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Rising Stars: Meet Morgan Barbour

Today we’d like to introduce you to Morgan Barbour.

Hi Morgan, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
I attribute my entire course of life to my fifth-grade teacher, Shane Kio, who moonlighted as a clown and utilized clowning in his teaching practice. A year of juggling and learning to embrace and laugh at failure laid the foundation for a lifetime of absurd risk and joy.

I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a tiny strip of land that is often left off the United States map entirely. It is sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and in many ways it’s a time capsule of small-town America. I loved the Shore dearly — it is steeped in marshes and sunsets to die for — but from a young age, I had a plan to leave. I had huge dreams that as a child, I had deemed too expansive for the Shore. I was going to be a writer and an actor, and at one point a veterinarian, and I would do so in New York City, nowhere else. Los Angeles was never on my mind; I had spent a brief stint in San Diego when I was younger and had internalized the troubles my family had there as being intrinsically linked to Southern California. To this day, I’ve never lived in NYC.

Instead, I went to college to study acting and began modeling (often nude for artists, much to some of my professors’ horror). Almost immediately following graduation, I moved to Dublin, Ireland to help produce and perform in a play I had written with my friend Caroline Downs (By the Bi, the first play featuring a bisexual narrative to ever be produced at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival). This all sounds incredibly great on paper, but the reality was moving from city to city throughout Ireland, the UK, and Europe with little to no money, sleeping on stranger’s couches, sharing basement studios with two other women and drinking wine out of a bowl because we didn’t have enough glasses.

During that time, I briefly found myself back in Los Angeles, flown out by a man ten years my senior who had met me on Tinder in Dublin and thought I was So Mature For My AgeTM. At the time, I thought it was incredibly romantic. Present me thinks I’m lucky I didn’t get myself murdered. That dalliance ended precisely the way one would think (why is this grown man needing to fly out a booty call whose brain is still developing from Europe in the name of romance?), but it brought me to Los Angeles, and really in the end that’s all that matters (and the not getting murdered part, that’s quite essential).

Through Los Angeles, I did discover love, but not in the form in a man. I discovered flying trapeze, a circus discipline dating back to 1859 France. During my first trip to Los Angeles, I was preparing to go to graduate school at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London to study movement direction. I was entering with the intention of researching how to incorporate elements of traditional life modeling and static artist renderings into movement practice in the theatre. Instead, I went back to London with a renewed love of the circus. You know how in the movies the heroine meets her soul mate and all the world just makes sense? That was flying trapeze for me. Nothing else mattered. I began training aerial hoops several times a week and began flying the following spring. I spent graduate school popping between London and the States, doing work in Nebraska, New York (the state, not the city), and Los Angeles. Upon graduation, I decided I was going to do the very insane thing and run my business — that had quickly blossomed to cover an array of things, from writing, directing, modeling, activism, and circus — from both London and Los Angeles (as an American, that 11.5 hour flight commute seemed quite short!).

Fast forward to present day and I have done just that. I split my time between London and Los Angeles, although with travel beginning to reopen, I am finding myself popping around to other locations as well. I have found a home in Santa Monica, carving out my own little existence once again by the ocean.

I am incredibly fortunate in my life and my career. I grew up below the poverty line, on food stamps and free school lunches. To this day, I still don’t have a license because there was never a car for me to properly learn to drive on growing up (although as I rapidly approach 30 that is now on my to do list). I’ve hustled and made some questionable choices regarding safety to get to where I am — it’s one of the reasons why women’s safety is at the heart of my activism. I don’t know what else life has in store for me, but no matter what, good or bad, I’m thankful to be along for the ride.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Anything but smooth if I’m honest! As I said, I grew up poor in an incredibly rural part of the States, and as a result didn’t have a lot of the same opportunities available to me as many of my peers (both due to income and geographic location). Starting out, it was like entering a three-legged race where all your competitors were allowed to start 100 meters ahead of you, all while you were partnered to a corpse. When I was accepted into my acting program in college, I came in with the least amount of experience. I was so sheltered when it came to life outside of the very insular bubble I was raised in. I remember in the early days of my career a producer ordered me a cab from their phone and I had no idea how they had done that (Uber would later BLOW MY MIND).

The naiveté and complete and total lack of financial stability in the beginning was incredibly difficult. I consider myself very streetwise these days and am financially stable as an artist, but those things are hard to shake. And goodness knows the naive country girl front was like honey to opportunistic predators in the early days of my career. I started touring in 2011. The industry is changing rapidly thanks to the traction of #MeToo and #TimesUp, but when I started people didn’t talk as openly about the dangerous sides of the industry the way they do now. I encountered quite a few men on set who felt like they could act with impunity. It wasn’t until 2018 that I decided to enter into therapy, and even then, when Weinstein was on everyone’s lips, it was jarring to hear a mental health professional tell me that behaviour like that did not belong in any workplace.

