The circus is in town! The circus is in town! Well, not exactly the circus. It’s a Circus Festival that runs from June 3 to 13 as part of a collaboration between Philadelphia’s FringeArts and the Circadium School of Contemporary Circus. Called “Hand to Hand” it’s two weeks of live, IN PERSON, yes I said in person (woot! woot!) events spread throughout the city. There are both indoor and outdoor performances and workshops, and safety measures are in place for both.
The festival kicks off on June 3rd with “Test Flights” which is a special circus-themed edition of the popular Fringe works-in-progress series Scratch Nights. The night will feature emerging Philadelphia circus artists showcasing their talents. Want to see if you have the skill to be the next star of America’s Got Talent? On June 12th, check out the Circus Midway, a day of free outdoor workshops and pop-up performances by the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. You can learn basic aerial acrobatics, juggling, tightwire, plate spinning, and more from the school’s teachers and performers. Want to be the cool parent, or in my case aunt? All ages are welcome so bring the kiddies and learn something together.
The festival wraps up on the 13th, but there are plenty of things to check out during the 2 weeks of entertainment including a live, outdoor event titled “Monday is Years Long.” The piece is a combination of circus, dance, and theatre that will “examine the contradictions and overlaps between isolation and virtual closeness.” We had a chance to speak to one of the talented performers, Hayden Simpson.
So where does Hayden hail from?
I’m originally from Victorville, California. It’s a little desert town in SoCo. pretty much right between Vegas and LA.
Tell me a little about the family?
I’m an only child; my mother is a single mother, but my grandparents are amazing, so it’s really been my mom and my abuelos all my life. I’m very, very grateful for all three of them and love them very much.
Abuelos? What is your background? Simpson doesn’t sound like a very Latinx name.
[Laughing] No! No, it doesn’t. I’m Argentinian.
What does mom do, is she in the arts?
No, my mom is a nurse. She’s a postpartum nurse and earlier this year she was a Covid nurse.
Wow, it must have been a tough year.
Oh yeah, they floated her from postpartum to Covid duties and then kept her on that floor until recently when things settled down a bit.
Did you ever have any desire to follow her footsteps into the medical field?
I did not. My mom very much tried to push me in that direction but told her that I don’t do well with needles and I’m not good with math, so that was never going to work. But I very much admire what she does and am so proud of her. It’s a beautiful calling, just not for me.
I’m there with you and needles. One of the things I’m most looking forward to as the end of the pandemic is upon us, is the day I can watch TV without a news break showing someone getting a needle shoved in their arm or can flip through a newspaper without seeing someone smiling as a nurse injects them. As someone needle phobic, I think I have PTSD from it!
Oh my God, I’m right with you, it’s everywhere! I especially hate when they pop up in Youtube ads! I can’t take needles, to this day when I get a shot, I have to look away. The doctors are always like, “but you have tattoos!” and I’m like, but that’s different.
If I asked your mom what you were like as a kid, what would she say?
I think she would say I was a very caring kid, a little bit of an outsider from the other kids, but also that I was very funny and goofy and probably annoying at times!
What would be an example of you as a caring kid?
There was a time when I found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest, I was about 4 years old. I spent all of my time making sure it was alive and taken care of. After a while the bird used to follow me around and my mom would comment on how gentle and nurturing I was, especially for a boy at that age, and how I always seemed to know when something needed help and how to help them.
Nice! Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?
[Laughing] I wanted to be a veterinarian. That was my little dream until I got into middle school. And realized that being a vet also entailed needles and blood, etc.
So instead you basically joined the circus!
Yes, with the help of my mom I enrolled in Circadium College in Philadelphia.
That’s a big jump from one coast to the other.
It was; I had a very interesting first year. It took me a while to adjust, I went from living the life of a teenager at home to suddenly having to be an adult by myself, miles from home.
What is your major?
My major is in aerial acrobatics with a minor in contortion.
That’s so cool. If I remember correctly, Circadium is the first state-licensed higher education program for circus in the country, so it’s a legit degree. What got you into the circus arts?
I went to a performing arts school from 7th through 12th grade and started doing aerial training in 8th grade. I also studied acting until about the middle of senior year and I wasn’t crazy about it so I concentrated on circus training so that I could start auditioning for schools.
How did the fam feel about that?
They were very supportive actually. My mom is the one who made it happen, she’s the one who did the research and found Circadium for me. I was going to audition for École nationale de cirque in Canada until she found this place.
You’re an aerialist; any frightening moments in flight?
I was doing the senior directed show at school and one of the riggers apparently failed to check out the trapeze I was supposed to perform on because just before I was supposed to go on I noticed that the whole trapeze was kind of twisted. So in the 10-15 seconds of dark before I was supposed to perform, I had to run to the side to lower the trapeze, untwist it, run back to raise it again and then get back to my mark!
Yikes! Glad you noticed it. I assume you don’t have a fear of heights.
I actually do! It varies, when I was training silks, it wasn’t as bad, but doing lyra elevated it a little.
What is a lyra?
It’s the big circular apparatus that is suspended in the air.
Ah, the big hoop thingie. That’s my technical term. So switching topics, looking back were there any early signs that you were gay?
Oh yes, I was always playing with Barbie dolls and mermaid dolls; I stayed far away from any of the “traditional” boy toys. I definitely drifted more towards feminine things, and as I got older and was going through puberty I began to notice that I was attracted to men. Thanks to my middle school I was exposed to a lot of people within the LGBTQ community and they were pretty welcoming. That helped me flourish and accept my sexuality and by freshman year I was able to say, “Ok, I’m gay and it’s 100% okay.” I was so happy to be able to find that within myself.
