At the Actors Gymnasium, Northwestern theatre students reach new heights.

The summer after her second year at Northwestern, theatre major Becca Schwartz signed up for a summer intensive at the Actors Gymnasium to strengthen her circus skills. Over six weeks, she tested out aerial apparatuses like silks, trapeze and the lyra, a suspended hoop for dancing in mid-air.

During the intensive, Schwartz fell in love with the aerial net that she describes as a hammock. It’s suspended far higher than the portable ones dotting the lakefill, though.

“I got on this aerial net and things just sort of clicked in for me,” Schwartz says, smiling as she recalls her fondest memory at the Actors Gym. “I understood how to manipulate it and use it to my advantage. I remember Sylvia [Hernandez-DiStasi] came over and looked at me and was just like,‘Yeah, I think you found your apparatus.’”

Schwartz says Actors Gym training has given her unique skills beyond acting and singing to better market herself as a performer. Casting people with experience in aerial dance, or other circus arts, allows directors to do something “new and exciting” with their productions, she says.

Photos by Leta Dickinson

At the Actors Gym, tucked inside Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center, you notice the chill immediately. Floor-to-ceiling windows invite cold air inside, and cavernous ceilings hold ropes and silks extending down to the padded floor. The classroom doubles as a performance space with a curtain draped behind the stage and chairs awaiting an audience.

Artistic Director Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi co-founded the gym in 1995 to develop actors’ movement and physical theater skills through circus, gymnastics, drumming in addition to voice classes. The increasingly popular classes have since been refined to focus on circus arts, such as trapeze, contortion and unicycling.

Hernandez-DiStasi is a petite middle-aged woman with a soft yet authoritative voice, ideal for gently critiquing students. She literally grew up in a circus; her parents were circus performers, traveling with the likes of the Ringling Bros Circus. By age 5, Hernandez-DiStasi went out in the ring with her parents.

Seeking change, she moved to Chicago in 1989 and began coaching circus movement at the Lookingglass Theatre Company.

“There’s something about the camaraderie of a circus class that I think is like nothing else,” Hernandez-DiStasi says. “It’s noncompetitive and people are very supportive and not judgmental. Everyone can get to where they want to get to.”

Around 1998, HernandezDiStasi’s ex-husband Larry DiStasi — who graduated from Northwestern with a theatre B.A. in 1988 — initiated a partnership with the Northwestern Theatre Department. After all, the Gym sits down the street from the University.

Until this year, HernandezDiStasi taught the second year movement classes at the Actors Gym. She currently teaches a similar class in Northwestern’s Wirtz Center. Students previously took eight hours of Actors Gym class per quarter, learning the basics of circus performing such as ball balancing, juggling and trapeze.

The students wear typical workout clothes: women in leggings, men in shorts and everyone in sweatshirts. After a couple of laps, some stretching, cartwheels and somersaults, they begin shedding sweatshirts and long-sleeve shirts to reveal T-shirts and tank tops.

Farrah Sklar, a third year theatre major, took the 2018 winter quarter class. Sklar had prior gymnastics experience and says she looked forward to her first circus course. Not everyone in her acting class had a relevant background, though. A nervous energy resonated in the Gym’s frigid air.

“We were definitely trying to see what we could do, flexibility-wise and strength-wise,” Sklar says.

The group gained confidence over the course of four classes. After mastering a complex juggling technique, Sklar was so successful that she bought her own equipment and practiced outside of class.

“By the last day, we had all watched each other try and fail and succeed at so many things. We were all more comfortable to try these things and more excited to push ourselves,” Sklar says.

In addition to a Northwestern class and the Lookingglass Theatre partnership, the Actors Gym offers child and adult classes, a professional training program, a youth circus company and summer camps. The Gym maintains an active presence in Evanston, Hernandez-DiStasi says.

“It’s a huge part of the makeup that is unique to Evanston. Not every community has ... a professional circus training program in their backyard,” Hernandez-DiStasi says. “If you go down Noyes Street or you take the Purple Line in the summer, you’ll see kids walking stilts and riding unicycles … My son said, ‘We’re all a little bit different, and with circus, we find out how we are the same.