HICCUP circus shows – ‘Naturally High’

“It’s the best I’ve seen – not preachy.” “The students loved every minute of it, the combination of drama, music, dance and stunts was an excellent idea.”  “It’s a positive, strong message when kids, not adults, deliver the wisdom.”  “An all kid show—how refreshing!” “This is the best drug prevention assembly I’ve attended. Keep up the great work!” “Score of ’10.’  I felt like a little kid again.” “Education is the best prevention!” “I would highly recommend it to other schools” “You’re doing a great service for the youth.” “Excellent performance; the performers were very skilled and conveyed the message very well!” “Loved it!  Students liked seeing peers perform.” “Even the teachers enjoyed it and laughed throughout the program.” “Fantastic!  Creative!  Amazing!”   “Keep coming back!!” “Great, good, funny, terrific, excellent, wonderful, superior, awesome, cool.” “The students were ‘speechless’ for once. They were so attentive they forgot to clap!” “The best drug prevention assembly ever.” – Just a handful of several hundred teachers testimonials received by Naturally High.

As a result of our early HICCUP successes I had became much more ambitious – some would say overly ambitious. In 1995 I wanted to produce a theatre show using circus and other physical or artsy skills performed by our talented kids. If we were going to show off I believed we should do it to the best of our abilities. 

I was keen for HICCUP to become a part of improving our world by incorporating social statements in our shows. After some research I discovered that educating school students about the dangers of smoking tobacco was a cause that badly needed support.  I invited Cynthia Albers, a HICCUP parent, to join me in writing the script for a totally new show we called ‘Naturally High’.  It was important for the production to be financially self supporting through grant funding and logistically practical to tour on the Big island and beyond.

I had realised that it was a smart idea to start with transport logistics. The two fifteen seater vans I had recently purchased made for a perfect touring package by taking out the two back sets freeing up space for equipment while leaving room for six or seven kids and two adults.  ‘Naturally High’ was then designed so our crew plus all our props and personal gear with a good sized sound system could fit in a van. These really tight parameters actually helped us be creative, once again making the impossible, possible. 

We wrote the show to fully utilize all the existing circus and physical street skills our first six performers could adapt to include in an act. Being able to speak dramatic lines while riding a unicycle, climbing a ladder or juggling fire torches was a totally new skill for our kids.  We worked a lot on acting skills and then projecting speech to reach the audience. Luckily Bill Daley, the father of one of our young stars, was a professional sound engineer and helped us a lot.

The founding group of kids included Colleen who could sing like a bird so we decided to include a live song; Ari and Marcellus could pass fire from tall unicycles so that became our finale. Chris was a competent skateboarder so we added that and young Peone was fearless and a great balancer so she climbed a 14’ barely supported ladder. Being Puna kids they each had oodles of attitude which meant the stage characters we created were all larger than life – and it all worked.   Our early rehearsals were super intense and very stressful. In later years it became much easier for me but establishing the structure of this initial show was a bear. I was a novice director and I certainly didn’t know how to co-direct with Cynthia. After a rather painful beginning we discovered it worked best if I directed and she focused on choreography and costuming. 

Cynthia, Peone, Colleen, Marcellus, Carla, Chris, Ari, Graham

We presented the first version of the show at the Hilo YWCA.  The facility had plenty of space with wonderful natural lighting, a lovely hardwood floor and an audience of summer camp students. I sent out invitations to all the local politicians, the chief of police, the mayor, and staff from the funding agencies. I wanted them to see what great work we were doing but not one of them came. Ultimately, it didn’t matter because a much better opportunity to advertise our show presented itself.  While we were rehearsing “Naturally High” I called the Hawaiian Moving Company. I persuaded them to send a film crew over to this very first performance of “Naturally High” and they did a great job. 

We had a real buzz when our “Naturally High” show was broadcast around the State at prime time on a Sunday evening. We had a huge party with performers and family and watched it on a big screen at a Hilo night club. We all felt like superstars.  Not only did lots of people get to see excerpts of our show but I was able to use it to immediately get bookings.

