Circus Smirkus

Cheryl Fenton writer
Harry Powers photographer

When a ten-year-old swears he wants to run off to the circus, how do you respond? Do you laugh? Smile and shake your head? Do you sarcastically say, “circus shmirkus”?
But what if there was a place where your little one could twirl and tumble under the Big Top and project grace and confidence mid-air from a flying trapeze? Or perhaps he or she could defy gravity draped in silk, with hundreds of eyes watching and breaths held.

Then you would say, “Ah! Circus Smirkus!”

A world where age means nothing and passion for performing means everything, Circus Smirkus is a non-profit, award-winning international youth circus that promotes the skills, culture, and traditions of the traveling circus. It inspires young people to engage in life-changing adventures in the circus arts through summer camps, school residency programs, and the exciting summer Big Top Tour.

In Smirkus, the young performers are the stars of the show. Ranging from ten to eighteen years of age, these troupers (call them “Smirkos”) come from many countries and all walks of life – urban and rural, rich and poor, stable homes and at-risk environments. Together they share a love of the circus and embrace a vital mix of talent and style.

Nothing but age and income separates the talented kids from their professional circus counterparts, be they acrobats, clowns, trapeze artists, or aerial performers. Each season has its own original music from a composer, and costumes are designed by a Montreal costumer who works with Cirque du Soleil.

With media coverage in the New York Times, People magazine, USA Today and The Boston Globe, it’s obvious this is more than child’s play. Even the Disney Channel has seen something special in Smirkus with its broadcast of “Totally Circus,” a 15-part Smirkus TV documentary. But still there are skeptics.

“It’s not easy getting people under our tent initially,” says artistic director Troy Wunderle, who has been with Smirkus for over a decade. “They hear youth circus, they poo poo it. [But] when they go under the tent, they can expect to have their expectations exceeded.” Wunderle has seen his share of the best of the best, during his own “wild journey” with Ringling Bros. Also the founder of Wunderle’s Big Top Adventures, he understands the basic brilliance behind having fun, questioning why some wouldn’t enjoy a youth circus.
“Who has the most wonder and joy about life?” he asks. “It’s kids. When we do something silly as adults, we’re told to stop clowning around. It’s easier for kids to step into a world that seems less cluttered and to share their passions on a much freer level.”

“Nothing is better than watching someone doing what they love with a free heart, an open mind, and for the right reasons,” he continues. “Smirkus allows both performers and audiences to live life freely and enjoy the moment.”

“Each and every one of the kids on tour with Smirkus has such a pure love for circus and for performing that you can’t go wrong,” says Wellesley’s own Cat Claus. On tour with Smirkus in 2006 and 2007 as a clown, this 20-year-old lively young woman believes in the true spirit of Smirkus—for both audiences and performers alike. “It’s kind of inspirational. It’s probably the most fun you could ever have. This is our passion and we want to make the best of it and give every audience the best performance we’ve ever done.”

With performances reaching as far back as the age of five, a juggling skill cultivated since sixth grade, and years of Smirkus camp, Claus is one of Smirkus’s biggest supporters. “I never would have thought that the circus world would be where I found home, but I did. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. After having it for so long, I can’t even begin to imagine who I’d be without Smirkus, or circus in general.”

The summer tour group travels throughout New England for eight weeks, beginning in late June. Under its own European-style Big Top tent (the only one a youth circus boasts in the country), 80 shows take the tour through the end of August. Smirkus rolls in to delight Wellesley audiences July 17th through the 19th (show times to be determined).

A Big Top Dream
Sometimes the delight of a dream can make waking hours more fun. It was one man’s colorful vision that set the trapeze in motion to bring happiness to hundreds of kids and laughter to thousands of audience members. That man was Rob Mermin, a student of the late, renowned French mime Marcel Marceau, and founder of Circus Smirkus.
“I ran off to join the circus as a young man, with the goal of using my particular talents in an unconventional life of renewable adventure,” he says. “I wanted to learn the circus trade and someday create a circus of my own.”

And that he did. After clowning around Europe in Great Britain’s Circus Hoffman, Sweden’s Circus Scott, the Hungarian Magyar Cirkusz, and Cirkus Benneweis in Denmark, and serving as the Director of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Mermin packed up his show and took it to Greensboro, Vermont, to revive the tradition of small tent circuses, also known as mud shows.

