The circus comes to Madison — and creates a community

Madison-Circus-Space- Performance
An aerial member at the Madison Circus Space performs on a cloud swing. Photo courtesy of Madison Circus Space, photo by Mick McKiernan.

This story is part of a Madison Commons series produced by master's students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. These stories explore how people in Madison and Dane County find different ways to develop cultures within our community, looking look for opportunities to draw connections with each other to learn more about our world.

When the Madison Circus Space warehouse was slated for redevelopment in 2018, the community rallied around it in ways it never could have imagined

Nestled comfortably between Madison East High School and the Jenifer Street Market, there is an unassuming building. Brand new and state of the art, there’s no use questioning the time and effort that most assuredly went into the construction.

But the inside is where this space really comes to life.

The Madison Circus Space, located in Madison’s Emerson East neighborhood, was designed specifically for circus arts, with 20-foot ceilings, a high-flying trapeze podium and German wheels tucked into every corner of the facility. 

Stepping into the Madison Circus Space feels like stepping into a dream, full of wonder and curiosity and acrobats twirling hula hoops through the air.

It’s strange, then, to think that such a magical place nearly didn’t exist. 

Circus Space photo inside
Aerial dance rehearsal Photo courtesy of Madison Circus Space, photo by Mick McKiernan.

The Madison Circus Space had only existed for five years when it was told that the warehouse it operated out of would be redeveloped. In order to continue, the circus would have to purchase their own plot of land and build a space entirely their own. After working through the numbers, the nonprofit realized it would need an estimated $1 million to do so.

Danielle Lee, treasurer and one of the founding members of the nonprofit group, recalls feeling as though it were an impossible feat. 

“I was really skeptical,” she said. “One million dollars sounds like an unrealistic amount of money to ever see in real life.”

But that’s what it needed in order to make its blueprint into a reality.

The group hired Stephanie Richards, an aerial instructor and longtime supporter of the Madison Circus Space, to be its fundraising consultant. She was, according to Lee, the key to its success. Richards immersed herself in the community, tirelessly reaching out to members to find out what kind of potential existed and if their million-dollar dream was even achievable.

According to Tim Linfield of the Madison Community Foundation, it wasn’t. 

“We were told we had no chance,” Lee said. “But now we’re one of his favorite [success] stories.”

It wasn’t until two major donations came in — one for $100,000 and one for $250,000 — that Lee began to let her skepticism wither away. 

“My eyes popped out of my head,” she said. “It was unbelievable to me that someone could support us in such a big way.”

After that, the Madison community ran on energy and inertia to show its support in a similar, though maybe less grand, way.

As treasurer, Lee was able to watch the donations as they came in and, according to her, they came from everywhere imaginable. Some were end-of-year donations for $5. Others poured in from local circus instructors who informed students taking their classes that a portion of the money would be going to benefit the Madison Circus Space.

“I think we can look at the big donations and get really excited about those, but the part to me that was more exciting was the number of people who contributed,” Lee said. “That really showed the strength of our community and the belief that holds this together and made this into a reality.”

So why did the community rally around the Madison Circus Space the way they did?

Charlie Cotter, whose daughter has taken everything from dance to hula hoop classes within the Madison Circus Space, stressed that it was the feeling of “home” that urged him to donate.

“We really can’t do this anywhere else,” he said. “This space is special. It means something to the people who come here. To lose it would be heartbreaking — really devastating, honestly.”

One of the highlights of the Madison Circus Space isn’t just that it has the resources to allow members to practice and perform, but that it does so with affordability in mind. Lee believes that’s part of the reason why the community stepped up the way it did. 

Madison Circus Space bike the Art
Photo courtesy of Madison Circus Space, photo by Mallory Shotwell.

“This is the thing we’ve all been wanting,” she said of the space. “We needed a space to practice. We needed a space to hold classes. We needed a place for performance and a place that was specifically for us, for circus. It was like the missing piece that this community needed.”

Lee recalled being stunned once again when she realized they had met their goal. She remembered having to pinch herself — literally — before she could allow herself to believe that their efforts had paid off in a major way.

“I remember thinking Oh my gosh, this actually happened? We actually did it? How many times does this actually happen? Very few.’” Her amazement was evident even years after the millionth dollar came in. “When we actually did it, that was a moment. It was a moment.”

Now, nearly four years since the Madison Circus Space reopened in its new building, the work is far from over. It still puts every effort forward to nurture a closeness with the community that allowed them to continue on the way they’d always dreamed.

“It’s a legacy,” Lee said. “This is something that I get to leave in my community. There’s always gonna be a place here for people who want to come.”

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