School Director Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi is a second generation circus performer, a Master Teacher, a pioneering theater artist, and an award-winning choreographer. The Actors Gymnasium faculty hold degrees including Theatre, Dance, Musical Theatre, Kinesiology, Early Childhood Development, Design, Computer Science and Engineering. Their circus credentials stem from training at The Actors Gymnasium, New England Center for Circus Arts, Circus Juventas, and National École de Cirque. They have performed with esteemed circus and theatre companies across the world.
Our teachers have brought their talents to the screen with movie stunts and motion capture work for video games, and include members of Actors Equity Association, SAG AFTRA, and Society of American Fight Directors. They have worked on Tony-award winning shows, earned multiple Jeff Awards, and won silver and gold medals from international circus competitions in Monte Carlo, Germany and Cuba.
Molly Brennan was named “Chicago’s Queen of Mischief and Mayhem” by American Theatre Magazine. An Actor, Singer and Clown, Molly has performed with Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Lookingglass, Second City, Lyric Opera, the Neo-Futurists, About Face, Red Tape, the Factory Theatre, Lifeline, Barrel of Monkeys, the Kennedy Center, DC, PS122 NYC, and multiple venues across the U.S. She has taught Clown, Devising and Physical Theatre at DePaul, UIC, Northwestern, Columbia, Opera-Matic, Steppenwolf, University of Chicago, the Neo-Futurists, and various institutions nationwide. She contributes work to Salonathon, the Paper Machete, the Moth, You’re Being Ridiculous, the Fly Honey Show, and other performance events. Co-founder of CLQWN MUTINY, Company Member of 500 Clown, and co-creator of the Madam Barker Show, Molly is a strong advocate for building one’s own work in addition to working with established venues. She is thrilled to share her love of falling down, putting on silly hats, and talking in funny voices with the students of the Actors Gymnasium.
Lucy Carapetyan is a graduate of Northwestern University, and began as a student at The Actors Gymnasium in 2003. She has been teaching and performing with The Actors Gymnasium since 2006. As an actor she has worked with over a dozen theatre companies around Chicago, and currently serves as the Director of Education for Two Pence Theatre Company.
David Catlin is a founding ensemble member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company, the recipient of the 2011 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Catlin is a theatre-maker who acts, writes, directs, and teaches. His work has appeared in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Syracuse, Louisville, and Princeton, New Jersey. Catlin has appeared in, directed, or written & directed over thirty-three productions for Lookingglass. Recent Lookingglass acting credits include Arabian Nights, directed by Mary Zimmerman, and Our Town, directed by Anna Shapiro and Jessica Thebus. Recent directing credits include Black Diamond (co-direction) and Metamorphosis. Recent writing & directing credits include Icarus, Lookingglass Alice, The Little Prince and Moby Dick. Catlin helped found Dark Harbor Stories, a film development company. He was a producer for (and appeared in) the independent film Humanoid. David can also be seen in Since You’ve Been Gone (Miramax/Film Colony/Lookingglass). He also teaches acting at Northwestern University, and is a frequent director of productions at the School of Communication’s Theatre and Interpretation Center.
Thom Cox is a dedicated arts educator, having taught theatre arts for over twenty years, including his years as a faculty member with The Actors Gym. Currently, he serves Lookingglass’ Education and Community Program as Master Teacher, as well as leading residencies in schools around Chicago. He believes in the power of ensemble participation and creation: each individual having an equal opportunity, value, and voice in the creative process. Thom is a founding ensemble member of Lookingglass Theatre and was a faculty member with the Actors Gym from early on, as a drama teacher for early Summer Camps as well as creating and teaching the Imaginastics classes. Thom worked with Sylvia to create the Circus Theatre Performance Project, a program for young and teen students to use circus skills and choreography to adapt stories into original circus-theatre performance pieces; the CTPP was an early precursor to the Teen Ensemble and Youth Circus programming. As an actor, Thom has performed with Lookingglass and many other theatres regionally, including Court, Northlight, Goodman, Steppenwolf, House, and Milwaukee Rep. Some of his favorite physical/circus performances have been The Master and Margarita (Sylvia’s first Lookingglass production, for which Thom worked on trapeze, teeterboard, and harness skills), The Old Curiosity Shop (for which Thom created a villainous character who spent the entire play in plie), one of four Chorus in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at Court Theatre, and Hook in Peter Pan (a play) (including multiple sword fights choreographed on moving platforms and ladders). Thom has understudied Lookingglass Alice several times since 2005, performing three different tracks (Dodgson/White Knight, Red Queen/Dormouse, and Mad Hatter/Humpty), making him the actor who has performed the most tracks for the fewest performances in that show.