In 1987, he started Circus Smirkus, so that young people could “run away and join the circus” in a way their parents could support. “I wanted to provide a place where kids could follow their own dreams right into the circus ring,” he says.

The Smirkus Difference
“In a youth performer, there’s an unfaltering passion and energy that are bottled up all year long, just waiting to release during the summer,” says Wunderle. “This is not a means for putting bread on the table. This is simply about fulfilling a passion of theirs.”

“We don’t get paid to perform but who cares?” says Claus. “We’re given the greatest opportunity a performer can ever get. Smirkus is such an amazing place. Nobody is forced to be there by binding contracts and nobody’s required to have a ton of energy in the ring, but every single trouper wants to! It’s what we are all born to do and who needs to be paid to do that?”

“Smirkus has this energy that other professional circuses don’t have,” agrees trapeze artist Lindsay Culbert-Olds, age 17, from Arlington. Starting Smirkus in its camp when she was ten, Culbert-Olds has been touring with the circus since 2006. “We’re kids and we worked so hard to make this our goal. We’re doing this because we love it.”
Since they’re still in training, Smirkus troupers pay a tuition fee to cover room, board, costumes and props during the tour. Because financial hardships shouldn’t ruin dreams, scholarships are available to families in need.

“I dreamed of bringing the best traditions of my European circus background to American kids, and that meant mud, magic, and mystery: the hard life of being on the road mixed with a grand spirit of adventure,” says Mermin.

“Mermin wanted kids to experience circus through everything from cleaning the dishes to the standing ovation,” echoes Wunderle. “That’s how we get well-rounded kids. We don’t pamper them. We applaud them.”

Outside of performing, troupers have circus chores: raising the tent, unloading the prop truck, setting up bleachers, unrolling the ring rug, tending to costumes, even washing dishes. At intermission, some kids sell concessions—popcorn, cotton candy, soda, hot dogs, merchandise. Diabolo juggling scarves and balls are favorites, but don’t discount the popularity of basic red clown noses. More than 15,000 of them are sold each year on tour.

Following après show meet-and-greets, the kids are free to relax. But most of the time, they don’t.

“Ninety percent of the time if there isn’t an organized event between shows, like a beach trip or a trip into town for ice cream, the troupers will get back into the tent and start training again,” says Wunderle.

Dinner. More chores. Another show. Then it’s time to pack up and go back to the home-stay, usually around 10:00 pm.

Away From Home
Although they stay with fellow troupers’ parents as they travel New England, Smirkos are away from their own parents for months. Homesickness might set in, but you would never know it.

“You get there and you forget about being away,” says Culbert-Olds. “It’s not that you don’t miss home, but the training place becomes a new home. They become your new family.”
“To be honest, I haven’t done my job as director well to select a kid who doesn’t have the gumption to make it all the way through,” says Wunderle. “The one thing I hold near and dear of Smirkus is the unbreakable spirit.”

Some are farther from home than others. More than 27 nations have been represented on tour and at the camp, as well as ten First Nation and Native American Indian tribes. In 2000, Circus Smirkus was named the “United Nations of the Youth Circus World” at the International Children’s Festival at Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia. Over the years, Smirkus has collaborated with the Budapest Circus School, the Moscow Youth Circus, the Latvian Youth Circus, the Wuqiao School and Chinese Acrobatics Association, the EthioCircus, and CirColombia. This year’s summer camp will host campers from the Palestinian Circus School, while the tour boasts a United Kingdom youth circus coach and his son (the youngest trouper, age ten).

“One thing I get to do with Smirkus is to prove to the greater world that things are possible,” says Wunderle. “People of different nationalities, religions, personalities, can not only work together civilly but also create real magic together.”

Magic Happens
With each magical performance comes an unusual twist. As a themed show, the entertainment takes on a storybook feel. You not only see a circus, but characters within a story line, with past themes including “1950s Rock n’ Roll Tour,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Sci-Fi Smirkus: A Space Idiocy,” and “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

Wunderle prides himself on being “creative colleagues” with all people in the show, including creative director Jesse Dryden, parents and performers. Their “creative noodlings” have developed the upcoming 2009 season’s “A Smirkus Ever After,” during which the famed youth circus will turn the pages on Aesop, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, bringing classic stories to life through the spectacle and enchantment of circus.

