Theo comes home when Smirkus comes to town
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Times Record in Brunswick, ME on August 3, 2018 and was written by Emily Cohen
Theo LeBlanc can juggle eight balls. Or seven rings. Or six clubs. In short, he’s talented.
This summer the 15 -year-old from South Portland is showing off his skills — which also include clowning and acrobatics — in the Circus Smirkus Big Top Tour, which comes to the Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport Aug. 6-7.
Founded in 1987, Circus Smirkus is a non-profit and educational organization that hosts camps, school programs and the only professional touring youth circus in the U.S., spreading the word and enthusiasm of the circus arts to aspiring youth. The seven-week long Big Top Tour travels each summer to 16 cities in New England and New York and features a new theme each year.
The theme for this tour is “Vaudeville,” and the show celebrates the truly American art form in its props, costumes and characters, said artistic director Troy Wunderle. Tight-rope walkers wear high heels; LeBlanc will juggle a number of hats and canes.
This year’s troupe features 30 young acrobats, jugglers, clowns, contortionists and tumblers — all between the ages of 10 and 18 — from across the country. But make no mistake: Despite the silly name, Circus Smirkus is no amateur circus.
“These are kids that juggle nine juggling balls, these are kids that can stand three high on each other shoulders, these are kids that can do unbelievable acrobatics,” said Wunderle. “This is not a camp; this is not a kids’ show. This is a professional touring circus that happens to feature the energies and enthusiasm of youth.”
LeBlanc got his start only three years ago, when his father taught him to juggle three balls. Through an afterschool circus class he was introduced to the broader world of circus arts, learning the basics of clowning and acrobatics while honing his juggling. He has trained with Circus Maine and the Circus School of Maine, and he attended Circus Smirkus camp in summer 2016.
He didn’t really take the craft seriously until he saw the Circus Smirkus tour last summer. He decided he wanted to be a part of it the next year, and he upped his training hours from six hours per week to 20 hours accordingly.
After sending an audition video and getting called back for an in-person audition, LeBlanc was chosen for this year’s troupe. From there began an intensive three-week period in which the cast and crew create and rehearse the entire show from scratch. A rising sophomore at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland, LeBlanc missed about two weeks of school at the end of the year, due to all the snow days.
“But it was so worth it,” he said.
In that three-week period, LeBlanc was quick to pick up clowning and acrobatics, two new activities for him that he will do in the show, along with juggling.
“I was not a clown before I came here,” said LeBlanc. “I just looked like one.”
Versatility is one of the strongest assets in a circus troupe, said LeBlanc. The troupers’ ability to always keep audiences — and fellow troupers — guessing is one of his favorite parts of being a part of Circus Smirkus.
“There’s no one in the troupe that just does one thing. and that’s what I think is really cool about this place,” said LeBlanc.
It’s exhausting, he admitted. He will have done 68 shows non-stop by the end of the tour. But it’s exhausting, he said, “in such a good way.”
“Just being with people who like the same thing as I like, and really nice people and people who want to be here,” said LeBlanc, “and getting to perform thousands of people a week — 10 shows a week, two shows a day — it’s awesome.”
LeBlanc’s passion has been obvious throughout rehearsal and performance, said Wunderle.
“He has really dedicated his heart and soul to this place and has continually attempted to improve his skills daily as the show goes down the road,” he said.
In addition to being a homecoming show for LeBlanc, the Freeport performance of the tour is a fundraiser for the host, the Maine Coast Waldorf School. The school has also created the Magic Matinee Program, which offers discounted tickets to groups, organizations and families who may otherwise be unable to afford to see the circus.
Of the 14 years that the Maine Coast Waldorf School has hosted Circus Smirkus, the Magic Matinee Program has existed the past 12 years, said Mary Martin, events coordinator for the school. This year, it has invited children’s camps, military families, participants in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bath/Brunswick and the Boys and Girls Club in Portland and South Portland to attend the performances.
The program is simply part of the goal of Circus Smirkus, said Martin.
“It’s really amazing to see some of these kids who have gained self-confidence through getting involved with circus arts,” she said.