Everywhere you look in Somerville there’s evidence of residents transforming spaces meant for one thing into something completely different. So was the case when artist Be Sargent transformed a burned-out foundry into a theater more than 30 years ago. In 1985, the theater board decided to focus on children’s programming and OPENAIR Circus was born.
Fast-forward three decades and the nonprofit community group is now led by Peter Jehlen, who was one of the theater’s first students all those years ago. OPENAIR’s main focus is on its summer circus program, where a month of classes and a week of rehearsals culminates in four performances in August in Conway Park.
At first the group taught a few classes–stilting, juggling, clowning and tumbling–which have now been expanded to include skills like hula hooping, miming, devil sticks and stage combat, among others.
“We add new skills as we have the available teachers,” Jehlen said. It was his mom, Pat Jehlen, who is still involved in OPENAIR, who encouraged him to go from taking classes to teaching them. In addition to his duties leading the circus, Jehlen teaches stilting and stage combat.
And Jehlen isn’t the only OPENAIR alum who has returned to the circus as an adult. Many of the students who started as young children now participate as teachers.
“There are about 12 teens who are teachers this year who have gone through the ranks as well as a few adults,” Jehlen said.
While OPENAIR is open to anyone, Jehlen says that families tend to return year after year to participate. Most people discover the circus through word of mouth or at events like ArtBeat, where OPENAIR led a stilting workshop.
“It’s a great introduction to circus arts and arts in general,” Jehlen said. “It instills a love for outdoor activity and a sense of self-esteem. It’s a thing not everyone has a chance to do. We let people from every financial background do it.”
Kids as young as 3 can participate in the circus and there are classes for all ages and ability levels. Registration, which costs $20 per person or $30 per family, starts at the beginning of June. There are five weeks of classes during the summer that take place in parks around Somerville. Then there’s a week of rehearsals before the big shows.
Two-hundred kids will take to the stage at this year’s OPENAIR performances to show off what they’ve learned. The circus has shows on Friday, August 1 at 7 p.m., Saturday, August 2 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and on Sunday, August 3 at 2 p.m. at Conway Park. There is a $3 suggested donation.
“I feel like the city is very into arts being available to the community,” Jehlen said. “This is allowing the community to give back. That’s a big part of what makes the circus the circus.”