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Meet Mark Lonergan

MARK LONERGAN, Creative Director, Circus Smirkus Big Top Tour

by Genevieve Martineau

The halls of the museum are empty, all the visitors have gone home for the night. Security guards roam through the various displays, checking that everything is in it’s place. The clock strikes midnight. In the corner of your eye, you see something. Did that statue just move?

And the next thing you know, a magical museum springs to life full of jugglers, aerialists, clowns and contortionists!

This is the work of Mark Lonergan, who is back for the second year to share his vision as the Big Top Tour Creative Director.

Coming from his own company, Parallel Exit, with over 20 years experience writing and directing shows, Mark Lonergan shares his passion and perseverance in developing the new Midnight at the Museum tour.

“When I came here, I had freshly come off of the Big Apple Circus. I thought arrogantly, ‘I know how to do this.'”, says Lonergan. “What I did not know, in 3 weeks they create the acts from nothing, in the Big Apple Circus, acts come finished. Here there’s no acts until Day 1. There’s a learning curve of figuring out how do we go from nothing to a fully produced, truly professional show.”

Not surprisingly, Mark is no stranger to a challenge.

As a young physical theater actor in Toronto, Canada, Mark grew restless. During a visit to New York City, he decided that’s where he needed to be to really find out if he could survive in this business. His first challenge was getting himself a green card to move legally to the USA. In just 8 years, he amassed an amount of publicity material, reviews, and letters of recommendation to prove that he was an “alien of extraordinary worth” and through his impatience and good fortune, he succeeded in moving to the greatest city in the world.

After landing in NYC, Mark felt an increasing personal call to become a director – to be the person who makes creative decisions rather than play a role in the show. This interest in directing came from a place of frustration, having experienced people he saw not doing it well and, with no evidence that he knew how, but with a self awareness that this was his calling, he decided to move bravely toward what he was yearning for most.

“Not only was I going to learn how to be a director, going to move to hardest place on earth to be a director, I was going do it with my own company, that I would create and launch. No easy shortcuts but because I was so restless, I had to go and test myself. I had to go out and TRY and if I fail, then I would continue performing,” he said.

And this idea of scraping together something from bare bones and creating magic is the way Mark relates to Smirkus founder, Rob Mermin. “Any success that Smirkus has had is purely because of the talents and the willpower of the people behind it. Most people would have given up because it’s too hard. And that is my connection to Rob Mermin, in the situation he was in to found a company by himself, to have it go through financial turmoil more than once, and have it survive, it’s a miracle. That’s why coming to Smirkus feels very comfortable, for me I totally get that.”

Joel Jeske, Lonergan’s Parallel Exit Partner and Clown Coach for 2017 Smirkus Big Top Tour

Back in New York, Mark met Joel Jeske, who is one of the clown coaches on this year’s tour, and they started their company Parallel Exit.

“We wanted to create from the ground up. We wanted to have our finger on everything, be fully invested.” Joel had circus experience and skill, and as result Mark became interested in this art form. Joel was already at the Big Apple Circus, as a performer, clown, and clown doctor. “So in 2005, my wife agreed and we put all the money that we had saved for our wedding into the first show. We got rave reviews in the NY Times.”

Through Joel, Mark met Paul Binder, the founder of the Big Apple Circus, and eventually he became an advisor to Parallel Exit. After coming to the show, Binder told Mark that show was very well directed, which had elements of circus that he could appreciate.

In the following years Mark and Joel created shows together – Joel usually as writer and performer, and Mark as director. Soon they acquired a booking agent who started to send them across the United States and Europe.

“So all of this happened and the miracle was that our company started to get some funding. The company is a non-profit, like Smirkus, and we got funding from NYC and NY State. Our operating budget is a fraction of most, tiny. The great mystery is that if you look at our portfolio, you would think we had a budget 10 times the size. We’ve been grassroots, been from the ground up, very much like Smirkus.”

