Circus and aerial artist Lissa McLeod enjoys and teaches clowning – but she is very serious about a new performance that she and others from around the country have put together. That doesn’t mean, however, that all moments in “Webs: A Circus Confronting Sexualized Violence …with humor, tragedy and empathy” are solemn.
“I believe that laughing can be a very useful tool,” says McLeod, who teaches circus and aerial arts in Knoxville. “I also love comedy myself, and I love to laugh at something, and sometimes, the thing we are laughing at can, at the same moment, be sort of tragic and not funny, but the ability to laugh about it also takes away some of its power.”
On Thursday, Oct. 24, McLeod and a troupe of artists on a mission will perform “Webs: A Circus Confronting Sexualized Violence … with humor, tragedy and empathy” – for only its fourth time on stage – at 7:30 p.m. in ETSU’s Bud Frank Theatre.
Despite the seriousness of the message, “Webs” director McLeod points out, “It’s so important in people’s journeys to go back to wholeness and to have joy and laughter be part of that journey.”
Created by One World Circus as a project of Dragonfly Aerial and Circus Arts Studio in Knoxville, “Webs” is a physical storytelling project, started in April 2018. The collaborative effort has involved circus artists from across the country, McLeod says, including artists in Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico, Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Tennessee, while the troupe of five performing at ETSU will be from Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
“Webs” stories are told using physical arts including trapeze, aerial fabrics and ropes, spider web, hand balancing, clowning, stilts and improvisational dance – interwoven with spoken word, music and sometimes, the sound of silence. The voice of Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, is the backdrop for one of the “Webs” pieces. “One of the criticisms of the women’s movement is that they are very dominated by middle class white women,” McLeod says, “so I want to make sure we are including the voices of other women fighting for those same things.”
Me Too was part of McLeod’s inspiration to start her own “Webs” journey – so were the allegations of sexual misconduct against ex-Alabama Chief Justice and political candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.
“This [Roy Moore situation] was very much like my experience, and it happened so many years before and yet I still was living with all of the repercussions of that,” McLeod says. “It affected my daily life and I wanted a space as an artist for not only my story to be told, but also for other women to have a way to talk about their experiences …
“If I can tell my own story deeply and authentically then it will resonate with someone else’s story even if our stories aren’t the same.”
The tether that binds “Webs” stories together is laced with humor, compassion and healing. “Circus is the perfect medium for this conversation,” McLeod says. “Circus is an art form that expands what is possible and finds freedom in mind and body. We hope that each show will create a space for survivors to continue their healing process, find each other and name what needs to happen to end rape culture and patriarchy.”
While the mission is indeed of a serious nature, the goal, McLeod says, is for “Webs” to have audience members laughing, experiencing hope and thinking. “This circus invites the audience to enjoy feats of honesty and daring – aerials, acrobatics and spoken word – while imagining a world without limits,” she says. “The show explores why sexualized violence is so prevalent, what it means to experience violence and what healing looks like – both on an individual level and as a society. “While there is discussion of sexual violence, there is no explicit depiction. There are explicit moments of hope and healing.”
Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis learned of the new project through staff member and instructor Jen Kintner, also an aerial artist. “We are so honored to be among the first venues to host a ‘Webs’ performance,” DeAngelis says. “Artists see things through a very different lens, and to have an interpretation of stories about gender-based violence through aerial dance and circus performers, I have no doubt, will be fascinating.”
The ability of the arts to evoke emotion, memory and conversations and inspire healing is foundational to the Martin School of the Arts and motivational for so many artists of all genres.
“Dance, theater, art, can help us to find pathways to healing, to forgiving, to recovering, to being honest and living our lives more fully, or simply to understanding something that may go beyond words,” says Jen Kintner, an ETSU dance instructor and director of Azure Aerial Arts Studio in Johnson City. “As in the days of Greek tragedy, the idea was that through theater, a community could find a way to experience, discuss and work through any difficulties they were having, or wrestle with larger philosophical aspects of being human.
“What Lissa, et al., are working on is much the same kind of thing: to wrestle with a troubling social and deeply personal issue through the symbolism of art and give us all a way to approach, experience and discuss the topic without being utterly burned up in the process.”
McLeod has high hopes for the aerial “Webs” project.
“My hope is that this show is a vehicle for increasing empathy on this subject and for helping survivors continue on their journey of healing,” she says, “and to be a catalyst for larger conversations about how as a culture we’re going to change the culture which allows this to happen over and over again.”
