Today’s Local to Know has a history of combining circus arts with science. This might sound like an unusual combination, but Lindsay Surmacz has turned it into a one-person educational extravaganza, all while being a good Southside neighbor and sharing her circus skills with the city—take it away, Lindsay!
Hi, Lindsay! Tell us a bit about how you combine circus and science for The Starry Messenger.
That’s a fantastic question, and, to be honest, it’s tough to answer it without a snapshot of my background. Growing up, my family was heavily active in the performing arts – especially theater and music. And where’s the obvious place for an acting, singing, dancing musician to end up? Informal science education! Long story short, I got an internship at Carnegie Science Center in college, so it was only a matter of time before I tried to think of ways to communicate science through performance art.
I fell in love with astronomy. So once I finally started studying circus arts, which had been a longstanding dream of mine, my brain gradually conjured up images of juggling planets and doing acrobatic poses that looked like constellations. That brings me to the present day, where you can find me in schools and other creative learning environments as The Starry Messenger. I take young audiences on a tour of the night sky, presenting key astronomy concepts through various circus techniques. I juggle planets, balance stars, perform constellation acrobatics, and even throw in some prop-based magic tricks to help learners engage with the science content in a captivating way. I’ve delivered The Starry Messenger in multiple formats including a show, an exhibit-style demonstration, and a workshop series for elementary school students.
What other projects and organizations are you involved with?
When the pandemic hit, opportunities for gig performances all but evaporated. So I created a website called Punk & Pie Circus to keep the circus performer in me active. At first, it was a platform through which I made custom-ordered Happy Birthday videos as a juggling percussionist. Eventually, it evolved into what I call my “creative sandbox.” This is where I go to explore characters, writing, filmmaking, and an ongoing experiment of juggle-drumming. You can take the girl out of the drumline, but…
I’m super fortunate to be surrounded by creative, hardworking, and fun people who inspire and support endeavors like this. By day, I write for a marketing agency based in California called The Get Smart Group. And at any given point, I’m either training or planning something with my circus family at Iron City Circus Arts. I also perform as a juggler with the Pittsburgh Circus Arts Collaborative.
Obviously you work a lot with young folks, but what would you say to not-so-young folks interested in trying out circus arts?
Everything in the circus is doable. It wouldn’t exist otherwise. Does that mean a person can do everything in the circus? No. I, for instance, will never be a contortionist, and I’m a far cry from an elite athlete. But it was beyond worth it for me to walk into my first circus class at 29, do my first pull-up at 30, start an educational circus venture at 31, and, throughout the whole journey, meet and befriend such an amazing group of people – many of whom started at an older age and had less athletic experience than I did.
Do we have rough days? Yes. Do we struggle and, sometimes, slide backward in our progress? Yes. Do we get sore and confused and nervous about “doing the thing?” Oh, yes. No matter what, circus will find a way to humble you. But if you just give it a chance, you may uncover a physical and creative energy you didn’t realize you had. So don’t get hung up on the idea that circus arts are for a special few. If you ever ask yourself, “I wonder what I’m capable of,” you should try circus. If you, then, ask yourself “I wonder what we’re capable of,” you should stick with circus.
After a performance or class, where are some places in the ’Burgh where you go to relax?
Only recently did I finally find a meditation practice that fits me. But ever since, I’ve found new value in being at home and taking the time to be still, tune into my body, and let my intuition say what it needs to say. It works, people!
Other than that, I love taking myself to neighborhoods all over The Burgh to either shop or write. Thrift shopping, for me, is like a treasure hunt that involves the perfect mix of decision-making and mindlessness, even if I don’t buy anything, which is often the case. Writing, for me, is an activity most enjoyed at a coffee shop with a London Fog or at a bar with a Coke. Favorite local coffee shops for writing: Black Forge Coffee in Allentown, Inkwell in Lawrenceville, and Carnegie Coffee Company in (you guessed it) Carnegie. Favorite bars for writing: The Galleys (i.e., Federal Galley and Galley Bakery Square).
And there’s one more practice I highly recommend: floating. I’m referring to sensory deprivation tanks where your body becomes one hundred percent buoyant in a shallow pool of water with a super-high concentration of dissolved Epsom salt. A bunch of us in our circus group swear by this, and each of us has our own go-to studio. Mine is Levity in Squirrel Hill.
Do you have any Pittsburgh hot takes or hidden gems you’d like to share?
Let’s talk hidden gems. Obviously, I can’t shout loud enough from the rooftops about how transformational my journey has been at Iron City Circus Arts (ICCA). If you walk into the studio, you will see people of all ages practicing any of the following at a given time: trapeze, hoop, silks, hammock, straps, rope, pole, ground acrobatics, handstands, and more.
We also have a couple of hidden gem neighbors in our little pocket of the South Side. These include Brew House Association, a nonprofit art center and gallery literally in the room next door to ICCA, and Velum Fermentation, a brand-new brewery where a bunch of us recently had a blast performing at the South Side Spring Social.
Summer’s coming up (and so are summer camps). Do you have any programs or public events where our readers can see/experience your work?
I will be performing The Starry Messenger at the EQT Children’s Theater Festival on Saturday, May 20. I’ll also be back the next day to provide ambient entertainment throughout the festival.
Learn more about Lindsay’s work at starrymessengerpgh.org.
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