Written by Anne Wanyoike.

When the pandemic hit, the world was hard hit by its effects, and undoubtedly the entertainment industry was heavily affected too by curfews, travel bans and other COVID measures put in place by governments globally. Many creative outlets had to shut down, given that the business models of most the outlets depend on live performances and audience-filled halls for the thrill of it all. Sarakasi Trust, being an Arts outlet, did not escape that wrath. With the lock down lingering heavy on us, we had to bow to the situation as it were and cancel all shows that were on the line up for that same year that the pandemic hit.

While we had to face the music, we also had to rethink of ways in which we were to stay afloat in the industry. Furthermore, we knew we had to operationalize new mechanisms to do business, in the most competitive and innovative ways possible. That was the birth of the Sarakasi “Virtual Circus Experience.” This is an online circus show that incorporates various technological interventions, to deliver the best quality shows to our online audiences, most of whom are based in the United States of America. The concept is pretty simple, we host the live performance via Zoom Meetings, where our audience members join in through the transmission of the livestreamed sessions, and we get to engage with them directly as the show goes on. The virtual shows are held here at Sarakasi Dome and go on for 45 minutes, promptly, with a soft introduction reel of Kenya and Kenyan life.

The set up for the Virtual Circus Experience during the 2022 Black History Month Performance.
Photo credits: Jose Contez.

“When we first started out with this concept last year, we didn’t have an idea of how we would pull it off, but with the collaboration and the commitment from our able team here at the Dome, we were able to figure out what the shows would look like. It took a lot of planning meetings and brainstorming sessions to get the shows done…”

Mr. Zack Jakoyo, the I.T. Lead at Sarakasi remarked, when asked about how the set up runs.

“We have the best time being part of the online shows, given that it takes us only a few minutes to set it up, and we get to share in with the audience that eagerly wait on the other side. Never in a million years would we have forecast that this would be a way that live performance would be produced and consumed, and I feel that Sarakasi Trust is at the forefront of innovating this world of live entertainment, and beyond…” he adds.

Sarakasi Acrobats live in action during the Virtual Shows.

Innovation is a buzz word, not only in the creative sector, but in the world as whole. We are all looking at underscoring the factors that make production a worthwhile activity, the same way that we make the audiences’ experience worthwhile. We are blessed to have audience members who are very open minded, which makes it easier for us to serve them. It is a different ball game, when you have to perform to a room full of audience members during a show, versus the ones watching, continents apart at what we presumably think has to be the best thing that we can create. Oh, the questions and answer sessions are the most favorite from the online sessions. We have Frequently Asked Questions such as: “How do we eat fire? Is it real fire? How does one do a backflip? How can one join Sarakasi acrobats? What stories do we tell with our choreographies? Do we get injuries during the process and so much more.

Artists listen in for questions from the online audience members.
Photo Credits: Jose Contez

Our audience members are very curious, alert and fun…we have instances when they get up and start mimicking some of our routines.

It is not all fun and games as the team working behind the scenes retells. Jose Contez, our technical support staff explains, “Sometimes we experience colossal levels of burn out, given that we have multiple shows in a day, and others extend deep into the night, due to the different time zones that we must cater to. We find ourselves having to retreat from any other activity so that we may only focus on creating an optimized experience….”

As for the artists, it takes them putting in long hours of practice and pure commitment, so as to ensure that quality control is observed. Speaking on behalf of his team mates, the Captain of the Acrobats Mr. Juma reflects, “We couldn’t believe that this was ever going to be a method through which we connected to audiences during live performances. As artists, we are so used to getting loud and immediate applause and feedback from live audiences, yet with the virtual experience, we don’t get the same feel, we have had to adjust to this new format, because at the end of the day, we love what we do and we strive to give it the best that the we have…”

“The only way that we are able to pull the shows off, is by trusting in our team dynamic and ensuring that we all are aware of what to do carefully. It demands utmost concentration and precision.” He adds.

Over the past two years, we have been incorporating the virtual experience as a celebration of the popular Black History Month. While the month of February largely focuses on the black diaspora, mostly living in the US and slightly in Europe, black people living in the continent of Africa might as well share in the celebrations of black excellence and Culture, while in full awareness of the fact that the lived experiences of black people abroad, differs with that of black people on the continent.

Increasingly, as the world evolves, we are witnessing a tone of cultural transactions, embedded within a shared heritage within global blackness, as more and more groups within the larger communities identify themselves with the joys, challenges, struggles, political and socio-economic complexes and contexts shared within themselves.

Black History Month is a positive and almost ceremonial tribute to the black nation as is, and we can argue that more needs to be done, to deliver the promise and the vision of a fair and equitable dealing of the world, and especially to black folk. With continued injustices skewed towards blackness in the way of systemic racism, discrimination, black murder, hate crimes, imbalanced incarceration among others, the global community continues to show its support toward the growing outrage among black people, which has reset the black revolution into a global revolution and better yet, a revolution about humanity.

With this is mind, we try to educate and promote black or Kenyan culture to our audience members overseas, with the deep conviction of the power of art in shaping healthy narratives.

We hope to expand the story lines that we share with the Virtual Circus Experience, as we target to expand our ideas into wider audiences and forms of Performing Arts.