Sailing Into the Sunset

Dogs, Tents and Sunshine

Dogs, Tents and Sunshine

Dear Smirkus Family,

The final few days in Greensboro flew by, and suddenly the time has come for me to head home. Three weeks of pre-tour and seven weeks on the road all blurred into one fantastic dream. I wrote this sitting on the porch of the barn, surrounded by Troupers giving final hugs before they departed. Some barely noticed their parents arrival, so absorbed in their last moments together for summer.

Smirkus is much more than a place, it’s a feeling that takes over you. It’s joy and exhaustion; it’s dedication and love. Most importantly though, it’s something that each person touched by Smirkus can carry with them after they leave, for the rest of the day, for the rest of the year, for the rest of their lives. In no way can one post describe all of the big adventures and special little moments this summer has brought.

There were mud puddles as deep as my rain-boots, and rainbows glistening across the entire sky. Sometimes we were attacked by millions of mosquitos; others times we were attacked by Troupers with water guns. I was patiently taught how to climb rope, walk across the wire, juggle three balls (sometimes), hang from fabric, and improve my handstand. I explored the countryside, from the magic trees in Waltham, MA to the beaches of Cape Cod and Maine. And at night, as the day was coming to a close, I watched the sunset from 14 different towns across 5 states.

It’s been a blast, Smirkus. I’ll treasure the memories. Thanks for adventuring with me and smooth sailing!

See you down the road,

Emma

How the Circus Leaves

Today marks our last day of shows. It’s bittersweet, looking back on how far we have come. There are so many memories to cherish from the summer and yet, the Big Top Tour 2014 is coming to a close. Today is full of laughs, smiles, tears, and hugs (mostly hugs!) as Troupers and staff reminisce.

Below is a poem that Counselor Andrew wrote while on tour. And remember: live in the moment!

-Emma

Counselor Andrew and Gnome Sven

Counselor Andrew and Gnome Sven

How the Circus Leaves

It was July 4th when
I missed the circus.
Alone on a Diamond bike I
arrived; sweaty & a geode, shining.

With steely grips
they rolled up the big tent:
a lollipop back in its wrapper.
Spunk and bombastic brilliance

rolled & folded–
suddenly the circus’s best trick was
shrinking & vanishing.
Diminishing daylight

reflected reassurance in that
high marmoreal hole filling & spilling
what was left, overflowing with promise that
circus clammer would return in flood.

Speaking of:
rain like curtains on
their bulbous shoulders bulging like clouds,
all aquatic & bending & bending bending bending.

As I rode away soaked
those lights from the tent top
blared like skulls unearthed,
chattering after persistent pendulums.

Then I couldn’t sleep for all I knew of life exploded
scattering the debris of me,
each bit echoing in my caverns
that aloneness is packed community.

-Andrew Jones
2014

Behind the Scenes: Jeff Maynard

An Early Morning Serenade

An Early Morning Serenade

Our final Jump Day began with a rousing version of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” played by staff members parading around the bunk trailers with accordions, trumpets, drums, kazoos, and all sorts of other instruments. We coiled our muddy cables and started off towards home, the Circus Barn in Greensboro, Vermont. After driving just over an hour, we made the turn onto Circus Road! Car horns honked in excitement. People audibly sighed as they breathed in the icy Vermont air. A small group gathered in the wooden chairs on the porch. Though it had been almost two months since we’d sat here and looked out on the field, there was a familiarity to the view. The rolling hills and weathered buildings signified that we were home.

This jump was one of the smoothest moves of tour. But the ease of this jump wasn’t coincidence. Moving this many vehicles down the road takes careful planning and frequent maintenance. The man behind our machines is Jeff Maynard, Back Lot and Maintenance Supervisor. He’s written an incredible post giving insight into all that he does do help get Smirkus down the road!

-Emma

“I’m a behind the scenes guy. In fact, I’m the behind the scenes guy behind the behind the scenes guys. People may not ever see the tent guys who assemble our tents, or the tech staff as they install and run the lighting and sound kit for the show. Like them, I’m invisible, but my task, like that of our cooks, is to keep the Circus going. I keep everyone else stocked with what they need to do their jobs. Full fuel tanks, electricity thrumming in the lines, water rushing through the pumps, all 168 tires properly inflated, all 1,134 lug nuts tightened, every engine ready to start with the turn of a key.

