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Arts. Work. Life. Season 2: Episode 3

ARTS. WORK. LIFE. is a podcast from the Association of Performing Arts Professionals about what it's like to work in the performing arts, featuring bold, untold stories from arts workers.
ARTS. WORK. LIFE. podcast Season 2. Episode 3.

Synopsis

For the Kids

Whether you are an arts worker and parent, share your art with kids, or see arts education as vital, the intersection of kids and the arts can be joyful and challenging. In Episode 3, hear from a circus artist, drag performer and a clogger.

Content warning: brief mentions of gun violence, suicide and child molestation between 18:16 and 19:32.

From the Intro: Watch the hilarious video of children reacting to the Opera on Max Grossman’s TikTok account.

Act One: “High Stress on the High Wire” with Amancay Kugler, the executive director of Yes Ma’am Circus in Chicago, Illinois.

Act Two: “A Magical Existence” with Beatrice Thomas, a creative producer, drag performer and educator, and former director of Drag Queen Story Hour in California.

Act Three: “Clog A Mile In My Shoes” with Brian Bon, a clogger, arts educator and director of Powerhouse Percussive Dance in Anaheim, California.

Transcript

Claire: Content warning. There is brief mention of gun violence, suicide, and child molestation in this episode. You can check the show notes for some timecodes if you want to avoid that.

Ok. here’s the episode.

Amancay Kugler knew that pregnancy was no walk in the park. But she was unprepared for JUST how sick she would be her entire first pregnancy.

Amancay: I was, you know, violently ill, curled up with a plastic bag for 12 hours. So really my body let me down hard.

Claire: It would have been hard in any profession, but Amancay is a circus performer.

Amancay: Six weeks along, I couldn't wear a training belt, so I had to stop acro classes. I got vertigo, so I couldn't do basic partner acro moves like a two-high.

There was no way I was gonna do that with, you know, a fetus riding, riding shotgun.

Claire: It wasn’t long before she had to drop performing all together, but she took up more directing and producing work and starting putting together a brand new show.

Amancay: As I'm having all of these, you know, intense, dramatic, bodily changes, emotional moments, meltdowns, et cetera, my cast was fantastic. They were really quite supportive.

Claire: And that support was very necessary when Amancay;s water broke. A full month before her expected due date.

Amancay: My daughter Diana was born 12 hours after my water breaking. For those of you who are parents, you might now, that is ridiculously fast.

That was a particularly, um, traumatic time for me, and you may hear me get a bit emotional about it again.

Um, because she was so little. She went into NICU for six days, so, After two days, I was told I had to go home.

Sorry. Hard moment for me.

Claire: While Amancay was at her lowest – emotionally and physically – everyone in her cast stepped up.

Amancay: And they all just really carried the day and organized their own stuff for about a month before I could step back in and, and start doing things.

Claire: And when Amancay returned to the studio a month later, she brought her daughter with her..

Amancay: We set up for the show and if she wasn't on my chest, she was with somebody. She was with another character and another cast member, and another cast member, and everyone just really stepped up and took ownership and, and helped and that was fantastic.

And so those were the moments where I really felt taken care of and that my daughter was taken care of. And just really supported by the sense of community.

There aren't always, you know, the structural institutions in place to help you when you are a new young mother, especially if your child has, you know, problems or medical issues. And I really felt that I had that from my community in those moments.

>> music

INTRO

Claire: You’re listening to ARTS.. WORK. LIFE., a podcast from The Association of Performing Arts Professionals.

I’m Claire Caulfield.

There’s this video that recently went viral on TikTok. It starts with two opera singers on stage. The music swells as the two performers lean in for a kiss… and then you hear it

[Audio in theater excitedly responding to a performance]

An audience full of excited middle schoolers, and they absolutely lose it when the performers finally kiss.

[sound of kids yelling and cheering]

The video is from a student matinee, and in the comments section performers and arts professionals share how much they love performing for kids for this very reason.

[sound of kids yelling and cheering]

Whether you have your own children, share your love for a specific art form with children… or see arts education as a key component of community outreach…. Mixing children and the arts has its unique joys… and challenges.

So today’s episode: For The Kids

Starting with a story about the unique stressors of parenthood and how to find the support you need within yourself.

Then a reflection on community and family. With a performer who will look death threats in the face to deliver the magic of drag story hour to kids.

And lastly, a resounding ode to clogging and the power of arts education.

>> music

ACT ONE

Claire: Act one: high stress on the high wire

We return to Amancay for our first story today.

