We begin at the St Louis World’s Fare. Not the epic one from 1904, that remains a crowning jewel of the city, in a physical sense with the remnant architectural structures that grace Forest park and in a metaphorical sense of our civil pride. This particular World’s Fare is in honor of the old one, but blends modern sensibilities and culture into a themed festival showcasing the fruits of current St Louis life. The World’s Fare is honestly crafted to share what is great about St Louis.
The Pavilion was built specifically for the World’s Fair of 1904. It sits upon a hill looking outwards towards the green spaces in front of the Art Museum and the picturesque waterways that once manifested a vast temporary city in 1904, when America travelled to see the Marvels of the World. You could say it was one of the first epic global festivals. The Pavilion even became the site of a some interesting hippie/protest actions in the 60’s. It stands at the top of the festival with a ferris wheel looking down on the giant water fountain at the base and in-between a long layering of steps. So here I was on a Saturday afternoon about to clown in front of a diverse slice of the St Louis public waiting in the shade, cooling from a hot afternoon. When the call came from The Wide Awake Players, I answered the challenge.
The performance began with me entering from the side and mingling with the crowd. I had a little white makeup on my face, because I believe in the philosophy within clowning, that the blank face is the canvas on which our expression is manifested. Adding a few black lines for a visual effect that wasn’t to “clowny”, and putting on some oversized pants and boots that remind one of the past, like Charlie Chapin, the hobo clown. I wore a black magical cloak and a Fez covered with buttons as my character was also inspired by Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. I was the fool, who wanted to break the rules, play with magic and cause some mischief.
From one of white plastic chairs sporadically placed in front of the stage, I suddenly “discover” a book of magic sitting on stage with a sign saying “Do Not Read”. Sneaking up, with my magic wand I begin to whistle the magical spells within the book. Quite accidentally and unknowingly by me, the magic was causing havoc on the stage behind me as drums banged, clothes mysterious appeared on characters and the Wide Awake Players slowly appeared to do acts of their own.
Quite a number of the vendors and artists at the World’s Fare come from Festival Culture, which has an air of the gypsy to it. They make a living selling their art, putting on shows and thriving in an ancient noble tradition that goes back into human history. Entertainers are a breed and a thriving scene into itself, yet these festival cultures have been fairly self contained for decades. Quite suddenly the popularity of Festie culture seems to be pushing deep into suburban/urban life and has gone mainstream. The variety of Festival types are easily discovered and yet at the heart of all them is a certain feeling, a sort of escape from civilization and into the playfulness of cultural creation. We live in a global village now, and the ways of “the Tribe” have spread widely.
I have noted a strange UNplayfulness occuring within certain mainstream Festivals that I have frequented in the last 30 years, as participation and crowd banter is diminished with the modern urbanites who watch the madness and artistry unfold around them like a Netflix binge. This however is not a problem in the festival scenes as participation is expected. Burning Man is built on collective effort as each “camp” offers a subculture of weirdness and genius. To experience Burning Man or any festival is not idol sitting, it is manual and immersive. So many of the acts featured at World’s Fare have built careers and techniques on the festival scene, where engagement, stoned patrons, and high vibes are the norm.
World’s Fare achieves a diverse mingling within this famous St Louis City park, where a historical division has existed between the many cultures that inhabit our 3 river area. Where kids are still taught to be fearful of “the city” from the safety of the suburbs. Participation becomes a personal challenge as people from all walks of life transcend culture to mingle in the common spaces. It struck me during the World’s Fare dance routines, where the children who grew up on “So you think you can dance” pour their hearts out on stage, in front of family and random festival attendees, showing the world they can pull off what they had been training for months and years to do. There was joy in the crowd, and cheers from new fans as the passion is realized. It has an effect that will linger on the lives of those kids.
Several of our acts were designed to cause that same feeling of joy, playfulness and collective sharing. At the end of show, when our Musician played the St Louis World’s Fair classic, “Meet me in St Louis”, and the dancer waved our city flag while the juggler performed feats, it was a grande finale in the custom of the theatrical arts. For my part I carried a giant handful of punch balloons and precariously walked around the crowd dangerously close to losing the whole bunch. Luckily I maneuvered to the center aisle until the pepper in the air, accidently put loose during the second act:), caused me to sneeze sending balloons into the crowd. It was mayhem as they bounced off heads and into the arms of children who were able to keep them. Just as the performance began with an overheated family who went looking for comfort in the shade, away from the Missouri humidity, it finished with laughter and a playful attitude with each other in joyful Momentness.
