Everyone knows Jennifer Miller—or at least that's how it seems when we're sitting on her stoop shooting the shit on an early September afternoon. Neighbors wave. The head of a queer media collective drops by to ask a few questions. The son of the owner of a deli in her old neighborhood mentions she hasn't visited in a while. So long, in fact, that the deli's now closed.
"It's the beard." She rolls her eyes and points to her chin. "They don't forget."
Though she's now a tenure-track professor at the Pratt Institute, once upon a time, Miller worked as the "woman with a beard" at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore. In fact, the circus has been her life for the last 30 years. At various points she's been a clown, a juggler, and a freak; nowadays she's the slack-rope-walking, stilt-striding, shit-stirring ringleader of the free, mostly-annual political spectacle known as Circus Amok, which brings together a lot of glitter, a little klezmer, and a complex story about social justice told through puppets, juggling, and acrobatics. Every September for the last 20 years, they've performed a new show in parks all around the five boroughs—though her most recent circus may be their last, Miller tells me.
"But many people will tell you I've said this before," she sighs with a chagrined look. It's clear that she loves the circus; it's also clear that putting it on, year after year, takes a toll.
Circus Amok started at PS 122 in 1989 as the Stratospheric Circus Company. Miller moved from San Francisco to New York in the early 80s with a background in clowning, street theater, and postmodern dance, dating back to her childhood in Hartford, Connecticut. From the beginning, she knew she wanted to create the kind of free outdoor circus that she had worked with in California, but with a more pronounced political bent.
Why combine circus and social justice? Partly because the two are both Miller's interests, but the combination also makes some historical sense: The circus is traditionally a populist form attracting performers who have been marginalized by society. "It's a language that can speak to all kinds of people on all kinds of levels," Miller says. "And I certainly knew that postmodern dance wasn't going to hold them in the parks."
So she rented a cheap loft in Williamsburg, complete with a view of Manhattan, and started hosting informal "Circus Sundays."
"It was coffee, pastries from the Hasidic corner store, marijuana, smoked fish, cucumbers, and coffee—did I say coffee?" says choreographer and performance artist Scotty Heron, one of the Circus's original members. "Oh! And Joan Armatrading and Nina Simone on the record player."
Long-limbed and a little goofy, it's easy to imagine Heron clowning it up, but he wasn't a circus artist until he met Miller. This, it turns out, is a common refrain amongst folks who know her. Though she calls herself a "self-hating juggler" because she sees the limitations of the form, Miller is without a doubt a circus evangelist. (Full disclosure: About a decade ago, she taught me to walk a slack rope and a pair of stilts—at least as much as I was capable of learning.) She's been treading the boards so long, the activity belongs to her identity. Even the cadence of her conversation has the rhythm of a barker, drawing you in with a whisper or long pause before delivering her final words with a flourish. This energy suffuses everything she does, attracting cast members and audiences like a magnet.
Jenny Romaine, the circus's musical director, met Miller through lesbian feminist anti-war organizing. A modern dancer by training, Romaine found the loose process of Circus Amok too different from her own to join as a performer. "But I wanted to be in the circus so bad!" she recalls with a laugh. "So I pretended to be a musician." She must be great at pretending, as she's now one of the longest-tenured active members, having participated in every circus since 1994. Romaine corrals the musicians, scores the bits with clashes and fanfares, helps write the text and build the props, and even occasionally appears on stilts. Perhaps more than anyone else, she's seen the circus, and Miller, grow and change over the years.
"She is an American artist who has been wronged," Romaine pronounces suddenly, while telling me about their last few decades of circus work. The frustration in her voice is pronounced. "She is someone, an artist, who has been deeply wronged by structural disregard of the arts," she repeats.
It's a systemic thing, she tells me. Miller is an artist working in one of America's oldest traditions, for decades, creating free, acclaimed performances and bringing them to the people of the city, both to educate and entertain—and yet she's still chasing down funding in the never-ending race that is being a nonprofit artist in America. "If she were in Montreal," Romaine sighs, "this would not happen."
