Omnium Circus is one of the brightest innovations borne out of 2020. Founded by Lisa B. Lewis, it is a nonprofit circus of diverse, multi-abled performers that includes an aerialist born without legs, a clown who is deaf, a contortionist, and much more. Omnium’s mantra is accessibility and equity for all. And the talent is dazzling! Launched just as the pandemic hit, Lewis decided to take the show online. Their customized streaming platform allows viewers of all ages and abilities an accessible experience by offering a menu of virtual options: closed captioning, audio description, American Sign Language, and plain-language interpretations. ABILITY recently caught up with Lewis via Zoom to chat about the challenges of creating a fully-accessible circus, Omnium’s foray into formal education, and their future plans.
Chet Cooper: So tell me, how did you end up doing what you’re doing?
Lisa B. Lewis: My dream had always been to create a show that was not only inclusive for the audience, but that gave equal opportunity to all of the performers, not only physically, but whatever abilities, all races, all ethnicities. Not an all-Chinese circus, not an all this circus, not an all that circus, but a truly diverse and inclusive company of the best people in the world that I could find, so that no matter who you are in the audience, you see someone in that show with whom you can identify.
So that’s what I did. I created a brand. I started everything with the pandemic, so our first production, which we thought would be live, didn’t happen, so our show is virtual. We intended it as a one-day showcase, but it turns out people really wanted to see it. So we extended our season. Then we got the New York Times review, which called us “genuinely extraordinary,” which I love. That woman is so nice. And so we’ve extended our season until April.
What we’re hoping is that in that time period we get a broad enough reach and a broad enough name recognition of our brand to then be able to take the next step, which is dependent on vaccine rollout. Do we create another digital version? Do we do a hybrid version? Can we put up a tent? We’re exploring all options right now. Different ones have different budgets, and it’s really very dependent upon COVID.
Cooper: If it works out to where audiences can come back into a theater, where do you plan to hold your events?
Lewis: We have a tent. We’re planning to be a tented show, and our intention is to play New York, Boston, and DC, among anywhere else who will have us, but those are the markets we know, and those are, I guess, the low-hanging fruit. We know how to sell those and how to do circus in these markets.
Cooper: And do you have the equipment to move the tents and all that?
Lewis: Oh, yeah.
Cooper: So if you go any further, there’s extra expense?
Lewis: Yeah. And we can. We can go anywhere, it’s just a matter of time and money. If we have the time and the money, we can do anything.
Cooper: Right. Tropical island?
Lewis: Sure. I need it a couple weeks for free. I can get everything over there on freight. Know how to do it! (laughs)
Cooper: Oh, that’s good! Have you ever thought of taking what you’ve created onto a cruise ship?
Lewis: That’s a totally different market. Cruise ship are a very different business model. Could I? Sure, if someone says, “Here’s a cruise ship contract, fill me a show,” yup, I could absolutely do it.
Cooper: So we’ll depart Tuesday? (laughs)
Lewis: Sure! (laughs) I mean, I’ve got a great company together. In fact. I just reached out to someone else today. If you can see the show, I’d love to invite you.
Cooper: Is it streaming live, so you can watch it again later?
Lewis: It is streaming. It’s recorded because we had to be able to put in all the access. So when you log in, you have your choice of four different access platforms, and you choose your experience. You can choose the “typical” experience, you can choose the American sign language captioned experience, and you can choose audio description. We have two audio describers who’ve been with us for years, although I just listened to it today, and they forgot to introduce themselves. You’ll just have to know that they’re audio describers, because I just realized they never said, “Hi, we’re your audio describers.” But I suspect people figure that out fairly quickly. And the last one is a plain language format, which is a simplified language format for people on the autism spectrum, for English language learners, for three-year-olds, for people who are more comfortable in that environment. It reduces some of the sensory stuff, but that’s as close as we could get in a virtual format to accommodating people. Those were the needs that we found to be the highest on people’s priority list.
Cooper: Can we dig deeper into that? First, how did you know there was a need? How did you come up with your solution?
