyone we talked to had been interviewed on TV, or at least they had seen a great deal of TV coverage about Hurricane Katrina.  People had strongly internalized sense of what you were supposed to say to be a "hurricane victim" on television.  People are smart, and everyone knows how to fit into the common conventions of news reporting in order to make your voice heard.  But at the same time, the atmosphere and tone of everyday life there was really intense, and seemed really important to me and very different from anything that could be represented through those conventions.  The people who made the film with me agreed that other aspects of life after a catastrophe were also important, even if TV doesn't care about them so much: waiting, being overwhelmed, working.

Some familiar formats, like news and documentary, value the interview because it supposedly represents the first-person perspective of people who are important witnesses or players in events.  But this is only true in the realm of language.  In the body and the three-dimensional world the interview doesn't show you anything about what it feels like to be moving a house back onto its foundation, or to be flipping through a field.  For me it's interesting to try to find ways that the same kind of important witnesses or players can testify to their experiences, but in some of the other registers that film and video make possible-- for example, the physical, the kinesthetic.

What are you working on now?

I'm casting the feature film for the spring. It's set in a place kind of like Portsmouth. The film uses a very sensate form of realism, and the cast are super-trained actors with a high degree of craft. So I will be using really different methods, but I am hopeful that the actors' craft will take us back to a similar place, a comparable kind of realness, but by coming from a completely different direction.

I'm also working on some other projects-- I was recently invited to a community in northern Australia who would like to make a film in the collaborative way I did on South of Ten and In the Air. So we're hopeful that we'll be able to do that sometime in the coming year. And I've been doing some writing projects.  One is a critical studies article about the artist Michael Rakowtiz, and another is a collaboration with Gregg Bordowitz.

Jean Dubuffet, Vaches au pre (Cows in a meadow), 1954

Reserve your tickets now for Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection, on view Sept 21–Dec 31. Learn more about the exhibition.

Artists featured in Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection

Learn more about the artists represented in Transfigurations at our dedicated website. (Educators will also find curriculum resources to support their K–12 classrooms.)