The Greatest Show in Trenton

By John Gummere

A few years back when I was just re-discovering Trenton, I attended Art All Night and was intrigued to find circus performers doing routines there at the old Roebling Rope Shop. Those of us who are involved in the arts around Trenton take delight in the robust culture that is making its home here. The Trenton Circus Squad, though not yet universally known, is a unique and lively part of that scene.

The Trenton Circus Squad is the creation of Tom von Oehsen, a Princeton native, and co-founder Zoe Brookes. I asked Tom about his background: “The first time I ran away to the circus was just after high school, in 1981. I attended Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College in Venice, Florida. That’s where I learned juggling, acrobatics, and all the usual circus skills. I came back to New Jersey and took a job at the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, where I taught PE and wore lots of hats, but my main title there was Admissions Director.” At first Tom started a circus program in Princeton, doing what he loved and sharing his talents with young people in the area. “I wanted to engage kids in Trenton, and I soon realized I had to have the program right here in Trenton itself.” The Squad took up residence at the Roebling site in 2015, and welcomes kids from many different backgrounds, not only in Trenton and Mercer County, but well beyond too; some come from as far away as Collingswood and the western suburbs of Philadelphia. They come mainly from public schools and charter schools. The core program is for youth, ages 12 to 18, but from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, the circus provides workshops for kids 5 to 12 years old. When they graduate from high school, many squad members go on to paying jobs at the Circus as junior coaches while they take dance lessons or attend Mercer County Community College and other schools in the area.

The kids learn a broad range of circus skills, rotating among different stations: unicycle, acrobatics, stilt-walking, tightrope, juggling, and more. A few may go on to make circus their lives’ work, but the broad impact of the program is to build confidence and stage presence and give participants a taste of what it’s like to get recognition for their accomplishments. “The word family comes up a lot here,” Tom says. The Squad is successful at giving youth a strong sense of family and community. “People often stick around for dinner here. At this time when so much revolves around social media, what they have here is different, something really authentic. There’s a lot of failing and then celebration when they finally get it, and the kids really work together and encourage one another. The energy and joy come across, that’s what these kids find here.”

When I first contacted Tom to sound him out about this story, he invited me to the circus’ fundraising show to be presented on Saturday, October 16. It was recorded to be shared virtually due to COVID, but a small, masked, and vaxed audience attended in person. The concept for this particular show came from the youth themselves: when COVID first hit and turned our world upside down, they embraced the moment and considered a performance that they would call “Change,” based on the pandemic, which they presented virtually. As the year from hell progressed into summer, with never-ending reminders of racial injustice and murders of unarmed Black men, the concept evolved. “With all these things going on, the kids took the initiative to respond to the issues, consider what was true and what was untrue. They thought we can’t just let this go on. They’re looking to engage other kids in discussions.” The troupe held roundtable discussions and put together the program they named “Change II,” a response to America’s over 400-year legacy of White Supremacy and injustice. The brilliant feats of skill were accompanied by audio recordings of news, musical, and historical clips relating to the theme. The most pointed — indeed grim — passage opened with a darkened stage and a recording of the classic “Strange Fruit.” The lights came on to show a tableau representing a lynching, with several limp figures suspended from the cables. The show was not all so heavy and somber though; there were joyful notes of dance, unicycle, juggling, and acrobatics.

What the Trenton Circus Squad presents is not what instantly comes to mind when we think of “circus.” It’s not simply about doing slapstick, making us laugh or, go ooh and ahh — this is a circus with a mission! It works to improve the lives of its young participants, and where it can, it uses its medium to wrestle with issues and make us think. “This is the only social circus on the East Coast,” Tom tells me. Now that’s a concept, I thought: the social circus. Tom went on: “There are others in this country: Chicago, St. Louis, California, and a couple other places. There’s one in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that started in the midst of the conflict there decades ago.” It demonstrates the ability of circus, as an art, to address issues and bring people together.

“Despite all the upset, the past year and a half has been an amazing moment for this organization. The kids use their performance to engage with one another and those outside the circus, thinking in terms of, what does change look like in our communities?” The Trenton Circus Squad is gaining recognition beyond our city. It presents programs around New Jersey, notably in Newark, Asbury Park, and Camden; and has received funding from the Carter-Rowe Charitable Trust for a new big-top circus tent, made in Italy by the same company that provides tents for Cirque du Soleil. Tom hopes to use the tent to host circus festivals in Trenton and elsewhere, showcasing talent from around the United States.

The show must go on!

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