TYSONS, Virginia — Gina Latcheran and her son Eric always loved the beauty, comedy and drama of a circus. Even after seeing the show, they would buy a video of the performance so they could watch it over and over again at home.
“We liked going to something that brought out the kid in both of us. We could act silly and put on our hats and our (clown) noses,” said Gina.
But more than that, it was an equalizing experience.
“Everyone around us, we were all the same. You didn’t see different colors of skin and different accents — everybody was laughing, smiling, cheering, and in awe, and you were all doing it together,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.
Eric, who has Down syndrome, and Gina, parishioners of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, Virginia, had been waiting for this particular circus for a long time: Omnium: A Bold New Circus. According to its website — omniumcircus.org — it is a not-for-profit organization with a “uniquely unified, multitalented, multiracial and multiabled” cast and a show designed to be accessible to those with disabilities.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the show debuted just outside Washington in Tysons after an earlier postponement. Some excited patrons hurried to their seats, while others lingered in the lobby to buy popcorn, cotton candy, light-up toys or T-shirts.
When the curtain rose, the audience saw hula hoopers, jump-roping unicyclists, acrobatic aerialists and Frisbee-fetching dogs — performances heightened by swirling fog, colorful lights and theatrical music.
The crowd laughed at the antics of the clowns, held their breath during daring balancing acts, and clapped with relief and amazement when a trick went off without a hitch. Behind all the action, glowing letters at the back of the stage spelled out the word “Omnium” — meaning “of all” in Latin.
Lisa B. Lewis, founder and executive director, wanted to create something special with Omnium. She’s been involved with the circus ever since she attended clown college.
“I felt at home — this is where I belong,” said Lewis. She’s now working to ensure it’s a place where everyone can feel like they belong.
The inspiration came when she was volunteering on a once-a-year circus show that had accommodations for deaf and blind people.
“The more I did it, the more I just fell in love with the diverse population and the potential of the joy that we could bring to this underserved group of people,” she said. “As wonderful as that (yearly show) was, 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’s performers, staff and crew have disabilities. Aerialist Jen Bricker-Bauer, for example, was born without legs. But how all audience members could best experience the show was at the forefront of their plans.
“Sometimes you’ll go to see a show as a deaf person and the sign language interpreter is over in the corner, and so you have to watch the interpreter and miss the entire show,” said Lewis.
“So we’ve integrated (our interpreter) throughout the production so that your experience is a full experience. The show is completely audio described for those who are blind and vision impaired,” she explained.
“The entire production was designed with sensory sensitivities in mind (and we have) relaxed seating areas for people who want to talk and express their joy and move around,” she added. “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, said Lewis. They planned to perform next in the New York borough of Queens and hoped to return to the Washington area in a few months.
After Gina learned about Omnium online, she and Eric soon became personally involved. Ahead of the opening show at Capital One Hall in Tysons Feb. 26, they put up posters advertising Omnium everywhere they could. Gina is now on the board of directors.
Eric and his fellow Knights of Columbus from the Acts of the Apostles Assembly in Chantilly volunteered to present the colors as Eric’s favorite performer, Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson, sang the national anthem.
The circus’s plot loosely revolves around Iverson’s story of rising from popcorn seller to performer, and encourages everyone to believe in their ability to persevere and achieve great things, using the phrase “I’m Possible.”
Gina sees the show as a beautiful celebration of unity. “I get goosebumps when I think of the impact it’s had so far, and it’s just going to keep going,” she said.
Turning a group of diverse people into a united community sums up circus life pretty well, said Father Frank Cancro, a clown turned priest. Ordained for the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, he now serves as the national circus chaplain.
Cancro offered an opening prayer for the company and was there to see its premiere.
He and others serve carnivals, race car circuit workers and circuses, such as Omnium, as part of the Catholic Church’s circus and traveling show ministry, which is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity.
Cancro travels with companies to provide the sacraments to circus folks. He sees his work primarily as a ministry of presence to not only the roughly 40% of circus people who are Catholic, but to everyone on the show. He said one of the best compliments he received from an unchurched circus member was that the presence of a chaplain was like having a grandfather around.
“We’re really there for people in those moments where there’s a real need to encounter a listening ear or a loving heart, and there’s witness in that,” said Cancro. “I think the face of God gets revealed in that all the time.”
Cancro said he’s excited to witness the start of Omnium and to support it.
“I think that inclusion is what helps us understand the common dignity we all share as God’s creation,” he said. “And I think (the) circus community classically celebrates that. You have people from many different languages and many different countries who come together to make a particular show.”
“In this case, people with different abilities have come here especially to shape something for everyone,” he added.