A Word With… Dean Bareham of the Green Fools

On teaching circus tricks to refugee kids and why scary performance art is a younger man’s game.

photograph by shelley arnusch


photograph by shelley arnusch

Dean Bareham has been a fixture in the Calgary arts community since co-founding Green Fools Theatre back in 1991, upon returning to his hometown from performing-arts school in California. In addition to their well-known street-performer characters (among them Bareham’s Gustavo the Impossiblist), stiltwalking and puppetry, the Fools also run Social Circus, an outreach program that engages youth with performing arts and circus skills. Among the agencies the Fools work with is the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), which recently brought them in to do Social Circus camps for the kids of newly arrived Syrian refugee families. We caught up with Bareham following one of these spirited sessions.


What’s Social Circus all about?

“It’s physical but it’s non-competitive. It’s really good for self-esteem – that’s kind of our thing. It’s all about working together as a team, that notion of the ‘circus family.’ We’re socializing children without them even knowing it. At the beginning and end of every class we go in a circle because it’s really important, that concept of the circle, the family. It’s inclusive; that’s what it’s about.”


The language barrier must make it a challenge to run these workshops.

“We depend on interpreters. The beautiful thing is that kids can watch and visually learn, but what’s been a challenge with the little Syrian guys is that there’s a desperation for attention and a desperation to be first in line – I can only imagine where that’s coming from. I’m doing my best to learn as much Arabic as possible. It’s challenging to work through a translator, but CCIS has been bringing these awesome people in. Some of them are Syrian refugees themselves, who are now working for CCIS. They (CCIS) do an amazing job in this city and they don’t get enough credit.”


What are the Syrian kids like?

“They have no sense of fear. When you’ve travelled as far as they have and gone through as much as they have, these guys are fearless. There’s nothing here that I can show them that they will not do. I didn’t bring out the stilts today because it gets to be crazy. I don’t have enough spotters and they all start getting on stilts – I get little babies on stilts – and they’re falling down and they’re getting back up and they’re falling down and they get back up. These kids are tough.”


Back in January, we ran a story about the 30th edition of the High Performance Rodeo and one of the people we talked to said his favourite memory was a performance piece where you emerged from a box of dirt and scared everyone.

“In art college I took myself way too seriously. Then after that I went to clown school and then I couldn’t take myself that seriously anymore. I have to say that the performance art days are behind me. I still admire it and love people who are committed to doing that work, but now I like to do shows that can tour, or that can end up on a children’s festival tour. Gustavo is quite well known and he can travel. I have my other personas now; I wear my teacher hat. But it is funny to think back. If I would have thought back then that I’d be doing Social Circus for refugee kids… no, that wouldn’t be in my brain.”


So less dirt monster, more social outreach these days for you?

“I still perform. You’re still going to see Gustavo at all the festivals. You’re still going to see our stilt walkers, but the outreach work is so profound and has such an impact. I don’t generally get too emotionally connected, but the other day we were in Bridgeland and I heard one of the refugee women there mention that this one kid was from her hometown. I remember seeing pictures of the town and it’s just a burned-out shell so it was weighing on me. And then the kids came in and we started doing some dancing and at one point we’re all spinning around and everyone’s smiling and I was like, this is just a really beautiful moment. All these kids, they don’t even know each other, they come in, unite together, we’re here in Canada, they’re safe, we’re smiling, we’re spinning, I started to weep. I couldn’t help it, I was just so overcome with the fact that we can provide just a little bit of joy after the hardship and the craziness. And it makes me think of the poor people still stuck in limbo. Brutal. These people aren’t terrorists. These people are people.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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