Starting in 1995 we performed at schools around the Big Island and as grant funding slowly started coming in I was able to get more adventurous and book shows off island. Touring off island introduced new logistical challenges. First I had to find flights at the cheapest possible rates and so I contacted all three local airlines asking for sponsorship by way of tickets. This all took some time but eventually one of them came through and flew us free for several years until they went bankrupt – not because of us! The big problem with our sponsoring airline was they only flew from the opposite side of our island so we had to drive over three hours to get on a plane which usually meant leaving in the early morning hours from Puna.  Ho hum !

1997 Oahu

My next challenge was shipping our number two van the ‘Jack’ filled with show equipment to our destination island. Luckily my sponsorship requests to the Youngs Barge Company was accepted and for our whole run of shows they shipped ‘Jack’ for free. We left the ‘Queen’ on the Big Island so we always had a vehicle for our classes and to get us to the airport.  A week or so before the tour I would drop off the ‘Jack’ van filled with our show equipment at the Hilo docks. When it arrived in Maui, Kauai or Oahu I had to arrange for friends to pick it up from the docks and park it at the airport terminal awaiting our arrival. Logistics were very tricky!

Theoretically we had a van waiting for us when we arrived and could blast off to our accommodations immediately. However it didn’t always work out this way since our vegetable oil fuelled vans were often a bit cantankerous after sitting around for a few days. I never knew if the van would actually start when we arrived and many times I had to call out AAA to give us a battery boost. It was never easy touring off island with the HICCUP’s.

I learned a few important lessons from our very first Maui tour. We broke down on a remote highway with a flat tire and I didn’t have a cell phone to call anyone. By sheer circus luck Sean, whose house we were staying at, drove by and rescued us. From then on I always took a cell phone and also a second adult to help with the many responsibilities we had to deal with and simply to be available in the case of an emergency. 

Another drama on this trip occurred when ten minutes before show time one of our teenagers kicked off and decided she wasn’t going on stage. As the only adult I was running around like a headless chicken and in my stressed state was unable to calm her down. I scrambled for a solution which turned out to became our future strength. 

Luckily, I had brought  a seventh performer who was learning a part in the show. I persuaded her it was the perfect time to make her debut.  For this to work another performer had to switch her role to play a part she had never done before. It worked really well and she did brilliantly, and so from that time forward we developed the ability to make the roles somewhat interchangeable in the event that we had a cast member sick or otherwise unable to perform.  That’s another way I discovered how talented our wild Puna kids really were !

Food is  always a big issue with kids. On tour we got the kids involves the kids in food decisions and developed the routine of having teams take turns cooking. Each night two kids would decide on a menu, shop with an adult, prepare the food and then clean up. It worked really well thanks to our kids having parents who taught them independent cooking skills and an appreciation for healthy foods.

Chris, Marcellus, Shannon, Ari, Eli, Peone

By June 1996 we had presented “Naturally High” in 28 elementary and intermediate schools on the Big Island, Maui and Oahu and had bookings for a further presentations at 22 schools on Oahu and Kauai. I felt super charged but as always finding the funding always had to precede seeking the bookings.  Back in those computer primitive days I used faxes as a follow up marketing pitch to schools after initially making telephone contact. We obviously had to start this lengthy process months before actually doing the tour but still had last minute bookings or changes to deal with. Booking was undoubtedly another serious juggling act.

Before arriving at schools I faxed them our pre-show technical rider in the hopes they would be ready for our set up which often had to happen very quickly. Despite all my efforts schools had no theatre directors or technical staff to provide professional support so this was a very hit and miss affair. Sometimes we were just shown the cafeteria or gym and left to figure out logistics. We often found ourselves at the mercy of the school custodian who could be as benevolent as Jesus or as dastardly as the devil. Very often we arrived to find the stage, floor or outdoor area covered with school stuff or students and often had to search for an electrical outlet to power our sound system.

We tried hard to make our show educational and informative and we’ll never know if something we did really helped students quit smoking or never start. Heck! I figure that if just one person had their life saved from the tobacco prevention message in our shows then it was all worthwhile and we fulfilled our obligation to our funders.  There were no doubts however, about the great entertainment and inspiration we provided making many thousands of students very happy.  Improving the lives of our audience members was really the icing on the cake.  Our primary accomplishment with ‘Naturally High’ was boosting the lives of the twenty eight kids who got to perform in the shows, inspiring other kid performers. Also, with the sense of pride and purpose it brought to Puna I began to understand how transformational social circus was in the healthy development of children and community.  