As we heard at the beginning of the show, Amancay’s first pregnancy was really hard, but her entire company stepped up to help – and continued that support as she navigated her daughter’s health problems and found her footing as a working mom.

And when the pandemic started, and Amancay and her husband decided to take a break from performing anyway, they decided to expand their family, and Amancay gave birth to her son in early 2021.

Fast forward to 2022, and she begins making plans for the summer circus festival to return.

In her story, Amancay reflects on what changed between her first and second child. And how she had to make some big changes so she could be there for her own kids.

Here’s Amancay.

Amancay: I now have a one and a three-year-old, and the festival was a huge undertaking, I'd never done anything remotely like it.

There were some crises. During the week of the festival, my daughter stopped eating because God bless her, at three years of age, she had anxiety.

Given that she's so little, it was really distressing that she stopped eating, uh, because you could see her like losing weight.

And this has always been a big thing for me is that she's underweight and she is small, and so it was just a whole lot of extra anxiety there. She stopped sleeping. Uh, we actually ended up bringing her to rehearsal one night because she was so hysterical.

It was 10 o'clock at night. The cast is trying to do acro.

I'm involved in this act, which was really, really hard to do with a child who will scream if you, uh, put her down, so it was a lot, it was very stressful.
There was one day where it was 2:30 in the afternoon, and I realized I had not eaten anything or drunk anything that day.

I was standing in the back of the lobby, and the world looked a bit dim and I went, I am like a solid 10 minutes away from actually passing out. So I grabbed my purse off the floor. I went a block down and got food. And when I had sat down, I then posted in the Facebook group “Stepping out for a minute to get lunch back in half an hour.” And the second I posted that, I swear I got five texts saying, “oh, if you're still uh, in the building, can I grab you real quick?”

And I went, “No, I am gone. And that is why I waited until I left.” Because I knew if I said, 'Hey, I'm going to step out. I wasn't going to step out.' That's what had happened for the past three hours I'd been trying to leave.

>>music

And this was a week where I felt that all of a sudden a lot of people who had always said, “Oh, ask if you need anything,” when I asked, couldn't or didn't. And when I tried to explain, '"These are things that I am dealing with right now. This is my life at the moment. These are the stresses I have going on. This is why I need help."

No one ever said it, but the feeling I always got was, “Oh, still? You still have kids?”

And yes, I made the choice to have children. I am aware of that. I did not choose to have a child with anxiety.

And I certainly didn't deliberately choose to work myself down so hard that I burned out utterly and couldn't self-regulate anymore.

But it's a thing that happened. And a lot of the support that I had was hoping would be there wasn't.

It feels very similar to the difference between an acute injury and a chronic medical condition because when you break your leg, everyone's very sympathetic. If they see you, you know, limping towards the door, people will hold it open for you.

But if you have chronic pain that means you are always limping towards that door. Or some days you can walk just fine, but some days you can't. There's this feeling of, “Oh, but you were fine yesterday. Why aren't you over it? Why aren't you better yet?”

And one thing that festival the first year really taught me was setting my own personal boundaries and hard limits. 

And for the second year of the festival, that hard limit was, I leave at six, and I have dinner with my kid and I help put her to bed and I make sure that she has gone up feeling safe and happy and that my son is safe and happy And then I go back to the theater and stay there until eleven, or midnight or midnight-30 as the case may be, But I am there for my kid in the morning. I am there in the evening when they get back from daycare. I am there when they go to sleep.

And my phone is on do not disturb, so I will not be answering your calls. I will not answer your texts. If the theater is on fire, call the fire department. I cannot help you. If it is anything less serious, I can help you at 8:00 p.m. I'll be back.

This helped me value my own physical wellbeing, my own emotional wellbeing which made it a lot easier to get through the festival. I wasn't burned out for two months afterwards.

I have more budget to play with this summer because I had more energy and could apply for more grants afterward and the better mental health I have, and the more I am able to make sure that I'm okay, the more work I can help find and create and manage for other artists.

I'm trying to find ways to make it easier for me to care for myself the way I try to care for other people, even though that's hard.

Claire: Amancay Kugler is the executive director of Yes Ma’am Circus in Chicago, Illinois.

>> music ends

ACT TWO

Claire: Act two: A Magical Existence

You may have heard about Drag Queen Story Hour. It's been in the news a lot lately. It's an event where performers – of all genders – dress in exaggerated clownish costumes and read books to children, often at a public library.

