Reflections on Rejections – My nontraditional path to a career in Circus

Rejection never really gets easier, but it can be a useful tool.

About seven years ago, I was rejected from circus school for the first time.  I had my heart set on studying at L’ecole de Cirque du Quebec (ECQ), in Quebec City.  It’s one of the best circus schools in North America – some of my juggling idols at the time were training there, and I loved the work that the school was helping them create.  Since then, those idols have turned into my best friends, despite not making the cut to actually train there a few years in a row.

Here’s the act I presented in my first audition attempt at ECQ.

I took that first rejection hard. Really hard.  I figured that juggling would only ever be a hobby for me, and that I should focus my career on what I’d studied in school – modern languages and applied linguistics.

I’d always been a pretty good student, graduating from Washington University in St Louis with a degree in Germanic Langauges and Literatures, with additional coursework in Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, ESL, and illustration.  Different approaches to communication fascinated me – be it through grammar, body language, or design.  So, I went back to school for CELTA credentials (Certificate for Teaching the English Language to Adults) through Cambridge University, and applied for fellowships to teach English to refugee communities in the US.  The idea of teaching to classrooms with mixed linguistic heritages fascinated me, and figured I was uniquely positioned through my language background to relate English grammar to folks with different native tongues.

The Philadelphia Teaching Fellows accepted me into their program in 2011 – no small feat, I’d later learn, as the organization touted a 0.1% acceptance rate – and I was getting ready to move to Philadelphia to start teaching and pursue a Masters’ of Education.  (Would I have applied if I knew it was that competitive?  I’m honestly not sure.)

A few days before I was to move out there, I got a phonecall – the offer had been rescinded due to a budget cut.  I was out of luck.  So what to do?

I moved to Vermont, doubling down on juggling.  The New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA) is a small circus school in the southeast corner of the state, and they let me join their year-long ProTrack training program. I focused on ball juggling during my time there, and began working on a new act.

I applied to ECQ again with a version of this act, and a few months later, got my next rejection in the mail… And you know what?  It wasn’t quite as hard the second time.  Was it discouraging?  Absolutely.  Learning more about their acceptance policies – that they found I was a solid juggler, but lacked the dance background they desired (not to mention that I was 25 years old… a dinosaur in their eyes) – softened the blow and encouraged me to keep training hard.

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I started performing at a themepark.  After that, I got a call to join a USO tour in South Korea.  The adage that “work begets work” turned out to be true, and I started securing more contracts and working all over after that.

The next year, I was the opening act for ECQ’s juggling festival’s gala show.  A few years later, I closed the same festival’s welcome show with a different routine.

Could I have learned a ton in their program?  Absolutely.  Can you get the same foundations by training on your own?  Absolutely.

If I hadn’t applied to ECQ for the first time, I might have just given up on a career in circus entirely.  That first rejection helped shape my belief that you should always let the other guy say “no” to you – that you should apply for jobs, festivals, and opportunities even if you don’t think you have a great shot – that you should let the folks in control deny your application, rather than letting your pessimism or humility deny you the opportunity before your work gets seen.  Taking rejection in stride builds character (or, at least, I hope it does!) and helps you look at the application process more critically:  “Was my application really the best it could have been?  What could I have done better?  What should I have done differently?  Was this just the right application at the wrong time?”

In the case of Canadian circus schools, they often have a quota – certain numbers of Quebequois and Canadians must be accepted in order for them to secure state funding. The other slots are open for applicants from the rest of the world.  If they’ve already taken applicants from these areas in your discipline, you’re out of luck – regardless of your merits as a circus performer.

In the world of grant writing, similar unseen forces are often at play.  Some institutions reject first-time applicants outright, as well.  Those rejections shouldn’t be seen as the end of your attempts at securing funding or a residency or whatever you’re after – those letters of rejection can be interpreted as a kind of handshake.  A way to know that they’ve read your proposal, and that you should just go ahead and give it another shot the next year – with an even stronger application that shows you’ve been doing the work without their help.  Even the gate-keepers love a go-getter.

So, in a way, I’m grateful that I was denied the opportunity to enter the circus school in Quebec City.

The fire those rejections kindled has motivated me to continue working on my craft – work that’s allowed me to perform all over the world, both with my own productions as well as with companies like Cirque du Soleil.  It brought me to Vermont, where I met my wife; given me a bootstraps attitude towards training; and has allowed me to build a life on my own terms.

If you’re looking to attend circus school – absolutely audition.  Shake hands and meet peers with the same aspirations as you have… Just don’t be fooled into thinking their program is the only way to achieve the career you want.  The only thing that matters is the hours you spend training, the feedback you seek out, and the drive you have to pursue mastery.

I’ll leave you with the latest video of my ball juggling act, performed at the Periplo International Circus Festival in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Is it perfect?  Absolutely not.  Does it show some kind of growth from that first audition attempt at ECQ?  Here’s hoping.