Chuck Coyl started teaching stage combat for The Actors Gymnasium in 1997. Recent credits include Fight Direction for: August: Osage County, Superior Donuts, The Crucible (Steppenwolf Theatre), Gas For Less, Magnolia (Goodman Theatre), Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), Porgy and Bess, Carmen, Tosca (Lyric Opera of Chicago). Broadway credits include the Tony Award winning production of August: Osage County. Internationally he has staged fights for productions at the National Theatre, London and the Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, Australia. Film and Television credits include stunt work on Moments in Time, Murder in Greenwich and Eyeborgs.
Kara Davidson is an actor, puppeteer, and writer with degrees in Theatre Performance and French from the University of Nebraska. In Chicago she has worked with Lookingglass Theatre, The House Theatre of Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and Manual Cinema (Chicago, NY, LA tours). Past regional credits include Aporia Theatre (NYC), Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Nebraska Repertory Theatre, among others. She grew up training in dance, theatre, and gymnastics, and loves that circus arts combines her passions for all three!
Nathan Drackett is an actor, teacher, and musician in Chicago. He has been teaching Circus Arts for the past 10 years, and has taught at The Actors Gymnasium, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and The School for Theatre Creators. He is also a member of Filament Theatre Ensemble and has performed with The Actors Gymnasium, The Lyric Opera, Piven, Redmoon, 500 Clown, Mercury Theatre, and Signal Theatre. He also performs and teaches as a freelance musician, clown, and acrobat in and around Chicago.
Topeka Ellis discovered a love of circus at The Actors Gymnasium when she was 9. Growing up in Evanston, she performed as an original member of The Actors Gymnasium Teen Ensemble, Urban Beat Elite Company, and Chicago Ballet Arts Performance Project. Since then, Topeka has graduated from the University of Iowa, where her choreography was selected to be performed on the Department of Dance’s main stage. Topeka earned a BSE in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Dance.
Dean Evans is a professional performing artist working in theater and television. He was recently ranked number 33 of Chicago’s top 50 “players” of 2014 by New City magazine. He has studied Mime and Physical Theater at The School for Mime Theater, The Ohio State University, and with masters Marcel Marceau, Phillipe Gualier, Stephen Niedzialkowsky, and Avner Eisenberg. He is a former ensemble member of the Neo-Futurists and has performed with 500 Clown, iO, Kapoot Clown Theater, Redmoon, Chicago Children’s Theater, Second City, The Goodman, The Actors Gymnasium and extensively as a solo artist. Dean is a faculty member of Columbia College’s Comedy Studies program in conjunction with Second City. He also performs as the entity who goes by the name Honey Buns.
Kurt Gowan is the founder and main instructor of Parkour Ways and Art Du Déplacement Chicago, as well as a stuntman with SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild). He is also A.D.A.P.T. (Art du Déplacement and Parkour Teaching) certified. Stumbling upon some videos online originally inspired Kurt to give Parkour a try. It took a little while, but Kurt finally built up the courage to get outside and attempt some of the movements he had seen. It was challenging to say the least, but he was captivated by the fun and excitement of this unique style of movement and training. The discipline began to find its way into more and more of his life, inspiring him yet again. He continued to train his movements, but it became so much more than fitness or fun. It became a way to live, a way to survive, and a way to look at the entire world differently. Finally, it became a way for him to help others to start their journey into a positive, healthy and happy life of compassion and spirit.
Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, recently returned from a successful tour of Lookingglass Alice, is a second generation circus performer who grew up touring with various circuses, including Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She also performed at The Circus World Championships in London, England. In 1990 she moved to Chicago and began her career as a circus teacher and choreographer. Sylvia is a co-founder of The Actors Gymnasium and an Artistic Associate of The Lookingglass Theatre Company. Other theater credits include The Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Chicago Children’s Theater, Marriott Theater, and The Steppenwolf Theatre, among others. She recently won the Illinois Theatre Association’s Award of Honor, the 3Arts award for design, and she has been nominated for six Joseph Jefferson Awards for her choreography, winning five.
Jill Heyser must like to keep her head in the clouds… she is a stilt walker, aerial artist, and teacher with over 10 years experience on a variety of apparatus. Affiliations include The Actors Gymnasium, Aerial Storm, MSA, and Voice of the City. She has studied at the Actors Gymnasium, NECCA, and the Aerial Dance Festival. You may have seen her most recently in Dante’s Inferno, Sci-Fi Circus, Circus in Progress, An Explosion of a Winter’s Tale, or Vaudeville Roars.
Kara Karstedt is a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist here in Chicago. She received a BFA in Musical Theatre with a Dance Minor from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She spent 2011-2012 working with Child’s Play Touring Theatre where she traveled the country performing stories and poems written by children for children. She has been teaching dance for the past 13 years in Illinois, Pennsylvania and in her home state of New York. Kara has worked at The Actors Gymnasium as a dance director, choreographer and teaching artist since 2012.
Kasumi Kato‘s aerial dance and circus background lead to her discovery of expression through arts and theater. From a young age she has hammed it up and poured it on thick for laughs and laments. She began in youth and community circuses starting at age four, and began performing professionally at the age of eighteen. Her love of circus shows in her aerial performance as well as her work with youth. She has worked with such companies as Paper Doll Militia, 360entertainment, D’air Project and Redmoon. Kasumi’s interests include circus therapy and adaptive movement arts. She is available for private instruction in a variety of aerial apparatus (including silks, trapeze, Spanish web) and partner acrobatics.
Elizabeth Luse started dancing at The School of Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida, and continued her dance education at Indiana University where she studied with Violette Verdy, Guoping Wang, and Leslie Peck. Professionally, Elizabeth has danced with Winifred Haun and Dancers, Nomi Dance Company, Dance in the Parks, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Her guest appearances include Ballet Quad Cities, Madison Ballet, and Ron de Jesus Dance and she currently works as a guest artist with Emily Stein. Elizabeth has taught for Visceral Dance Center and is on faculty at the Joffrey Academy of Chicago.
Marc Macaranas graduated cum laude from the University of California, Irvine. Since 2006, he has performed in Chicago, across the US and abroad with Lucky Plush Productions, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, The Seldoms, DanceWorks Chicago, RUBBERBANDance Group, and Luna Negra Dance Theater. He presents his solo work as The Visitor(s) and is resident choreographer with Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. His choreography has been presented at Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival, Poonie’s Cabaret, THAW, Dance Chance Redux, Dance Chicago and Duets for My Valentine.
Mandi Martens (formerly Michalski) has been teaching at The Actors Gymnasium since 2001. That same year, she received her degree in Dance from Northwestern University. Mandi has been seen onstage at The Actors Gymnasium in Neverwhere: A Circus Underground, and The Tangerine Family Circus. Other credits include Galileo Galilei (Goodman) and The Eleven Rooms of Proust (Lookingglass/About Face). Nowadays, Mandi spends most of her evenings at home with her husband and cats.
Chris Mathews is a company member with The House Theatre of Chicago where he performs, writes, and does any little thing in between. With Jake Minton and Nathan Allen, he has written Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe (Jeff Nomination, New Play), The Sparrow (Jeff Award, New Play), and Rose and the Rime. Chris is also an ensemble member with Barrel of Monkeys, an outreach program that teaches creative writing to students in Chicago Public Schools, then performs the stories the kids write as short plays (www.barrelofmonkeys.org). He has also performed with The Actors Gymnasium and Lookingglass. Also pretty cool is when Chris does motion capture work for WB Games within the Mortal Kombat franchise (Johnny Cage, Reptile), and others (Batman). Chris graduated from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.
