Under a not-too-big top, a Chicago troupe uses the magic of circus to expose kids to the arts and raise funds for city parks.

By Kelsey Schagemann
Updated September 09, 2020
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Chicago's Midnight Circus
Sharon Gaietto

The first kids to arrive sit ringside, fidgeting on picnic blankets and scarfing popcorn. I’m envious of their prime spots under the big top. But when I scoot my way onto a rickety bleacher, I realize that no seat is a bad seat at Midnight Circus in the Parks.

As the matinee begins, I’m mesmerized by details. The way a young performer takes three breaths before jumping onto a precariously balanced wooden board. How a sheen of sweat coats a trapeze artist’s forehead during a flawless routine. Muscles straining in a man’s back as he scales a vertical pole.

There are no elephants, no prancing horses, no barnyard smells at Lake Shore Park in downtown Chicago. Only a pit bull rescue who soars through hoops, commanding applause from hundreds packed under a 70-foot-wide tent. Like the other stars, she wows audiences at nearly a dozen city parks every fall, decamping to each new location after two days.

Founded 14 years ago by Jeff Jenkins and Julie Greenberg, a married couple with a background in physical theater, Midnight Circus brings the arts to families across Chicago—and raises money for parks, playgrounds and community groups along the way.

The show is a family affair, and not only because the adolescent Jenkins children have followed in their parents’ footsteps. Many of the 20 or so performers return annually, forming an extended family, complete with weekly potlucks. The troupe hails from all over the world, but Midnight Circus is firmly rooted in its place of origin.

“We’re a divided city,” Jenkins says. “There are swaths of Chicago with no access to theater. We wanted to reach people who don’t have opportunities to see these kinds of experiences.  Children can forget about the world outside and let their imaginations run wild. We inspire them to dream big and see what’s possible when we work together.”

That’s why Midnight Circus is a traveling show with flexible pricing—and an early-bird clock. Kids make up half the audience, and despite the moniker (the result of a last-minute brainstorm before a 12 a.m. print deadline), all performances happen before bedtime.

Midnight Circus partners with local park advisory councils, which Jenkins calls “the heart and soul of communities,” as well as the Chicago Park District and nonprofits like Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings.

To date, concession sales and tickets have raised more than $1 million for Chicago parks. Some neighborhoods pay up to $25 per ticket; others pay $5. And sponsors help ensure some free seats are available. “We’ve never turned away a family,” Jenkins says.

This year, Midnight Circus might look different due to health concerns; organizers are figuring out a best path. So I’m holding onto last September: I was clapping for the final act—Jenkins and Greenberg’s daughter dangled from a hoop for an aerial dance—when Jenkins entered the ring. “Who had fun?” he shouted. “Who wants to join the circus?”

Then, with arms held wide, he welcomed us all into the ring.

Update: The circus will hold open-air performances this fall with these COVID-19 precautions.