A Social Circus vision

“Vision without action is a daydream and action without vision is a nightmare.” proclaims an ancient Japanese Proverb. My circus career taught me how “action WITH vision can also become a nightmare.” As the HICCUP ringleader I travelled a rocky path turning my vision from a dream into a reality with a mission “to promote the healthy development of children and community using circus arts.” The dedication of our HICCUP team slowly created an inspiring social circus and reached an amazing crescendo in 2010. It was beautiful to behold but was sadly cut short and in a few ways became something like a nightmare to me.

While many people came to know HICCUP only a few fully understood the full vision. I gave my fledgling circus program the name H.I.C.C.U.P. using the acronym for Hawaii Island Community Circus Unity Project. My vision was inspired by Reg Bolton, a clown, teacher, director and actor who wrote books and a PhD thesis about the social circus concept serving “as a social intervention tool for the purpose of community capacity building.”

In my role as a circus director in a small non profit organisation I also had responsibilities as the fundraiser and marketing manager of our program. I spent lots of energy and time contemplating, researching and reaching out to prospective financial stakeholders. Almost all were initially sceptical regarding the potential of social circus and were stuck thinking that circus was a fringe and dubious activity.  Before Cirque du Soleil hit Las Vegas people only knew the traditional family run carny circuses that roamed from town to town. They had zero comprehension how circus could help educate our youth and also build the social fabric of a community. Consequently, I faced the critical task of establishing the identity and credibility of social circus while demystifying and demonstrating its potential benefits. 

HICCUP was a genuine pioneer in the social circus movement from it’s inception. My first significant connection with other youth circus organisers didn’t happen until 2001 when I attended the first American Youth Circus Association festival in Florida. Prior to that we operated on the world’s remotest archipelago figuring out everything ourselves as we proceeded from class to camp to show to parade. Magically it produced some amazing results.

Our HICCUP vision was not about producing circus stars. Working with ‘kids of all ages’ we focused on developing personal and social skills while instilling a desire to become good citizens through acts of community service.  Our unique game plan worked and today, while we do have a handful of alumni busking and working professionally in circus around the world, many more ex-students are employed and engaged in social action serving our community and protecting our planet for future generations. They include pilots, teachers, green entrepreneurs, agriculturists, musicians, politician assistants and two White House interns.

We tried to embraced our whole community with our HICCUP program and luckily circus proved to be a good draw.  I strongly believe that having an extended family helps raise a healthy child.  In order for children to receive social support, build trust, develop attachments and create a positive identity they need connections to multiple key people in their lives. Building relationships with diverse members of an ‘ohana requires mutual respect and tolerance for diverse approaches when everyone is working towards the same end – the welfare of a child or sometimes an older person. Frequently our HICCUP ‘ohana became a child’s primary source of support during a crisis and sometimes we provided long term guidance and comfort.

In October 2001 I sent out a rare HICCUP newsletter to parents, friends and members of our growing circus ohana announcing that our future focus was to specifically serve Puna. by building community through circus. We were now fully committing to a social circus vision and inviting other organisations and individuals to join us, and they did. Over the next four years we utilised our local network of friends and organisations to expand our classes in multiple new venues and to produce our mammoth community shows – Malama I Ke Kai and Malama Ka Aina. These iconic events further supported our social circus vision by significantly strengthening the social fabric of our community. The building of S.P.A.C.E. and the commencement of new activities was a direct result of this energy upswing and it attained a whopping momentum.  

S.P.A.C.E. was the pinnacle achievement of the HICCUP social circus project. It was the rapid and dramatic growth in population that created the demand for S.P.A.C.E. to offer more than just “a home for the circus.” In 1999 when starting our special permit application, I had no idea that HICCUP would consider expanding it’s social circus ideology to offer the wide range of services we provided in 2010. We hosted an elementary charter school,  a lively weekly farmers market, performance arts classes, community events and lots more performances because our governing board revised our HICCUP mission “to promote local sustainable community” and because our local residents had no other place to congregate. All along our journey things changed, the world changed.

Huge numbers of local residents participated in the growing web of social exchanges that happened at S.P.A.C.E.. We all witnessed the sharing and connection that was developing and felt the buzz in the air, especially on Saturdays at the farmers market. There was a euphoric  acknowledgment that our HICCUP program was profoundly and positively impacting the welfare of our whole community. We must have been the only circus project in the USA receiving Department of Agriculture grants for a farmers market! Our HICCUP social circus was pioneering totally new ways for growing a community.   

After blooming beautifully at S.P.A.C.E. for a short precious period tragic circumstances led to it’s unfortunate demise as a wonderful model of what social circus can achieve. Unfortunately persistent and pernicious complaints from a handful of people destroyed the vision that had been peacefully evolving since 1987. From 2010 my focus switched to fighting a lot of bureaucratic fires and was sadly distracted away from my work with kids. Our HICCUP vision faced increasing legal and political struggles threatening our existence and our ability to serve our community. Despite never having received a single warning or citation from the police for any traffic or noise ordinance violations the complaint-driven system of enforcement was used as a weapon against us and brought the eventual collapse of our social circus activities. 

It was a tragedy for our community that we lost our legal battle to continue providing these activities and strengthening the social fabric of our Puna Makai residents. As a lifelong socialist I felt compelled to respond to the desires of the majority and not the individual. As a community leader, l faced my greatest juggling challenge attempting to balance community needs and the HICCUP vision while defying the laws of gravity and the laws of the county. For over thirty years our program harnessed the powerful combination of diverse, integrated and physically expressive people and activities to accelerate progress toward social, educational and health goals. At HICCUP we consistently “made possible what seemed impossible.”  We creatively captured the attention of families, educators, businesses, politicians, funders and other community partners who helped us build an effective social change movement. Yes, social circus can develop and unite a community.

HICCUP circus at the Pahoa Akebono in 2013 supporting the Pono Puna Alliance

HICCUP still exists and the legacy continues under the guidance of new ringleaders who are developing their own vision to guide the HICCUP renegade circus troupe. I wish them every success in continuing to serve the people of Puna.

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 !

3 thoughts on “A Social Circus vision

  1. It’s difficuiltmtomfully understand just how HUGE the H.I.C.C.U.P. Circus was an asset to our small rural comminity. Before the internet and Smart Phones there was a dearth of opportunities for our children. Hundreds of kids learned self esteem through this program. I am proud to have been a part!


  2. Aloha Graham really loved being a part of your circus social movement and wish I could have stopped the crazy stupid County of Hawai’i meatballs that ended the wonderful work at SPACE and helped you to become Jack the Giant Killer.


    1. Thanks Toby and Aloha my friend. looking back I wish I’d ignored the lackeys at Bellyacres and gone along with those who wanted us to stage a full on rebellion with protest marches, sit ins and civil disobedience. I know now that’s the only way important social changes happen and Puna needs some radical changes especially for meaningful community building. Oh well! That opportunity was lost. Hopefully some other group gets inspiration from our experience which is why I write these renegade blogs.


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