On Nov. 27, Britain’s Prince Harry “cut the ribbon” on a new 250-seat theater, joining a school on the recently acquired property of Circus Zambia, a professional ensemble of former street kids helping today’s street kids. Behind it all is a Vermont theater professional and generous folks from Vermont and New Hampshire’s Upper Valley.
“There’s an expression of ‘lightning in a bottle,’” Brooke Ciardelli explained recently over lunch. “You can’t ever ask for it, and it doesn’t stay forever, but when you’ve got it, you’ve got to hang on and go as far as you can on that combustible energy. They totally caught lightning in a bottle.”
Circus Zambia — “a place where you can run, jump, fly and land safely” — is a nonprofit social circus company from Chibolya in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Chibolya is known for its lack of facilities, high level of poverty, drugs and criminal activity.
“Using circus, the company engages vulnerable youth ages 5-21 with a holistic training approach to serve their body, mind and soul,” reads Circus Zambia’s mission statement. “Once active in weekly circus training, the children have access to school support and funding, additional academic tutoring, mentoring, life skills coaching, as well as access to a network of partner organizations which provide free medical services, scholarships, HIV/Aids support and expanded mentorship in their field of interest.”
Since its founding in 2016, Circus Zambia has toured and performed in Japan, Europe, the United Kingdom and the USA. Its story has been featured on CNN’s “Inside Africa” and the BBC.
But that’s not where it began. Over the past two years, Ciardelli, founder of White River Junction’s Northern Stage and now a freelance director, raised $250,000 from Upper Valley residents to buy a disused school and renovate the property. A Vermont donor came forward with a challenge grant to lead the campaign to build a brand-new theater on the property.
The theater, with plans donated by architect Lou Beaker, was barely completed when Circus Zambia was given two weeks’ notice that Prince Harry was coming to open the theater. The Palace announced the event on a Monday; Ciardelli flew to Zambia that Saturday, and the celebration was on the following Monday, Nov 27.
The Circus Zambia property is long and narrow, widening where the theater is.
“Prince Harry entered the property and came up the walkway,” Ciardelli said. “There’s a raised outdoor cabaret stage that had all the kids performing. And there’s a performance on a terrace at the end of the walkway.”
Of course, the event was swarming with security and press.
“You got the feeling that if you place one foot wrong, and zip-zip, you close up the shop, and away he goes,” Ciardelli said. “But as soon as (Prince Harry) the Duke of Sussex arrived, his royal highness, arrived, he was FANTASTIC, and warm and easygoing and chatty, interacting with the kids.
“You don’t ask for this,” Ciardelli said. “You don’t call up and say, ‘Can you have Prince Harry come?’ So it was thrilling to watch the members of the Circus Zambia and their very rapid realization of something beyond what they were even capable of dreaming of.”
These Zambian artists are only now realizing that they own their own home.
“And to have Prince Harry, whose family once ‘owned’ this country, come to recognize their achievement of their new home was mind boggling,” Ciardelli said. “It was lifelong joy, from the youngest member of Circus Zambia, to see the reality of it sink in as the day progressed. It was just pure delight.
“And it was a really good deadline to get the building finished!” Ciardelli said, with a laugh.
Ciardelli’s African adventure began in 2014, when she was invited to direct the opening ceremony for a May arts festival in Zimbabwe. There she made friends with a circus troupe, six guys from Zambia. In November, she returned to Zimbabwe to direct “Never a New Story” with Barefeet Theatre (which she chronicled in a series for The Sunday Times Argus and Rutland Herald, “Brooke in the Bush”).
“But all the guys I had met had gone off to China to train,” Ciardelli said. However, they renewed their friendship when she brought a one-woman show she directed to a festival in Zambia.
“They said they wanted to start a circus company, a social circus, to go back into the slums — they call them compounds — and they want to help all those kids,” Ciardelli said.
Zambia has one of the world’s lowest life expectancies on the planet, between 36 and 42 years, and a very high AIDS rate, Ciardelli said. There are 72 recognized tribal languages, though English is the national language.
“But it’s politically stable. In my estimation, it’s less corrupt than the U.S.,” Ciardelli said. “It’s a peaceful country.”
Vermont has long been a big supporter of the circus arts and education, with outstanding organizations like Circus Smirkus in Greensboro and Brattleboro’s New England Center for the Circus. Ciardelli’s 11-year-old son is participating in a 150-kid Ted Lawrence’s Van Lodostov Family Circus each summer in Norwich.
“Just kind of off the cuff I said we should do a kid-to-kid circus exchange,” Ciardelli said. “We should bring kids from the Upper Valley to Zambia and make a circus performance with your street kids. They said, ‘We should totally do that.’”
In February 2016, Ciardelli and several parents took the first group of Upper Valley teenagers to Zambia for a nearly three-week visit.
“Kids are kids, they’re all kinds, circus is an international language, and they had a ball,” Ciardelli said. “The parents were profoundly moved by the experience of watching their young kids (elementary and middle school-age) form relationships with those kids, some of whom didn’t have any English.
“We’ve got pictures at their farewell of these boys and girls just sobbing, ‘Don’t forget me,’” Ciardelli said.
Not long after returning, eight of the participating families offered to pay for one ticket each for the Zambian kids to come here and join the local circus camp. Eight kids spent eight weeks in Vermont, living with their host families, during the summer of 2016. And that began another chapter in this incredible story.
“Their first performance was at an outdoor performance in Putney,” Ciardelli said. “We put a hat out. You pass the hat and you hope you get enough money for gas.
“Well, almost $1,000 was put in that hat,” she said. “That’s weird! That doesn’t happen.”
But, the next performance brought in $2,000.
“People were giving money, but it wasn’t towards anything,” Ciardelli said. She told the Circus Zambia people, “If they meet you and hear your story, and you say we’re building a permanent home and a safe place for their kids, the lightning’s in the jar right now.”
What followed, as they say, is history.
“It is the first theater built in the country in 60 years,” Ciardelli said. “And just think, Zambia was ruled by England, took its independence over 50 years ago, and now, here comes Prince Harry to recognize the work of a bunch of former street kids. It’s truly incredible.”