Lewis: I’ve been working in this industry now for close to 25 years, and this is my population. These are the people I serve. When I first started in 2012, I had five shows to give away in three places, and I had such a waiting list. And they said, “Oh, you have to monetize this.” So I grew from serving 5,000 to serving over 30,000 people, because people kept wanting tickets. I kept having a waiting list. They would say, “OK, I love Circus of the Senses, and it’s great, but my kid has autism and it’s too much sensory. Can you adjust?” I had taught students on the autism spectrum, I had taught circus, and I trained and learned how to create with TDF [TDF Autism Friendly Performances]. I also learned how to create a show for families with members on the autism spectrum. So I created that.
With each one, it occurred to me more and more as I listened to families that they don’t want to have to come just one day a year. If one member of your family—you know the stats, one in four. So that means somebody in your family is always left out. You should be able to go to any show at any time, not just on the day we have an interpreter, or the day we’ve adapted the program. Access should be all the time in order to truly bring families together. And I started a dinner and a show in the dark where I had the most wonderful experience of a young man who is blind leading his sighted grandfather and giving him a tour of the circus show, because he’d been there so many times that he was comfortable and knew it. It was the most beautiful thing.
Cooper: That’s great. And that’s somebody who’s blind. But back to the sensory and the autism, you’re having these people come in person?
Cooper: Can you give some examples of what challenges you’ve had, and what you did to deal with the triggers that might occur for somebody on the spectrum?
Lewis: You mean in the live version or the virtual version?
Lewis: OK. Virtually, there’s really not much you can do. They have control of their own computer screen. They can change the volume and the lighting. They control their environment. What we did digitally is to put out the plain language format, which makes the verbiage more comprehensible for them. And that’s a lot for people with developmental delay as well.
Cooper: Are you saying “play” or “plain”?
Lewis: P-l-a-i-n, as in “plain.”
Cooper: OK, because in the captioning it kept saying “play language.”
Lewis: Oh, I apologize for that.
Cooper: No, no, whoever is doing the captioning, they should apologize.
Lewis: (laughs) Is it an auto-captioner?
Cooper: It’s AI, and we abuse that poor AI person. (laughs)
Lewis: There you go. I’m not sure if I speak properly for AI, but I will adjust myself accordingly.
Cooper: (laughs) OK, so in plain language. It’s not done through AI, right?
Cooper: You’re having people who are educated in a way to best describe the experience that’s going on?
Lewis: Completely, yes. The woman we have doing it is the person who created what’s called the Yalon method; her name is Sherry Yalon. She created this system of plain language.
Cooper: So you found the founder as the person who’s using her own method with you?
Lewis: Mm-hmm. In the live version, we can do a lot more. We can adjust lighting, sound, temperature. We create chill zones so if people do have an issue, they have a place where they can chill. They’re fully stock with weighted items and sensory things to help people get themselves back to center. So live, there’s a lot more you can do. Our story for the digital version is two pages, because there’s not that much to say.
Cooper: You mentioned you had been with Big Apple Circus?
Lewis: Yes. It was in the New York area.
Cooper: I’m not familiar with it. Were they also dealing with disability issues at that time?
Lewis: I was. That was my job.
Cooper: Within that company, you were heading up the initiative? Now it’s making more sense. So that’s where you have those 25 years of both circus and accessibility experience?
Lewis: Yes, exactly.
Cooper: Was this something that you went to school for? Or did you learn in the school of hard knocks?
Lewis: School of hard knocks.
Cooper: (laughs) I have several diplomas.
Lewis: (laughs) Obviously, I went to school, but my formal education is in stage management and in circus history. I was a performer for many, many years, and these were always my favorite audiences. So in order to make their experience better, I just kept learning.
Cooper: Can you move your chair back and let me see what kind of performances you can do? (laughs)
Lewis: (laughs) In the corner of my living room? Probably not!
Cooper: What did you do?
Lewis: My other company is called Super Scientific Circus. We use circus skills and magic tricks to explain science and make it more visual and comprehensible to students nationwide.
