A Library System Adopts Circus Arts for Its Summer Arts Programming - StageLync
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A Library System Adopts Circus Arts for Its Summer Arts Programming

Arts Outreach through the Circus Lens

What would you do if a library system approached you with a commission to create 1,045 Circus Art Kits? Where would you begin? And once you began, what aspects of the discipline would you focus on? How would you package the kit for ease of delivery versus the experience of the art form? How would you budget the project to maximize the quality of materials while keeping the costs accessible?

These questions came up in the fall of 2020 when Mollie Standford, regional librarian of the Arrowhead Library System in northeastern Minnesota, approached COMPAS‘ Arts Program Manager, Emma Seeley, with an inquiry to make juggling art kits: 

This might be a crazy idea, but we were brainstorming a potential make-and-take art kit with activities participants could do. Juggling, balancing… really, whatever you think might work best. The kit could contain some supplies and instructions on how to do the activity. This way people who don’t have internet access would still be able to do something.”

With heightened enthusiasm, their discussion deepened as to what the kits would contain. The total number of kits would be 1,045, enough to serve all 27 Arrowhead libraries along with their Bookmobile service, which reaches deep rural communities without easy access to a library. Initially, there were plans to include an entire “balance stick” system with connections for lengthening and shortening the stick, creating different difficulty levels. This idea was reduced to a simple three-object juggling kit along with a pamphlet creating a gateway to the culture of juggling, materials to learn more, and a juggling sticker.

Fulfilling a Mission

This project was designed to create a theatrical experience for the recipient. The kit-making team and I chose the feel of cardboard packaging to facilitate a DIY look, which would encourage recipients to take ownership of their kits and, hopefully, facilitate curiosity and foster education. The Art Kit aims to elevate juggling toward the art form it inherently is by providing notes about the history and science of juggling. Learners don’t necessarily need to know about these things in order to juggle three balls, but including them is an attempt to raise awareness about juggling (and circus) using the same foundations as art forms such as poetry and music. It culminates in the hope that learners can explore juggling and discover how it helps people connect more deeply with themselves (a lofty goal for an introductory kit!).

conceptual planning sheet for the Juggling: A Not-So-Distant Introduction- Art Kit
Initial Sketch and Workflow
A Bit of Backstory 
Benjamin Domask-Ruh stands in front of a white cargo van, ready to transport ball pit balls
5,000 Ball Pit Balls in a Cargo Van

Early on, we decided to call the kitsJuggling: A Not-So-Brief Introduction- ART KIT, paralleling a video I created for Arrowhead Libraries in summer 2020 titledJuggling: A Not-So-Brief Introduction, which itself replaced an in-person performance tour. Making 1,045 kits would require a lot ofjuggling balls. 

First version of our layout sketch of the Juggling Arts pamphlet made for Arrowhead kits
Initial Layout Sketch for Insert

In 2020, Modern Vaudeville Press started a new program titled ‘Sponsor the World’s Newest Juggler’after a viral Craigslist ad, which offered 75,000 coconut-colored ball pit balls to New York City residents, attracted their attention. The juggling community has for decades used ball pit balls to make ‘Russian’ balls, a special, half-filled type of juggling ball invented and popularized by Ukrainian juggler Mikhail Rudenko in 1971. While we weren’t able to travel to New York to repurpose the balls from Craigslist, a Facebook Marketplace listing popped up in Minnesota offering some 5,000 plastic ball pit balls. While the market has traditionally provided new jugglers with beanbags, we wanted to provide an introduction to the growing culture of the art form. The idea to use salt-filled ‘Russian’ juggling balls in the kits seemed fitting! 

We developed a logical workflow for making the balls and a rough draft of a pamphlet inspired by the ‘sponsor’ program, which we then sent off to Sarah Bakerfor her final design. Additionally, we updated a sticker designed by Rosie Kelly (@JugglingStickers on Instagram) to fit the kit’s brown, orange, and blue aesthetic and sent it off to a die-cut sticker manufacturer. 

With all the design work handled, it was time to gather our supplies.

By the Numbers!
Through the kit-making process, a number of numbers had to be considered. It all started from the question,How many balls are actually needed to fill 1,045 kits? 

Let’s do the math: 3,135 balls! That sounded doable… but what to fill them with? Since packaging bulk sand can risk humidity, which risks the sand clumping (and growing mold!), we decided to use salt instead. Each ball would get 100 grams of fine salt. So that would be about… 313,500 grams of salt?! A number that large is hard to visualize. Let’s convert it into pounds and get a more tangible number. Okay… if one pound is about 453.592 grams, that’d be approximately 691 pounds of salt! Well, we know they sell salt in 25-pound bags, so we’d need… 28 bags! That seemed feasible. 




Fun Facts!

The amount of salt used in this project is equal to 3,073,529.41 saltine crackers!

The amount of salt used in this project could cure 6,122 pounds of cod the way the Vikings did!

The amount of salt used in this project could de-ice 3,648 feet of roadway!

Oh, but we still needed something to seal the balls with. In the interest of time, the best practice would be to use a strong adhesive like electrical tape! The benefit of electrical tape is that it is flexible, and conforms to the shape of the ball’s plastic shell. Each ball has a 9.425” circumference. One roll of the tape is about 66 feet, or 792 inches, long, which would mean we’d get about 83 balls per roll. We decided to buy 40 rolls in case of mistakes. (Spoiler alert: we ended up buying 50.) Okay! That takes care of the balls!

