Circus Smirkus opens season with Oz theme

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Jenny Ritchie, the Circus Smirkus rope coach, looks up at a pair of aerial performers.  At this rehearsal, her main focus was on the three troupers lying on their backs.  They had the job of spinning the ropes to which the acrobats clung.  Performers in the show often assist their fellows in this tightly knit company.  Photos by Joseph Gresser
Jenny Ritchie, the Circus Smirkus rope coach, looks up at a pair of aerial performers. At this rehearsal, her main focus was on the three troupers lying on their backs. They had the job of spinning the ropes to which the acrobats clung. Performers in the show often assist their fellows in this tightly knit company. Photos by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — A crowd of Circus Smirkus troupers moved around the ring here at choreographer Matt Williams’ instruction early Friday morning.  Dressed in rehearsal clothes, the performers looked much younger than they do in their flashy show outfits.  That is, they look their age, which is, for the vast majority of the 27 youngsters, between 15 and 17.

It was toward the end of the second of three weeks, and they and a crew of directors, coaches and technicians had to put together a show they will perform 69 times during a seven-week tour.

Two thirds of the way into the rehearsal period, there was no show.

There was no lack of skilled performers and carefully honed routines, but Circus Smirkus is more than a collection of acts.  The company has, over the course of 25 seasons, earned a reputation for presenting ensemble shows built around a central theme.

This year the theme is Oz Incorporated, a slightly jaundiced take on the world created by L. Frank Baum in a series of children’s books.  Ringmaster Troy Wunderle plays a cross between a bumbling wizard and a spaced-out tycoon.

Right now, though, Jesse Dryden, the company’s creative director, is working with Mr. Williams to get troupers properly arranged in the ring for the charivari.  That’s the opening act of the circus, in which the entire cast parades through the ring, performing feats of balance or acrobatics in rapid succession.

In this year’s circus the charivari also sets the stage for the story of Oz, the string on which all the separate acts are strung like beads.

Dorothy, the little girl from Kansas is to make her appearance from above, circling on a rope swing.

The choreography is complicated and needs to be performed energetically to sweep the audience into the show.  At this stage the main issue is getting performers to their assigned places in the available time.

In actual performance there will be music, but now the performers are moving to counts shouted out by Mr. Williams.

Mr. Dryden watches closely as the performers walk around the ring.  Some aren’t hitting their marks in time.  The question is whether they aren’t moving fast enough or if the distance is too much for them to travel.

Speed is the answer, and the portion of the dance is redone until everyone is getting to his or her place.

Mr. Dryden, who was in the same class at the Ringling Clown College as Mr. Wunderle, has the overall responsibility for getting the show ready to go on the road.  Once it’s finished he will hand the keys to Mr. Wunderle, who will be responsible for the show during the tour.

This year Mr. Dryden is struggling a bit.  The show isn’t jelling as he might expect it to.  The problem, he says during a break, is that a lot of the most experienced troupers graduated from the company last year — the company’s age limit is 18 — and the group of leaders isn’t as big as it usually is.

In fact, he says, the two youngest troupers are the most experienced.  These are Emily and Ariana Wunderle, the ringmaster’s daughters.  Despite years of performing, Ariana, nine, is technically a “trouper in training,” but 12-year-old Emily is a full member of the company.

For some years, Ariana mostly worked in acts with her father, but this year she is all over the show.

Mr. Wunderle says the fact that his children work with him in the ring and his wife, Sara, is part of the front office crew is one of the delights of his job.

In the ring, the troupers repeat the dance and get the feel of the space.

Acrobats just mark their stunts, running into the ring and wriggling slightly to indicate the place where a flip would start and dash off to the side to make way for the next performer’s move.

Cuban coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales instructs 13 Circus Smirkus troupers as they form a giant, spinning pyramid.
Cuban coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales instructs 13 Circus Smirkus troupers as they form a giant, spinning pyramid.

Similarly, the balancing acts, including a human pyramid, are indicated by the performers moving from the starting to the concluding position.  After an hour of this work the group divides.