About five years ago, Beatrice Thomas became the president of the national nonprofit that organizes a lot of these events. Back then, these story hours were sparsely attended but loved fixtures at local libraries. Now, there are often protesters trying to shut them down, and sometimes those protesters show up with guns.

In their story, Beatrice reveals what keeps them going in the face of so much hatred. And shares the joys of these events.

Beatrice, who performs under the name Black Benatar, starts us out with a tour of their favorite outfit.

Beatrice: It's really like super glamorous. Drag is like so fun. So this is my ring master outfit.

This is a stunning red and black with uh, black sequin lapels. And sort of gold applique down the front. I put on this the black and gold shimmer. bell, bottom, stretchy bodysuit over the whole thing. Which then is topped off with say, ooh, a gorgeous auburn wig and then you can accessorize. 

My rule for accessories is just add more. Because the children love more is more, you know. 

Drag is fun because it's dress up and dress up comes with persona, and when you're in drag, it's okay to be seen as a queer person, and then as a black person you're not supposed to take up space. And so drag is like a full permission.

And it's really, it's really like this stunning self, uh, expression that just lends itself to captivating children and getting them really excited about reading. But, it is also, you know, drag is so much more, it, it is about magic. It is about, bringing fantasy alive right before your very eyes, you know, like we're objects of stunning beauty and, uh, clownish glamor. 

But you've never had a better audience than like, a doughy sort of 18 month old who's sort of like waddling up and really stealing the show. What we get to just demonstrate is how to make something a part of the show. “Oh, do you wanna hold my book? Help me. Yeah. Hold my book.”

Or you can pop them right next to you and you're like, “Help me show the pictures.” And so it's just like this wonderfully engaging and challenging audience, but the task of speaking to kids and to parents at the same time and, and reading books and, generally being stunning.

>> music

When I first started it was really as a way to like create positive environments for all families, but in particular for environments that centered queer families. It was nothing to do with politics. It was nothing to do with pushing an agenda other than literacy and inclusion.

So, going into a library now is a dangerous place.

You know, you go from something that was very much a volunteer service, fun, give-back experience. And now you have to dig into yourself and ask if you are ready to become a symbol of a movement.

We have been working to build the network because we're also one of the largest networks of drag queens certainly in this country, maybe in the world. I, I don't know.

Of course, protection and safety is a part of our core service now, but we can't, we also can't forget the act of reading to children is what needs to continue.

I do equity, diversity, and inclusion in my day job, so I assumed that that is where I would land myself into some situation that was uncomfortable or even dangerous. I never once thought it would be because I read to children and dressed up.

>>music

I mean, I get a lot of death threats.

I found out recently that my photo was taken, during an Austin, Texas outdoor performance for children.

The photo was taken, the background was taken out, and then they placed a club nightclub background behind me, uh, in order to make it seem like the kids were in a nightclub environment.

I try to limit my relationship to that kind of negativity. But it's really hard because it is something that as an organization we have to engage. And sometimes I wish we had like a group of ally volunteers that could digitally field that stuff for us.

This is something I think that artists struggle with is how do you sustain a practice that has been, and not a mainstream staple, but is now something people are very interested in, but it's still skewed towards this thing that you were doing that is your service project.

I feel like a very fortunate person because there is not a lack of purpose in my life. I know I have purpose, I, you know, maybe too much purpose.
I don't know that I am complaining more than just wanting to express like the sort of dynamic contradictions that artists can, and certainly I think marginalized artists can find themselves in.

I have my own journey around motherhood that has been parallel. So I identify as non-binary, non-binary black woman. Um, and that is because in my rejection of the binary, I shall not reject my black womanhood.

My partner is trans. 

When you are, uh, queer, your journey to parenthood is just like exponentially more challenging, more fraught. There are more people involved.

Long story short, I tried to have a baby for 10 years, and as I'm going through this, Story Hour is becoming more and more important to me.

I'm staring down the barrel of 50. So if this doesn't work, I am trying to prepare myself for the worst to understand what are my other options. Like where do I take all of this nurturing, maternal vibe, energy. Where do you put it?

And story hour was a hundred percent the place.

If I can't have my own kid and contribute to the betterment of the world through our kids, like perhaps, supporting the organization so it can become an institution that allows families to have access to positive queer role models.

It's a part of my story as to why I, I can't stop, I don't get to have kids, but I can stand for children, and I don't even see our politicians, I don't see them standing for their own kids.

I can read the paper and understand that the suicide statistics are going up. I can read the paper and understand that during the pandemic, molestation went up because kids did not have safe afterschool programs to take refuge in.