Cooper: Oh, I love that! But I was asking, did you perform in the circus?
Lewis: I’d walk on stilts; I’d balance on a ball. I used to do wire-walking.
Cooper: Wow! Wow! OK, you could show me some juggling. (laughs)
Lewis: What do I have here to juggle? My internet at the moment. (laughs)
Cooper: You can do one at a time? That’s good! (laughs) And you didn’t drop it!
Lewis: There you go! I didn’t drop it! (laughs)
Cooper: I see on your wall you’ve even printed your logo on a mask.
Lewis: Yeah! We did that before our premier. I wanted to send it out to higher donors; I wanted to give them gifts. So we got masks printed up. I’ve got—where did my magnets go?
Cooper: Oh, that’s a magnet? Does it stick to your screen? (laughs)
Lewis: (laughs) Yeah, we got magnets printed up.
Cooper: What time is your next show of Super Scientific Circus?
Lewis: In about an hour. We have shows at 12:00 and 4:00 pm, I believe. Let me look at the schedule.
Cooper: How many shows are you putting on?
Lewis: We have a full schedule, Wednesday through Sunday. Because it’s Presidents’ week, we had a full school show at 12:00 pm. We had one at what they call District 75 in New York. In New York they classify anybody with an IEP as belonging to District 75, which is a nonphysical district.
Cooper: Oh, interesting. I didn’t know that.
Lewis: They basically lump anybody with a differentiated learning style into a District 75 school. Which is within—meaning it services within whatever district you live in, your home district. It’s a weird system here.
Cooper: So you have contracts with different schools to have these performances?
Lewis: Yes. And we have a full 36-page STEAM and DEI-based study guide.
Cooper: A study guide? A curriculum of sorts?
Lewis: It’s a complete curriculum to go along with the show.
Cooper: I had no idea! That sounds really good. What’s the age range?
Lewis: Basically K-9, although it’s loose, because in pre-K there’s plenty you can get out of it, and we have 21-year-olds with developmental delays who love it. So that’s relative.
Cooper: And you try as much as you can to do the plain language within the curriculum?
Lewis: Not so much. It’s written mostly for teachers.
Cooper: Oh, OK! So you have the curriculum for the teachers to present, and they have that guide to present as well?
Lewis: Exactly. There’s no way I could write a course description or a class without knowing the students, and our goal is to reach 30,000 students. I can’t possibly individualize it. So we created it for the teachers, and it is up to them to adapt it for their particular students.
Cooper: So District 75 is basically a client?
Lewis: Not yet, but I’m hoping they will be. Right now I’m just doing individual schools. But I would love for them to be a client.
Cooper: Is this scalable? Could you do this nationally?
Lewis: We could totally do it nationally. Given the opportunity, we could absolutely a hundred person be in every school in the country.
Cooper: In my early years, when I was still in school, I was involved in the marketing for a company that put on theoretical performances—and their core audiences were school districts. We would have performances to demonstrate learning modalities, specifically for at-risk youth. We got the New York Department of Education to be one of our clients.
Cooper: We’d have live theatrical performances. We’d color code the performers and then the staff, the faculty, and the student body would go to the plays and they could start identifying through color code their personality temperaments. Basically, the pullback of all this was, we were getting the teachers to understand the different learning modalities, especially of at-risk youth, because they’d self-identify with the color code. The orange were at risk. It comes out of Myers-Briggs, basically the Jungian theory of temperament and personality types. It was really successful. We were doing them all over the country. There wasn’t a curriculum per se, but there were materials they could buy into, including bringing us in to do stage performances.
Lewis: Nice! I’d love to get to that point. We’re a new start-up company. I certainly have tentacles out there trying.
Cooper: Once you have these 30,000, will you be able to build a database of contacts and emails?
Lewis: Right now I have about 11,000 contacts. Our social media reach is growing daily. People who are buying tickets are buying them from California, Minnesota, Florida, Georgia, and obviously a lot in New York, Boston, and the DC area, because that’s where we are, Pennsylvania. We’ve got schools coming in from Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Virginia. We’re developing a national—it’s not like a lot of people everywhere, but we’re definitely hitting different spots around the country.