But what about the packaging? Uline sells a handy 9 x 6 x 4-inch cardboard box! We ordered a sample box; three balls fit inside of it nicely. The boxes come in palettes of 100. We needed 1,045 boxes. Easy! 11 palettes, please!

Now for making the labels; it would be super great to have a stamp to streamline the process! Seems like nobody makes a self-inking stamp that is 9”x 6”. Well, I once did a stamping class! From that, I know that we can use an ink roller and get a stamp custom-made. Oh, but the ink won’t soak into the cardboard, and it takes five days to dry? Might as well order premade labels instead. But in what color? Or should they be clear? Glossy or matte? (For this project, it was glossy all the way!) Guess we should get 1,100 of those, too! 

The inside of the box seemed empty with just the three balls, a sticker, and an instruction sheet. Let’s create an insert with additional educational materials and place it on the bottom of the box for depth! But something was still missing. I wondered if they made an “Easter basket”-type filling for boxes. Brown crinkle paper? Done! 20 pounds of shredded paper should be more than enough… but wait, it only filled 200 boxes? Well, might as well order 90 more pounds, then!

Now, how much space do 1,045 9” x 6” x 4” boxes take up? 141.875 cubic ft?! That’s roughly the size of a large hippopotamus! I hoped they had some big vans…!

Final Product
A warehouse room piled with the packaged Juggling: A Not-So-Distant Introduction art kits
100% Complete Art Kits

At the beginning of April 2021, a group of attentive assemblers gathered to assemble the last of theJuggling: A Not So Brief Introduction- ART KITs at CLIMB Theatre in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. A few days later, the kits were picked up and driven to “Up North” Minnesota and into the waiting hands of Arrowhead Library System patrons.

Since then, the kits have been distributed as part of a summer initiative to encourage new library memberships while engaging members of the community in fun outdoor activities!

Final Thoughts
An opened Juggling: A Not-So-Brief Introduction Art Kit, displayed as a box next to blue-and-orange juggling balls and pamphlet
Art Kit with its Contents Displayed

This isn’t the first juggling kit to have existed. Back in 1949, Harry Moll introduced a kit that came with six small rubber balls.(You might think this was to encourage new jugglers to practice with a friend. But more accurately, it was to plant ambition in them to be six-ball jugglers!) Since then, other kits have been produced. Traditionally, they have included three objects, such as the 1977 kit Juggling for the Complete Klutz— a kit successful enough for them to produce a keychain version. Sean Gandini later introduced a kit containing four beanbags! 

It has been exciting to join the history of juggling and provide an updated kit for the 21st century. The rubber balls in early juggling kits degrade, especially ones from the 1940s. The millet filling inside of popular juggling beanbags risks moisture causing the seeds to sprout– or, in the worst-case scenario, rot. Yet while the quality of materials improves, and illustrations get more detailed, the basics of juggling have stayed the same for over 4,000 years. The idea behind juggling is more or less the same as well. It all starts from the simple phrase, “Throw an object, catch it, then throw it again.”

 What’s Next:

Since this project was commissioned for a public library system, these kits are all being distributed free of charge to library patrons all over northeastern Minnesota!

As for the extra 40 or so kits that were made as backups, a few of them have been given away as presents, while others have been “purchased” to support the creation of future kits! There has also been some interest from toy stores, teachers, and people looking for a unique gift.

Right now the team of us behind theJuggling: A Not So Brief Introduction – ART KITis preparing to create a new total experience with Modern Vaudeville Press by including six balls and a copy of Juggling: What It Is and How To Do It, along with the beloved kraft-brown crinkle paper.

Eventually, the ultimate goal will be a tour of the interactive performanceJuggling: A Not-So-Brief Introduction,and being able to hand out the Art Kits at the end. (Connect if you want to help us make that goal a reality!) Until then, there are plenty of empty balls left to fill with salt.

Thanks to… 

Minnesota’s Cultural Arts and Heritage Fund, and to Minnesotan Citizens for their forward-thinking attitude to include juggling in our history for the future! 

Mollie Stanford, for all your help in organizing, distributing, and providing the Arrowhead Library System with the awesome opportunity to learn juggling! 

Emma Seeley, for helping us get all of the logistics sorted, and for organizing the backend work needed to make this project happen!

Afton Benson, Personal and Business Manager and CLIMB Theatre Managing Director, for providing us with emotional support, logistical consulting, and space at CLIMB Theatre to make some cool art happen! 

The Kit Makers–JayLynn Spiedel,Sarah Baker, Dave Rannow, Tori Domask-Ruh, andSam Diekman– for hours of work in cutting, filling, taping, and constructing the balls and kits! You were always enthusiastic. Thanks as well for all the entertaining, lovely conversations we had during production.

Thom Wall and Modern Vaudeville Press, for sharing the logistics of your program “World’s Newest Juggler” with us.

Main image features completed juggling arts kits. All images courtesy of Benjamin Domask-Ruh.
Benjamin Domask
Circus Artist -United States
Benjamin Domask seeks to combine the skill and technique of juggling with the theory and philosophy of clown under the aesthetic of corporeal mime to create a unique blend of circus and theatre through characters and stories that audiences connect with on an emotional level. Photo credit: Dia Peterson

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Benjamin Domask

Benjamin Domask seeks to combine the skill and technique of juggling with the theory and philosophy of clown under the aesthetic of corporeal mime to create a unique blend of circus and theatre through characters and stories that audiences connect with on an emotional level. Photo credit: Dia Peterson