While many performing arts students participate in traditional programs such as band, choir, and orchestra, others seek a more non-traditional artistic medium: the circus. Since the Stone Soup Circus was founded in 2008, many high schoolers, including Iona Binnie ’15, Nora Schultz ’15, and Natasha Shatzkin ’15, have been learning, performing, and teaching through this organization, which has now attracted many members from various local communities. The three seniors, who have been with the circus since its beginning, perform aerials, do tightwire, juggle, unicycle, and more.
Founded by Zoë Brookes, Binnie’s mother, the Stone Soup Circus started out in the basement and garage of their home and has since rented a space and expanded. “Now we’ve joined another business, so it’s a much larger thing in Hillsborough,” said Binnie. The circus offers classes and camps for children of many ages and puts on various performances with them. “We’re bringing in thousands of students every week … It’s really exciting,” she said.
Through this expansion, the circus’ effect on the community has been steadily growing, positively influencing the lives of those involved. “[The circus] brings people together in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily expect,” said Schultz. “You just get people [working together] who wouldn’t ordinarily ever talk to each other.”
The circus itself has evolved from a traditional to more of a contemporary circus, which is different and can require a little more work. Shatzkin said, “There’s the traditional, which [includes] three-ring, ring master, animals, and strong men, and there’s contemporary, which is a lot more like theater and dance,” she said. “Whereas a traditional circus doesn’t have necessarily [a] full story, contemporary circus is a lot more [about the] story and [is] character-based.”
For these students, there are many aspects of the circus to participate in, and the work put into each component can add up. “Every week I teach … two hours of class for younger kids, [am in] a two hour class … and I help with the sets,” Shatzkin said. “Near showtime, I usually spend about three hours in a meeting with other people in the circus that week and probably two by myself just preparing.”
Although circus can be a time-consuming extracurricular, it does not have to be as demanding as other after-school activities. Students can choose to take classes only once a week or every day at the Hillsborough location. “You can be as committed as you want to be,” Shatzkin said. “People get out what they put in. The more people practice at home, the more exciting skills they have to show off.”
In addition to teaching and practicing, many high schoolers in the program have taken to directing. Not only is there a group for high schoolers in which they direct their own shows, but there are also opportunities for individual students to direct their own shows. “I directed our big show last year—it was a lot of fun,” said Shatzkin. Although no schools exist that solely prepare students for a circus-directing career, Shatzkin said that if she were to continue with circus, she would be interested in directing.
Through countless hours of working both at Stone Soup and other locations, Binnie has been able to improve her skills and add new acts over the years. “I think that right now, the most skilled people are [high schoolers],” she said. “We’ve been doing it for several years and have gone to other places for training.”
In addition to instructing the more experienced high schoolers, Stone Soup also teaches children as young as five years old. “My mom likes to say that everyone in Princeton has been in the circus or will be part of the circus,” said Binnie. “A lot of people don’t realize that kids can do this kind of thing—it creates a really good space for kids who have a hard time at home or at school.”
The students who teach have been able to witness the growth in the children they work with. “You watch kids start to gain a lot of confidence in their abilities and their ability to work with others,” said Schultz. “[It’s] a pretty amazing thing to watch, and so that’s why teaching is great.”
After high school, many of the Stone Soup members plan to continue circus in college. “I am hoping to either join or start a circus club in college because I can’t imagine not doing circus,” Binnie said. “I’m not going to be a performer, but there’s always a place for me at the circus.”
Since its founding, the Stone Soup Circus has impacted not only these PHS students (who have been in it since its beginning), but also the community. “It’s a very positive environment, reinforcing self-esteem and teaching [people] to work together,” Binnie said. “People are trying to use [circus] to influence communities.”