Jeff Sits Fueling the Generator

Jeff Sits Fueling the Generator (Photo Credit: Joy Powers)

Part of the circus magic is in the ring. The acts, the performers, defying gravity and their own bodies. Another part is on the road. The Jump is my act, and it strives to defy nature at its own game. Our setups lie in grass fields, which quickly become mired in mud once it starts to rain. Four wheel drive is our ally, as are paths built of plywood to get through the deepest of the muck.

Once all the wheels are back on the pavement, we chase each other down the highway, racing the clock on our way to get back to work. We want to take our time, but there’s so much to do on the landing, and we’re already burning through daylight. I keep at the back, miles behind tent boss Nat Brown in the leading Gooseneck, which carries the Big Top in its entirety. Minutes slip to hours, over the laboring bray of my diesel engine. I’m in the water truck, pulling a tremendous camper that is 8 of our staffs’ home, and other motorists unwittingly play a dangerous game cutting in and out my blind spots. We hit a hill, and I’m eyeing the gauges, nervous about my engine at nearly full throttle trying to cope with 23,500lbs of circus. Once over the summit, that weight is still against me, but instead of stressing my motor, it’s heating up my brakes. If my engine overloads, it’ll de-rate, incrementally shutting down so it stays in safe limits. If my brakes overheat, I become an expensive train wreck on its way to the lowest point.

All the while, I’m looking ahead, and listening for my phone. Someone might call in with a flat, or worse, that their rig got hung up on a post, under a bridge, in a ditch. Or I might come around the corner and find orange triangles on the shoulder, marking the approach to a stranded truck that might be one of my allies.

Jeff Helps Change a Tire on the Pie Car (Photo Credit: Joy Powers)

Jeff Helps Change a Tire on the Pie Car (Photo Credit: Joy Powers)

Every jump is an unsolved question. Will we all get there? Ultimately, we will, but maybe not all together, maybe not all on time, and maybe not all in one piece. With this many moving parts, some of them are bound to develop personalities. Maybe a rig will roll in with some of its body strapped in place by bungees after getting caught on something. Maybe I’ll need to drop my trailer at the next lot and rush back to rescue another coupled to a dead truck waiting for a tow.

Our next act begins upon landing. What was once an empty field becomes an empty field covered in orange marks: mark-out surveys for the crew to know where each tent pole, tent stake, and truck lands in this new blank canvas. Suddenly, there are trucks, packed with straps and tarps. Equipment seems to explode out of them. Cables and water hose chase through the grass. The diesel generator breathes its first breath on this site with a roar and a polite puff of smoke. Dodging people and stakes, our little loader is placing racks of tent parts around the perimeter of the Big Top and the out tents, zipping back and forth with an orange beacon flashing on its top.

You could miss it if you walked out to get a sandwich. Turn your back for an hour, and you’ll return to find three tents and a small village of campers and trailers. Do so again, and all of the empty racks disappear, the tent sidewalls are up and laced shut, and it looks like we’ve been here for ages.

It’s been seven hours since the first truck jumped off the old lot. In two or three days, we’ll erase what we’ve done, and a visitor might arrive to find a vacant field covered in weird orange marks, pockmarked with vanishing stake holes, with patches of dead grass from where a truck or tent was sitting.

This performance is what makes us what we are. Someone will pose a comment like, “we should stay here for a month,” and earn a few laughs. Most of us would start to go crazy three days in. We are made to move. We train and rehearse it. We repeat it at a moment’s notice, no matter the weather. The easy jumps are forgettable. The flawless tear-downs become a boring note in my log, something to the likeness of “Jump went well today,” end of statement.

It’s just that the messy ones make for such better stories. Sometimes, the weather doesn’t cooperate, and we discover standing water three inches deep under the entire Big Top shortly after midnight. Sometimes, the ground is terrible, and our massive tractor trailer buries itself in the mud trying to pull off the lot. Sometimes, the water pressure is so low that our pumps suck the hoses flat. Other times, the pressure is so high, those same pumps become dramatic water features in our new truck-mounted swimming pool when a fitting lets go. Some people might become bogged down and grumpy, looking over all the things that have gone wrong and will continue to go wrong.

I often jokingly state, “But if this was easy, it wouldn’t be fun.” Some might expect it to be sarcasm. In the moment of a fix, it might not be a trip to Disney World. But the laughter and celebration afterward would beat Space Mountain any day.