Tickets for “Webs: A Circus Confronting Sexualized Violence … with humor, tragedy and empathy” are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors 60+ and $5 for students. Bud Frank Theatre is located at 1276 Gilbreath Drive, on the first floor of ETSU’s Gilbreath Hall.
For more information about the Martin School of the Arts’ fall events or tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.
Going to the Mat
‘Wrestle’ film features disadvantaged youth, victorious spirits
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – “It’s not equal for all kids growing up, and some kids no matter how hard they try, and how hard they fight and how good they are, the opportunities don’t necessarily exist in equal measure,” says Lauren Belfer, co-director of the new documentary “Wrestle.”
“Wrestle,” a New York Times Critic’s Pick, focuses on the complexities of coming of age when factors of race, poverty and drugs that can drain young athletes’ motivation, as well as opportunities.
On Monday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. in East Tennessee State University’s Ball Hall Auditorium, Mary B. Martin School of the Arts will present a screening of the award-winning 2018 documentary “Wrestle” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers. The film screening is free, open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A and reception with the filmmakers Suzannah Herbert and Belfer.
The film follows four members of an underdog high school wrestling team in Huntsville, Ala., through one competitive season. Mental health, drugs, poverty and unstable home life all try to slam these young athletes to the mat, but they stand up to the test and get back on their feet.
Rotten Tomatoes gave “Wrestle” a 100 percent “fresh” rating. “You think you’re just coming to see a film about sports, but it ends up being about so much more,” Belfer says in an interview with Woodstock Film Fest. “You get a lot of surprise reactions at the end, like ‘I didn’t expect to cry.’ ”
A crucial facet of the film is getting to know these teens. “The kids themselves are what propels ‘Wrestle,’ ” The Playlist says.
“Everyone really connects to the kids,” Belfer says. “It’s really amazing to see.”
Connecting with the wrestlers Jailen, Jamario, Teague and Jaquan is something Herbert and Belfer did a lot of, on and off camera. “We lived in Alabama for six months and filmed over 650 hours to create this 95-minute film,” says Herbert in a Johns Hopkins University Film interview.
The athletes’ school has one of the highest concentrations of poor students in Alabama and it has been listed as failing for years. Resources for athletics are virtually nonexistent, just another bridge these student athletes face.
Director Herbert and co-director Belfer – both of whom have worked on projects with directors Martin Scorsese and Michael Moore and debut as feature directors of “Wrestle”– boiled down the hundreds of hours of vérité footage into a “moving and haunting portrait of four young men fighting to win a golden ticket,” says Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times. “What resulted was not only 650 hours of footage but the benefit of countless additional time spent just hanging out with the protagonists.”
But it’s not about the hours. It’s about the journey. “It’s really a journey of what it’s like to grow up in the South,” Belfer says. “And you know the kids on the team are fairly disadvantaged, so they have a lot of uphill battles and deal with – instances of racism and poverty and teenage pregnancy.”
Add to those off-the-mat battles: splintered family lives, drug use, mental health issues and run-ins with the law.
Tough-love Coach Chris Scribner comes into focus, as well, as he struggles to come to terms with his own past conflicts while coming face to face with the complexities of race, class and privilege in the South.
As “a recovering addict, Scribner is hell-bent on driving these young men to realize the potential he sees in them,” The Playlist says. “This, though, requires him to come to terms with complex societal issues that he, a white man from New York has never dealt with. This education, and the rage that it ignites in him, is one of ‘Wrestle’s’ most compelling and moving threads.”
Audiences and critics have responded not only to the personal journeys, but also the multi-faceted story it unflinchingly tells. “Wrestle” has garnered 11 awards on the festival circuit, including Best Alabama Film at Sidewalk Film Festival, Best Sports Documentary at Hot Springs and Best Documentary at Bahamas International Film Festival and Oxford Film Festival.
Critics have called it “deeply human,” “superb” and full of “raw honesty.”
The honest societal close-up exposes the battles that children fight and how they can have lifelong effects, the constructive and uplifting aspects of fighting things out on the wrestling mat and the importance of supportive coaches, parents and friends in young people’s lives.
While “Wrestle” is a beautiful film, says Anita DeAngelis, director of event sponsor Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, “it has many layers of depth and insights that will no doubt spur much conversation after the screening.”
The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. For more about the film, visit http://www.wrestlefilm.com.
For more information, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.