Alumni Spotlight: Jen Agans
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
JEN AGANS FGC Trouper, 2001-2006
The Alumni Spotlight is an initiative led by Executive Assistant (and FGC alum) Ellie Davis to get back in touch with previous FGC Troupers, to see where they are now and hear how circus has had an impact on their lives and careers.
This month, Ellie interviews Jen Agans, a "second generation" Trouper who was in the FGC troupe from 2001 to 2006, just after its founding. We're featuring her this month to celebrate her recent election to Board Chair of the American Youth Circus Organization / American Circus Educators Association.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thanks for taking the time for this interview, Jen! Can you tell me where you are in the world, and what you are doing these days?
I am in Central Pennsylvania, currently working as an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management at Penn State University. This is my third year in that role. I've been teaching research methods to the undergrads, and my graduate class this semester is focused on human development and human diversity and how that relates to recreational contexts. I've also been serving as a board member of the American Youth Circus Organization/American Circus Educators Association (AYCO/ACE). I was recently elected to be the Chair of the Board, which is very exciting.
Thank you! That's pretty fun, because through Flying Gravity, I've been a member of AYCO for a very long time.
When did you join AYCO?
I went to the very first AYCO festival in 2001 to perform with [FGC alumni] Jon [Roitman), Tristan [Nielsen), and Caroline [Wright]. We did a little act with rolling globes and juggling in classic Flying Gravity "let's just make something happen" style.
I remember being really inspired by that festival and also just the social side of it, like hanging out in the pool after the festival. And, you know, our eyes were opened to the circus world being a bigger place than FGC. I distinctly remember, for example, meeting the Prescott Circus Theater clowns and watching their stilting and just being like, "Whoa, so that's possible!"
Flying Gravity Circus Troupers, 2001, Left to right, top row: Jacob Skeffington, Jon Roitman, David Graham, Jen Agans, Tristan Nielsen, Lael Skeffington, Jackie Davis, bottom row: Ashley Ogilvy, Caroline Wright, Tim Weeks, Viorica Jennings
Jen performing contact juggling at the AYCO festival in 2005
After you graduated from high school, did you continue doing circus?
When I aged out of being a youth circus person, I was very sad. I went to college and tried to join a circus program-I wanted to do club passing-but I would have to commit to all summer performing in a show, and I worked at [Flying Gravity's summer program] Silver Lining Circus Camp in the summer. So I was feeling a little bit like I was losing that connection to circus because by that point, I had realized that I didn't want to be a circus performer, I wanted to study youth development. But having that connection to Silver Lining really grounded me in circus teaching, and being able to come back and have relationships with young people, instead of just read about them, was so important. So through college and grad school, I worked at Silver Lining.
(Hi to all the kids I coached at Silver Lining! Many of you are not kids anymore... Hi to all the current adults!)
The Silver Lining Circus Camp staff, summer 2006. Left to right: Director Jackie Davis, Coaches Jacob Skeffington, Jon Roitman, Jen Agans, and Shea Vaccaro
How did your experiences of circus growing up influence what you're doing today?
Working at Silver Lining and being part of Flying Gravity I think really shaped my research because it was at Silver Lining that I saw [positive youth development] happening to other people and in Flying Gravity that I saw it happening to myself and my peers.
There's something specifically about the way Silver Lining and Flying Gravity operate, where the creation process is really youth-centered. Compared to my experiences in theater, for example-which were fun, I enjoyed doing theater but there was much more top-down adult direction. It was a very different developmental experience to be in that context versus to be in circus. So as an undergraduate I asked my mentors, "Hey, what do you think is going on in these circus contexts?" and they were like, "These what contexts? Circus? We don't know, go get a PhD and find out." Literally, somebody said that. So I did!
And what did you find out?
Well, I haven't finished the second part yet. What I found out [when I got my PhD) is that the questions you think you want to answer have like 600 questions underneath them that you actually can't answer until you answer all these other things. So my description of what I wanted to study got bigger, because I realized that "What makes circus so cool?" is not an effective research question. I now describe my research as being focused on youth programs, especially those that involve physical activity, and how they can best support youth development.
Jen graduates from Tufts University with her M.A. in 2012. Here she stands on Jon's head, with Jackie at the side. She is also featured juggling on the banner behind her! Jen earned her Ph.D. in 2015, also from Tufts University.
What is something you've found that sets youth circus apart from other physical
One of the interesting things we found is that when you look at people participating in physical activity in general, you see a lot of importance placed on the extent to which they feel competent in that physical activity. Another important factor is autonomy, where people feel like they chose the activity. In the prior literature, they haven't seen a huge role for belonging in physical activity, but in our circus group [in the study we did on circus kids in 2013], we found belonging to be the most important factor for motivation and positive youth development. So that sort of reignited my gut instinct that circus has something different about it, there's something special happening in circus that isn't happening in other places. And now we know belonging has something to do with it.