Nourbol Meirmanov is a professional acrobat who has performed and coached circus arts for over 20 years. He graduated from the world famous Moscow Circus School with a Master of Sport in several disciplines. He came to the United States to perform with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, performing extensively with both the Red and Blue units. The founder of MSA & Circus Arts, Nourbol has been a leading Sports Acrobatics & Circus Arts trainer throughout the Chicago area, working with many local circus groups including The Actors Gymnasium and the Midnight Circus.
Melinda Jean Myers is a dance artist and choreographer currently working and residing in Chicago. Along with teaching dance classes and performing with Lucky Plush Productions, she creates interdisciplinary ensemble works and one woman cabarets. She received her MFA from University of Iowa and her BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She was honored to perform and teach internationally with the Trisha Brown Dance Company for four years, and currently re-stages their repertory and teaches master classes. Mindy has presented her work at Harvest Chicago Festival, D49 Festival, and shared an evening with The Nexus Project at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse. She produced her one woman cabaret, greatBIGworld through High Concept Laboratories’ Sponsored Artist program at Mana Contemporary. Her choreographic works have been presented in South Korea, Germany, New York City and throughout the Midwest.
Jamie Olah is a Chicago-based theatre artist and educator. She is the founder of Firefly Storytelling, and served as the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Grassroots Theatre Project. She is a former company member with Dal Vivo Theatre and The Moving Dock Theatre Co., and has additionally performed with Pursuit Productions, Prologue Theatre, Walkabout Theatre, Food & Performance, Red Tape Theatre, Bailiwick Theatre, and Premier Theatre & Performance. As an educator Jamie has taught theatre with Adventure Stage Chicago, Chiaravalle Montessori, Rodgers Park Montessori, Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, Dream Big Performing Arts Workshop, Skyline Studios, Old Town School of Folk Music, JCC Apachi Chicago Day Camp, and the Eileen Boevers Performing Arts Workshop. Jamie holds a B.F.A. in Theatre Performance from Viterbo University. For more information visit jamieolah.com and fireflystorytelling.blogspot.com.
Caryn Ott is a stage director and choreographer. She started teaching for kids in Milwaukee, WI at First Stage Theater and continued her love of the classroom to Emerald City Theater, Light Opera Works, Chicago Opera Theater and other schools throughout Chicago. She started dancing at the age of three. After finding herself in Chicago to attend Roosevelt University for Opera Performance, she performed in many musicals in both Equity and Non Equity theaters throughout Chicago. Caryn found her passion for aerials when she started taking class at The Actors Gymnasium and is thrilled to experiment with movement through the eyes of children here at AG!
Julia Rhoads is the founding Artistic Director of Lucky Plush Productions. She has created over 25 works with the company, several of which have toured extensively throughout the US. Other choreography credits include Lookingglass Theatre’s The Great Fire, Walkabout Theater’s Mama: A Play for Voices, Redmoon’s Project Y, and River North Dance Company’s Oasis and Between Three. Julia has been named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch,” and was three times included New City Chicago’s “Top 50 Players.” She is the recipient of the 2013 Alpert Award in Dance, a Fractured Atlas Arts Entrepreneurship Award, and she has received fellowships and awards from the NEA, National Dance Project, National Performance Network, Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Illinois Arts Council, and the Jacob K. Javits Foundation. Julia is a former member of the San Francisco Ballet and XSIGHT! Performance Group. She received a BA in History from Northwestern University, an MFA in Performance from the School of the Art Institute Chicago, and she is currently a Lecturer and Dance Advisor at University of Chicago’s department of Theater and Performance Studies.
Michel Rodriguez Cintra was born in Havana, and is a former member of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and Hedwig Dances. Choreography credits include 3 works for Hedwig, one of which was a finalist in the A.W.A.R.D Show 2010. He has also created a work for Columbia College Chicago’s faculty concert, where he is adjunct faculty. Michel was named one of “The Men of 2010” by Time Out Chicago, and he is the recipient of the 2013 3Arts Award in Dance. In addition to being an ensemble member of Lucky Plush Productions, current projects include CDI/Concert Dance and The Nexus Project with Ben Wardell, which was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2014.