The fact that Miller doesn't aspire to turn Circus Amok into Cirque du Soleil, that she actually wants to continue the circus as a popular, inexpensive, and accessible art form, paradoxically doesn't help critics understand the work. Without some high art aspirations tacked on as a kind of apologia for the form itself, critics relegate the circus to a lowbrow status few critics will engage with, making fundraising for Circus Amok difficult.
Knock another nail into the New York art scene's coffin, I think to myself. It's too hard here now, that's the refrain I hear over and over again. Miller openly discusses the realities of making free, politically engaged, widely appealing art in New York City in 2015. "It wears me out deeply," she sighs. "Raising the money, and doing the logistics, and I gotta get people and I gotta call, and and and..."
And it all shows up in the work because she makes the money problems a part of her art. "I can only make a piece if I find a way into it," she tells me. "One of the things I'm grappling with in this circus is aging."
The main thrust of her most recent show is a meditation on climate change. Miller plays the older of the show's two goddesses, an embittered but still hopeful nature spirit whose compatriot reminds her of the successes of various social justice movements—though that list includes things like "we're only lynching one black man a week."
This highlights a hard truth: Social justice work is often a slow shuffle, a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of dance. Climate change, police brutality, gentrification—looking back through 25 years of Circus Amok shows, certain issues come up again and again, as they have for the city itself. In the wake of last year's police killing of Eric Garner, Miller briefly considered bringing back a skit relating to the 1999 Amadou Diallo police brutality case, but decided to stick with climate change since there was so much organizing happening around the People's Climate March. There are so many battles to fight, it's difficult to choose one.
"Despair is a sin!" Miller jokes when I ask how she keeps going. Then she sighs. "It gets hard on the soul. Hard on the energy."
If there's one thing the circus requires, it's energy. From the moment they hit the stage, the cast is on—flipping, quipping, dancing, and dipping. It's the sugar that helps their social justice medicine go down. But their constant energy is also, in and of itself, a message about rejecting despair. Change is predicated on hope. It is the plan we make and the energy we use to carry it out; it picks us up when we fall and leads us when we succeed.
And Miller has so much of it. When I ask if she would move to New York now, were she young and wanting to make this kind of work, she pauses for a very long time. I've been asking this question a lot recently, plagued by my own second-guessing of this city, and I know this pause. It means, "I'm looking for the right way to say no."
But like the great ringleader she is, Miller surprises me. "I might encourage myself to stay." She has caveats—keep your overhead low, be willing to fail—and she doesn't believe any artist needs to be here. If you want it, go for it, but no matter what, do something. Take classes. Apprentice. Or grab some friends, snag a big space somewhere cheap, and do it your-effing-self.
She's not alone in her thinking. None of the members of Circus Amok that I spoke to were ready to encourage their hypothetical younger selves to decamp from the city yet. They see signs of hope everywhere, from the "solidarity economy" developing in Brooklyn to the new commissioner for the Department of Cultural Affairs appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Their work is rooted in the history of New York as much as it is in the history of the circus, and the love they hold for this city is evident in the work—and because they continue to do this, for little money, year after year.
Which begs the question: Will there be a circus this year? Miller doesn't commit one way or another, but I suspect the circus will perform again. "Sometimes I'm done with it," Miller tells me at one point, but a few seconds later she's extolling me about how lucky she is. "What a gift to bring this gorgeous, buoyant, meaningful thing free to the parks."
That's what keeps her going and keeps us coming to see her. Miller sees this work as a gift—not one she is giving to us, but one she has been given by us. It is the sentiment of a compulsive artist, one who cannot help but create the work she loves, and it drives her to be worthy of our attention: to create great art, with great meaning, for a great city. For as long as the parks are packed with eager audiences, I suspect Jennifer Miller will be there to meet them, in one form or another.