Global Woman of Vision: Annie Dugan
This creative powerhouse has transformed the Edmonton arts scene with her acrobatic addition, Firefly Theatre & Circus.
photography by Cooper & O'Hara
While Annie Dugan has always been an athletic and creative person, her journey into the world of circus arts came about entirely by accident. Dugan was working as a photojournalist, based in New York City but travelling around the world to capture stunning images, when she ended up losing her camera in a 30-foot tidal wave.
She knew that she needed to get the money to buy a new camera, so she turned to an unusual solution — she joined the circus. From that temporary gig, Dugan ended up traveling with the Big Apple Circus back in the ‘90s and completely fell in love. “The first time I started hearing people laughing at what I was doing it just… the lights went off and the doors opened up and I loved it. I loved having the gift to create laughter. And that is what sent me to theatre school, and that is what sent me on this path of telling stories and making shows, was wanting to give the gift of laughter.”
There was just one problem — she wasn’t sure where to hone her craft. “You couldn’t learn circus anywhere [at the time], it was not an option. It was not on people’s radar as either a recreational activity or a career path,” says Dugan. Eventually a small company in San Francisco opened the San Francisco Circus Centre and she began learning at the hands of an old New York City acquaintance. She was working and traveling around the United States, but ended up stopping by Edmonton in order to attend two internationally acclaimed festivals, the Street Performer Festival and the Fringe Theatre Festival — and that’s where she met actor John Ullyat, who later became her husband and business partner. “In the fall of 1999, I officially immigrated to Canada and moved to Edmonton. And my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, we decided to make a show.”
However, Dugan faced a problem yet again — just as there was nowhere to hone her craft back when she was getting started, in her new city, there was nowhere to practice. Finally, Dugan met Trish Quinn at Phoenix Gymnastics, who allowed her to set up her equipment at her gym. “I started training at Phoenix, I taught my husband aerial arts so I didn’t have to train alone because it’s boring and dangerous if you’re training alone, and then we started performing,” says Dugan. “And any time we went out people would say, where can I learn that? Where can I try? And there wasn’t anywhere between Toronto and Vancouver at the time.
Dugan saw a need in the arts community, and decided to fill it, creating Firefly Theatre & Circus — although it was an uphill battle. It took nearly a year to get insurance to teach aerial arts, and then time to take on the teaching role. “We’ve grown from one teacher to 14, and 24 students to 280, and we have our own studio, which I’m really proud of.” Firefly has two major fundraisers a year, as well as support from three levels of government, and a huge fan base here in Edmonton. They are constantly pushing the boundaries when it comes to their shows, often creating multi-disciplinary experiences that you need to see to believe.
Dugan is constantly growing and evolving, and her company is doing so right alongside her. “I didn’t plan to join the circus. I didn’t plan on starting a circus school. I wish I could sit here and say I have this goal, in 10 years this is what’s going to happen,” says Dugan. “I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen in 10 years. I just know there are stories to tell and I want to tell them in the most interesting, powerful and amusing way possible.”