Children the world over love a circus. But young people who are visually or hearing impaired can find it nearly impossible to join in on the fun. Since 1983, the producers of New York’s Big Apple Circus have been bringing those special needs children into the act with the annual "Circus of the Senses" program.
Midway through a recent performance, all of the action takes place in a small, one-ring production. About 1,200 children - most of them visually or hearing impaired - sit in rapt attention, their faces aglow in the show’s dancing, colored lights.
As they watch the impossible body-bending moves of Mongolian contortionists, announcers describe the action from a sound booth located behind the crowd.
"Oh, my! There's one young lady on the pedestal and everybody else is balancing in some kind of backbend on her."
"When we say back bend, it's all the way, their legs are almost to their heads."
Paul Binder and Michael Christensen's commentary goes directly into headsets worn by the visually impaired children. Binder and Christensen co-founded the non-profit Big Apple Circus in 1977 to make this traditional and popular form of entertainment more accessible to communities across the country.
"So in that spirit, we want to make the delight, the joy, the wonder, the excitement of the one-ring circus available to as many varied populations as we can," says Christensen.
He says the idea for the Circus of the Senses arose when they realized some populations need extra help to share in the circus fun. In order to bring the experience to the visually impaired, the two received extensive coaching from professional 'audio describers' and from blind people. Christensen says they learned that their running descriptions had to stay ahead of the action in the ring, and ahead of the excited gasps from the 'seeing' crowd. It's not enough to merely react.
"If you cannot see our show and we are describing a triple somersault, and we describe that triple somersault as it happens, you may hear the audience around you gasp because they will see the somersaults, so you are kind of left out of that gasp," says Christensen. "So whenever we can, we anticipate that triple somersault, so that you hear it described at the same time people see it so you can join the collective gasp."
Christensen adds that he and Binder take pains to be careful with the speech they use. But the blind people who coach them have warned them against being too careful.
"We were always very sensitive about phrases like ‘Look at that!,’ or ‘Did you see that!' And when we brought that issue up to the blind person who was giving us notes, he said "Don’t worry about that. That’s silly. Just say it like that. It’s fine.'"
The deaf and hard of hearing are also fully accommodated at the Circus of the Senses. Anne Tramon, who helped create Circus of the Senses, notes performance features several highly-trained American Sign Language interpreters. Tramon also helped to develop a headphone device that uses infrared light to convey sound to listeners faster than sound waves.
"And because you are isolating the sound, you are taking sound directly from the stage through the (audio) feed, you are getting this pure sound and you can still hear the audience because it’s not completely blocked, your ear," she says. "And to see a child truly experience something they could never experience before, it’s just amazing. It does the heart good."
After the show is over, there is a special touch session, where young audience members can enter the ring, meet the performers and touch the animals they may not have been able to see, or see well.
"We as performers actually get to meet the audience. It’s not just the audience getting to meet us and getting to pet a dog or a goat or a horse today," says Barry Lubin, a professional clown with the circus. "Some of these people I’ve seen since they were very young. And now they’re getting older and their families are still bringing them to Circus of the Senses. It’s a neat experience for me every year."
The Circus of the Senses, which will be performed twice this year in New York and Boston, is not the only community service performed by the Big Apple Circus. It also sponsors Clown Care, a program which sends clowns and the cheer they bring to pediatric hospitals.