‘Webs’ interweaves activism, high-flying circus arts, humor

Published 8:47 am Tuesday, October 22, 2019

JOHNSON CITY — 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 can 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. the Bud Frank Theatre at East Tennessee State University. The performance is sponsored by ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts.

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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 that 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. 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, and 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 “Webs” stories are 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.”

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 and 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 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 (and her troupe) 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.”

Tickets for “Webs: A Circus Confronting Sexualized Violence … with humor, tragedy and empathy” are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors 60 and above and $5 for students. Bud Frank Theatre is located at 1276 Gilbreath Drive, on the first floor of ETSU’s Gilbreath Hall.

For tickets or more information about the Martin School of the Arts, 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.