Arts and Culture

A new need for a Madison circus space

A sour situation has a positive twist

In late 2016, Josh Casey and his kindred spirits who comprise Madison Circus Space briefly felt like the victims of quintessential capitalism. The owners of the old car dealership on Winnebago Street that has housed Madison Circus Space since 2013 revealed plans to tear down the building and construct new condominiums on the site.

But then Casey and his cohorts became beneficiaries of something quintessentially Madison. Accipiter Properties, the landlord, said it wanted the circus space—and its resident jugglers, aerial artists, hula hoopers, German Wheelers and other circus artists—to be part of the new project, not a casualty of it. Fear of eviction became elation in an instant.

“It feels like only in Madison would there be a new development, where we’re going to tear down buildings, build some condos, but we’re going to keep the circus space,” says Casey, a Madison Circus Space co-founder and board member who makes his living as a juggler-comedian. “They were like, ‘You know what? This is what makes Madison so cool, and we don’t want to lose this.’ ”

Plans call for a dedicated Madison Circus Space building adjacent to the CohoMadison condominiums, which will include 45 residential condo units and nine commercial condo artist studio units to replace those lost when Winnebago Studios is razed as part of the project. MCS—an entirely volunteer-run nonprofit—is in the midst of a $1 million capital campaign to purchase a piece of the property and construct its new facility.

By Jan. 1, MCS had raised $507,000. The group reached half of its goal by relying on its membership—about 60 people pay $50 per month to train and take classes there—to leverage personal connections and build the base of the capital campaign before shifting to a public fundraising phase.

“What we’ve been running into is most people don’t know we exist,” says MCS Director of Development Stephanie Richards, herself an aerial artist. “So we’re just trying to spread the word [that] ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re doing amazing stuff. Come check it out,’ ” she says. “We want to continue to be a part and an even bigger part of the arts and movement scene in Madison.”

A Modern Act

Lily Hankley is one of the top athletes in the nation in her discipline, yet she sometimes has to disabuse the notion that she’s a sideshow.

Hankley’s passion is the “German Wheel,” essentially a human hamster wheel in which its operator performs tricks and balancing maneuvers.

The area high school student, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation in German Wheel, travels about an hour each way to practice her craft at Madison Circus Space.

“People are confused when you say ‘circus,’” says Hankley, who hopes to qualify for this summer’s world championships in Switzerland. “Have you ever been shot out of a cannon? Do you tame lions? So are you with those scary clowns? Then I have to explain that it’s more like modern circus and not like that kind of circus.”

Hankley is one of three German Wheel standouts who have developed their skills at Madison Circus Space. Eliya Syvertsen of Madison and Garret Judd of Dodgeville are the top-ranked girl and boy in the nation, and one of their instructors, MCS co-founder Carly Shuna, won her fourth senior national title last summer. 

To see when you can catch the German Wheelers in action, visit madisoncircuspsace.com.

Jason McMahon is a writer and editor from Mount Horeb.


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