Circus Smirkus begins summer tour

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(Host) Every summer, a Vermont youth circus travels through New England, giving performances filled with juggling, tumbling, and tight wire acts. It’s called “Circus Smirkus” and the troupe put on its first show Sunday in Greensboro, kicking off a seven-week tour.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea went behind the scenes last week as the troupe rehearsed, to find out what makes this youth circus ‘one-of-a-kind.’

(Sound from the circus ring) “Here we go! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”

(McCrea) Circus Smirkus bills itself as the only youth circus in the country that puts on a full summer tour, under a big top. It’s a non-profit organization, founded in 1987, with the mission of giving kids who’ve developed strong circus skills the chance to immerse themselves in circus life.

This year, the troupe consists of 26 youngsters, who are between 11 and 18 years old. Over the course of the winter they’ve auditioned and been selected from about 400 candidates from across the country and around the world. Then in June, the troupers come together in Greensboro for three intensive weeks, to create the show.

(Troy Wunderle) “That’s very different than most circuses.”

(McCrea) Troy Wunderle is creative director for the circus. He says most circuses either hire people who’ve been working on an act for a number of years, or they are a training facility that creates a show over a longer period of time.

(Wunderle) “We do it in three weeks, and we immediately start touring. And I think partially because of that we have energy in this circus that many circuses don’t have – spirit and energy that absolutely blows the audiences away.”

(McCrea) And Wunderle expects that the skill of these young performers will also ‘blow audiences away.’ At today’s rehearsal, 13-year-old Jake Verner is about to juggle while standing on the shoulders of someone who is standing- and rolling – on a large ball. It’s called ‘two man high on a rolling globe.’

(Verner) “I have to stay fully focused on what I’m gonna do, and just, like do everything just, like as hard as I can and just do it right.”

(McCrea) From the back of the rehearsal ring, the director describes this part of the act:

“He’s juggling, standing on someone’s shoulder. He’s about 14 feet up in the air with NO safety belt!”

(McCrea) “Adult leaders do keep safety in mind and performers use safety belts in high wire acts. Still, Troy Wunderle says this level of performing often exceeds what audiences expect.”

(Wunderle) “They see someone riding a unicycle on a slack wire juggling five clubs. They didn’t expect to see that. They see kids doing four-man highs on each other’s shoulders – they didn’t expect to see that. They see kids flying through the air doing triple or quad flips off a teeter board – that’s not expected.”

(Rachel Schiffer) “There’s something about the air that I just like.”

(McCrea) Rachel Schiffer is one of those who will be ‘flying through the air’, doing acts on the wire. She’s been with Circus Smirkus for nine summers and, at 18, is one of the troupe’s oldest members. This year, she’s not only a performer she’s a staff member, with responsibilities that include helping to assemble the show’s bulky, metal bleachers:

(Schiffer) “I don’t know if it’s flush yet, do you want it to move more forward?”

(McCrea) It’s a hot muggy day and the chore is not glamorous. But Rachel Schiffer says this is part of circus life, a life that includes communal bathrooms and standing in line for lunch.

(Schiffer) “Well Smirkus is definitely a tight knit group of troupers and performers, and staff included. So that aspect of circus life DOES need a bit of adjusting to, if you not used to living with large groups of people in semi-tight quarters. But it’s totally worth it.”

(McCrea) Now in his third week here, 13-year-old Jake Verner seems to be adjusting.

(Verner) “Yeah, it’s kind of hard to have to stand in line to eat food. But, ah, it’s okay because the food is awesome here, I love it.”

(McCrea) And performers like Jake, and Rachel, expect that the best is yet to come. They’ll travel to 14 towns and put on 70 shows this summer, bringing very personal rewards to each performer.

(Schiffer) “Just looking at someone walking down the street, you wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, she can do a back tuck off two guys’ hands.” But they get in the ring and the talent just pops out- bursts. And it’s really neat to see that happen in the ring.”

(Verner) “I just like the energy of the crowd and just how people root you on when you’re performing. Circus people are just like- they’re ecstatic. They have so many different skills, it’s just awesome.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea in Greensboro.

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