Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Waterbury Roundabout on July 9, 2023 and was written by by Olivia Conti and Sadie Ensana with photos by Gordon Miller
Midsummer Circus King and Queen, Avery Steere of Lyndeborough, New Hampshire, and Cora Williams of Brooktondale, New York, do a choreographed dance on unicycles at the opening of the show. Photo by Gordon Miller
As performers wearing colorful costumes entered the Circus Smirkus ring, they captured the gaze of wide-eyed children among the 750 audience members seated under the big top tent on a hot July afternoon. Performers Avery Steere and Cora Williams playing the roles of a king and queen effortlessly and elegantly rode unicycles as audience members’ eyes followed them in circles.
Although this was Waterbury’s first year hosting the Vermont-grown youth circus, ticket sales were strong with sold-out performances over the three-day run at Farr’s Field along U.S. Route 2 last week. Venue owner John Farr was pleased with the reception saying he has received positive feedback after hosting the event. “We’ve been talking to them for three years,” he said. “We wanted to host the circus last year, but it was the same day of our biggest show of the year, the Vermont Antique & Classic Car Show.”
With a cast of 30 performers ages 10-18 and a crew that brings the total close to 80, Smirkus kicked off its summer tour around New England last week with performances at its Circus Barn in Greensboro followed by its first stop on the road in Waterbury, July 4-6.
For years the circus’ Central Vermont stop was Montpelier but changes to the site at the high school there had circus managers looking for a different location for its 2023 Midsummer Night’s Circus. The roughly 10-acre Farr’s Field that regularly hosts large public events such as the car show and the weekly flea market fit the bill. The venue is already equipped with bathrooms and water, so it was easy to prepare for the circus show, Farr said.
Circus Smirkus performers demonstrate skill in and above the ring. Photo by Gordon Miller
Now in its 36th year performing the Big Top Tour, the program features an extensive assortment of circus arts consisting of aerials, acrobatics, juggling, and clowning. The circus travels with 23 support vehicles carrying performers, coaches, cooks, tech and tent crew members, supplies, equipment and multiple tents. The spectacle arrived the day before the first show to assemble the set-up where it would present the show billed as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
June Mello, a communications associate for Circus Smirkus, explained some of the technical aspects that go into making the show possible. Aerial acts, for example, need someone attached to the other end of the rope to balance weight as performers move up and down over the center ring. Most of the music is pre-recorded but accompanied by a live percussionist who lines up beats with the performers, adding live drums and cymbal effects in real time to the action. The set-up and clean up require lots of hands and involve everyone in the entourage including the youth performers as they travel from town to town.
Mello noted that in each community where Circus Smirkus performs, they look to recruit host families to accommodate performers for home stays if possible and local volunteers to assist on show days with checking tickets, handing out programs, directing parking, etc. Oftentimes, community members participate for multiple years. In Waterbury last week, they didn’t fill all of their volunteer spots and fewer host families signed up than they had hoped for. But Mello said that wasn’t surprising given it was the first year in Waterbury. If it works out to return in 2024, Mello said, hopefully there will be more interest then.
Casting a Spell on the Audience
Fifth-year trouper Frederick Buford of Brooklyn, New York, gets attention as Puck . Photo by Gordon Miller
The current show, “A Midsummer Night’s Circus” puts an acrobatic spin on the Shakespearean story. The tale takes place in a mystical dream-like woods with fairies and sprites. When confronted by the king and queen, trouble ensues through the kingdom until the chief mischief-maker, Puck, saves the day.
While the cast embraced the plot and storytelling, the nuances may have been lost on many of the younger audience members who sat captivated at the tight-knit Circus Smirkus performers.
Under the big top, the production creates a community using contagious energy. Audience members sit in close proximity to one another under the royal blue tent, its ceiling dazzled in red, yellow and white stars, creating an intimate environment. Children ages 8 and younger are invited to come down from the bleachers and sit ringside just inches away from the action.
High-pitched excited anticipation chitter-chatter that filled the tent before the Circus Smirkus cast took the center stage turned into cheers as performers entered through the tent’s side aisles, creating an immersive experience. Young children seated on mats along the ring’s edge leaned over the low barrier at times attempting to get as close as they possibly could.
Throughout the show, performers enter and exit the center ring from multiple points at a quick pace for non-stop action set to upbeat music. Sometimes a pause, however, like when a performer dangled on a rope upside down by only her ankle.
Parents and grandparents – and a fair number of adults without kids for the show – watched alongside children in the audience who danced along and waved to performers as they entered and exited the stage.
During intermission, audience and cast members took a short break outside the tent in the sunshine and warm breeze. The merch tent nearby offered popcorn, cold drinks, cotton candy and circus-related toys and souvenirs. Some performers picked up small coolers with bottled water and trays of popcorn to interact with the crowd and help sell the refreshments.
That part of the performance gives the cast members – who this year hail from 12 states – a chance to connect with people in the community where they are visiting. Lulu Tschider, a second-year Circus Smirkus performer from Piedmont, California, happily volunteered to sell water bottles during the intermission and cheerfully interacted with attendees. She spoke about her love for Circus Smirkus and how she wants to return for a third year. Her specialty in the show is clowning and being a base for acrobatics. As head of the clowns in the show, Lulu brought lots of smiles to children watching.
Maddox Morfit-Tighe from Collingswood, New Jersey, has been involved with Circus Smirkus for four years and said he loves meeting people, especially how after each show performers get to linger in the ring meeting kids from the audience.
The Circus Smirkus sense of community was apparent as performers embraced each other at the end of the show and then eagerly took photos and interacted with the children from the audience. Many of the young fans are quite small and the performers would get down on their knees to the level of the children as they answered their questions, autographed programs, and posed for photos.
Being a part of Circus Smirkus isn’t just about performing and showcasing young talent. Much more than a summer job, it’s that spirit and sense of community on and off stage that makes the troupers return for multiple year. Back for a second year under the Smirkus Big Top, Story Gemmati from Huntington Beach, California, gushes: “I love all of it – the entire experience.”
Circus Smirkus is a nonprofit arts and education organization based in Greensboro, Vermont. Its purpose is to teach the skills, culture and traditions of the traveling circus, and to inspire young people to participate in the circus arts. Besides the traveling tour, Smirkus also runs a circus camp in Greensboro where kids get to clown around and learn from circus industry professionals.
Smirkus Circus will continue to perform for the next eight weeks for a total of 63 shows on the 2023 Big Top Tour. From Waterbury, the troupe headed to Northampton, Massachusetts, with upcoming shops in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine. Remaining Vermont shows on the schedule are in Milton July 11-13, Rutland July 15-16, and finale shows back in Greensboro Aug. 18-19.
Much more information including tickets, a behind-the-scenes blog, past year’s poster art, videos, etc. is online at smirkus.org.