I would imagine being in a progressive school like that made a big difference.
Oh yeah, in elementary school, the big thing was to use the world “gay” as a slur. I was called it often, I guess as a way to try to make me feel bad. It’s what kept me from accepting myself at a younger age. In my young brain I was afraid of being judged. But going to a progressive school allowed me to understand that it was okay and completely natural.
Right on. What are some of the circus skills that you have and what’s your favorite to perform?
I am skilled in aerial silks, aerial lyra, aerial hammock, and I have a good amount of knowledge in trapeze, but I’d honestly say that my favorite apparatus is aerial silks. I have trained with them all through high school and now college, and my second favorite would be the lyra.
What’s fulfilling about what you do? What part gets you emotionally?
When you’re getting in the moment, there’s a connection between you and the apparatus. It’s like your body takes over and your mind shuts up for a little bit. My mind races at 100 miles an hour with too many thoughts, so when I’m fully connected with my apparatus and focusing on that, it’s a beautiful thing and very fulfilling for me. It’s been my escape many times and it brings my joy. The other aspect that brings me joy is that idea that I could spark some emotion or be an inspiration to someone in the audience. I remember I was a kid going to a Cirque du Soleil show and being awestruck, thinking “This is it, this is what I want to do as a job.” The idea that I could, or maybe have been, that inspiration for someone is exciting.
Tell me about the festival show you have coming up on June 5th, “Hand to Hand.”
It’s going to be great. The theme is about isolation and trying to connect in a virtual world and finding yourself within that isolation. It’s a beautiful show being performed by me and my classmates. I have a solo bit during the opener and then there’s a main show. I’m really excited for people to come and see it. And it’s free!
Is it choreographed?
It’s an ensemble piece, so it was mostly put together by the students, with a little feedback from the teachers. It was difficult but very interesting and a great learning experience.
And I’m sure it will be exciting to be in front of a live audience again.
I CAN’T WAIT! We have not been in front of actual people in some time so we’re on the edge of our seats waiting for the day. And it’s exciting to get over the very heavy times we’ve all been going through.
Amen to that, okay, some rapid fire questions. Something you enjoy that others think is a chore?
Sweeping. I enjoy sweeping.
If you could talk to any species of animal, what would it be?
My cat Bumble! I’d love to know what she’s thinking!
Any phobias, other than heights?
Spiders. I know most people don’t like them, but I’m to the point that if I see a spider in a room, I won’t go in there for a few days. I got bit by a brown recluse once and that cemented my fear and dislike for them. I think they’re interesting, as long as they’re outside and far away.
What’s the hardest test you’ve ever taken?
The PSAT’s, they made us take it in 11th grade. It was horrible… so horrible. So much math, so much English, let’s just say I didn’t score well.
That’s why we go to arts school.
Ever have any celebrity encounters?
I have not. Wait! I was in the audience of “America’s Got Talent” and I touched Simon Cowell’s hand.
Do you remember who performed or who won that year?
I don’t, it was so long ago. I was in 10th grade.
Oh, way back in the olden days! You’re still in school; it couldn’t have been that long ago.
[Laughing] That’s true, I’m only 20, but I still don’t remember!
When did you last cry?
Yesterday, but they were happy tears. I suffer from bi-polar disorder and this year has been very rough. My moods fluctuate from mania to depression, mania then depression, and it’s taken me a while to get it under control, but I’ve made some changes recently and it’s helped me feel stable emotionally and that’s what had me crying with joy. There was a sense of relief that I wasn’t feeling under stress anymore.
If you’re comfortable talking about it, when were you first diagnosed and how has it affected you both positively and negatively?
I’m perfectly comfortable. I was diagnosed in 2018, near the end of my senior year. In a positive way, it’s taught me to be more understanding and empathetic, especially to people with different mental health issues. A lot of people can be caring but unless you’ve been through it, you won’t fully understand. I try to be patient with people because you never really know what someone is dealing with in their personal lives.
I’ve noticed that it’s become much more mainstream to talk about mental health. Does it help when people like Demi Lovato speak out about their struggles?
It does, it helps a lot. Personally, it lets me know that I’m not the only one, it’s very validating and I appreciate the awareness that it brings to the issue. I see more information about research being done as a result, which is great. Bi-polar has its own sets of challenges. Sometimes when I’m happy, it’s hard to know if I’m truly happy or is it mania, and am I really just sad, or am I hitting a depressive episode? So to see that people are talking about it and working on it makes me feel better about things.
Thanks for sharing that. Back to rapid fire, what’s a song that makes you smile?
There’s a song called, “Wherever we Go” by Pink. I love her because she’s a great artist, a great mom and she’s an aerialist!
And you know she’s from this area too. My old babysitter used to give her vocal lessons.
Really? Yo! That’s so amazing! My dream is to someday perform as an aerial artist with or for Pink or Taylor Swift.
What’s a favorite motto?
The quote that I say to myself often, especially when I’m going through a hard time is, “As long as I can breathe, I’ll be okay”. If I find myself falling apart, I look in the mirror and ask myself, “Are you breathing? If the answer is yes, then you’re okay”.
And what can people look forward to at the show?
They can look forward to being amazed at the incredibly talented artists performing, they can look to excitement and to be emotionally touched. A great performance all the way around.