So while there is so much subterfuge about me being a grooming pedophile, I know that our program has protected children, and it is knit families together, and it has created community. I stand for children, and if they have to get up every morning and go to a school where they may be shot, then I will keep doing Story Hour because our children shouldn't know more about active shooter drills than the adults around them.

>>music

It's just hard cuz the, like, it's like the number one killer of children in our country is gun violence. And they wanna limit their access to healthy public programs.

I'm oppositional, so if someone says you're not allowed to do this, and we are gonna terrorize you into not doing it, uh, because, freedom.
What does it mean to live un-harassed, to not have to deal with sexism, homophobia. 

If you're just like saying like, “I'm gonna terrorize you into not doing this thing” that stands for freedom, justice, equity, inclusion, then my oppositional side says, “All right, Let's get to work. We have more work to do.” Right? It's like it's, I am, I'm exhausted. I'm so tired, but like, I'm also fueled by oppositional energy.

So, yeah,if you're coming from my fundamental right to just exist, I'm gonna exist harder. I’m sorry, I get to exist.

>> music

Claire: Beatrice Thomas is a creative producer, drag performer and educator in California.

ACT THREE

Claire: Act three: Clog a mile in my shoes

Brian Bon was already an awkward teenager with low self esteem. Then one day in 1983 he came home from school and his mom informed him that he had to take clogging lessons with his sisters. He was mortified. He thought, if I’m not cool now, clogging definitely isn’t going to help. But turns out, his mother knew best. And within a year he was one of the top cloggers in the country, which is pretty cool.

And over the next forty years he made his living as a professional clogger, appearing on countless tv shows and traveling the world.

But when the pandemic hit, he was forced to take a beat….

Here’s Brian.

Brian: A lot of people don't know what clogging is like. Uh, they think of, you know, a barn dance and the do do, right. It really got it start back in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s it's one of America's most iconic folk dances.

Traditional clogging rhythms sound like da, da da, da, da. But when you see it, it's like someone running as fast as they can in place and just emotionally. It, It's fun, it's happy.

Contemporary clogging is way more exciting and not way more exciting, way different.

>>[Audio from Brian performing in front of an audience of kids] “We do a little bit of tap [taps]. We also do a little bit of Irish step or Riverdance [percussive tapping] Ahhhh! We do a little bit of clogging, my personal favorite. [clogs] And we also do a little bit of stomp [stomp dances and claps]. We put all of these different styles together and we call it, Elizabeth, tell the kids what we call it.”

>>Elizabeth: Percussive dance!

>>Brian: Everybody say, “percussive dance!”

>>Kids in audience yell: “pPercussive dance!”

>>Brian: “That was beautiful. Raise your hand if….”

Brian: I started dabbling in arts education about nine or 10 years ago. It was not the main part of my business. I did a workshop for some four H students and there was a group of those students who happened to have Down Syndrome.

And we started off small. We had like, I think five kids in the class lots of different levels of function.

One young man in particular, his name is Julian, and we've become very, very close When he initially started, he would sit on the floor or lay on the floor.

He didn't understand how to learn. He didn't, he hadn't had that experience yet. And, uh, we started to have these moments of connection and I started to see how important it was with these kids because it wasn't what they couldn't do. But the amazing moments when we found things they could do and it really, and now I'm telling you right now, they can all do shuffle steps and singles and triples.

It's very, very exciting.

>>[Audio from Brian leading a class performance] “Everybody, put your right hand above your head, take a bow, and let’s hear it for ‘em, everybody [cheering]

Brian: I was a teacher, but I was, it wasn't my main thing because I was really, really successful as a performer.

Like I was two- to four-hundred shows every year. That's a lot of shows and 2020 is gangbusters. We were so good. I, we had just showcased in New York at APAP, we had all these events lined up, and I was at the airport and everything shut down.

Of course, we all know what happened. Everything was canceled. Artists were hit so hard.

>>music

I don't think I cried at first. That probably came later. That probably came later after the initial shock. And I think initially I kind of went numb. I was doing things like, okay, I'm gonna sell things on eBay. I'm gonna do yard sales. I was picking up furniture from people's houses that they didn't want and selling it to make a living for like about a month and a half.

I was able to start live-streaming class. So it was still different. Dance is a very social activity. It's fun to do it with other people. So there wasn't quite the same enthusiasm for the classes, but I'm gonna say about half my students held on, and it kept us connected.

