It used to be that joining a circus meant sneaking out of your bedroom window late at night, making your way to the fields at the edge of town, and hitching a ride with the roustabouts who had just finished packing up the big-top tent. After a few years of cleaning up elephant dung and hawking cotton candy, maybe the daring young man on the flying trapeze would take a shine to you and give you a chance. He'd stick you in a cannon, light the fuse, and you'd be on your way.
These days, circus is no longer quite so fringe. While some troops still travel from town to town, others are setting up shop in one place. In Easthampton, at the SHOW Circus Studio, rather than committing to a migratory existence, a crew of acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and physical comedians are hoping to form a circus community right here in the Pioneer Valley.
From the rafters of a studio space on the third floor of the Paragon Arts and Industry Building the group has strung up several trapezes, and other well-handled contraptions are scattered about the floor, which is thick with rubber mats. Having just opened last May, these circus folk hope the space will attract other seasoned physical artists for training and rehearsals. But by organizing training and workshops to newcomers young and old, they hope to expand and enhance their ranks by offering a route to the circus that doesn't require abandoning your family on a midnight ramble.
The founders of SHOW Circus Studio—Christopher Oakley, Henry Wheaton, Mara MacRostie and Steph Santoro—came to the circus life from all different directions, meeting finally as students at the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), based in Brattleboro.
The center was established by a pair of identical twin trapeze artists who had performed with Cirque du Soleil and many other circuses, and its website boasts "a solid foundation of techniques and skills across a broad spectrum of traditional circus forms as well as 'new circus,' aerial dance and physical theater." Oakley, Wheaton and MacRostie all speak effusively of their experiences at NECCA, and Wheaton said that after graduating from the center's professional track program, he and his classmates wanted to find a way of working together closer to home.
Their aim is that the proceeds from training and classes will underwrite the SHOW founders' love of performing. They've already appeared at this year's Twist arts fair in Northampton and on the streets in Amherst, and they're busy planning more appearances.
Henry Wheaton started taking classes at NECCA in 2007, and despite a dread of the spotlight, he quickly became hooked. Previously he had pursued many physically demanding sports, such as high performance bicycling and martial arts, but the challenge and excitement of performing on a trapeze had an allure he couldn't resist. His wife had been supportive, too: she was glad to hear he was considering something less demanding.
"She'd been getting tired of me coming home with split lips and bruises I got all too often while sparring," Wheaton said, "and we both thought acrobatics might take things down a notch."
Co-founder Mara MacRostie laughed at this, and both agreed what they learned was far more demanding than anything they had done before.
"I got some really exciting bruises at first," she said.
Working with fabric, they said, was the most difficult skill to master. Instead of dangling from a trapeze, fabric artists will climb a long skein of fabric that hangs from the ceiling and proceed to twist themselves in it, hang from various limbs and perform controlled drops where the fabric unravels. They fall, but stop just short of hitting the ground. Beginners can easily get friction burns, and hanging from the bunched-up cloth can be very painful until the acrobat learns how to handle the fabric properly.
"We're not masochists," Henry said, "but you really need to develop a special relationship with pain if you want to pursue this."
Both of them have impressive calluses. They spoke at length about methods for filing them down or otherwise reducing them which don't befit a story that might be read while dining.
Christopher Oakley, who had come to NECCA as an already accomplished contortionist, confirmed that the training in Brattleboro had been extreme: "I don't cry. Not usually. But my first lesson at the center, I was crying."
Oakley adds that while he likes to push limits, as a trainer he likes to think of himself as humane. Wheaton and MacRostie agree. As a place that hopes to attract and keep learners, SHOW hopes to be a gentle introduction to the acrobatic arts.
Oakley became interested in contortion in college. He came from a family of artists and performers ("My dad was an old-school hippy," Oakley said), and as a child, his parents had introduced him to yoga. As a teenager he experimented with other physical disciplines, like Tai Chi. "I really liked being physical, but I didn't like the competitive nature of sports," he said, and even though he threw himself into yoga "full force," he yearned for new challenges.
He saw his first circus in his senior year of high school, and that's where the idea of being a contortionist came to him. He considered himself somewhat flexible at that point, but not extremely so, and he got excited about pushing his limits. As a student at SUNY (State University of New York) Binghamton, in addition to his major in Asian studies and Japanese language and culture, he spent two years training himself in the basics of being a contortionist. He watched endless hours of other performances on YouTube, discussed the art online in different forums, and in his spare time taught himself how to walk on stilts, ride a unicycle and juggle.
"I guess my big break was at the 2006 International Contortionist Convention in Las Vegas," he said, "where I performed with my partner then who lives in Los Angeles. I met him about two days before the conference, we worked out an act, and afterwards I got contacted by Cirque Productions. They hire me out for gigs all around the country doing character work that uses a lot of my skills."
Many of these jobs are for meetings, conventions, and other special events where, while a circus production is being performed on stage, he mingles with the crowds in character, performing amazing feats, like leaping up onto tables and doing handstands, in full makeup and outlandish costumes. He says the work fits his personality perfectly.
In the past couple of years he has begun training others, attracting contortionists from Boston and New York to work with him. He's also continued his own studies, adding aerial skills to his repertoire, and recently graduating from NECCA's Professional Track program.
While SHOW aims to welcome people with all kinds of circus-related interests and abilities to work and train with them, their training and aesthetic is based in New Circus, a style made famous (and lucrative) by Cirque du Soleil.
In "Old Circus," there were typically three rings packed with animals and people dressed in scant, sequined outfits, performing a random series of tricks. New Circus seeks to add theater to the physical prowess, and while New Circus performers still admire a well-executed trick, they think it's all the better done in the service of a narrative. The SHOW trainers and performers are as interested in story, character and acting as they are in ability to perform a stunt.
They point to the Baltimore-based Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey as an act that epitomizes this New Circus ideal. "Even before they actually do anything," Wheaton said, "just coming on stage, you understand who their characters are, and everything they do supports that character and their relationship. They're both really talented acrobats, but it's the characters you remember."
"There's more flexibility within the New Circus with what kinds of acts you want to include, what your presentation's going to be, and what you're trying to communicate," MacRostie said. "Instead of just being a spectacle, the performance can also say something. Circus can be political or it can be about internal identity questions."
MacRostie, whose background had been in dance, theater and puppetry, said that she found the New Circus approach much more inclusive in terms of skill sets: "At first, I didn't have the upper body strength to do what others were doing on the trapeze, and I had to work up to that, but since I had more experience on stage than others, I had other ways to contribute."
Imagination and creativity were often as valuable as an amazing physical feat. While Wheaton is an aerialist and acrobat, he said his featured "shtick" was using his head as balancing apparatus for other performers. While he stands stock still, with mighty neck muscles bulging, his colleagues can practice headstands, both hands pressed down on Wheaton's bald pate. In an Old Circus, that ability might have been a one-trick pony, but for SHOW, it's just one tool in the story-telling arsenal, and Wheaton delights in finding new ways to put his superhuman powers to good effect.
"We're not so focused on profits," Wheaton said. "We're much more interested in community development and pulling together people from all kinds of artistic backgrounds, collaborating with them, and integrating what we do."
SHOW Circus Studio is located in the Paragon Arts and Industry Building, Studio #350, 150 Pleasant Street, Easthampton. Courses offered this summer include "Beginning Contortion," "Intro to Trapeze," "Intro to Fabric," and "Clowning and Physical Theater." Classes for children are in the works for the fall, as is a performance. Learn more at http://www.showcircusstudio.com.