Mercy Academy theater program takes artistic risks on the ground and in the air

Ruthie Belza and Star Adams practice for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” | Photo by Jesse Alford

With this weekend’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a group of fearless students from Mercy Academy will be debuting their new circus skills and demonstrating in more than one way a portion of their theater program’s mission statement: to take risks.

Insider spoke with “Midsummer” director Amanda Simmons and circus teacher Jesse Alford to get the lowdown on how this collaboration came to be, risk taking in the artistic process, and how circus and theater are both good for developing life skills.

Amanda Simmons

Simmons worked part time at Mercy for a few years before she came on as a full-time teacher and began expanding the private school’s theater program. The first thing she did was ask the students what they wanted.

“My first year I did a leadership summit with some of the girls, and part of that, we created a mission statement,” says Simmons.

When it came to crafting the mission statement, Simmons says,  “I stayed out of it, I had no part. We brought someone in; our development office found someone to come in and talk about, ‘How do we create a mission statement.’ And that was our last day. The other two days we had professionals come in from the arts world and talk about what they do.”

A big part of that mission statement was to be daring.

“It was in that mission statement that we take creative risks, so for me, every show I do, I’m like, ‘What can we do with this show that would be creative and different?’”

Jesse Alford originally worked with Mercy in his capacity as a lighting designer. He’s a skilled professional, despite circus being his first love.

“I picked up circus when I was a kid. I was in a youth circus in Redlands, Calif., the Great All American Youth Circus,” says Alford. “When I went to college … I ended up in theater because I figured learning lighting and sound and everything else like that for theater is just as good as learning it for circus.”

Jesse Alford (bottom) with Morgan Lewis | Photo by Kevin Spalding

After college, Alford focused on theatrical lighting professionally.

“For a while there it was kinda bizarre how theater was my boring day job to support my circus aspirations,” he says.

This dual set of skills made Alford uniquely qualified to lend a hand in bringing circus to Mercy.

“It came out of Amanda and I hanging out and talking about the similarities in what we do and acknowledging that both disciplines are so beneficial, and not mutually exclusive in any way,” says Alford.

He initially taught circus classes to the Mercy students without planning on incorporating them into a play.

Simmons says the evolution of Alford’s involvement was organic.

“He came in the first semester and had circus classes … and anybody who wanted to do it could do it,” she says.

The circus classes — which occurred after school — were a success. Alford taught skills like juggling, acro-balancing and tight rope, and the classes drew in a wide variety of students, many of whom had never been in a play. They just thought circus would be fun. And after the positive reaction to the classes, Simmons and Alford decided to work circus into a production.

Jesse Alford coaches a student. | Photo by Jenna Lowery

Simmons briefly considered a show featuring pirates but discarded the idea in favor of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s a play that let the students take another risk.

“My girls had never done Shakespeare,” says Simmons.

She adds that having Alford become an integral part of the creative process taught the students another important lesson: Collaboration is good. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hey, Jesse, do you think we can do this, like the (human) pyramid?’ and he’ll say, ‘Absolutely,’ or he’ll say, ‘Amanda, what about if the character did this?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God that’s great.’”

Nick Looper and Derek Cornwell | Photo by Jesse Alford

Alford believes the enduring value of collaboration and working for the success of the rest of the people around you is one of the great lessons of circus.

“Circus relies on teamwork and trust and partnership and building relationships, and in order to do something — like a human pyramid, even if it’s just like a simple hands-and-knees pyramid — it relies on communication and teamwork, and that doesn’t come easy for many of us,” he says.

You can see that teamwork on stage and find out what circus tricks made it into the show this weekend at Mercy Academy. Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday, April 27-29, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. Mercy Academy is located at 5801 Fegenbush Lane. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students.

Disclosure: The author frequently works with Jesse Alford.