Like it was not the same, but at least we still had each other knowing we were going through this stuff together.

In May of 2020, towards the end of the school year, that's when I really started to also dive into the curriculum-based arts education, visual and performing arts dance classes.

All the Arts for All the Kids is a program for the Fullerton School District where for the last 30 years, they have guaranteed all of their students several sessions with working artists, whether it's visual arts, dance, theater. And when pandemic hit, they did support us like no other job, no other aspect of my career has ever supported me.

They made it important to let us know we weren't being abandoned.

>>music

So at first they were like, "Well, what can you do?" And I was like, "Well, I will make a video online and show kids how to make tap shoes out of duct tape and washers."

And I did it like it was not the most highly produced video because I did it on my front porch and in my garage. I had a kid from Texas send a video of him tap dancing in his homemade tap shoes.

And this is where the light started to go on for me.

I did a series of math videos for dance where I taught the kids how to find the area of a square or based on the way we moved.

And some of them were great. Some of 'em weren't so great, but it really, really did start to open my eyes to more that I could do that I hadn't been doing.

>>music

I think there could be a lot of things I would like arts industry people to maybe take away from the story. A, a big one would be the way All the Arts for All the Kids supported us. I'll tell you, I've taken that with me and I'm way more aware of how my dancers that work with me are feeling and what they're going through these days. So, I hope other arts organizations will watch out for their own.

Now I am thriving. I'm thriving in the arts education area of my work. I'm still doing fairs and festivals across the country with our clogging shows. So all of that came back, but now I also have this. way more rich, well-rounded aspect to my career where during the school year, I'm literally in classes every day at different schools.

I'm mentoring other dancers, um, because, you know, one of the problems I think clogging has had is a lot of cloggers limit their, self-view. They don't see themselves as legitimate artists, they take their dance classes, they become amazing, and then they quit, and they get a job, and they don't do it anymore.

And I think art's something you can always take with you. And, uh, so that's what I'm trying to inspire my other dancers and teachers to do is don't, don't stop, don't settle for where you are.

There's, there's more to come. It's gonna keep growing.

We ask students in schools to do new things all the time. As teachers, we say, “Get up and sing, get up and dance, do this book report,” but are we always doing that? Are we continuing to experience personal growth as we get older? If we're not, then we're limiting ourselves, and I don't know about you, but I want to be more than I am.

Claire: Brian Bon is a clogger, arts educator and director of Powerhouse Percussive Dance in Anaheim, California.

>> music

Claire: Thank you so much for listening.

ARTS. WORK. LIFE. is a production from APAP – the Association of Performing Arts Professionals.

APAP is the national service organization for the performing arts presenting, booking and touring industry. You can join APAP at apap365.org.

I’m Claire Caulfield, your host and producer.

Jenny Thomas is our Executive Producer.

Music today from Blue Dot Sessions with additional audio from Brian Bon. And you can find a link to that viral video that I talked about at the beginning of the episode in our show notes.

This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of The Wallace Foundation. So thank you.

Other thank yous to Shanice Mason, the APAP staff and board of directors, our storytellers today, and the hundreds of thousands of arts workers across the world.

Your stories matter. and arts workers ARE essential.

Speaking of stories If you work in the performing arts and want to submit your own story to this podcast visit apap365.org/podcast.

And if you enjoyed this episode, which I really hope you did, please leave us a review. It helps other people find the show.

Carolyn: Arts, Work, Life. that’s real *laugh* [00_carolyn - arts work life thats real.wav]

>> music

Claire: And next time on ARTS. WORK. LIFE….

Mari: I ended up working at a restaurant. It was like night and day from like practicing eight, nine hours a day to perform

Farah: Everything changed for me when I had that thought. Everything in my relationship to Shakespeare changed.

Chris: It's first time he'd been in circus space and he'd been in circus for almost 10 years where he felt like, the freedom to really be himself

Leland: And before I could say anything else, she literally just slid out of her chair onto the floor, and I couldn't rouse her.

>> music sting

Resources and Links

The following resources may be helpful to our listeners.

INTRO/ACT ONE: Pushing Buttons/A Compromise and A Coda

ACT TWO: Encore

ACT THREE: An Aha Moment

Support

This podcast made possible with the generous support of The Wallace Foundation and listeners like you. Donate here.
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Photos: Lynn Neuman at a recycling facility; Thamara Bejarano courtesy of storyteller; Taylor Gordon photo by Jon Tayler; Craig Knudsen returns to the opera stage in 2018.
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