At the heart of what we are losing as a society is captured in the offerings at World’s Fare and brought back into the cultural zeitgeist. There was a moment, hours after my performance as I sat in the Ripple of Existence tent, drinking amazing tea from my friend’s new enterprise Synergy Smoothie …shout outs… listening to a psychedelic blues act, while the sun was setting, that I remembered “festival magic”. A feeling you get when you haven’t looked at the phone for days, you don’t know what time it is and you don’t care. You’ve had dozens of epic conversations, listened to amazing music, are feeling peaceful and loving this one moment in time. You look up at the sun and shade giving trees and remember that bliss can be found at any random moment. At the heart is also something else.. when you suddenly SEE the performer, and you FEEL their soul through their art. This FEELING can be discovered anytime, during those expensive family outings when you drop a chunk of change to see Knights attack each other with swords, ride a rollercoaster or find yourself playing at our St Louis City Museum, an artistic immersive experience also born out of artist, circus and festival cultures, the feeling of Momentness.
When I do art, I tend to throw a lot of strange elements into it. One of my signatures is using bits of Dumpster Archeology material in my art experiences. For this adventure, I threw in some oversized vintage looking boots that I found in a dumpster during College Exodus. The third act was inspired a rope in a milk crate, that I found in a dumpster. While on stage I began to play with the rope as a sign on the now fancier looking box says…. “Do not play with rope”. The musician and juggler join me and we play, but something also compels us to free the rope. The juggler clown has oversized scissors and tries to cut it, but we need help. I hand parts of the rope to audience members until it stretches across the crowd and we pull together freeing the rope. As it lays dangled in each others hands, I blow a kiss, point to my heart and then at them and walk away. The dancer comes back on stage with hoops and four boys do a tug of war, still playing with that which was meant to be free.
The Wide Awake Players came about from a single moment at last years World’s Fare. Our Clown Juggler is a long time promoter of children’s activities originally connected to a local family festival called Toco. The kiddie village had partly been her work at the World’s Fare for years, and she entertained on the ground level as a clown, parade creator and promoter, often between her work in the healing arts. The people behind the Fare have impressive multitasking skills that grew from their time at Astral Valley during the Cosmic reunions, Techno, Healing arts and Eclipse festivals.
Our Musician has done amazing work in puppetry and performed last year for a happy group of kids. His childlike soul has been a joy for me to see on numerous occasions for both music and puppetry. The moment the Wide Awake players was born was when our Musician and the clown juggler began to play with a ball.
I could not neglect to tell you about the Dancer as I have enjoyed her work for a long time. Like many young people that grew up in the scene, she took to hooping, yoga and flow arts, but had a dedication to other skills that were born out of some innate talent. Kelsy also has side collaborative artistic work, Blacklight Yoga events and the Photo Booths, which have been imaginative as well as impressive. The natural movement into dance, incorporating bell/vase dancing, sacred movements, and spiritual messages is a part of the Artistic storytelling she tells. What began as two people playing with a ball in child like glee for children, morphed into recreating that joy for the audience between her dance routines. She was juggling metaphorically too many balls, and support was needed.
When offered a chance to be a clown again, I jumped into a full artistic exploration of clowning. To not talk and only express my emotional state through expression and foolery was a lovely experience. My son sat in the audience with two of his friends and watched his father bounce on stage and while he said he didn’t get it, slowly on the car ride home, he broke down the scenes and realized he very much did. The message so simple that even a 6 year old understood and that is also at the heart.
After all, a festival is just a bunch of tents, a temporary space at a location designed to showcase the talents of those willing to be there. What you make out of the experience is up to you.
I love to hear people talk about the 5th dimension and the future that some of us are building towards. I love the positivity and the earth shaking changes that happen to a culture when a large dose of the youth begin to try new ways of existing. Culture seems to be born out these shared places and the Festival is a time honored space for creative expression.
Festival culture is at the doorstep of the mainstream and the more it changes our way of thinking, the more it changes the way we operate. The multicultural givings of World’s Fare and it’s like, are not just city, or suburban cultures. It transcends culture because it is simply space. The people are the culture.
Clowning if it is too survive a world were the average kid is afraid of them because of the horror genre, it too must touch the hearts of this growing facet of culture and provide a joy that is so desperately needed. If the youth, who have become very serious with the weight of the world being slowly dropped on their shoulders, can play for a little while and discover who they are at the core, away from cell-phones, internet bombardment, and corporate jobs, then perhaps they can find some bliss and happiness for a little while, making the world a little bit brighter.
Perhaps the 5th dimensional shift is found under trees, with the slight smell of something green burning in the air, or in with the dirty feet of those learning alternative ways of Being. From those seasoned veterans who marched into the unknown spaces and discovered themselves in the playground festivals of the world, to the clowns who remind us that we are all “the Fool” and “the Child” and we can accept the shifting future with joy or with fear.
*photos taken by Sara Skiöld-Hanlin