Fern Street Circus Celebrates 30th Anniversary of First Performance


SAN DIEGO – A great deal has changed since Fern Street Circus (FSC) held its first public performance in Golden Hill’s Grape Street Park in 1991. Over the past 30 years, the nonprofit organization has produced more than 32 original shows and instructed hundreds of local kids and teens though its popular After-School Circus Program – all free of charge – in its mission to serve families in San Diego’s mid-city neighborhoods.


Next, Highkin got a job as production stage manager for Circus Flora, a nonprofit theatrical circus based in St. Louis. He traveled with the tour and got to know multi-generation circus families from around the world, including the Wallenda family. (The patriarch of “The Flying Wallendas” was Karl Wallenda, one of the world’s most famous highwire artists.) After touring with Circus Flora, Highkin returned to traditional theater, including directing a production of Big River in Phoenix. He was then introduced to an impresario working with Soviet acrobats on an American bus-and-truck tour, who hired Highkin as production stage manager, giving him a glimpse into an entirely different – but also spectacular – style of circus.


By 1990, Highkin found himself back in San Diego, where he learned about a funding opportunity through the City’s Arts and Culture Commission that would allow him to realize his dream of creating his own circus. That is where Highkin first met Cindy Zimmerman, a visual artist who would end up joining his project as co-founder. Two years later they married.


In its early days, FSC focused on producing a series of small, simple shows at Golden Hill’s Grape Street Park with a handful of musicians and performers. Later, the show grew to include additional circus acts, participation by a traditional Italian circus family (the Canestrellis) and more complex storytelling, with sets and equipment cobbled together from community donations and discarded building materials. As it matured, the annual show moved to Balboa Park, where FSC put on low-cost annual shows for several years.


Youth arts education has long been an important part of FSC’s mission, and the City of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department has been an invaluable long-term partner, dating back to parade-making workshops at the Golden Hill Recreation Center in the early-1990s. FSC’s popular After-School Circus Program, first held at Golden Hill Recreation Center in 1993, evolved organically out of the public performances. When FSC was rehearsing in Grape Street Park, it was common for kids to stop by and watch and ask the performers to show them how to do skills like juggling. As these training sessions became more formalized into the after-school program, Highkin started inviting some of the more skilled students to join the professional performers on stage during the annual shows.


Live music is another core element of FSC shows. Highkin, originally a bluegrass musician who plays mandolin and bass, is joined by a full band of other professional musicians. Some of the circus artists also contribute their musical talents to the show, bringing an eclectic mix of instruments and styles from all over the world.


Highkin took a hiatus from FSC in the early-2000s, moving to Kansas where he served as executive director of Salina Arts and Humanities Commission and then Young Audiences of San Diego, part of the nation’s largest arts-in-education learning network. He returned to head FSC again in 2014, with a new board and commitment to fundraising and growth for the organization. A key component of the FSC revival was moving to City Heights and beginning a new After-School Circus Program at Mid-City Gym in February 2015.


FSC Today


The unique hybrid model of combining professional adult performers and technicians with young students remains the cornerstone of FSC. Over the years, the week-long run of shows in Balboa Park has evolved into an annual Neighborhood Tour, a month-long series of free performances at multiple neighborhood parks in City Heights and other mid-city neighborhoods, featuring dozens of professional and student circus performers, live music and cultural celebrations, as well as access to community health and educational resources.


The challenges presented by COVID-19 in early-2020 caused FSC to completely reimagine its public engagement activities. Recognizing that its typical series of performances would not be possible for some time, the FSC team found an innovative way to serve local families who had been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.


The result was a series of 39 pop-up, socially distanced performances at curbside meal distribution sites, in partnership with San Diego Unified School District’s Food and Nutrition Department and Episcopal Community Services. From May through November, FSC provided uplifting, bilingual entertainment for families waiting in food pickup lines, using circus as a vehicle for sharing critical information, like the importance of 2020 Census participation and voter registration, with more than 11,000 residents in many hard-to-count communities.


FSC’s free after-school program has not only continued, but expanded during San Diego County’s ongoing stay-at-home orders, providing students with access to live instruction and physical conditioning with professional teaching artists via Zoom, including the addition of new small-group, specialty classes in advanced circus skills.


Highkin remains committed to two key principals: All FSC neighborhood shows are free to the public and its professional artists and technicians are always paid. (This is made possible through community fundraising and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council and others.) FSC has continued to provide its professional artists and technicians with safe employment opportunities during the pandemic. The shift to pop-up, mobile performances was facilitated by the acquisition of a new box truck and trailer, paid for by the County of San Diego, featuring a custom FSC mural created by City Heights street artist Sergio “Surge” Hernandez. FSC intentionally focuses its artistic and educational programs on under-served mid-city neighborhoods (rather than more affluent areas of the county), so that working class families can enjoy programs and events they might otherwise not have access to due to financial barriers.


What’s Next


“For 30 years now, we have witnessed the power of circus to lift people up and bring neighborhoods together,” said Highkin. “Despite the challenges of the last year, we have never been more focused and intentional in how we serve local families, particularly those of limited means. We are proud to showcase diverse talent and voices, with artists from around the world, and to provide memorable experiences for families where language and economic power are erased from the equation. We have had to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of our community. But, as circus folks, we are experts at that. After all, the show always goes on.”


FSC’s goal is to eventually build its own circus community center to offer instruction for a wide range of skill levels. (Preliminary plans for a building have already been envisioned by Architect Rob Quigley, whose wife Kathleen Hallahan is a member of FSC’s Advisory Circle and co-chair of FSC’s 30th anniversary fundraiser. Their daughter Thea is an alumnus of the after-school program.) In the meantime, a temporary training site is currently being developed at the Centerline Project, an empty lot at 41st Street and University Avenue. The property is owned by the City Heights Community Development Corp. and Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. and will be turned into low- and moderate-income housing in the next couple of years.


On Sunday, Feb. 21 at 4 p.m., FSC will host a “Fun-Raiser Fiesta” in celebration of its 30th anniversary. The virtual event will feature performances by FSC professional artists and students from the after-school program, live music, interactive games and contests, clowns, juggling, and special guests. Tickets are $10 per family and $75 for the “Ringmaster” level. Sponsorship opportunities are also available. Click here to register or learn more.


About Fern Street Circus


Fern Street Circus is San Diego’s original social circus dedicated to creating intriguing shows, performing in under-served neighborhoods and teaching circus skills free of charge in San Diego’s mid-city neighborhoods. Additional information can be found at www.fernstreetcircus.com and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


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