Psychedelics and Circus Arts: Creating Community with the New Old Time Chautauqua

Spring 2012 Vol. 22, No. 1 Special Edition: Psychedelics and the Popular Arts

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It’s an average day at the grocery store until you hear the sound of a big brass marching band. A parade of merrymakers with colorful banners, dancing children, hula hoopers, jugglers, acrobats, and people on stilts gallivants down Main Street and into the store.

The entire experience has been concocted by the New Old Time Chautauqua, a troupe of about 60 entertainers, educators, cooks, stagehands, truck drivers, and musicians that puts on free shows and workshops over 3-4 week tours in a different region of the Pacific Northwest every summer. Now in its 31st year, Chautauqua encourages us all to take a break from our “To Do” lists and join the parade, remembering for a time that life is short, precious, and full of surprises.

This modern mobile artistic celebration was born from an annual fair in Oregon where many attendees choose to use psychedelics. The fair describes itself as a place for psycho-spiritual rejuvenation and is intended to create experiences that nourish the soul and enliven the spirit. The use of psychedelics allowed early fairgoers the creative freedom to think outside the box, and to dream up and carry out a fantastical vision, one which may otherwise have felt impossible.

The members of this dedicated group range in age from toddlers to elders and have included well-known artists such as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Patch Adams, and Utah Phillips. But, behind the scenes there is more than just acrobats putting on their leotards. The organization is run completely by volunteers and requires a lot of hard work to organize, promote, and fundraise throughout the year.

The creators of the New Old Time Chautauqua sought to create experiences that changed attendees’ perception of what was possible. The noise of daily life can cloud the path towards a life that is meaningful, satisfying, and joyful. Why do some of us spend so much time in front of a computer screen or a TV or behind a desk fretting the details of paperwork? Live entertainment carries us away from all of these distractions and brings people together in a real moment for a shared experience. It brings us back to our roots.

Of course, psychedelics are by no means necessary for building a healthy and meaningful life. Religion, family, yoga, meditation, nature, solitude, good friends, diet, education and exercise can also accomplish this. Yet psychedelics can and do play a role in helping create shared experiences of acceptance and healing. They remind us that being human is about connection.

Our ancient ancestors and people of many cultures across the world have long gathered around fires to sing and dance, producing a heightened awareness of love and appreciation. Creating these kinds of experiences is central to the mission of modern-day performance troupes like the New Old Time Chautauqua, as they bust through the doors of hospitals, detention centers, and retirement homes with refreshing rays of color, sound, and spirit.

A good show inspires the audience with a sense of unity among themselves, between themselves and the divine, and even within themselves. Although it varies greatly and is difficult to define, this feeling also characterizes the psychedelic experience. Whether brought on by actually ingesting a psychedelic drug or by other intense moments such as loss of a loved one, drastic physical or emotional changes, or falling in love with someone new, these transformations empower great art. Many of our culture’s most popular songs or most remembered photographs speak to these times in our lives.

Today, the New Old Time Chautauqua is fostering community in the everyday world, with professional entertainers making their living through dedicated practice and organized business methods. With shows in big theaters, high school gyms, local parks, and school cafeterias and workshops in everything from gardening to unicycling (even discussion workshops on scientific and intellectual topics) Chautauqua is bringing the spirit of community and compassion to the modern imagination. In its waves of rejuvenation, we find hope and a reason to feel good.