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November 9th, 2011 12:01 am WW Editorial Staff | Cover Story

A City’s Riches

Introducing four Portlanders who do fabulous work for local nonprofits.

Jenn Cohen

Artistic/Executive Director of The Circus Project
BY SHAE HEALEY shealey@wweek.com
SHOWING THE ROPES: Jenn Cohen demonstrates a circus move to a performer.
IMAGE: Roman Nachtigal, focusonyouth.org

Jenn Cohen dangles like a human chandelier above the scuff-marked floor of the Friendly House gymnasium in Northwest Portland. She twists and turns in an aerial tangle of blue silks while Joesai Carr, a sweaty and dreadlocked 22-year-old, observes intently from below. Cohen lowers herself to the mat and hands the ropes to Carr, who scurries 10 feet in the air and nails the move he’s long been perfecting. Upside down and smiling, Carr looks to Cohen and receives a proud smile and a high-five.

This is the Circus Project, the only pre-professional circus-training program in the country designed to meet the needs of homeless and at-risk youth. Cohen—the founder and artistic and executive director—works as many as 70 hours each week passing on her gift. 

Since 2008, Cohen’s Circus Project has produced 21 public performances before more than 10,000 people. But the most important work happens behind the scenes in drop-in classes, open-gym sessions and performance-troupe trainings at which the Circus Project serves up to 150 marginalized youth each year. 

“Jenn’s allowing us to share her dream,” says Charlotte Ives, a 21-year-old performance-troupe member who lives at an Outside In housing facility. “Taking me in is kind of like taking in a pit bull. Jenn had no idea of who I was before working with me.”

It’s no coincidence that stories of Circus Project youth echo Cohen’s own experiences as a young adult.

“I felt completely out of place growing up, and circus saved me,” she says. 

Raised in a Chicago suburb, Cohen was eager to leave her community and graduated from high school in three years. In the next 18 months, she attended three colleges in different states and was at one point pursuing a degree in primatology, the scientific study of primates. 

To her family’s initial disappointment, Cohen found her love for circus was the one thing she couldn’t leave behind.

“Many of the youth I work with are the first ones in their family to go to college,” she says. “But I had the opposite problem. I was the only one not to.” 

Cohen, 35, first discovered the power of circus at age 13 at a flying-trapeze program at Club Med in Florida. Six years later, she decided to pursue her dream and teamed up with Chinese acrobatics master Lu Yi. “I had no money, and he [spoke] very little English, so we were quite the combination,” she says. But with their powers combined, Cohen launched a successful career as an aerialist, and she was soon performing internationally in Berlin and Paris. 

“That was a time of great professional success, but I was extremely lonely and depressed—a combination that led to a breakdown or what I like to call a ‘breakthrough,’” she says. 

Cohen returned to the United States in late 1999 determined to find happiness. She began intensive therapy and developed a passion for “process work,” a type of therapy that blends spiritual practices with Jungian psychology.

Revitalized and inspired, she returned to circus once more—this time directing several youth at the San Francisco Circus Center. Thanks to Cohen’s assistance, their circus act earned national recognition. 

“That was the experience that sparked my interest in working with marginalized youth,” she says. “A lot of the kids I worked with were severely at-risk, and I wanted to help them.”

To do so, Cohen realized she needed more education in therapy. So, at 29, she went back to school to earn an undergraduate degree and a master’s in process work from Portland State University. She worked closely with professors who helped her rediscover what she calls her “sensual relationship with the wind.” In 2008, Cohen brought her dreams to life through an 80-page thesis, “The Circus Project: Applying Process Work Techniques to Circus & Theatre Arts with At-Risk Youth.”

As the title implies, Cohen’s involvement with the Circus Project has been nothing short of a process—ripe with struggle and success.

“I was headed toward personal bankruptcy,” she says. “There were several times when I thought we’d have to close our doors in a month.”

But thanks to a thick Rolodex and several well-timed grants, Cohen has watched the Circus Project—and with it, dozens of homeless youth—thrive. 

“People are finally understanding that circus is a viable method of working with at-risk youth,” she says.

For the youth, the power of the circus speaks for itself.

“We’ve all made some sort of steps since being here,” says Taylor Coghill, the youngest member of the Circus Project’s performance troupe, “whether it’s finding an apartment or a job or getting sober or all of those things. It’s not like Jenn sat us down and taught us job skills, but she’s given us the space and support to make it on our own.”

But Cohen says it’s not enough for the Circus Project to be a feel-good thing: “We do shows that people want to go see, and then afterward they say, ‘What? Those kids are homeless?’ Now, that is the magic of circus.”

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