“What you do is more important than ever right now, and people need it.”
That’s what the advisory board for the Handsome Little Devils told the performance-art troupe when the world came to a grinding halt over the coronavirus pandemic last March. Like almost everyone, the group, known for theatrical displays of vaudevillian entertainment that combine circus arts, magic and a wild array of mobile kinetic contraptions, was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic.
Things had been going well for the act, which consists mainly of husband-and-wife team Mike and Cole Huling, who have a twenty-year history of traveling shows and spontaneous pop-up events. At the start of last year, they were in discussions with nonprofit organizations in the mental health sector about creating a new way to enter the conversation about mental health.
“One of the best ways we connect with people is through joy and comedy,” says Cole Huling. “We said to ourselves, ‘What if, instead of stories dealing with inner demons, which can be dark, sad stories, we gave people a moment of joy?’” With that in mind, they planned a run of shows for spring of 2020.
With everything shutting down just before their kickoff, the team had to quickly rework its idea. With the help of the advisory board — a collection of mentors with various entertainment, tech and art industry backgrounds who provide guidance — the Hulings looked at ways to take their show to the streets.
After sitting in on public-health meetings to come up with safety protocols, Project Joy Bomb was born, and they began doing shows at the end of April 2020. “We were able to start doing them quickly because we’ve been doing pop-up performances for several years, starting with the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in 2016,” says Cole.
“We’ve just expanded them from there.”
Project Joy Bomb consists of a troupe of performance artists pooled from a network of local acts consisting of jugglers, dancers and theatrical performers alongside various contraptions built by the Handsome Little Devils team in its studio in the 40 West Arts Creative District. The Joy Bomb rolls down the street for a quick, colorful spectacle for those lucky enough to catch it. There’s never any announcement of where the group may appear, which is part of the fun. Not only does it bring a smile to people’s faces, but it’s also COVID-safe, in that it’s outdoors and never sticks around long enough to draw a large gathering.
“That’s really key. We’re not standing in one place and trying to gather a large crowd all squished in together,” says Cole. “With these pop-ups, we appear, do something really spectacular for a short period of time, and then we disappear.”
Project Joy Bomb performed shows last year for Denver Health workers to thank them for their tireless efforts. The performers also surprised a senior living community with a balcony party when residents needed relief from the isolation of strict lockdowns. At the end of November, the group brought “Santa’s Cheer Squad,” a juggling street performance, to downtown Littleton shoppers supporting Small Business Saturday in the historic downtown area.
The Project Joy Bomb events have been so successful that the Hulings have fielded requests from several cities. They are currently setting their sights on rural areas and partnering with Make4Covid, a volunteer-run organization that creates PPE such as face masks and shields. They plan to deliver needed supplies in the community, which is also part of the Project Joy Bomb mission.
Another collaboration consisted of a month of gratitude in November called Thanks4Giving, when the team went out on Thanksgiving morning and planted luminary bags all around Denver Health with messages of thanks from the public. It was a way to bring another type of art to the streets that didn’t need to be done in person. “We really wanted to recognize the sacrifices these health-care workers are making and respect their wishes for people to stay home,” says Cole. “That’s something we have to think about day by day. Is it appropriate and safe for us to be out in the community? Or can we find other ways to bring joy?”
While the group had plans for holiday performances, with COVID cases spiking during November and December, all shows were canceled. The Handsome Little Devils are currently gearing up for a live performance and small-scale parade on Saturday, February 20, at the Dairy Block downtown. The Petite Parade is in its third year and includes shoebox floats from outside participants competing to win prizes for categories including funniest, best team costume and most innovative. Because of the pandemic, this year's parade will be limited to ten floats.
Attendance is also limited this year. Tickets to watch the parade are sold out, but anyone purchasing brunch in the alley, as well as those with balcony rooms at the Maven Hotel, will have a front-row view.
You can keep up with the Handsome Little Devils and Project Joy Bomb events on the troupe's Facebook page.
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