Dispatch from Seattle, Part Four

Note: This is the final article in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three here.


This series will explore how circus communities are navigating a future fraught with unanswered questions, using collaboration and determination to draw their own road map through immense obstacles. Like every other U.S. city, Seattle saw its circus events, workshops and performances grind to a halt in March, as the pandemic forced almost all circus artists to put their usual social and professional activities on hold.

We’ve seen how important [circus] is to so many people. I feel a huge responsibility. I can’t just walk away from this.

Versatile arts, photographed prior to the pandemic by David Inman.

Beverly Sobelman is the executive director of Versatile Arts, an aerial studio she founded in northern Seattle in 2007.

Getting through the pandemic has been a trying experience, but Sobelman said her peers in the circus community have been there to collaborate, commiserate and overcome the unimaginable circumstances.

“I’ve worked hard to try to get the Seattle community to be very cooperative as opposed to competitive, because it’s a huge market,” Sobelman said. “There’s no reason for us to see each other as competition.”

In the wake of the shutdown in March, Sobelman worked with the American Circus Educators’ safety committee to develop a Covid resource kit for circus schools. This industry-specific document aimed to provide much-needed guidance for spaces like Versatile Arts, which was able to reopen its doors in the summer.

With many circus schools struggling to adapt the guidelines for fitness centers and climbing gyms to their unique spaces, Sobelman said she had to blaze her own trail in lieu of specific governmental recommendations and enforcement.

“I feel like we did an amazing job, because our students said our studio was one of the only places they felt safe outside of their own homes,” Sobelman said. “It makes sense, because when you run an aerial studio, safety has to be one of the things that you think about all the time anyway. So this was just a new way to think about safety.”

performers from a ‘silver foxes’ show at Versatile arts prior to the pandemic. Photo by John Cornicello.

Versatile Arts also survived Washington’s second state-mandated shutdown from mid-November to early January. But the past year has taken its toll.

Even though she received grants and government aid to stay afloat, Sobelman said ‘hidden costs’ continue to burden small businesses like hers.

“Most of my employees are now filing for unemployment, which I want them to do. And yet, the amount I pay for unemployment insurance is going to go up dramatically for years to come,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take us to recover financially.”

Sobelman has consistently operated her business at a manageable scale. But no amount of business savvy could prepare her for the trials of 2020.

“Versatile Arts has always been profitable. I just started small. And we’ve only ever grown to where we could already support the size,” she said. “We’ve always been in the black. So to be in this position of having to ask for  help is very humbling.”

Sobelman set up an online patronage program that is currently yielding $1,000 per month from 30 donors, who were grateful for the opportunity to help defray her operating costs during this time.

While the challenges continue to mount in the new year, the temporary closure of circus businesses has magnified the role they play in maintaining their students’ physical and emotional health.

“We’ve seen how important it is to so many people,”  Sobelman said. “I feel a huge responsibility. I can’t just walk away from this.”

“I’ve tried to leave circus many times,” she said, recalling short-lived stints in the tech industry and graduate school. “Running a circus school is more fun.”

Versatile Arts will present a virtual retrospective of their past shows featuring ‘aerialists of a certain age’ in Silver Foxes 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward tomorrow (3/13) at 9 p.m. EST. Get tickets at this link.

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