 

Trenching the Fields

Trenching the Fields

Weather gods took our water theme a bit too far and flooded the big top? Break out the shovels and have a trenching party.

Semi truck knee-deep in mud? Well, if we put a farm tractor on the back and push at the same time we’re also pulling forward with a pickup in four-wheel drive…

It becomes a puzzle game, after a fashion. Personally, I’m comfortable laughing at a problem. What I didn’t expect to find when I arrived here at Smirkus was an entire family of other workers who do the same thing.

I am accustomed to hard work, but in my various jobs, I was also well accustomed to the “not my problem” attitude often adopted by more senior workers, along with an unhealthy dash of apathy and “whatever, man, I don’t get paid enough” from the younger ones. I had the expectation of facing the complexity of the Jump relatively unsupported.

I was very wrong.

All Hands on Vinyl!

All Hands on Vinyl!

“All hands on vinyl” is a thing. It doesn’t matter what your role might be, if you can step away from your project, you help roll the Big Top up onto its trailer. The lunch bell rings on the first day at a new site, and the cooks have already set up their own serving tent, along with the rest of their setup, and a bunch of people throw in to stake and pitch the dining tent so we have shade to eat under. Jump day morning is an absolute maelstrom of cable coiling, jack cranking, block gathering, tailgate slamming chaos in which I only have time to double-check the trailer hitches and ensure all the engines start before the backlot is pulled out from under me. This place is our home, and we understand it takes cooperation and collaboration to keep it in good shape.

I have never felt less alone. After a while, it gets into your head that nothing is truly unattainable. I could walk into the backlot and ask for hands flipping the tractor trailer upright, and with a few squawks of “Seriously? How does that even happen?” people would be on their feet to get to it. Rain becomes an involuntary shower, but we supposed we needed one anyway. The hot beating sun is barely mentioned, because there was a day that was worse last year.

Never before had I encountered such a cast of characters. Reading books aloud by the glow of Christmas lights. Arguing for hours about telepathy and inner peace. Sunburnt, bruised, blistered, soaking wet. Rain boots haven’t dried in three sites. Heart and soul devoted into the act.

As if by magic, the circus moves. Somehow intact. Somehow on time. No missing fingers. Just the satisfaction of a job well done, sitting by the glow of the moon and that one outside light on a trailer that still works.”

Families that Play Together Stay Together!

Mid-morning yesterday, everyone gathered on the lawn in front of the Pie Car for the annual Staff-Trouper Kickball Game. The sun beamed down on the sunny diamond behind Montpelier High School and dust swirled with every step as the staff took the field and Troupers lined up to kick. With limited coordination and boundless enthusiasm, the game began.

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Trouper Arianna Pitches

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Tent Boss Nat Winds Up to Pitch

There were no “3 strikes you’re out” type of rules, and the game involved as much cheering and jeering as actual kicking and running. Some kicks resulted in home-runs and yet, some innings ended after the first three kicks in a row were caught, resulting in outs. Distracting players, blocking the paths of runners and generally causing mayhem were not only allowed but encouraged.

Tent Crew Member Matthew Blocks Trouper Cam from Home Plate (Cam still made his home-run!)

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“Left-Right-Woo Woo-Woo Woo”

The score kept fluctuating, sometimes it was 4-4, other times it was 1-12, demonstrating the insignificance of the score. Though the score didn’t matter, the rivalry between the Troupers and staff kept the game fun and fast-paced. It wrapped up at lunchtime with the staff ahead, 12-6.

High fives all around!

High fives all around!

As it ended, the Troupers and staff high-fived and in truly good sportsmanship, the Troupers put hands in for a “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?” in honor of the staff. Though tour isn’t just fun and games, we get through the hard times with the good ones. After all, families that play together, stay together. The game concluded as any fun activity should, with Troy Wunderle surprise soaked with a cooler of water.

Soaking Troy

Soaking Troy

Today, Wednesday is our last day in Montpelier! The shows are at 2pm and 7pm. Get your tickets at www.smirkus.org or by calling 877-SMIRKUS.

STEP RIGHT UP, ONE FLIGHT UP!

Hello Smirkus Family!
Today I have an incredibly special post for you all. It is a poem written by one of our tent crew, Brian Rodriguez Redmond. Brian is Seat Boss, meaning he is responsible for the assembly and disassembly of the bleachers that you sit on when you come to see a Smirkus show, but he is also a poet, an artist and so much more!