William Shaw is a recent graduate from Illinois State University where he studyed Anthropology with a focus in Culture. In 2008 he began teaching and studying circus arts under a work-study scholarship at a pre-professional circus school, where he primarily focused in acrobatics. During the same time he also began training in a martial art called Capoeira created by African people during slavery in Brazil to protect and preserve their various cultures and people. In 2010 he began teaching gymnastics and even competed in Trampoline and Tumbling where he became state champion in regional events. During his time teaching he has enjoyed working with special needs and at-risk-youth with the desire to help bridge the gap between the resources they need to integrate more holistically into performance art programs. He has recently moved to Chicago to become more involved in performance arts and is excited that Actors Gymnasium has welcomed him into their home.
Alex Tey is a Chicago-based actor, director, and teaching artist. Alex is the founding Artistic Director of Thirteen O’Clock Theatre, and an instructor here in Evanston with Actors Gymnasium and Mudlark Theatre Company. He has worked nationally with Sojourn Theatre, most recently as a performer/facilitator in the professional premiere of HOW TO END POVERTY in collaboration with Portland Playhouse. He is also very proud of the work he does with the performing health collective, For Youth Inquiry. Oh, and don’t tell anyone, but he’s also Spider-Man.
Tommy Tomlins has been performing circus arts for over half her life. From taking part in circus summer camp shows at age 10 to performing in repeat productions of Lookingglass Theatre Co.’s Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale, in 2008 and 2010 respectively, she always knew that circus arts held a special place in her heart. At age 14, Tommy was one of the original members of The Actors Gymnasium’s Teen Ensemble and performed with that group in and around the Chicago area in both industrial gigs and full-length shows. After leaving the Ensemble, Tommy spent the majority of her time teaching circus and performing arts to children, teens, and adults, and continued to perform throughout the Midwest. In 2013, Tommy Tomlins graduated from the New England Center for Circus Arts’ Pro-Track program, and in 2015 she excitedly returned to her circus roots at The Actors Gym. For more information, please visit www.tommytomlins.com
Javen Ulambayar graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2012 earning a degree in Kinesiology with emphasis on clinical movement and science. During his high school and college years, he attended the circus school Juventas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There he attained his skills in a variety of performing acts including tumbling, teeterboard, jump rope, acro and Russian bar. Above all, he specializes in aerial straps and Chinese pole, performing with male and female partners. Recently, he was in the cast of the Jeff award winning production of Moby Dick at Lookingglass Theatre Company. He now teaches full-time at the Actors Gymnasium.
Lindsey Noel Whiting is an actor, educator and acrobat with ten years of professional experience. Locally, she has performed with Lookingglass Theatre, Victory Gardens, and Redmoon Theatre as well as The Actors Gymnasium. Her regional theatre experience includes Actors Theatre of Louisville, Syracuse Stage and the Alliance Theatre. Lindsey received her acrobatic training through The Actors Gymnasium and has collaborated on several of their circus productions. She is a company member of Barrel of Monkeys and performs with the circus-punk marching band Mucca Pazza. She is also a proud member of Actors Equity Association. She is delighted to bring her passion for physical, ensemble driven theatre to the students of The Actors Gymnasium.
Meghann Wilkinson is in her 11th season as an ensemble member with Lucky Plush Productions. She is a former company member of Mordine and Company, and has performed with Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts, Cie Felix Ruckert, Raizel Performances, and Peter Carpenter Performance Project. Meghann has been a guest teacher and choreographer for Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Cecchetti Council of America, and Evanston Dance Ensemble. She was Assistant Choreographer for Lookingglass Theatre’s The Great Fire and movement director for Walkabout Theater’s Crow. Meghann has organized for the Chicago Seminar on Dance and Performance and the Society of Dance History Scholars. She has taught at Northwestern University, Dance Center Evanston, and Visceral Dance Chicago, and is currently on faculty in the theater and dance programs at Columbia College Chicago.
Oyunchimeg “Oyuna” Yadamjav “Oyunchimeg “Oyuna” Yadamjav is one of Mongolia’s premier contortionists with over 25 years of experience, performing internationally with the world-renowned Mongolian National Circus. She has won “SILVER CLOWN” at the global circus competition in Monte-Carlo (Presidency of the H.S.H. Prince Ranier III de Monaco) and gold medals at international circus competitions in Germany and Cuba. Oyuna is currently teaching for the Mongolian Children’s Performing Arts.