To the casual observer, the circus seems like fun and games.
For the performers, however, it is hard work, hours and hours of behind-the-scenes practice until they’ve sharpened their skills enough to dazzle an audience with stilt walking, tightwire maneuvers, acrobatic feats, and bold moves on the trapeze.
For the young people within the Trenton Circus Squad, learning their preferred act and art form is as challenging as developing an athletic ability, maybe more so.
Circus arts also require an incredible amount of faith and reliance on each other. Say you’re practicing on a trapeze: you need to know someone’s there to catch you, right?
If it’s an acrobatic ensemble, everyone has to work together, or it’s going to be chaos.
One of the major reasons the Trenton Circus Squad (TCS) was formed was to foster and build this kind of trust between its students, encouraging healthy and helpful relationships.
“Circus arts are challenging, and there’s a lot of trust and team building involved,” says Bradd Marquis Jackson, the squad’s new program manager.
“I like to say that circus arts are easy to learn but difficult to master, requiring focus and discipline,” he adds. “With us, through these learning experiences and habits the youths build, they can take those habits into any area of life and, for example, to grow academically. What they learn here can help them persevere through anything they’re dealing with.”
“The best thing about the group, though, is its family atmosphere,” Jackson says. “It’s a safe space to come and congregate, do their thing and grow, whether it’s through the circus arts, or the other things we help them with: homework, advising about college, just staying out of uncomfortable situations.”
The Trenton Circus Squad was co-founded by Thomas von Oehsen, who is currently the group’s executive director, and Zoe Brookes, the group’s previous program manager. TCS is a nonprofit group that teaches circus skills to children as well as providing meals and several kinds of mentorship.
Another cornerstone of the TCS philosophy is to provide an atmosphere of safety and inclusivity in which people feel able to participate, express themselves, and be heard independently of their gender, race, color, religion, physical ability, mental diagnosis, national or ethnic origin, social status, age, size, sexual orientation, or gender identification.
Basically, if you’ve been shut down or shut up by the inflexibility of modern society (family, school, peer pressure, social stratification) here’s a welcoming place that encourages you to open your heart and blossom.
During the school year the Trenton Circus Squad runs two tracks of student programs, and fall classes and workshops began in early September at the Roebling Wire Works building on South Clinton Avenue.
According to its website the Trenton Circus Squad makes participation free for all members. Donations support the underlying costs of the program and make the experience available to all youths regardless of their ability to pay.
There are eight-week sessions for kids ages 6 through 11, Monday through Friday, where they develop their talents at stilt walking, trapeze, juggling, acrobatics, and more. Workshops are taught by professional circus arts staff and older members of the squad, as well as past members who have graduated.
For youths ages 12 through 18 there are 12-week sessions. Members commit to attending regular sessions, working with others, and giving back to their community through circus.
“The older kids have to be really dedicated because fall, winter, and spring, it’s Monday through Friday, 4 to 7:30 p.m.,” Jackson says.
The squad partners with such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton, Catholic Youth Organization, and Homefront, whose participants come by the busload for workshops from 4 to 5:30.
Experienced squad members who commit to learning an especially challenging set of circus and team-related skills have the chance to join the touring Road Squad, which travels all over the United States. Jackson says they spend most of their time in New Jersey, but have visited circus programs in San Diego, Chicago, and Boston.
The Road Squad also does week-long residencies throughout New Jersey, where they perform and do workshops, Jackson says. This year the squad was in Asbury Park, Camden, and New Brunswick.
In addition to Road Squad appearances, the Trenton Circus Squad performs at public and private events throughout central New Jersey. Last March TCS was part of the Princeton University theater program’s staging of “Odyssey” at McCarter.
The squad has appeared at a private event at the Trenton Country Club, and threw a Spring Extravaganza last June to showcase all the new moves learned throughout the year
The squad will soon be gearing up to show its stuff at this year’s annual fundraiser, slated for Saturday, October 19, and titled “Step Right Up,” with the theme of “Good Vibes.” The show will be held under a “Big Top” tent at the Princeton YMCA at 59 Paul Robeson Place in Princeton.
The performers will balance, swing, twirl, and make you laugh, accompanied with live music provided by the Ever After Band. A special addition this year includes an installation by noted artist and educator Eva Mantell.
