At the center of a big top tent in one of Chicago’s parks, tumblers somersault through a group of stacked rings, going higher and faster as hundreds of eyes gaze up. At the end of the circus act, two rescued bulldogs, Junebug and Rosie Rae, jump through rings and run circles around their trainer. Kids seated on blankets giggle and cheer at mischief in the ring.
This is Midnight Circus in the Parks, an organization that brings together communities and helps raise money for local parks through performances with acrobats, contortionists, tightwire walkers, jugglers, clowns and animal acts.
Entering its 12th year, Chicago’s Midnight Circus has raised nearly one million dollars for the park system as part of the city’s Night Out in the Parks initiative. Thousands of people attend the show each year in their neighborhood’s park.
“For us, it’s about bringing circus to the people. We mean it. We’re a better city if everyone has access to resources: the arts, healthcare, good schools, whatever it is,” said Jeff Jenkins, one of the program’s founders.
Midnight Circus was founded by Jenkins and his wife Julie Greenberg, and began as a circus and theater company in the 1990s. In 2007, the founders put together a show to help raise funds to refurbish the playground at Welles Park. From that night, Midnight Circus in the Parks has evolved into 23 shows in nine parks all the way from Oriole Park on the Northwest Side to Hamilton Park on the South Side. This year two more parks and Friday night performances were added since shows tend to sell out.
The two-hour show features a variety of solo and group acts. Past years have included trapeze, pole, and even a contortionist juggling act. All the performers come together to sing, jump rope or do an acrobatics act to end the show.
What is special about the circus, why the tent is so magical, is that the performers can connect with the audience in a way that other venues don’t allow. Matt Roben has performed with Midnight Circus for the past 15 years in many capacities. One example: A daring stacked chair act where he does a handstand at the top and pops a balloon full of glitter with his feet.
“When we invite the kids into the ring, every child in that audience bolts into the middle of the ring, they are dancing with us, giving us high fives because they aren’t just watching us on stage from a distance, we are at the same exact level as the audience. When they get to come into the ring and be part of the show, you see that transition in the kids eyes. You’re giving hundreds of high fives per show,” Roben said.
Logan Kerr is a tightwire walker and part of the tent crew which helps move the tent from park to park. “Being in that show and that ring, looking out into a crowd of people that have gathered in this little park that they call home to see a show, is kinda overwhelming. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before,” she said.
Midnight Circus in the Parks has an international reputation too. It was the only American circus to attend the world-renowned Montreal Circus Festival, what Jenkins calls the Lollapalooza of circus festivals. The organization has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for the past three years and the company is filled with elite performers from France, Canada, Australia and around the world. Some have even come from Cirque du Soleil, Big Apple Circus and the Cirque de Demain Festival.
“I think certainly, we’ve had an influence nationally and internationally about what’s happening in Chicago as far as circus goes. If you go to any other show or circus school around the world, whether it’s Paris or Montreal, and you say ‘I performed with Midnight Circus.’ Eyebrows raise, ‘I’ve heard wonderful things about the show,’” said Jenkins.
Part of that prestige is from Jenkins’ mission to bring high-quality circus and develop strong community relationships with the city, neighborhoods, and local residents. Many of the performers feel they are a part of a strong circus family, “It’s such a unique thing to have in Chicago. I’m sure there aren’t a whole lot of cities that have this,” said Roben. “It’s Chicago’s circus.”