By the fall of 1997 we had lots of performances of “Naturally High” booked.  I had six more kids trained to perform in the show and Sherri Thal took on the role of our circus band director training kids playing guitars, drums and flute. Our plan was to add live, original music to “Naturally High” and it was fantastically successful.  Under Sherri’s tuition the band of total beginners learned to write original rock n roll songs and recorded them in a professional sound studio. We began using our own original music and proudly announced to our audiences that the great songs were all written and performed by Big Island teenagers. The band went far beyond gigging for our circus and become a successful local grunge band called LIQUID. They started playing gigs around the island and eventually got a recording contract and went on to pursue music careers.

We had a few Big Island performances accompanied by our Sideshow Band and it was a real treat to have live music. Unfortunately the logistics of travelling with a band proved too much for us and we were obliged to return to using their recorded music for future tours. 1997 NATURALLY HIGH https://youtu.be/OQaXvUJ-FZI

1998 saw yet another huge surge with us presenting “Naturally High” at several Big Island schools then doing two week long tours on the islands of Kauai and Maui before leaving for a two week tour in California.  This was a major accomplishment for a small grass roots organisation from a poor rural community.   While all of our off island tours posed challenges we faced many more obstacles with this particular expedition. The first essential was to get enough kids able to go. Fortunately, several of our best performers were home schooled so release from education was not a problem. It was considerably harder to get permission for those in regular school programs but we made it. 

Just three days before departure we had to find a replacement and change airline tickets. One of our young girls was withdrawn by her parents after a bottle of scotch slipped out of her bag one day at school and smashed to pieces on her classroom floor. Not very classy and not good for us. Luckily, we had an excellent substitute and we were all relieved even though it left us with just one girl in the team. What a special girl she was too.  Although Shannon was also the youngest performer she held her own extremely well for the whole tour proving that girl power rocks !

On tour in California

Most school groups attempting a tour similar to ours would be involved in fund raising for months and then hit up parents for a sizeable contribution. Knowing that our families could barely afford to pay anything I committed to making it a free trip. I realized that for our kids to be able to come we needed to provide all travel, accommodation and food expenses.  All I asked parents to contribute was $50 for entertainment and treats for their child.

It was a miracle this tour happened because, despite my best efforts, I failed to finding grant funding. Earlier in the year I’d promised the kids we would go so we had to fund the whole trip through income from shows. Fortunately Sherri had discovered that a drug free program in California would pay up to $500 for school presentations. We pitched our “Naturally High” with a proven drug prevention track record and outstanding references from Hawaii schools and it got accepted. I was busy building our house so Sherri did most of the bookings for our school shows and secured us accommodations. It was a lot of work with a zillion phone calls and endless negotiations and she did an amazing job.

My estimated bare bones expense budget for the trip was about $10,500 covering airfares, meals, entertainment, use of my friends donated van and accomodations in family and friends homes and a hostel for a couple of nights. Payments of  $500 for each of the twenty school shows we booked was still not enough so we gambled on doing a bit of busking and party entertaining on the weekends to fully cover our basic costs. It all worked and our struggles proved successful. The Cali tour became a great reward for our performers who had worked really, really hard for years to keep this great innovative show on the road. They were all real stars!

Each child could only bring a carry on bag because we needed their two free check in bags for all our show equipment which had to fly with us on the plane. Thankfully, we were seasoned travellers by this time. Packing up our whole show into check in size bags plus a few oversized was a skill we had developed after many trips. We were also skilled at going into family homes, cooking food, doing our laundry, making up beds in any rooms available, including garages, and leaving nothing but our thanks the next day. 

We were seven kids and three adults. Our twenty three performances on the 14 day tour included twenty school presentations of “Naturally High” plus two shows at private parties and a surprise appearance in the phenominal San Fransisco Carnival parade. We also managed to fit in a few cultural visits to downtown San Fransisco and took the kids to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Science Museum, the Santa Cruz board walk,  and also had a river boat trip. It was a whirlwind !