So yeah — it’s been incredibly challenging. I’ve slept on floors and survived the early days often due to the kindness of strangers. I still fully feel like I’m just bumbling through on borrowed luck. But goddamn do I love my life. That isn’t even a humble brag, it’s a full-blown brag. Even with all the hurt and struggle, I get to wake up every morning and do what I love. I’m so fortunate for that. And in the last year, in the throes of COVID when my career screeched to a halt and I drowned the gaping hole in my heart left by my sense of purpose being tied to my career in scotch (if my therapist is reading this: yes, I know, I’m working on that), I had a series of events that led to being able to work with the World Wide Web Foundation and the United Nations to help utilize research my project Community Standards raised on online violence during the pandemic. That has now led to a chapter in the upcoming Palgrave Handbook of Gendered Violence and Technology, published by Springer Nature and available later this year. Even when everything felt shit (because frankly, everything was shit), there was still an opportunity to do important work. And hopefully by doing so, the next generation of artists will enter a world that is a little kinder to them than it was to me.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I was recently told I had a lot of “strings in my bow”, and I think that is a great way to describe me. I do a lot of things, and it’s very difficult for me to rank those things in any order of priority – they all make up my career and me. I don’t act much anymore; being perfectly honest, I have found far more joy in performing circus or directing actors than I ever did in acting myself. It’s not that I will never act again — I have no clue what life has in store for me. I just know that the joy I feel when I’m in the air is unprecedented. Life is short and it is hard, and I want to seek out joy like that as often as I can.

Here’s a little breakdown of what I do most often:

Circus: I think I feel about circus the way every rom com couple feels at the end of the film riding off into the sunset. Even on the days when I am covered in bruises, through injuries and self-inflicted black eyes, it’s always love at first sight. I’ve loved being upside down since before I can remember — there are countless childhood photos of me flipped upside down on the monkey bars grinning from ear to ear. At the beginning of my career, I knew that I wanted to be in the air, I just didn’t know how to materialize it. Then I started performing on aerial hoop and thought I’d found the love of my life. THEN I did flying trapeze. I desperately hope everyone can experience the sort of life-changing love that flying trapeze has made available to me. It doesn’t have to be a career — it can be a hobby, an occasional joy, but whatever it is I hope you find it (or have already found it). I’ll be in the air until I die or until my body refuses to hold out. It’s the best thing in the world.

Movement Directing: I began movement directing when I was 20 and have found it to be a wonderful path to continuing to work in theatre and film without acting. I love finding new ways to tell a story through the movement of the body. I was very fortunate to train at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, UK for my MFA. It’s also allowed me to work frequently with animators, which is a dream come true!

Modeling: I’ve been modeling since I was 16 and began life modeling shortly after I turned 18. I’ve always loved visual art and love that I get to regularly help collaborate in its creation. It does mean that I’m very naked on the internet, a fact that my friends, family, and colleagues are numb to, but every so often someone will discover this 11 years too late and it will blow their mind. My modeling is on the same website as my other work; it’s an intrinsic part of who I am. It is my body, after all. To my knowledge, it hasn’t closed any doors for me professionally. If it has, I wasn’t exactly dying to work with someone that afraid of my nipples anyway.

Writing: I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil. Before that, really — I was constantly jabbering on about adventures I’d imagined to my always-patient mother. I had written two full-length (100,000+ word) novels by myself and co-written another two with two friends by the time I was 14 (high school was a rough time for me if you haven’t guessed). We had planned to publish them all and even got them all copyrighted, but as fate would have it our girl gang writers group dissolved over an argument in the 9th grade. We had all been very determined to be child star authors until that point. These days I write more nonfiction and academic work focusing on circus history, gender theory, and online violence (such fun!), but I do still write plays and comedy and do plan to begin working on a novel soon. The play I co-authored, By the Bi, won the Doric Wilson Intercultural Dialogue Award in 2015 (International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival) and was recognized by Amnesty International as a play directly raising awareness about human rights (Freedom of Expression Award Long-list, Edinburgh Fringe 2015). I’m also published in quite a few academic anthologies, including the upcoming Palgrave Handbook of Gendered Violence and Technology (Springer Nature 2021). I’m sure I annoy everyone in my life by constantly hammering on about how I cannot believe people pay me to write things these days. I am bitter toward past Morgan who did that all for free while drunk on Facebook.

Academia: Despite being a dirty naked circus artist, I have worked a fair bit in academia. I formerly taught acting and movement at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film and am presently a guest lecturer at Central St Martins. I am still frequently mistaken as an undergrad. That only helps fuel the imposter syndrome.

What matters most to you?
For myself? Joy, Full stop. The world we live in can be incredibly cruel and difficult. I think we should be embracing every little bit of joy that we can. For me, that comes in the form of flying trapeze, a mouthful of fresh bullace plum, laughing till I cry in a room filled floor to ceiling with balloons with my friends (lockdown was a strange time).

On the greater scope of things — I am a huge advocate for women’s and LGBTQIA rights. I’m also very passionate about helping fundraise money for environmental aid and programs that help give opportunities to impoverished youth.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Main image: Jasper Johal Other images (in order): 1. Photographer: Ashley Keer (performer: Tash Hutchinson) 2. Photographer: PR Brown 3. Photographer: PR Brown 4. Photographer: Philipe Hernandez 5. Photographer: Jasper Johal 6. Production photo from The Serpent 7. Photo by Andrew Walsmley 8. Photo by Josh Rose 9. Production photo from The Serpent 10 Production still from Obsolete

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