Sometimes, the best way to help a young person deal with the problems they face in life is to let them run off and join the circus.
“In Europe, there is a tradition of what’s called social circus, where circus performers would work with at-risk kids and teach them the various skills they used in their acts,” Jennifer Paxton said. “The impact this has on kids is instantaneous. You find out what each kid loves to do — some are eager to do aerial work, some want to stay on the ground — and you try to bring out the best in them.”
Paxton and her husband, Anton von Ostendorf, a top trapeze performer who has worked with circuses in the United States and Europe, created Calliope Youth Circus Foundation to bring the concepts of social circus to von Ostendorf’s hometown of Tulsa.
“He’s such an incredible coach and teacher,” Paxton said. “And this is a way for him to pass on all the things he has learned in his career to the next generation.”
The nonprofit organization works with at-risk youngsters, from kindergarten to 12th grade, teaching them such circus skills as hand-balancing, juggling and acrobatics, as well as how to use such aerial equipment as the lyra (a steel hoop), silks and spider web.
Calliope Youth Circus has worked with such organizations as Tulsa Public Schools, Phoenix Rising, the Community Action Project, the Family Center for Juvenile Justice, the Greater Tulsa YMCA and the Jewish Federation of Tulsa.
“Everything is play-based, but that doesn’t mean it’s not physically taxing,” Paxton said. “We work to help push kids outside their comfort zone in a way that will instill in them a sense of self-discipline and self-motivation. It’s all about improving a person’s physical, emotional and intellectual health.”
The sort of work done by the participants of the Calliope Youth Circus can be seen in Theatre Tulsa’s current production of “Barnum The Musical,” which runs through Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Tulsa PAC.
The musical follows the life of impresario P.T. Barnum, who built an entertainment empire upon the philosophy, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Barnum’s career included presenting personalities that ranged from the noted Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind to Gen. Tom Thumb, whose comic performances made him an international star.
Toward the end of his life, Barnum lent his name to what became the Barnum and Bailey Circus — and the musical about Barnum’s life features several scenes of circus-inspired action.
“Personally, I would have loved that there had been more circus scenes,” Paxton said. “However, the play deals mainly with Barnum before he hooked up with Bailey. But we bookend each of the two acts, so our presence in the show is definitely felt.”
Calliope provided all the aerial equipment and rigging used in “Barnum” — nine pieces in all — as well as eight young performers, ages 8 to 17, in the show.
“Performance is a very important part of what we do,” Paxton said. “When we work with an organization, we will do an eight- to 12-week program, and each program concludes with the participants putting on a performance that usually plays into the culture of the organization.
“The kids really put their heart and soul into these performances, whether it’s part of one of our programs or in ‘Barnum,’ ” Paxton said. “We had a lot of challenges in ‘Barnum,’ and it was good for the kids to see that creating art is a struggle. Maybe not everything goes according to plan, but you work together in a way that lifts everyone up.”
For more information on Calliope Youth Circus, go to facebook.com/calliopeyouthcircus.