Live Circus Emerges from the Crypt

The Graveyard Show Offers Healing in a Year of Loss

While 2020 has been anything but kind to live performance venues and the artists who once packed their spaces with adoring fans, the good news is that some folks are reviving three-dimensional productions in unconventional ways.

Sidewalks, parks and backyards have become our new proscenium stages, serving as prime locations for moments of creative expression.

“It’s an interesting situation — in circus and in the arts more broadly — that because the traditional opportunities have completely evaporated, people want to do something, even if it isn’t what they would normally do.”

One such production is The Graveyard Show by Quark Circus, a ‘boot-strapped, socially distant circus show’ appearing in Alexandria tomorrow (10/17) and Sunday (10/18). The production’s four live shows are sold out, but an online streaming edition will air on October 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets.

Show producer Elizabeth Finn spoke to The District Ringer about the process of creating a circus performance in uncertain times.

“When I came up with the idea, I was really skeptical of it myself,” Finn said of the early planning stages back in May. “I didn’t know how to do it safely.”

To answer that question, Finn consulted with co-director and castmate Amy Nagy, who has a background in public health.

Finn made it clear that she would defer to Nagy’s expertise, coupled with real-time Covid data, to determine the show’s ultimate fate.

“I am trusting you to keep watch on those numbers,” she told Nagy. “As soon as you feel uncomfortable, we’re calling it all off.”

Safety measures for The Graveyard Show are numerous, starting with the show’s setting in an open-air backyard. Seating is limited to 14 people per show, with at least eight feet between chairs and mandatory masks for audience members and performers.

Additionally, Finn said she is asking guests to text organizers when they arrive on site, such that they can be escorted individually from their cars to their seats. 

“The one thing that we couldn’t solve was the bathroom issue,” Finn said, noting that she didn’t want to expose guests to shared bathrooms, which are known incubators of virus particles. “We want our audience to be safe, so treat it like a hike. Use the facilities before you come.”

Despite the challenges posed by the global pandemic, Finn said the enthusiastic support she received from Nagy and the rest of the cast indicated just how much they had been missing live performances.

“It’s an interesting situation — in circus and in the arts more broadly — that because the traditional opportunities have completely evaporated, people want to do something, even if it isn’t what they would normally do,” Finn said. “They are willing to be flexible, as long as you show good faith and you’re trying to do it safely.”

By July, she had assembled a line-up of nine performers specializing in aerial, acrobatics and juggling.

Unfortunately, in-person rehearsals with the full cast were off the table, limiting the potential for ensemble work. As a result, Finn said she abandoned the show’s strict narrative in favor of a cabaret-style format.

“You’re not going to be able to mend it and make it look like it used to. You just never will. All you can do is find a way to make that hole or that scar into something that is differently beautiful.”

Even without a firm plot, Finn said the show’s strong visuals convey grief, loss, and healing from collective trauma in a year when these themes have been unavoidable.

“The metaphor that I’m most excited about is this metaphor of the fabric of life, and this idea that death and trauma cause holes in that,” she said. “You’re not going to be able to mend it and make it look like it used to. You just never will. All you can do is find a way to make that hole or that scar into something that is differently beautiful.”

As a child, Finn competed on the national level in two-person sports acrobatics, followed by a foray into competitive diving. In college, she discovered aerial arts and developed an affinity for straps. Now working full time in the field of genetics and molecular biology, Finn is practical and measured in her show production strategy.

“I see connections between things. You have to do that in science. You also have to do that in art,” Finn said. “All good art is making a connection that other people haven’t seen and that is meaningful to other people.”

Despite her excitement to once again experience the thrill and personal connection of a live performance, Finn said she harbors even more anticipation for the untapped potential of online shows.

A notable quarantine inspiration of hers was Egress and Oriel, an online production mounted by the San Francisco-based troupe Vespertine Circus. 

The company’s cinematic, film-inspired presentation struck her as “taking advantage of the medium that we have, instead trying to give you the raw connection of live theater without being able to — because it’s trapped in a computer screen,” she said. “It felt like it was leaning into the strengths of the medium instead of the weaknesses.”

The Graveyard Show’s sold-out run of in-person performances is happening tomorrow (10/17) and Sunday (10/18) in Alexandria. A filmed and edited version of the show will air on October 30th at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at this link. This show addresses themes of death, grief and healing, but is appropriate for all ages.

Follow Quark Circus on Instagram for updates on their next creation.


Note: Christian, who wrote this article, is a virtual cast member of The Graveyard Show. You are very welcome to accuse him of bias — but check out the online show while you’re at it. And email circusdistrict@gmail.com to let him know what to write about next!