Brian would love to hear your wildest, most fantastic ideas for circus acts, real or impossible, in the comments section!

Enjoy,
Emma

Tent Boss Nat (left) and Seat Boss Brian (right) Cleaning the top of the Chapiteau

Tent Boss Nat (left) and Seat Boss Brian (right) cleaning the Chapiteau

STEP RIGHT UP, ONE FLIGHT UP!

“Three thimbles full!”
No more no less for the oceanographer from South Neptune’s high-dive routine
High-wire debutantes from Uptown Atlantis balleting on air,
the cable so thin it’s only a gesture really
High-flying acrobat astronauts on low gravity trapeze,
somersaulting virtually perpetually
Platoons of Ottoman jugglers passing one thousand scimitars,
a giant flashing cloud under the lights and a crashing wave of razor-sharp whispers!
Special effects wizard Shmerlin, stirring up a cauldron of storm showers
for the Nebraskan Navy’s water gag
After that, cue the Mongolian trick speedboating,
including an operatic duet with Middle Earth’s most eligible bachelor
and Topeka high school’s 1998 Prom Queen,
which of course leads into the electrified Yakuza Jacuzzi,
where the reformed men endure enough voltage
to power a five-floor walkup supercomputer
that is the basis for the Rock/Paper/Scissors/Supercomputer gag.
Eighteen rings downtent, out-of-work titans now gainfully employed roustabouts,
setting up the rest of the show in a nebula of technicolor dust,
spearing in the skyscraper stakeline by hand and raising kingpoles to the stratosphere,
complete with passenger jet elevators straight to the top!
Tent crew in pressure suits over snowy mountain ranges of vinyl on rigging expeditions
Spend a day or spend a lifetime!

Watch civilizations rise and fall like ripples in history,
witness the secret birth of myths, find the keys to your city,
unravel the human heart, uncoil the soul,
solve every paradox, broaden every mystery!
Get a backstage tour of Love itself!
Fall into the feathers of quiet moments,
swooning suspension bridges of violin strings transcending star-filled gullies,
focus your wonder onto a diamond-sharp sweetness. Her smile,
the center of the universe, borrowing a beam from every sun in the diaspora
See galaxies of illuminated deeds floating in thought-bubbled memories,
countless acts of kindness ornamenting the air
Heal your wounds, wind back time, balance the Answer on the tip of your tongue!
Pack your helium suitcase and hitch a ride to Cloud Nine,
where all the tickets are golden for this macrocosmos of the spirit,
built on the heroic frailties of love and hope, the weightless peak of the leap,
one breathless question for the deepening deep:
“Will you marry me?”

–Brian Rodriguez Redmond

  8/2014

Circus, Circus Everywhere

To the staff, jump days are times to move ahead to set up the next site, but to Troupers, they are the rare times they get to enjoy summer as normal kids. Each jump day is started by gathering in the place where the ring used to rest. Troupers hold hands in a circle, and learn about the coming jump. General announcements are made, home-stays are announced, and then, a Trouper will reflect on tour. They contemplate where they have come from and where they will go. They appreciate the moment.

Photo Credit: Head Counselor Dani Kehlmann

Circling the Ring (Photo Credit: Head Counselor Dani Kehlmann)

On past jumps, Troupers have swam in rivers, explored Boston, and relaxed, watching movies. Circus seems to go with them everywhere though, as they casually do contortion and two-highs where ever they happen to be. A few jumps ago, they toured the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) taking artsy photos with the exhibits, almost blending in with the artwork.

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Photo Credit: Brin Schoellkopf

Adding to MoCA Artwork  (Photo Credit: Trouper Brin Schoellkopf)

Yesterday we jumped from Freeport, Maine to Kennebunkport, Maine. The Troupers spent part of the day at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center performing parts of the show for children who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see Circus Smirkus. Performing in a hospital is a very different experience than performing under the Big Top, both rewarding in their own ways. Under the Big Top, there are hundreds of people counting on the performers, cheering for them. In the hospital, there may be only a dozen people watching, but the impact on those people is much more personal. Trouper Lindsey reflected on the visit, knowing that she helped a family to momentarily leave the hospital and run away with the circus, all without leaving the room. The Troupers bring circus with them everywhere they go: to the beach, to museums, and to hospitals. Everywhere they go they bring joy.