A trio of flyers rehearse on the ropes in the circus tent, while a gaggle of troupers head over to another tent to practice spacing for their trapeze act.  An upstairs room in the circus barn is the destination for some clowns who need to polish their routines.

In the sunshine of what will turn out to be the last sunny day in June, tractors are thrumming in a nearby field as farmers work to get their hay in.  In a tent with its sides rolled up for ventilation, performers are running elaborate patterns on a gym mat.

They are putting together a chase scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West and her minions pursue Dorothy and the Scarecrow on a trampoline.  The equipment can’t be used until the rope rehearsal is done, so the trampoline crew is reduced to marking the act.

Over in the circus barn Sarah Tiffin, a third-year trouper with a strong clown personality, is working on her part of a duo act.  As Glinda the Good, she is to battle Sam Gurwitt, who plays the evil witch.

Ms. Tiffin goes through her paces under the watchful eye of clown coach Jay Stewart, while both wait for Mr. Gurwitt, who is off with the trampolinists.

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.
Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.

When he shows up the pair mug as they fire bolts of magic power at each other.  The idea of the sketch involves a magic reversal that reveals itself when Mr. Gurwitt cracks his knuckles and hurts Ms. Tiffin’s hands.

This causes a comic escalation as Ms. Tiffin stamps on her foot and Mr. Gurwitt hops in agony; he holds his breath until she passes out.

Another exchange of magic causes the situation to return to normal without Mr. Gurwitt realizing it.  There the act has come to a standstill.

Something has to happen to Mr. Gurwitt to knock him out, but the clowns and Mr. Stewart are having a hard time figuring out what it should be.

The idea of something big and heavy falling from the sky on his noggin is proposed, but there is no way to hide anything of size from the audience.  Ms. Tiffin suggests that Mr. Gurwitt ask another clown, Chase Culp, who is known in the troupe as Mongo, to hit him on the head with a club.  Rather than hurting Glinda, the result would be a knockout of the Wicked Witch.

There is no resolution of the problem when the rehearsal breaks up.

Six days later, on Wednesday, June 26, the troupers are back in the ring working on the charivari.  It’s damp and cool, so Mr. Dryden warns the acrobats to hold off their tumbling to avoid injury.

The troupers go into the opening dance, but for the first time they are working to the music that will be in the show, not just Mr. Williams’ counts.

At one point in the routine, the dancers make sharp typewriting gestures, then swivel into the movement of pulling a lever.  The music includes mechanical sound effects that mimic the movements.

“I saw you smiling,” Mr. Dryden says, “now you know how the music fits.”

He is bubbling with energy, despite almost three weeks of sleep deprivation.  The energy will be needed, because the rehearsal is going to be slow with frequent stops for lighting designer Anthony Powers to create cues.

Mr. Dryden grabs a microphone and does the Smirkus version of stand-up comedy.

“That was very wonderful,” he says after a portion of the charivari has gone well. “I’m sure that somewhere, someone loves you.”

Today, the pyramids are tried out, including one three-level extravaganza made up of 13 troupers in a formation that stretches from one side of the ring to the other.

Slowly, the pyramid rotates around the ring as coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales watches.

Mr. Sensiales is one of three Cuban coaches who are with Circus Smirkus this year.  Mr. Wunderle said he and Mr. Dryden traveled to Cuba during the off season and worked with performers at a national circus school there.

The exchange is one result of that trip.

Two days later, Mr. Dryden is still working on the charivari.  A dress rehearsal has been put off, despite the fact that the show’s first performance is only a day away.

“If this is what it’s going to look like, we need another week of rehearsal,” Mr. Dryden tells the cast.  “Don’t think the audience is going to give us all this energy.  You give the energy, so the audience is blown away.”

The wear and tear on the troupers is showing a bit.  Mr. Sensiales is running a kind of ringside clinic, bandaging one performer, showing another a strengthening exercise.  Surrounding him is the pungent scent of Tiger Balm, a strong Chinese liniment.

