Thousands of demonstrators gathered at Columbus, Ga.’s Fort Benning last November to protest the funding of the School of the Americas with American tax dollars. For years, in conjunction with the U.S. military, the SOA has trained Central and South American troops. Annual demonstrators argue that SOA graduates return to their home countries armed only with more efficient ways of violating human rights. This year’s 19th annual gathering marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of six El Salvadorian Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers, allegedly carried out by SOA-trained government troops. Among those gathered at the school, hundreds joined a funeral procession that led beyond police boundaries and into the streets of Columbus.
And amid the crowd were Lisa McLeod and Jake Weinstein of South Knoxville, armed with puppets.
The pair traveled from Knoxville to arrive a week in advance of the demonstration in order to collaborate with a group of 15 to 20 others in creating nine giant puppets, eight representing lives lost in the assassination, the ninth symbolizing the SOA. The puppets, each about 10 feet tall, require two to three people for operation. The symbolism is straightforward enough—but why giant puppets?
McLeod and Weinstein compose Knoxville’s One World Circus, a traveling “teaching circus” that delivers an emotional brand of political street theater wherever the opportunity presents itself. The pair participate in festivals and demonstrations as far away as Palestine and as nearby as the recent mountaintop removal opposition and downtown New Year’s celebrations.
McLeod and Weinstein have an extensive arsenal of circus skills including but not limited to stilt-walking, juggling, and fire-breathing, but the puppetry in particular is close to their collective heart.
With their color, movement, and sheer size, “The puppets evoke the poetic,” explains Weinstein. “Think about Kennedy or Roosevelt. Think about music, visual art, whatever. People are drawn to the poetic. These puppets evoke a sense of the mythic.” For McLeod, their appeal to her was immediate, when she caught sight of a puppet demonstration at an SOA action several years back. “I thought, for me, this just makes total sense,” she says.
Weinstein, originally from New York City, got his start building puppets with the Children’s Circus of Middletown, Conn., near New Haven, where he lived for 30 years. What brought him to the South? One word: “Lisa,” he says, though the two split much of their time between Tennessee and Connecticut, where Weinstein’s teenaged son Ben still lives. McLeod and Weinstein share more than a distinct commitment to social activism. They appear entirely on the same wavelength, both distinctly serene in their demeanor, though with an impassioned tone as they describe their work.
This year’s SOA demonstration, like others before it, began with remembrance of lost lives—a sung call-and-response roll call of names of the dead. What followed was a celebration of life through drumming and dance, a necessary complement to the grief associated with injustice, they explain. “Part of the main focus is to acknowledge the loss of life, and there’s a lot of grief that comes with facing that,” says Weinstein, “but what we do is try to remind people of an alternate vision of what the world can be.”
That vision takes a number of forms. Fixtures at rallies close to home (and Oak Ridge nuclear weapons rallies in particular), One World Circus manages to spread their message abroad as well. Last October, McLeod and Weinstein joined fellow members of the Olive Tree Circus in traveling to Palestine and Israel to participate in the Olive Harvest Festival on Nativity Square in Bethlehem. They performed with dancing puppets representing the ongoing political issues in place there, leading a circus workshop for 300 children and their parents, and joining in a traditional olive harvest with the locals. There, the pair included music in the performance; both are accomplished accordion players. In fact, McLeod draws from her extensive repertoire to offer her accordion and keyboarding abilities to the Knoxville folk band, The LoneTones.
While a few weeks out of their year are spent performing and traveling for demonstrations, McLeod and Weinstein share a further commitment to “teaching circus,” as they call it. “We’re very passionate about political street theater,” says Weinstein, “but it’s not something you particularly get paid for.” School residencies, in cooperation with programs like Circus in a Suitcase, allow for teaching circus techniques, activities they say feed imagination and boost confidence. Circus workshops are growing in popularity as a team-building method, increasingly preferred to traditional ropes courses.
The two call working with children a “nice complement” to the intensity often associated with participating in actions. For McLeod, the investment in imagination begins at home with daughters Sarah Margaret, 14, and Emma, 12, both well-practiced in circus performing already. The two are experienced stilt-walkers, and Emma has recently begun dabbling in “diablo,” a form of Chinese yo-yo performed with two sticks. “To me it’s about investing in the world as we want to see it,” she says, “Sometimes it’s overwhelming to see how much work there is to be done to make the world just and fair for everybody. The power of the arts is to help us remember what beauty is and move toward that.”
McLeod and Weinstein also demonstrate investment in the future through lifestyle choices that extend beyond teaching circus. For now, the pair resort to travel via tandem bike, but only after their vegetable-oil-fueled car succumbed to mechanical difficulties, “to no fault of the veggie oil, a result of human error,” says McLeod. At home, the pair share the work of tending their large garden and maintaining a system of composting. “We try to be respectful of the earth we live on,” says Weinstein, “but we can always do more.”
The responsibility they feel toward conservation further manifests itself in their work. Their performances at times assert a plea for environmental responsibility, and even the puppets themselves are a testament to conservation, made almost entirely of trash and other recycled materials. Reduce, reuse, recycle, dance, and sing. Check.
Armed with giant puppets composed of recyclables, stilts, and flames to juggle, ambient accordion tunes in the background all the while, contemporary optimists Jake Weinstein and Lisa McLeod aim to inspire change through their own brand of street performance. At the very least, they inspire folks to get off the couch.