Photo Credit: Head Counselor Dani Kehlmann

Clowning Around of Jump Day (Photo Credit: Head Counselor Dani Kehlmann)

Inside the Pie Car

What has four wheels and makes 19 thousand meals a summer? If you answered the Pie Car, you’d be correct!

Chef (Clown) Andrew

Chef (Clown) Andrew

The Pie Car is a very special vehicle that travels with us on tour because it makes all of our food. The term “Pie Car” is used throughout the circus world referring to where food is cooked! It’s 6am and Cook Clark is up. He downs some coffee, blasts a little music and begins the day. Breakfast feeds all of the tour staff and generally consists of something like this: scones with homemade, candied orange peel, stove top oatmeal, bacon, sausage, and eggs to order. Each morning a different one of the cooks will take the early breakfast shift, deciding exactly what breakfast will be. One day it might be pancakes; another day is beignets sprinkled in powdered sugar. Around 7:30am, the other cooks will come in to help out with the final details, setting out cereal and generally cleaning up, before ringing the meal bell at 8am.

Shortly after breakfast, it’s already time to start making lunch. If a show is at 1pm, lunch is served 2 hours prior – at 11am. Meal prep generally takes 2 hours, which means that the cooks start making lunch at 9am! Dinner will follow in a similar manner, with prep beginning 2 hours prior.

The Circus Barn reflected in the Pie Car Window

The Circus Barn reflected in the Pie Car Window

Chef Andrew knows roughly what he wants meals to look like but he gives the cooks freedom to bring their own creativity to meals. Cooking on tour requires great flexibility and the Pie Car staff are constantly adapting their menu to fit the foods they have. There is no “typical” meal with the Pie Car. They constantly amaze us with new creations, working to include any suggestions they get into the menu. Dinner today consisted of: chapati bread, vegetable curry, tamarind chickpeas, tandoori chicken, rice, roasted cauliflower, pineapple chutney and a green salad.

The Pie Car is only 15ft by 8ft, and that’s without any of the equipment. The passing aisle is just large enough for them to squeeze by one another. Maneuvering through meal prep is like a dance.

Inside the Pie Car

Inside the Pie Car

As if cooking for 75 people a day wasn’t enough, Pie Car also sets up the tent that covers the food line, the tables, and the outdoor sink and helps out other departments when they’re done. Chef Andrew, in addition to planning, ordering, and cooking for Smirkus, is also Mr. Fixit. If something goes wrong in the Pie Car, he’ll make it work. During teardown, he will take off his apron and go help Tent Crew. Late teardown eve, the Pie Car will create a snack to nourish the crew through their hours of hard work.

In their spare time, the cooks often wander the surrounding natural lands looking for chanterelle mushrooms and other edible plants. Life for the Pie Car cooks was described by Clark as “a whimsical life.” They are the cooks of the circus but they are also the wild crafters, doctors, mothers, and the hunters and gatherers. When someone has a sore throat, they give them salty water to gargle; when general ailments are going around, they’ll suggest echinacea. In some ways, Pie Car is an incredibly unique department. They have pretty much the only role on tour whose entire job is taking care of everyone else.

Fun Facts about Pie Car:

  • They serve 19 thousand meals a summer!
  • Andrew comes from a family of diner owners in Boston.
  • Sarah spent January setting up a mobile kitchen for a festival in Guatemala!
  • Clark has a bachelors degree in agro-gastronomy.
  • John is a professional circus cook.
  • They have a favorite pot named Ronda, a rondeau pot.
  • John’s favorite vegetable is dandelion greens, Clark likes fiddle heads, and Sarah prefers mushrooms.
  • The crest on the windows of the Pie Car was sketched by Chef Andrew, who, in addition to everything else he is, is also an artist!
The Pie Car Crest

The Pie Car Crest

A little history:

Amity, who cooked for the Pie Car from 2003-2005 and again in 2010 and 2012, gave me a little insight into what things used to be like in the Pie Car. When she first started working, the kitchen was inside of a blue-bird blue school bus. Instead of the walk-in refrigerators and freezers that we now have, the walls of the bus were lined with home style refrigerators. In 2005, there was an interim kitchen in the back of the old tool truck. Finally, last year, right before tour began, the present Pie Car came to us. Sarah and John were here for its arrival and described it as an empty box with a walk-in freezer but, within 24 hours, everything was moved in and ready to go down the road!