Dorothy (Alyson Mattei), looks sympathetic as the Cowardly Lion (Chase Culp) showers a delighted crowd of children with tears.
Dorothy (Alyson Mattei), looks sympathetic as the Cowardly Lion (Chase Culp) showers a delighted crowd of children with tears.

Mr. Wunderle has a crew working on carrying him in and out of the ring.  He is up on stilts with a large animated face strapped to his back, but he can’t enter the tent standing upright.

He is borne into the tent on the backs of six or seven cast members and set up on his feet with his back facing the audience.  The huge face is that of Oz, the Great and Powerful, but the audience will be let in on the trick when Mr. Wunderle turns around.

Mr. Wunderle has crafted the mask himself, a reminder of his days as an art student.  In conversation, the ringmaster explains that he found the circus while in art school in Baltimore.

As an example of an advertising brochure, one of his classes was shown a flyer from the Ringling Clown College.

The year he attended, Smirkus founder Rob Mermin was co-directing the college and Mr. Wunderle discovered he could pursue his passion in Vermont, his native state.

Today, in addition to running the Circus Smirkus show, Mr. Wunderle is director of clowning for Ringling Brothers.

The Greensboro circus lot is soggy on Friday and a small bucket loader is spreading woodchips to keep patrons’ feet dry.

By Saturday afternoon, the time for the first show, the weather hasn’t improved and cars pulling in to park in a nearby field squeegee torrents of water from the earth with their tires.

It isn’t raining, though, and the crowds are lined up waiting to get into the tent for the first show of this year’s tour.  The aroma of popcorn wafts out of the concession tent and the candy butchers are doing good business.

Many of those waiting wear a plastic card with their name on it hanging from a lanyard around their neck.  These are troupers’ parents.

One, whose card says Greg, announces that he is from the Upper Valley.  Rumor has it that his son has been cast as the Scarecrow, he says.

When the tent is packed full, the crowd begins to clap slowly as if to bring forth the show.  Sure enough, Mr. Wunderle strides into the ring in his wizard regalia and they’re off.

The charivari goes smoothly and the audience oohs and aahs, especially at the spinning pyramid.  Dorothy comes down from the sky, dons her ruby slippers and sets out.

The audience is with the players, but the performance isn’t pinning them to their seats, yet.

A few acts draw strong reaction, including the duel between Glinda and the Wicked Witch.  They’ve added a bit of business in which Ms. Tiffin does a split and Mr. Gurwitt reacts by clutching his groin, bending in his knees and letting forth a long, high screech.  This brings down the house.

Mongo isn’t available to slug Mr. Gurwitt — he’s engaged playing the Cowardly Lion — but Alyssa Kim, as the head flying monkey arrives at the end of the battle.

She punches Mr. Gurwitt and flings his unconscious form over her shoulder and carries him out of the ring.

The trampoline act is properly frenetic, but at intermission the show still has the feel of a collection of disparate acts.

Something has happened when the show starts back up.  Maybe, Mr. Dryden has given a half-time pep talk, or maybe the troupers have realized the show’s possibilities for the first time.

At any rate, the energy level is much higher when they return for the second half of the show.

The acts race by and the audience reacts to the story more strongly.  By the time the Wicked Witch has been dispatched with a bucket of water and Dorothy has flown back to Kansas, swinging high above the ring, the audience is fully with the performers.

The final dance finds the crowd applauding and cheering from beginning to end.

Asked afterward when he knew he had a show, Mr. Dryden replies, “By the middle of the second half.”  He is, perhaps, a little ungenerous.

From here, Mr. Dryden turns over the vehicle he has created to Mr. Wunderle.

He will have the entire tour to polish the show, rearranging acts, if need be, or even cutting those that don’t work.

Mr. Wunderle says it’s important for the show to breathe.  While in the ring, he says, he can tell how things are going by listening to the crowd.

While out of the audience’s view, he watches from one of the three entrances.

By the time the troupe returns to Greensboro for its final performances on August 17, Oz Incorporated will be a finely tuned machine roaring through the ring.

And then the company will be gone, its performers scattered to high schools around the country, while Mr. Dryden and Mr. Wunderle dream up ways to top themselves in next year’s show.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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