Cooper: I just thought of something. As I mentioned, we have our nonprofit, ABILITY Corps. Maybe we could talk about the idea of us trying to get you more business. There’d be some financial reward to the efforts of ABILITY Corps. And, of course, we would abuse the magazine to push that. (laughs)
Lewis: (laughs) That makes perfect sense!
Cooper: I like what you’re doing. I haven’t seen a show yet, but the concept’s great, and I like the pictures I’ve seen so far. If we build this story out, can you have portions of the performance edited in a video format that can be embedded into the article?
Lewis: We have the promotional video on a link you can embed anywhere you want. But I don’t want to put anything out unless it’s completely accessible. Because I can’t overdub it with an audio description, we put the image description in an attached PDF. The description for the video is on our website. I can show it to you.
Cooper: OK. When you put on these shows for students or anybody online, how are you managing that. Are you using a Zoom format?
Lewis: I have my own platform, so they log onto our platform so they can have all of the access channels. We did Beverly School for the Deaf, and they chose to log in to the American sign language one. We did Perkins School for the Blind. They chose to log in as a school to the one with audio description. Perkins School has a division of low-vision kids who also have autism. They chose plain language for that part of it because that particular group of kids had enough vision to see the show, but they needed the language more. So we did that.
Cooper: Interesting! Do you have anything that demonstrates your four different platforms? Have you built that out yet? Are you going to?
Lewis: Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it, but that would be interesting.
Cooper: It’s really unique what you’re doing, and if you’re saying you’re on your own platform, that’s also novel. You’ve got a bunch of novel things happening here that I find very interesting. Kudos to you for having created that! When you go into each of these different spaces are students seeing the performers live?
Lewis: No, it’s all taped. We had to tape everything. I don’t have the budget to pay everybody to perform live all the time.
Cooper: OK. When you say you have one show at 4:00 pm, basically you’re opening up the portals at that time?
Cooper: I don’t know who your host is, but when we do our career fairs, we have to open up broader portals for more bandwidth, if you will, so there’s a new cost every time we do something that’s really big.
Lewis: I bought a platform with a 50,000-login bandwidth.
Cooper: Ours is not just login. The bandwidth includes a bunch of stuff. When we have a career fair, we literally have a hundred or a thousand people who are in there producing their own videos.
Lewis: Oh, that makes sense. Ours are simpler than that.
Cooper: I don’t know exactly what you’re doing there, but do you have an IT person working on it, or did you contract out to the posting company?
Lewis: I have both. I partnered up with Disability Unite. Our original fiscal sponsor was a company called Art Beyond Sight. They’ve created a subprogram of that called Disability Unite. And he had just created this platform when we met and needed a showcase for it, and I said, “Well, guess what? I’m your showcase!”
Lewis: So then we started working together, and so we’ve teamed up. They’re one of our biggest sponsors in terms of time and energy, but not necessarily giving cash.
Cooper: In-kind. What are they using as a platform for it? What was their intent?
Lewis: To showcase anybody else who wanted to do an accessible production.
Cooper: A production. So their wheelhouse is theater?
Lewis: Theater, video—I honestly don’t know. I don’t know what other events they produce on there.
Cooper: I haven’t heard of them. I’m surprised.
Lewis: I think it started maybe two, three, four years ago.
Cooper: So it’s still pretty new.
Lewis: Yeah. Art Beyond Sight has been around for a while.
Cooper: How did you find your talent—the performers you have?
Lewis: I dove deep into my community. “Who do you know? Who do you know? Who do you know?” And everybody sent me someone. A couple of the performers I’d worked with previously in my hand balancing act are from Brazil. Jenn Bricker Bauer I just randomly reached out to, and it turned out she’d been dying to work with a circus. She’s on our board.
Cooper: Which one is Jenn?
Lewis: She’s the aerialist who was born without legs.
