Gina Latcheran and her son Eric have always loved the beauty, comedy and drama of a circus. Even after seeing the show, they would buy a video of the show so they could watch it again and again at home.
“We enjoyed going to something that brought out the kid in both of us. We could act stupid and put on our (clown) hats and noses,” Gina said. But more than that, it was an equalizing experience. “Everyone around us, we were all the same. You didn’t see different skin colors and different accents – everyone was laughing, smiling, clapping and in awe, and you were all doing it together.
Eric, with Down syndrome, and Gina, parishioners of the Saint-Timothée de Chantilly church, had been waiting for this particular circus for a long time. Omnium: A Bold New Circus, according to the website, is a non-profit organization with a “unified, multi-faceted, multi-racial and versatile” cast and a show designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.
On a recent Saturday afternoon – the show’s debut after an earlier postponement – some excited patrons rushed to their seats, while others lingered in the lobby to buy popcorn, cotton candy dad, bright toys or t-shirts. When the curtain rose, the audience saw hula hoopers, unicyclists jumping rope, aerial acrobats and Frisbee retrieving dogs – performances enhanced by swirling fog, colored lights and theatrical music. The crowd laughed at the clowns’ antics, held their breath during daring balancing acts, and clapped in relief and amazement when a round went off without a hitch. Behind all the action, glowing letters at the back of the stage spelled out the word Omnium – which means “of all” in Latin.
Lisa B. Lewis, Founder and Executive Director, wanted to create something special with Omnium. She has been involved in the circus since she attended clown college. “I felt at home – this is where I belong,” Lewis said. She now works to make sure it’s a place where everyone can feel like they belong.
The inspiration came when she was volunteering for an annual circus show that had accommodations for the deaf and blind. “The more I did, the more I fell in love with the diversity of the population and the potential for joy that we could bring to this underserved group of people,” she said. “As wonderful as this (annual show) is, there was so much more we could do.”
So Lewis and other Omnium members created a show with everyone in mind. More than 25% of Omnium artists, staff and crew are disabled. Aerialist Jen Bricker-Bauer, for example, was born without legs. But how all audience members could better experience the show was at the forefront of their plans.
“Sometimes you’ll go to a show as a deaf person and the sign language interpreter is around, and so you have to watch the interpreter and miss the whole show,” Lewis said. “So we integrated (our interpreter) throughout the production to ensure that your experience was a complete experience. The show is fully described in audio for the blind and visually impaired. The entire production has been designed with sensory sensitivities in mind (and we have) relaxed seating areas for people to talk and express their joy and move around. We keep the music at a reasonable level. We don’t use strobe lights (because) they trigger epilepsy.
Omnium is still slowly building a tour, Lewis said. They plan to perform next in Queens, NY, and hopefully return to the Washington area in a few months.
After Gina heard about Omnium online, she and Eric quickly became personally involved. Before the opening show at Tysons’ Capital One Hall on February 26, they put up posters advertising Omnium wherever they could. Gina is now part of the board of directors. Eric and his fellow Knights of Columbus from the Assembly of Acts of the Apostles in Chantilly volunteered to present the colors as Eric’s favorite performer, Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson, sang the national anthem.
The circus plot loosely revolves around Iverson’s story of growing from popcorn seller to performer, and encourages everyone to believe in his ability to persevere and achieve great things, using the phrase “I am possible”. Gina sees the show as a beautiful celebration of unity. “I get goosebumps thinking about the impact this has had so far, and it will continue,” she said.
Turning a diverse group of people into a cohesive community pretty much sums up circus life, said Father Frank Cancro, a clown-turned-priest from the Diocese of Charlotte who is now the national circus chaplain. Father Cancro and other members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops‘ Circus and Traveling Performing Arts ministry serve carnivals, motor-track workers, and circuses such as the Omnium. Father Cancro offered an opening prayer for the company and was there to see his premiere.
Learn more about the sacraments in the central ring
Father Cancro travels with companies to offer the sacraments to circus people. He sees his work primarily as a ministry of presence not just for the roughly 40% of circus people who are Catholic, but for everyone in the show. He said one of the best compliments he received from a circus member without a church was that having a chaplain around was like having a grandfather around. “We’re really there for people in those times when there’s a real need to meet a listening ear or a loving heart, and there’s a testimony there,” Fr. Cancro said. “I think the face of God is revealed all the time in there.”
Father Cancro said he was delighted to attend the launch of Omnium and to support it. “I think inclusion is what helps us understand the common dignity we all share as God’s creation,” he said. “And I think (the) circus community celebrates that in a classic way. You have people from many different languages and from many different countries coming together to do a particular show. In this case, people with different abilities came here specifically to shape something for everyone.