Described as “a raw portrait of a young woman who loses her way but finds herself in the Belfast Circus,” “Something Great” follows 4 years, from September 1989 to October 1993, when Salida Circus director Jennifer Dempsey went from being an American college dropout to director of the Belfast Circus.
Writing and performing, she said, offer her a way to process and understand her experience.
“I love original stories,” Dempsey said. “There’s so much value in that.”
The circus has always been a place of transformation for Dempsey.
“When you step into the circus ring, every identity you carry in the outside world is irrelevant. Whether you’re high-status, low-status, behind the eight ball, privileged, that doesn’t matter,” Dempsey said. “It’s about your openness, your willingness to take healthy risks, your willingness to connect with other people, the performers.
“That’s why it’s such a level playing field and why it can be so transformative, especially for marginalized people or at-risk youth,” she said. “Their essence and their inherent story, humor, generosity, all those innate qualities that you’re born with that you don’t have imposed on you from somebody else, that’s what we care about.”
Dempsey grew up in Virginia, where she got her first exposure to the circus in an after-school circus club. She fell out of it in her early teens. After leaving the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, she decided to go to Ireland and ended up at Queens University in Belfast in 1989, when the city was already 20 years into the Troubles. She became a “social circus practitioner” and remains one to this day.
“The easiest definition is that you use circus training as a social work tool,” she said. “The Belfast circus was a way to bring Catholic and Protestant kids together during the Troubles, which really, really inspired me. That was sort of a dual return to my own personal joy and then a step into this massive inspiration.”
She later returned to the states, coming to Colorado in 2007 and starting the Salida Circus. What started as two kids and a backyard later grew into a full-fledged non-profit. When the pandemic hit and the Salida Circus’ gigs and workshops were put on hold, Dempsey became self-reflective and was struck by the incredible life she’s led.
“When I started writing the show, … I suddenly had to stop in my tracks and go, ‘How did I end up joining the circus of Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles?’ So I started working with a memoir coach.”
Dempsey writes to make sense of her own life story and to provide a connection to those who watch her performances, either at the circus or on the stage.
“A memoir is … not even necessarily what happened, it’s your interpretation of what happened. It’s about connecting the dots of your life. … I’d like to think that it’s a value to somebody else. I know when I read or see a story about somebody else’s pain or shame and I relate to it, I’m no longer alone,” she said. “It’s such a healing thing. That’s why I believe in the power and importance of storytelling. It keeps us connected. Nobody is alone.”
The Belfast Circus and its outreach workshops brought Catholic and Protestant children together “in a totally neutral and safe environment during the Troubles. Dempsey describes it as a sort of subculture, inspiring all who came to Belfast.
“Some of the families weren’t keen about their kid coming into a different area during certain parts of the year, especially in July when Protestants celebrate the Battle of the Boyne and it’s a pretty contentious part of the year,” she said. “But the Belfast circus attracted a lot of foreigners who were inspired by the project, so we sort of had this neutrality and passport to all the different neighborhoods.”
Dempsey found her time in Belfast healing, inspiring and life-changing. One of the biggest things she learned was a certain humility. One of the many phrases Dempsey carries is “when everybody does better, everybody does better.”
“Many of them had the least but they were the first to give,” she said. Her neighbor, a Catholic woman, had lost her husband to the fighting and came together with a similarly bereaved Protestant woman to start the first bereavement counseling organization in the north of Ireland.
“People who lost the most were the most forgiving. … There was always enough. Even when people had very little, there was always enough for another person to come to dinner or stay at the house.
“If that kid in working-class West Belfast learns to ride a unicycle, his life is better, and it makes my life better,” she said.
When working with boys in a young offenders’ home in Belfast, she was amazed by their honesty, openness and genuineness.
“They were so funny and honest and open and unfiltered. And that’s where all the raw material is,” she said. “I love that the circus allows for that unfiltered essence of a person to come through.”
In October, Dempsey took “Something Great” to the United Solo Festival in Manhattan. In late March, she’ll take her show to the Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics. A few young circus participants will also join Dempsey and Salida Circus development officer Laura Hart to meet and connect with the Belfast Circus.
“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “The goal is that in 2025 when (the Belfast Circus) celebrates their 40th anniversary, they want us to come over and celebrate with them.”
Dempsey and the Salida Circus were also featured in a recent documentary by local filmmaker Nathan Ward, which was picked up by PBS. It screened at the Durango Independent Film Festival in early March and was also recently selected for the Circus International Film Festival, which will run from March 14 to April 15.
In addition to Hart, who also supports the technical side of the show, Dempsey extended her gratitude to the Chaffee Visitors Bureau, Mike Blitstein, Paprika Leaverton and her director Greg West, as well as Andrea Mossman and Sheree Beddingfield.
Dempsey will perform at 7 p.m., Friday, March 10, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 12, at A Church in Salida, 419 D St., as well as at 2 p.m., Saturday, March 11, at the Buena Vista Public Library, 131 Linderman Ave.
“Circus spirit is everywhere. All you have to do is give people permission to step into it and I find the same thing with the theater. People’s stories are valuable.”
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