Cooper: And she had been performing on her own?
Lewis: This is a new act for her. They created an act specifically for the show. She’s been performing her other act for many years.
Cooper: What is her other act?
Lewis: It’s still aerial, just a different act. But all the circus performers train their whole lives. It’s all people who are out there and people know them.
Cooper: And other than what I just heard about the performer from Brazil, are they all basically in the New York area?
Lewis: No. Alan and Rafael are from and still live in Brazil. Our contortionist is from northern Africa; she’s in Ethiopia and is still there. Jenn is in California, and Jason and Jonathan are both in Florida. Brandon’s in New York. They’re all over.
Cooper: When it comes back to where you have a live audience, will they all be coming to the States, to the New York area?
Cooper: Do you have any relationships with hotels yet?
Lewis: Not yet! I’ve got to get some! Either that or pick up a bunch of trailers. Most people live in trailers. Most people would rather stay on-site in trailers.
Cooper: Do you have any relationship with Winnebago?
Lewis: Not yet!
Cooper: They’ve got the new versions now that are accessible?
Lewis: Ooh! Maybe they want to do some promotion and give me a couple of those! I’ve got two wheelchair users.
Cooper: We tried to do something with them, but they were a little hesitant to hand them over. If you go to ABILITYMagazine.com, type in “Winnebago” in the search box, you’ll see “Winnebago’s Accessible Road Trip.”
Lewis: Oh, that’s fun!
Cooper: It used to be with all these RV companies, you’d buy the standard unit, and you’d have to modify it. They’ve switched it now to where they have four different models. But they’re not cheap. That’s a problem.
Lewis: I’m sure. The last time we got one, we bought a used one. I think it was only $13,000.
Cooper: That’s good, depending on how many miles and how abused it was.
Lewis: For us, it was fine. It didn’t matter.
Cooper: What are the things you would like people to know about what you’re doing?
Lewis: I would like them to know what we’re doing.
Cooper: (laughs) Is there anything you think we missed?
Lewis: No, the mission of it is complete diversity and inclusion. Like Jonathan says in our show, “We’re born diverse. We choose inclusion.” And the whole mission of our show is to create a platform, an experience in which everybody who wants to can enjoy it. If you don’t want to have fun, that’s your problem. But everybody who wants to enjoy it can, and we create a common ground for the world so that you can learn to talk to each other, so communities can learn from other communities. “Oh, you’re this and you’re this? Well, we can share this together.” Circus has always been a mass market entertainment, and it has the ability to reach a huge variety of people. That’s what we want to be. That’s what we want to do, to provide world-class entertainment that is completely inclusive, completely accessible, not as a freak show, but as a genuine quality product that honors everybody involved and all of the stories involved.
Cooper: When you say all the stories involved, do you bring out storylines of the individual entertainers?
Lewis: Yes. That’s mixed in with our show.
Cooper: How I’m understanding your way of promoting this is a combination of an educational format through school systems, and on the other side a more general audience participation as in any circus.
Lewis: Right. Exactly. And we can edit it down for corporate events. We have a couple of those coming up.
Cooper: And in the corporate events, I know at the moment it’s virtual, but do you see corporate events also possibly being in-person?
Lewis: Later, yes, for sure.
Cooper: And do you envision, or have it connected to, some team-building concepts?
Cooper: You literally get people to come out and try to do tightroping without a net?
Lewis: I do tightrope with the students who are blind, deaf, whatever. We do that for the kids. For the adults for team-building, we do more experiential things where I’ll blindfold sighted adults and have them do trust walks, teach them to do them together, teach them how to juggle with one hand tied behind their back or on one foot. It’s empathy-building and teaching them to really value each other for who they are.
Cooper: Juggling with one hand while blindfolded? (laughs)
Lewis: Good luck!
Cooper: On a tightrope?
Lewis: Exactly! That would be the practice part.
Cooper: It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about what you’re doing, integrating some important elements, not just entertainment but experiential activities.
Lewis: Yes, there’s so much we can do. There’s so much potential!
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