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Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Alumna Christina Zagarino on Creativity; “Big Top Fitness; and How to Start Your Own Circus

The circus arts and graduate study may seem like odd bedfellows. But for Tufts graduate alumna Christina Zagarino, G11, the combination made perfect sense.

Tufts GSAS alumna Christina Zagarino hopes the circus arts can get kids excited about exercising. Photo by Kelvin Ma.

After teaching at a circus camp in 2008—and realizing that the circus arts were a great way to “get kids moving”—Zagarino entered Tufts’ GSAS as a master of arts student in child development, initially researching how television could also get kids “moving.” In summer 2010, Zagarino brought these two interests—the circus arts and television—together and began writing five episodes of a series called, “Big Top Fitness.” Once the scripts were complete, Zagarino hired, with help from a Fred Rogers Memorial Scholarship, a cast and crew and filmed the completed episodes later that summer. Each episode (some of which can be seen by clicking here) features actors doing circus-related activities ranging from simple stretching to mimicking animal shapes.

GradMatters spoke with Zagarino about creativity, her television series, and why when starting your own circus it helps to have an engineer.

What was the catalyst for developing the “Big Top Fitness” program?

I started thinking about “Big Top Fitness” while working at the New Victory Theater in New York City. I managed and developed arts curriculum for their family workshop and circus arts camps. I saw how much fun the circus arts were, and how much it motivated kids and families to get up and be active. I realized that this kind of work needed to be shared with kids across the United States, and I started thinking about a way to do that. Creating a television series seemed like a challenging, but likely move.

What did you enjoy most about creating the television series?

While there may be some, um, clowning around in each "Big Top Fitness" episode, a key goal of Zagarino’s work is to help kids get “moving.”

I really enjoyed the challenges of creating the series. I was limited to a $10,000 budget, and I was dedicated to producing five, four-to five-minute episodes. In the production world, that’s not a lot of money. I faced a lot of financial barriers, and had to solve problems creatively. I also had to rely on many of my talented friends. I was overwhelmed with how generous these people were in sharing their time.

Why is the combination of television and the circus arts ideal for getting kids active?

As a culture, we’re really excited about technology right now. Apps are the “it” items. However, televisions are found in approximately 99 percent of American homes. My thought was that a television series would have the ability to reach more children, sharing arts education, and emphasizing the importance of physical activity with as many people as possible.

Currently, I’m starting to roll out episodes of the series on YouTube. As a (very) independent producer, this is an easy way to get content out there and get quick and sometimes comprehensive feedback on your work. I feel like this is my next step to sharing the series, and getting kids and families interested in circus arts and an active lifestyle.

What’s the current status of “Big Top Fitness”?

People can log onto our website and be directed to the series’ YouTube channel to view some episodes. I’ll officially launch the channel when I present my project and research findings at the Fred Forward Conference to Advance Quality in Children’s Digital Media being held in Latrobe, Pennsylvania from June 3 to June 5. I hope to get some viewership and some feedback on the work. Sharing video content on the Internet allows producers to get a fast response to work and figure out how to make changes to the content moving forward. I think it will be a really great learning experience, and maybe we’ll even get a few Big Top fans out there!

What do you have planned for “Big Top Fitness”?

I’m really interested in seeing how people respond to the episodes which are, or will be, online. I’d love to see if these characters can grow or develop in the future, but I’m proud of the work we’ve already created. In addition to the YouTube roll out, I’ll be focusing more on social media. You can get behind the scenes information at http://www.facebook.com/bigtopfitness and I’ll be working with lifestyle blogger and social media maven Tara Hewlett to develop Pinterest boards around the series.

Can you tell us more about your interest in the circus arts?

Because of the work I did at the New Victory Theater, I have a great passion and love for the circus arts. I think the circus arts help motivate children to make the seemingly impossible possible and emphasizes the payoff that comes with hard work; it’s not just about being talented, it’s about practice and fun. While teaching at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School in Medford, Massachusetts I developed circus arts curriculum with my fellow teachers in order to create our own Eliot-Pearson circus. While I taught juggling and acrobatics, my brilliant colleagues found ways to integrate engineering, math, and visual art into the mix. We worked with civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. student, Jesse Sipple (known to the students as “Engineer Jesse”) to learn about tent structures and how to design and build our own circus tent. The children performed their acts under that very tent at the end of the school year! I also presented a workshop for fellow circus educators at the American Youth Circus Organization conference last year on how to teach the circus arts to preschoolers. It was fun to work with and learn from others, and find ways to incorporate what I learned from them into my own practice. There are so many wonderful places to learn the circus arts. My hope is that “Big Top Fitness” doesn’t act as a substitute, but rather as a way to get kids excited about that kind of exercise and maybe even seek out circus arts programs in their own communities.

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

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