Jackson says he has seen some of these young people really flourish through the Trenton Circus Squad, transforming from silent, shy wallflowers to creative, assertive leaders.
“They’re working hard but they love it, and I choke up a little each time I see such growth in an individual, especially some of the young ladies — they’re so reluctant to do stuff,” Jackson says. “Maybe they’re a little out of shape, or they don’t think they have the right skill sets, but once they find even one small thing, that grows and grows. The next thing you know, they’re doing acrobatics, or they’re up on the trapeze.”
“Because of a mental block, they thought they couldn’t do any of this,” he says. “So I love to see them break through. It’s a beautiful thing. We hope these young people might have these relationships 20 or 30 years from now.”
Von Oehsen and Brookes, the co-founders of the Trenton Circus Squad, had been on the nonprofit, executive, and academic scenes in the Trenton-Princeton area for years, but they also had a passion for the three rings tucked alongside their more traditional roles.
Von Oehsen, who was longtime administrative director of Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, studied in 1981 at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College at its winter headquarters in Venice, Florida.
His experiences there, learning from such famed clowns as Lou Jacobs, have carried forward to the Trenton Circus Squad, especially for the kids learning the art of clowning.
“Lou was one of my instructors, and I spent a lot of time with him because he was in charge of teaching slapstick and pratfalls,” Von Oehsen says. “My fondest memory is of him teaching me the proper way to hold a mop. To this day, some of my favorite Circus Squad clown skits utilize a mop. Lou would be so proud.”
For more than 15 years before starting Trenton Circus Squad, he ran a two-week summer program in Princeton called Clown Academy. “When I expanded the pool of students to include kids from Trenton and added a service component to the program, that’s when I knew I had something special,” he says.
Brookes had been an executive with Isles, the Trenton community development agency, but she had also run the Stone Soup Circus program in Princeton, as well as Circus Place in Hillsborough.
The two met and realized they both had a desire to utilize circus arts as a way for mentoring youths. They began brainstorming in the summer of 2014 and opened the doors to the Trenton Circus Squad in 2015
In addition to cultivating an individual’s skills and self-esteem, the squad likes to pair participants from different backgrounds — inner city kids with suburban youngsters for example — to teach acceptance of others, and nurture diversity.
Fifty percent of the youths are from the inner city neighborhoods of Trenton, but kids also travel in from the Jersey Shore and from North Jersey. “We even have a lot of folks from Princeton,” Jackson says. “It’s a lot of collaboration, a good opportunity to be around others not from the Trenton community. They meet and help each other with different issues.”
Jackson is a Trenton native who formerly worked for Millhill Child and Family Development, the Trenton Area Stakeholders, and Campfire New Jersey.
He is also a vocalist, performer, and recording artist who grew up in a musical family affiliated with the Union Baptist Church. His parents — a New Jersey State corrections officer father and a former Packard Electric supervisor mother — and extended kinfolk had a gospel troupe called “Family and Friends” that performed and toured up and down the East Coast.
Jackson was a precocious singer, noting that his mother has a newspaper clipping and photo of him onstage at age 4.
“I still sing, but not as frequently,” he says. “Even when I was singing part time, though, I was still working in nonprofits. I was never just a musician.”
He says he has found that working with youths is where he is most comfortable. There he can be a leader and direct them into positive outcomes — and that’s regardless of whether he is onstage or in an office cubicle.
In 2003 he earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Cincinnati with a concentration in African-American studies.
He says the opportunity to join the Trenton Circus Squad came out of nowhere in late 2018 and is one of the most comfortable fits he has ever had in his career.
“I’ve had a lot of the same experiences and challenges these kids are still going through in Trenton, so I can be an asset, I can help them persevere through the challenges and keep building confidence through themselves,” Jackson says. “The Trenton Circus Squad is one of the best organizations for doing this, and the fact that it’s also entertaining is a plus, plus, plus.”
The New Jersey State Council on the Arts seems to have agreed and awarded the Trenton Circus Squad a three-year grant as part of a $15.7 million investment in arts groups across the state.
Step Right Up Annual Fundraiser, Trenton Circus Squad, Princeton YMCA, 59 Paul Robeson Place, Princeton. Saturday, October 19, 6 to 10 p.m. Individual tickets $150; sponsorships are also available. trentoncircussquad.org.