It was a unique and life-defining change: After 11 years in the classroom as a public school teacher in Los Angeles, 50-year-old John Midby became a real estate developer working with The Midby Companies, his father's West Coast firm. At first glance that's hardly an earth-shattering transformation. But Midby found an innovative and impactful way to merge a longstanding love of the arts with his new career. As part of his new career, he plans to reconfigure apartment complexes as dynamic artists' communities, united by on-site performance spaces and—most unusually of all—aerial gyms. And while that may sound like a leap of faith, if you look at Midby's career and connect the dots, the transition makes perfect sense.
As a music-loving college undergraduate, Midby promoted emerging bands. Later, while toiling as a film school grad student, he relied on substitute teaching to pay the bills. He earned his MFA, and kept the temp teaching jobs to fill in between movie gigs. When the travel and financial demands of his film career began to clash with fatherhood about a decade ago, Midby took a full-time teaching position at a K-12 public school in South Central L.A.
Then, about eight years ago, the circus came calling—or rather, a new Hollywood gym offering up special classes for training on the trapeze and silks, those long loops of fabric that function as ropes and swings. Midby loved the workouts. And he was equally enamored of the way having a specific goal—practicing for an eventual sky-high community performance—took his motivation to new heights (get it?).
"It was super extreme exercise, but at the same time, it was fun," says Midby. "I found I really liked the sensations of flying and spinning." Who knew? Plus he appreciated that it didn't pound his basketball-ravaged knees. His children and wife soon got in on the act, too.
It wasn't long before word got out that the full-time English teacher was a relatively daring, fairly young man on a flying trapeze. When students saw videos of his aerial work, they, too, wanted to give it a try. That's when Midby knew he was onto something. "I was having so much fun with it, I thought,'We can do this.'"
About three years ago, school administrators approved his idea to install the $1,200 rigs and launch a varsity team: the Foshay Fliers (named for the school, James A. Foshay Learning Center). "We did some performances and raised the money," said Midby, who was its coach. Establishing the Fliers dovetailed nicely with another project the ever-innovative Midby was working on: establishing a self-sustaining arts program at the school called Room 13, part of an international network of studios, with the multi-media curriculum run and financed by students and adults. As teacher-in-residence, Midby helped the students stage fundraisers, gallery shows and performances. Along with formation of The Fliers, Room 13 served as a perfect blueprint for the next steps in Midby's unlikely career trajectory.
In spite of the Room 13 project, Midby's frustration with funding issues at the school led him to start thinking of life beyond K-12. Just as he taught students to be in charge of their projects—and by extension, their careers—he took charge of his own and left teaching.
It wasn't an easy decision for Midby. "I miss the students, but it was more work with less pay every year," he said. "I thought, if I'm going to work that hard, maybe I can support the students in a different way and meet people who have resources and lobby to make visual and performing arts more of a priority in schools."
Indeed, what Midby pursued in the past continues to inform his future. While he's no longer teaching at Foshay, he's still involved in ensuring that the artistic programs he kicked off stay aloft. To keep Room 13 and the Foshay Fliers from being grounded, Midby helped establish Dear Future, a non-profit organization that combines the worlds of art, performance, community and creative fundraising. It's a mix at the core of each of his boundary-pushing projects.
Now Midby's journey has brought him to a point where he wants to expand his ideas of the life-enhancing properties of arts and performance to adults. He plans to develop or reconfigure housing complexes whose living spaces include a central gym that can host community events, concerts and shows, even his beloved aerial arts classes—everything from the trapeze to aerial yoga. It fits squarely into his concept of a saner approach to the work-life divide. His feet may be on the ground as a real estate developer, but his heart still soars through the air.