2001 was our last year presenting “Naturally High” and what a great run we had experienced. Twenty eight kids had performed in 138 presentations over six years and considering all the potential logistical problems everything had gone relatively smoothly.  The only negative response we experienced related to the fire juggling in our finale act. Some schools totally understood how well trained our performers were and knew there was no risk of injury or us burning down their school but there are always a few who will find something to fear no matter what safety reassurances are given.

Later in 2001 I was invitated to be a guest speaker at the first annual American Youth Circus Festival held in Sarasota, Florida. It was a fabulous experience meeting so many fellow practitioners and learning about how our HICCUP program was doing in relation to other programs.  At a roundtable meeting of youth circus directors they each described what they thought was the best style of youth circus performance. Everyone chose either ‘theme’ or ‘narrated’ or ‘MC’d’ and each director made a point to say that theatrical presentations where young performers include acting with lines, circus acts, dancing and singing was IMPOSSIBLE !  My whole perspective about what we had been doing with our “Naturally High” shows changed from that time forward. Not only did I realize that what I had been asking my young Hawaii students to do, in my naivety, was considered IMPOSSIBLE but the fact that they had done it so successfully proved their caliber and excellence. My circus education world was forever changed.

Ultimately, my decision to stop presenting “Naturally High” had nothing to do with this; it was much more ironic. Since 1995 I had sought out and obtained funding for our shows from many different sources. I had continuously asked the Department of Health to fund us since we were addressing a health issue. I’d flown over to Oahu to meet with their staff and had submitted numerous grant applications. In 2000 a new state program to address tobacco usage by young people was funded and I assumed that with our outstanding track record we would be automatically approved as a recipient. How wrong I was. 

I discovered firsthand how Hawaiian politics and government remains under the control of the ‘old boys’ and is extremely conservative and self serving. Our HICCUP program was not old but modern and cutting edge, definitely not conservative, but innovative and progressive.  Despite my attendance at more meetings and my submittal of more grant applications through this new program we were shut out totally. Maybe it was because we were from lowly Puna, maybe it was because we were a circus. I’ll never know, but I do wish they had been more receptive to the good work we were doing.  

I was disgusted and downhearted. I kicked up a fuss for a while writing letters to the Mayor, the funding director and even the media.  I proudly shared the stacks of hundreds of testimonial letters we had received praising out tobacco prevention program over the last five years but no one listened. Everyone seemed intent on funding questionable programs operated by conventional organizations.  My efforts to show them what a grassroots circus program had already achieved fell on deaf ears. The stuffy bureaucrats all seemed to have their heads stuck in their office computers. I surrendered and decided to move forward with other HICCUP projects.

We completed our last shows touring the south of the big Island thanks to funding generously provided, once again, by our loyal benefactor Lorn Douglas.  The shows were fantastic as usual and were made even better with us being hosted by a friend Kiko who let us slept in his beach front canoe shed.  We ended this penultimate “Naturally High” tour with an exhilarating sailboat ride in his double hulled Hawaiian outrigger canoe gliding through the surf at Puna’lu’u. The whole journey was an amazing renegade ride !!!!!

A few more teachers testimonials out of hundreds: “This was such an excellent performance the students were amazed!” “The program was absolutely wonderful; it truly lived up to its billing.” “Very beneficial!” “Particularly well done, planned and executed.” “They wanted to try juggling at recess!” “Excellent—most entertaining—the message came through well.” “Entertaining, informative…inspiring for students to see other students perform.” “Thank you for sharing!  It is great seeing young people doing such positive things and trying to teach others.” “It was a great performance. The impact was much greater because of the ‘live’ performance rather than storytelling.” “They laughed a lot and could identify with the children.” “This performance constantly entertained them and educated them at the same time.”“Great!  A performance by the students, for the students!” “It kept the audiences attention. All of the young people are excellent and poised performers.” “They loved it and the music really made it spectacular!  Great job!” “They loved it!  Nice to have students performing for students.” “Entertaining with an important message.” “The music and motion keep audience at attention.” “Refreshing and different.” “The students were mesmerized and kept at attention throughout the show.” “Teachers enjoyed it as much as the students.”“Awesome!  The students were very impressed!” “The age level of your actors was very appropriate; plus, the music and theme impressed my students.” “They absolutely loved it.” “A perfect ‘10.” “ two thumbs up!” “They found the stunts amazing!”

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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