Brandon Coleman was a young man in a dark place. To cope, he got high.
On the tightrope, that is.
He’s still pretty new to the wire, but even a few inches above the ground, where highwire walkers learn their craft, proved to be the perfect perch from which to take his literal first step towards the prediction his mother used to half-jokingly make—that he would run off and join the circus some day.
If Coleman, who turned 18 on Jan. 10, gets his wish—which has always been, incidentally, to run off and join the circus—his childhood dream of working in the big tops of the world will be the reality of his life.
One year into learning his derring-do, Coleman lives in a much brighter world than he did just 14 or 15 months ago; one bright enough, at least, to see the future.
That wasn’t the case at any point this century, until he found the Trenton Circus Squad. At 17, he was out of school, in therapy, and frequently depressed. Today, he’s officially in love with what lies ahead for him, and for what he’s learning at the Trenton Circus Squad.
The Squad is a nonprofit organization based at the old Roebling Wire Works factory on South Clinton Avenue.
It provides free training in circus skills for kids as young as 6, and all the way through their teens. It’s part of a national Social Circus program (AYCO Social Circus Network) built to help address social issues such as social isolation, the impact of trauma, violence in communities, and the lack of access to arts and cultural activity in what are considered rough neighborhoods, through teaching circus skills.
The kids who attend the Trenton Circus Squad call the place “the factory.” It’s a fun name for a place that once traded in back-rending labor and ceaseless cacophony. These days, the factory has the most colorful and riotous assembly lines you’re likely to find.
And when the kids are there, in the afterschool hours, it’s still not a quiet place. It’s just that in place of industrial machines are juggled pins that whirl and float; limber bodies tumbling past in purple T-shirts; and non-hipsters zipping by on unicycles, non-ironically.
Part of what the Trenton Circus Squad offers the kids who attend is confidence in themselves. For some, it’s the first time in their lives they feel invincible.
“One of the things we hope is that when things are really tough, [kids can discover] power they never knew they had,” said Zoe Brookes, executive director of the Trenton Circus Squad. “They say, ‘My goodness, I can walk on a tightrope wire.’”
Brandon Coleman is living proof.
‘I had a home and a family. You should be grateful, but the way my mind was set up, I didn’t see any future.’
Coleman’s story—which Brookes calls “really quite extraordinary”—reads like so many in the unfortunately cluttered genre of troubled youth. Growing up in Trenton, he said, he had many a battle with depression. Everything he tried, he gave up on. That includes himself.
“I had a home and a family,” he said. “You should be grateful, but the way my mind was set up, I didn’t see any future.”
School didn’t help him see past today either. “School wasn’t really that great for me,” he said. “I got kicked out in 10th grade. For like a year I just stayed in the house.”
He managed to find a job—something unfulfilling and minimum wage that did little to help him break his melancholy.
His depression was bad enough, in fact, to require medication and therapy. But then a suggestion started a U-turn Coleman said he has no interest in reversing.
“My therapist told me to find something to do so I wouldn’t just be in the house,” he said. “They said ‘find something you like doing, not just something to do.”
Coleman searched online for groups offering activities for young people nearby. When he found the Trenton Circus Squad, he said, something clicked.
He’d managed to stumble across a group that would, for free, teach him everything he needed to know to follow his dream of being in a circus some day.
As a little kid, Coleman said, he always loved it whenever Ringling Brothers came to Trenton. He especially loved the elephants.
“I was always really obsessed with animals,” he said. “As a kid I always wanted to work with elephants.”
“Brandon found us,” Brookes said. “He pretty much walked right through our door.”
Turns out, that’s not how it goes mot of the time. Usually, Brookes said, it’s word of mouth that leads someone in the program to bring someone else to the factory, or it’s outreach through other youth groups like the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton, or it’s a recommendation through groups like HomeFront or even from police officers looking to get at-risk kids off the street and into a program that will give them something they need.
But Coleman found his way in on his own about a year ago and, Brookes said, took immediately to the program—especially to the wire, which Coleman said, simply, is his favorite.
“He’s got the skills of someone who’s been doing this for five or six years,” she said.
Coleman said he felt at home the moment he walked through the door. That’s another thing that doesn’t surprise Brookes. The Squad was founded as a safe place in the middle of an unsafe place. She said watching kids walk in and immediately exhale, knowing they’re safe and among friends is a reward unlike any other.
Coleman said he feels safe and at home, but how he’s found his way into the performance side of the circus surprised him a little.
He’d expected that if he were to ever find a career, it would be as a veterinarian so he could work with elephants. He expected that would mean studying the field in college, maybe interning at zoos to get a chance to work with the gray giants.
When he learned the Trenton Circus Squad was located nearby, his first thought was that maybe he’d found a conduit to working with elephants in his own backyard.
For those of you hoping the Trenton Circus Squad has some elephants in the factory, prepare yourselves for disappointment.
‘If I hadn’t found this? I have no idea. It kind of scares me, knowing the place I was before.’
And it’s not like Coleman really expected there to be pachyderms greeting him at the door, but when you stumble across something that gets you closer to your dream, can you really be faulted for hoping there’s maybe a chance something out of a kid’s book could really happen?
Reality turned out to be better than the fantasy for Coleman, though. He might have walked in wanting to find a way to get closer to performing animals, but he is now happily “stuck in the performance” side of circus life.
“Stuck” might sound a little more derogatory than he intends it to. Being stuck in performance is for him a lot like being stuck with free college tuition or stuck with a starting salary above $75,000 a year.
And his skills are getting him places already. In January, Coleman made his professional debut as a wire walking artist at the Newark Museum, representing the Trenton Circus Squad during a Social Circus Show.
In March, he’s slated for a performance in New York City, about which he said he is both nervous and excited. This time he’ll be going solo, representing himself.
Coleman’s hard work on the wire—he is usually at the factory five days a week, from 4 to 7 p.m. (i.e., when the factory is open) working on his act—has garnered the attentions of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, for which he is busily putting together an audition.
He’s even getting some personal training from the school before he applies. Coleman said he may also look to do formal training at Circadium School of Contemporary Circus (at the same location as PSCA) in the future.
“This is the longest I’ve stayed with something,” he said. It’s also the longest he’s not been on medication for quite a few years.
Does he see himself in Cirque du Soleil some day? Perhaps. Or maybe some other circus. Whichever he’s eventually likely to run away with, there is an actual future in the way Coleman’s mind is set up these days. And there is genuine gratitude in his heart for the Trenton Circus Squad.
“If I hadn’t found this?” he said. “I have no idea. It kind of scares me, knowing the place I was before.”