Newton’s Lily Maltz, age 15, will get her first chance to experience the Smirkus tour this year. This creative teen played upon this enchanting 2009 theme to win the hearts of the circus directors for her audition. With an aerial fabric performance, she channeled Rapunzel by hanging from her long brunette hair.

Chosen through a series of auditions, troupers like Maltz arrive at the Circus Barn in Greensboro in early June, armed with only vague ideas of potential characters they’ll play and tons of enthusiasm. During the next three weeks, their interests and skills are evaluated, a cast of characters is put together, acts are created, music is written, and costumes designed. Then it’s show time.

“Very little sleep happens during those three weeks, but it’s a magical, insane period of time that makes this entire experience phenomenal,” says Wunderle, with a laugh.

Giving Back
With the concept of collaboration and community central to circus, it’s only natural for Smirkus to collaborate with other non-profits to provide celebration throughout the communities. They select, for show presenters, only other non-profits. In this way, Smirkus has helped schools, hospitals, and other arts groups raise more than two million dollars throughout the years.

Sometimes the troupers’ acts are more than entertaining—they’re selfless. When Wunderle and the rest of the staff “jump” ahead to the next site, the kids usually have two options—downtime at the beach or at the movies; or putting on their costumes and working. They usually choose the latter, visiting hospitals, special needs camps, and performing free, abbreviated shows for people who don’t have a chance to see Smirkus under the Big Top. Wunderle swells with pride when he speaks of his Smirkos’ enthusiasm for this charitable giving.

“This is their downtime, and to know that they love to share it with kids in a cancer ward or a burn hospital,” says Wunderle, “it’s really thrilling to me. That shows me that we’re doing it right. We’ve got the right kids.”

Future Performers
When a Smirko turns 18, it’s time to leave Smirkus. But the youth circus provides a stepladder to the professional circus world, with over 30 of its troupers going on to perform for Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil, the Big Apple Circus, and Chicago’s Midnight Circus, as well as many circuses in Europe and Japan.

One such success story is Shelburne native Eric Allen. After touring with Smirkus for three years, making people laugh as a clown or dazzling with skilled Chinese pole acts, this 19-year-old recently signed with Ringling Bros.

Beginning the funny business in the third grade, performing was always in Allen’s blood, literally. “I once did a ‘Buster Keaton’ clown act in the school talent show. I won third place but when I went to shake the judge’s hand I had a bad bloody nose and bled all over him,” he remembers.

But his true circus experience could only come from the Smirkus experience. “I might have performed before, but Smirkus is what made me a performer,” says Allen.
Even if Smirkus “grads” don’t choose it as a career, all of this great circus experience isn’t a waste. For kids such as Claus, they might not be putting on a big red nose anymore, but they’re still putting on a show. A show that Smirkus has helped them perfect.

“Although I’m technically not doing any clowning, I have been able to use so much of what I learned as a clown and transfer it to my other performing,” Claus says of her musical theatre major at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s probably one of my greatest assets. It changed me as a performer, definitely for the better. It taught me to take huge risks and not be afraid to make big mistakes. Doing two shows a day for seven weeks is an experience that very few actors get to have before they leave high school or even college. That alone teaches you so much about who you are as a performer. Such a demanding performance schedule requires you to learn how to spread out and conserve your energy to give each audience the best show possible.”

It’s this mission to create true performers that Smirkus is built upon. “Smirkus embodies the capacity of individuals to dream and, with imagination and perseverance, to enact their vision,” says Mermin.

Vision aside, Smirkus is…well…just fun. “It’s such a fun show to watch,” says Culbert-Olds. “It’s kids doing circus. Everyone you see is smiling and showing how much they love it.”
“Audiences can expect huge energy, im­mense talent, amazing tricks and feats, a lot of laughs,” says Claus. “And the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen.”
So when your child says he or she wants to run off and join the circus, smile at them and say, “Okay!”