A group of FGC alumni gather for a meal in the London Tavern (Temple, NH), circa 2007. Left to right: Jacob Skeffington, David Graham, Jon Roitman, Mason Ames, Tobin Renwick, Thora Graham, Jackie Davis, Jen Agans.
What are some of the ways researchers like you help circus educators on the ground?
People who are running programs have very immediate needs. You need funding, you need kids in the door. You need good insurance. And a researcher who's going to take a year to do a study is not going to help you solve those immediate problems. But if we form a partnership, where we work together over a longer period of time, we can use data to leverage all of those things.
For example, every two years AYCO/ACE does a survey of as many educational circus organizations as we can to find out things like, for example, "How many times have you filed an insurance claim?" We can then use that information to go back to the insurance companies and say, "Hey, did you know that across the 120+ organizations that answered this question, only 18% of them have ever filed an insurance claim?" [These are real numbers from the 2020 census.] That's not very many. We are an extremely safe industry. So that doesn't immediately change [a program's) insurance premium, but we hope that over the course of time, we can use data like that to change the industry.
You decided pretty early on you didn't want to pursue a professional performance career, but circus is still central to what you do. Can you talk about that a bit?
I definitely had that sense of like, well, if I decide I don't want to pursue a performance career, that makes me less of a circus person. That was sort of my teenage impression of it. Like the people who aren't in the spotlight aren't circus people.
I hadn't even thought about it until I toured with Circus Smirkus and I saw all of the tent crew, and the kitchen crew, and the costume people and the front of house people, and the people in the office... there are more people who aren't in the ring than there are in it! But it hadn't really clicked for me that there can be the same level of professional respect for those people.
I think that's something that is maybe less apparent when you are a circus youth, that there's other ways to be involved in circus that aren't being a professional performer. So many things-social work, occupational therapy, physical therapy, business management, producing, advertising, costume design, research!-everything intersects with circus at some point if you want it to.
What would you say to a current FGC Trouper who might be having a similar conflict about pursuing professional performing?
It's maybe especially difficult for kids in a program like Flying Gravity where the pathway to professional success is so visible. In some programs, nobody you know went to ENC [Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal], or performed in Cirque du Soleil, or is currently on tour anywhere. In those programs, if you want to be a professional performer, you have to figure out that pathway yourself. In a program like Flying Gravity, you have a ton of examples of alumni who have that type of professional success, and so the idea that you might or should want that is, I think, easy to fall into, and it's easy to assume that all your peers want that too. But may not necessarily be true.
The thing is, when you watch a circus performer in the ring or on the stage, that 3 minute act is not most of what they're doing. Most of what they're doing is not on stage. Keeping their body in shape, learning new tricks, creating new choreography, sending out videos to try and get gigs-there's all sorts of other stuff that you have to do to get those 3 minutes in the spotlight.
For me, I like the 3 minutes in the spotlight, and I like some of those other things, but like, give me the choice between reading an interesting book and practicing juggling on my own, and I'm going to read the book! I mostly enjoy the social aspect of juggling, like in club passing, but not in a way that I want to perfect it for performance. It's a totally different type of work to get that particular glory, and it's not the type of work that makes me excited to go to work every day. Whereas, I get excited to go and teach my class every week, I get excited for meetings with research collaborators, I get excited to look at my data!
So I think that's really the key: not thinking about where the spotlight is, but rather: what is the grunt work that nobody sees that you like best. If you can find out what kind of grunt work you don't hate, and do a job that has that kind of grunt work, you'll be way happier. And then you can decide how to fit circus into that, if you want. Or you can just keep doing circus for fun!
It sounds like being on the board of a circus organization is one great way to stay connected to the community, even if you don't think of yourself as a "circus person."
You don't have to still be involved in circus to serve on a board. You just have to care about circus to serve on a board. Having people who aren't "circus people"-in terms of being a current performer or coach-on the boards of nonprofit circus organizations like Flying Gravity and AYCO/ACE is super important. You want people who have a diversity of perspectives and experiences and leadership roles. So whether it's staying involved at a recreational level, or a volunteer level, like being a member of the AYCO/ACE or FGC board, I would encourage FGC and Silver Lining Circus Camp alumni and their families to consider how to keep circus in their lives.
What's in the future for you?
I hope that my research program over the course of my career can accumulate some evidence that can be used to support circus programs by showing how circus can be good for people. And I also hope to continue to do studies like the one that Jackie and I did together through AYCO/ACE [in 2013, published 2019), where we directly studied circus kids. The goal is to promote circus arts education and circus educators. One of the ways that we can promote circus education is by showing that it's good for people. And one of the ways that we can support circus educators is by giving them resources that they can use to enhance their programs. So I see my research work and my professor work as being synergistic with my AYCO/ACE work.
About the interviewer:
At 5 years old, Ellie was the Flying Gravity mascot at its founding. She joined the Troupe as a teen from 2009-2011, and worked as a Coach and/or Camp Director for Silver Lining almost every summer since then. She currently lives in France and works "à distance" as Jackie's assistant, website manager, and PR point person.