From the minute I stepped outside of my trailer at 7:20 a.m., yesterday felt different. People were moving with a greater sense of purpose and direction and the troupers were all sleepy smiles. Even at breakfast there was a definite tension. Troy walked into the “pie car” (circus-ese for “cook trailer”) with his breakfast and hollered “GOOD MORNING! SHOW DAY!” The pie car erupted into cheers. I took another gulp of my coffee, feeling myself begin to hurry.
It’s opening day
I watched a quick re-blocking of a scene at the Big Top and then I walked back up to the office to edit some photos. The late morning air was growing hotter and starting to smell like popcorn and cotton candy. Signs were out in the gravel drive indicating parking. I knew I wouldn’t have to step foot inside the ring but I was jittery, for what reason, I still don’t know.
People were arriving and parking their cars on the grassy hillside. Such a number of people seemed odd considering the small number that have occupied 1 Circus Road for the past three weeks. The rows of old Volvos, Subarus and Priuses indicated a mostly Vermonter crowd full of excited and eager faces. I wandered among them, snapping photos as I went.
After greeting local press (thank you, Hardwick Gazette and Barton Chronicle!), I walked behind the tent to the back stage area where troupers were practicing or putting on make-up. Some were juggling or balancing on a low wire; others were pacing around and shaking out their hands or stretching their faces. Lots of hugs were exchanged, as the troupe grew giddy off the excitement. For them, the thrill of a performance was a secret kind of pleasure that only they could know. The tension was greater and the sun was now fully in the sky. Troy is the only adult member of production who performs in the ring with the troupe. I asked him, the a lifelong veteran, how he’s learned to deal with the pre-show jitters.
“It’s about prioritizing,” he said. “I have a lot to do before an act and by focusing my energy on what has to get done, I save energy for later.”
Magnus, 17, a clown, put it differently. “You just have to scream a lot. Then you’re ready.”
About ten minutes before curtain, Jesse gathered everyone backstage for a Smirkus tradition: “Smirko.” It’s a final cheer before the curtain and Jesse and Troy offer words of encouragement as well as notes specific to that performance. To disclose exactly what was said would ruin the magic. But at the end, the troupe put their hands in the middle and shouted their mantra:
Then with grinning faces and, they rushed the tent.
After the first show, Ira Schiffer – a rabbi and father of Rachel Schiffer, a former trouper and former head counselor – blessed the ring in heartfelt, blessing traditionally reserved, in the Jewish tradition, for first occasions. “When you step into this ring to perform your magic,” he told the troupers, “it becomes sacred.” The blessing of the ring is a circus tradition– watch “The Greatest Show on Earth” and you can see a priest and acolytes, blessing the Ringling train. Smirkus is usually “twice-blessed” – once by Rabbi Schiffer and once by Father Jerry Hogan, the Catholic Church’s National Circus Chaplain, who often meets up with us when we are on tour in Massachusetts.
Dinner was early. We had a second show to put on.
The smiles I saw earlier had by now exploded into full grins as the troupers settled into a post-performance glow. As they scooped mac and cheese onto their plates, they swapped congratulations. They had little time before they ran back down to the tent to do it again. I spent the entire first act sitting at the ringside with a gang of six- year-olds who gobbled cotton candy and popcorn by the fistful. They told me while munching that they drove five hours to see Smirkus and they liked “the newspaper part” best. I explained that there was no “newspaper part” this year – that was last year’s “Front Page Follies” theme. This year was “Topsy Turvy Time Travel.” Their faces dropped and they started to look anxious. Clearly, I had just ruined their evening.
Thankfully, they didn’t have to wait long before this year’s show changed their minds. Their eyes grew huge in amazement. Their jaws literally dropped and their popcorn and candy sat untouched as their wide eyes followed the movement in the ring.
For a first and second show, the 2012 Smirkos have set the bar high for themselves. Yet this is what they continue to do – persevere and achieve the goals they set for themselves. It’s not a question of if they can improve, it’s if the rest of us can keep up with the pace they set.
Evan Johnson, Communications Intern