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Fern Street Circus Reimagines Neighborhood Tour to Provide Critical Community Outreach

SAN DIEGO Fern Street Circus has been serving San Diego’s mid-city neighborhoods with free after-school programs and poignant community performances for 30 years. Now, with COVID-19 safety measures restricting public gatherings, the popular “social circus” has gotten innovative, finding new ways to reach vulnerable, under-served communities with uplifting entertainment and critical information, like the importance of census participation, during these unprecedented times. Fern Street Circus (FSC) normally hosts its Neighborhood Tour each October, with a series of free performances in public parks featuring dozens of professional and student circus performers, live music and cultural celebrations, in addition to access to community health and educational resources. Recognizing that their typical event format would not be feasible in 2020, the FSC team has found a new – and safe – way to serve local families who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. The reimagined 2020 Neighborhood Tour features a series of pop-up, socially distanced performances at curbside meal distribution sites, primarily at neighborhood schools, at least twice weekly through November. The Fall tour follows on the success of a pilot program over the summer in which FSC reached more than 5,200 families at 17 events from City Heights to the South Bay, providing lively, bilingual entertainment for food-insecure families and using circus as a vehicle to encourage participation in Census 2020 among hard-to-count communities. FSC is working in partnership with San Diego Unified School District’s Food & Nutrition Department, performing at schools when Feeding San Diego or San Diego Food Bank is also distributing boxes of produce and canned goods (when neighborhood participation is highest). FSC is also working with Episcopal Community Services to serve 700 Head Start families in the South Bay.

Following the completion of the Census campaign, FSC will transition to simple story-telling, with a bilingual narrative reflective of our current times, Corona la Llorona. (La Llorona is a legendary, tragic, crying figure common across Central America.)

At the conclusion of the series of pop-up events at food distribution sites, the 2020 Neighborhood Tour will culminate in two live-streamed shows on Saturday, Nov. 21 and Sunday, Nov. 22 (at 2 p.m. each day), via Facebook, Instagram and YouTube Live. Each 40-minute show will include a combination of live performances by adult circus professionals and FSC students (ages 6 to 17), as well as a live band (all conducted in a safe, socially distanced manner in an outdoor venue or from the performers’ homes). The online events will allow the larger San Diego community (and beyond) the opportunity to experience the FSC shows that would normally be accessible at their neighborhood parks each year.

FSC is one of the few circuses in the United States to explore poignant and emotional storytelling through circus. Its pivot to pop-up circus performances at food distribution sites during the pandemic is the latest example of the organization’s innovative approach to its mission of bringing people of all ages and cultures together through the power of circus.

“We are so pleased to be able to bring Fern Street Circus to local families in this new way, at a time when everyone could use uplifting more than ever,” said Executive Director John Highkin. “We are always looking to serve a greater good and positively impact communities that lack access to quality performance and after-school instruction. We are proud to work with these great partners providing free nutrition for food-insecure families, while also safely employing skilled artists whose livelihoods have been severely harmed by the pandemic.”

Funding for the 2020 Neighborhood Tour has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, U.S. Bank and the San Diego County Community Enhancement Program.

In addition to its community performances, FSC offers a year-round, free-of-charge after-school program that has served thousands of San Diego youth over the years. The program, normally held at a San Diego Parks and Recreation Department facility in City Heights, has also adapted to serve the community during the COVID-19 lockdown, taking its instructional and performance programming online. Since late-March, FSC’s professional teaching artists and up to 30 students have met weekly via Zoom for physical conditioning sessions and rotating circus skills instruction, including small-group specialty classes in advanced tightwire, Ninja acrobatics, contortion, unicycle, clowning, singing and juggling, culminating in virtual performance showcases.

“Despite all the challenges 2020 has presented us, we have been blown away with how well everyone has adapted, in both our performance work and our ongoing, free-of-charge After-School Circus Program,” said Highkin. “Our dedicated students are more focused on learning and discovery and our coaches are more inventive than ever. It is a joy to see these personal connections deepening even while we are not physically together, and it speaks to the incredible power of the circus arts in bringing people together.”

About Fern Street Circus

Founded in 1990, Fern Street Circus is San Diego’s original social circus dedicated to creating intriguing shows, performing in unique venues in under-served neighborhoods and teaching circus skills free of charge in San Diego’s mid-city neighborhoods. Additional information can be found at and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


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