In 2013, Joel pitched a show to the Big Apple Circus that he wanted to write and create. With much interest, the Big Apple Circus asked Joel who would direct the show and Joel introduced them to Mark. After seeing a Parallel Exit show, and with their modest reputation and a body of work, related to circus, Mark and Joel got the job.

At the same time, while the pitch to Big Apple Circus was happening, Parallel Exit was also booked on a European Variety Tour in Germany for a year and a half. Mark explains that this tour in Europe was probably the closest show to circus he had directed before the Big Apple Circus. Up until then, Parallel Exit shows focused on physical theater and vaudevillian variety acts.

In 2015, right before the Big Apple Show opened, Mark met with Troy Wunderle and the Smirkus team, and after discussing how to collaborate, he was hired for the Up, HUP and Away Tour. The Big Apple Show goes on, is well received and now Mark gears up for Smirkus.

“There is a huge learning curve of figuring out how do we go from nothing to a fully produced, truly professional show in just 3 weeks. Troy calls it “Innocent Professionalism”, the point where these kids are in their lives, to go from absolutely nothing to a fully professional touring, tented circus. You think it is impossible, it is not possible. No normal person would agree to do this, a normal person would say you’re crazy it cannot be done. But then I spent 3 weeks learning how this in fact, IS possible.”

“I had seen Smirkus in 2015 and I had seen the final product and I was very impressed by it. I had faith in the quality of the performers. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that they are teenagers. The troupers are so focused when they create their acts. They are the top level circus performers of their age. There’s no shortage of ability, no lack of determination, no lack of commitment.”

To prepare for last year’s show, Troy and Mark spent months writing a script; figuring out the theme, possible acts, and how the acts relate to the theme. In that year it was all about flight. Clowns are attempting to learn how to fly, so Mark and Troy needed to figure out how the individual circus acts related to the flight theme and assemble them, keeping in mind shifts in feeling, tempo, and communicate to everyone creating, from music and lighting to costumes.

They communicated to all the coaches what they wanted from the acts, gave them ideas and asked them to collaborate with the designer and composer.

Mark says about advance planning, “We had conquered a little bit of that monster last year.”

During the 3 weeks of training, Troy and Mark run to each of 4 training spaces and try to see everything that is happening. They need to monitor act creation and where they spend their time depends on the day and changes constantly. Staying in constant communication with the coaches, the director’s challenge is to create the most successful experience for the audience, taking into account the variety of the acts, the pacing, the overall feeling and thematic content. They then make sure that it is well executed in the time they have, always thinking about the overall concept of the show and final execution. And essentially that responsibility of overseeing everything artistic about the show is on the directors’ shoulders.

Working at Circus Smirkus is different than other youth circus. “Troy and I never think of Smirkus as just a youth circus, I never think of it as lesser.”

When he works with the staff, the coaches, the designers, he asks for their highest quality work. “Don’t give me a kiddie version of your work, I want to see the same that you would give at Ringling or wherever you work. Imagine you’re working with adults, I don’t want to dumb it down, these kids are capable, in this beautiful tent, the lighting, the music. It’s the full experience.”

“The audience is expecting a professional level show with all the bells and whistles. It’s also what the kids can deliver on, it’s also what the direction and the coaches and the people behinds the scenes are expecting. But it’s nobody’s expectation to go for cute. This is for real, You’re not going for cute.”

“The combination of a profession level expectation of every aspect of the show combined with the purity of spirit. You cannot help but be moved by that. You’re seeing kids do what they do best at a level that surprises people,” he says.

For example, in the opening act, there’s a four person high, which has never been done in Circus Smirkus before. “It’s a crazy level trick to perform. You’re watching a group teenagers perform circus that most adults circus performers won’t do,” he says. “What is coming out of them is so pure, not tainted by life experience, not tainted by disappointment or bitterness, this combination is what makes Circus Smirkus. That is amazing.”