Ten years ago, Mike Carroll was part of a small group of performers that received a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund to create the Zany Umbrella Circus. Today, Mike is spearheading OpenStreetsPGH, a series of  events that will open up 3.5 miles of car-free roads to connect Downtown, the Strip District, and Lawrenceville, and bring Pittsburghers together  to reimagine city spaces. Mike sat down with The Sprout Fund to explain how one zany thing led to another.

Mike Carroll performing at Zany Umbrella Circus

Where did your Sprout story begin?

I moved to Pittsburgh to attend University of Pittsburgh, and on a whim I joined a juggling club called the Campus Fools. The people in the club became some of my closest friends. I was handed a unicycle by Ben Sota, and I learned of a group of people on the west coast that were riding unicycles like BMX bikes. That summer I decided that I would learn how to do that, and the next summer I was invited to California to teach those skills to kids at a circus camp.

In 2004, Ben and I (along with a number of other people) thought “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to go to California to have fun in the circus?” So Ben wrote a small grant proposal to The Sprout Fund to create a circus show for the Three Rivers Arts Festival. We did not think that we had a shot at all, and nearly forgot about it.

Then Mac from Sprout called to tell us that we had gotten a Seed Award, and the next thing I knew I was part of a new circus company that would go on to perform at the Kennedy Center, NYC Summer Stage, five international tours, and hundreds of other venues across the United States.

What did Sprout’s support mean for Zany Umbrella Circus?

I don’t think that Zany Umbrella would have happened without Sprout. There would have been bits and pieces of circus; fun, funky bands that were created by the musicians we worked with, amazing art painted by dear friends, and I think that Ben Sota might have ended up in a circus out west, but personally I would have ended up in the restaurant industry.

How did you go from coordinating a circus to managing cycling events?

After quite a bit of touring around the world, we were looking for what was next. As the executive and artistic director of the company, Ben decided that he wanted to go to grad school in Italy to hone his craft.

While he was doing that, I reached out to a group that I thought was doing amazing things in Pittsburgh and asked if I could help. That group was Bike Pittsburgh. I was helping them with some little projects as a volunteer and then as a part time consultant. That led to producing the Steel City Showdown, an elite bicycle race in Pittsburgh with a small group of bike racers. I took the skills I learned on the circus stage and applied them to outdoor venues. Bike Pittsburgh called me a few months later to help produce PedalPGH, the region’s largest bike ride, and I jumped at the opportunity. A year later, I became staff and have been with them ever since.

Where did OpenStreets come from?

For the Steel City Showdown in 2012 I wanted to try and find a way to bring the public into the bike race, and I decided to apply for a Sprout Fund grant to try and host an OpenStreets event. I figured if we could make the streets safe, we could have an amazing bike race with hundreds of fans lining the course after they had spent the morning having fun.

I received the grant, but as I went through all of the event costs of the bike race and then the additional costs of hosting a free public bike ride, I came to realize that I was never going to get the full permit throughout the city for the idea we had. I asked The Sprout Fund if we could try and use the funds for a later date when we had more time to do additional fundraising and figure out the rest of the logistics.

But the seed was planted in me, with the vision of transforming boring city streets into an open space with hundreds of people out and about, running, playing, and enjoying the city.

What will this year’s OpenStreets mean for Pittsburgh?

This year we are connecting communities. There will be three OpenStreets events on the last Sunday of May, June, and July. There will be 3.5 miles connecting Downtown, the Strip District, and Lawrenceville where people can walk, run, bike, skateboard, rollerblade, sightsee, dance, and do yoga.

My hope is that after walking away from these events, people all over Pittsburgh will want to have an Open Street in their neighborhood. These events will be fun. You should leave with a smile on your face. And you should walk away with that feeling that you were part of something bigger than yourself.

Check out the first OpenStreets of 2015 this Sunday, May 31st from 8:00am to 12:00pm. For more information, including location and full event schedule, go to openstreetspgh.org.