Paper Lanterns

Last night, the 2012 Big Top Tour had its final show.

My evening began when I walked backstage to watch the final “Smirko” cheer.  Artistic Director Troy Wunderle stood in the middle of the crowd with a camcorder, immortalizing the moment as he set the performance in motion with his remarks.

“Take that energy,” he said. “Take it and use it.”

The troupers worked through their normal pre-show rituals but this time, the edge of emotion was digging in again, bringing the tears back as they wished each other one last great show. They fought and literally screamed their way through that raw feeling of finality – of “last-ness” – and took their tightly wound nerves, primed to explode like firecrackers and diverted that energy to the show before them with shouts of “SMIRKO! SMIRKO! SMIRKOOO!!”

It is possible to “get a feel” of the crowd, to gauge how responsive or energetic they are feeling from the very first act. Last night’s house was full to bursting of Smirkus families, alums, staff, and other adoring fans. The troupers were surrounded by an audience that loved them and the audience got the very best of what the troupe had to offer.  The applause in the first act was as loud as the final applause  of earlier shows. I watched the first act standing in the tent’s entrance.

At intermission, I stood in the middle of the midway and allowed myself to become invisible. The crowd at intermission swirled around me and I absorbed what I could from my surroundings. People lounged in the grass now golden in the sunlight sloping at a shallow angle through the trees; kids gripped mothers’ wrists, smeared ketchup on hotdogs, or rolled down the hillside before stumbling back up at their parents’ beckoning.

I walked back up the driveway to type out what I had seen into some organization of a post I could use. From up in the marketing office where I sat and wrote out my notes, I could hear the music and cheers from the Big Top. It was like that part in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when the protagonist Nick Carraway describes Jay Gatsby’s nightly parties. From down the gravel driveway, the lavishness of the tent and all of the music and applause drifted up towards the house where I sat with the windows open wide. There was a huge party going on just next-door and everyone was there. I finished what I was writing and then walked back down to see the conclusion.

The teardown was abbreviated, as we only needed to pack away pieces of the set and props before the troupers could celebrate in the center ring (the ring would be used for today’s alumni show). In Montpelier, we emptied the backstage tent into the prop truck and tore down the backstage tent in just 46 minutes. Here, even though we had considerably less work to do, the work was arduous and slow; no one wanted it to end.  I was leaning against one of the boxes laid out for packing away the bleachers when our backstage intern, Gunna, came tearing down the road in the road crew’s go-kart. As the story goes, we were in Newbury, just a few weeks ago and a couple of guys from tent crew were driving back to site when they saw the go-kart for sale on the side of the road. After negotiating with the owner, the staff threw in ten or twenty dollars each and just 30 minutes later, the grippy tires were kicking up rooster tails of dust. Now we had this go-kart and Gunna was taking evening drive. I was headed up to the pie car for coffee and she offered me a ride. The go-kart seats two.

“Going to the bonfire?” she yelled over the engine as we took off.

“Why not.” I responded and white-knuckled the safety bar while Gunna stomped on the gas.

Gunna piloted the go-kart in a dirt and grass-spitting arc out of the site. She shrieked and yelled in excitement and dew sprayed up from the tires as we flew through the field. The grass rose into a knoll before dropping down into the edge of the forest. The knoll concealed the spot where several members of the staff were having their own end of tour celebration. We sat around a fire pit and shared plans about the respective worlds we planned to return to in the coming days. I am headed back to school, someone else had a wedding to attend, Gunna was planning on moving. I sat there for about five minutes listening to the fire and enjoying the gentle wash of heat over my face and the smell of smoke in my hair, before someone drew my attention to outside of the fire ring, to the hillside above the Big Top tent. The wide floodlights at the top of the masts threw a harsh white light down around the site, contrasting the surrounding hills and forests in shades of black. Above us, the sky was clear, so clear I could see the milk way and across the field on the hillside opposite us, the troupers were setting off paper lanterns into the night.

The lanterns rose slowly at first, like jellyfish towards the surface of the ocean. They rose higher and the glow of the candles was surprisingly bright. As soon as they cleared the shelter of the hillside, the prevailing winds took control and they took off flying low across the horizon moving north towards the Big Dipper, forming constellations of their own. The points of orange glowed more warmly than any of the stars around them and the points of light held, waivered, then melted.

And then it was done.

Evan Johnson, Communications Intern

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2 Responses to Paper Lanterns

  1. Betsy Weill and Tim Bennett (Ezra's and Una's folks) says:

    Dear Evan,
    Thank you for all your fine words this summer. They spin a beautiful web that reveals how you were carried along in the Smirkus vortex in these summer weeks. Good luck to you in your future endeavors!

  2. Miriam Rosenblum says:

    I’ve enjoyed experiencing the 2012 Big Top Tour through your eyes. Now that you have lived the magic, you can spread it forward wherever your journeys take you. Best of luck.

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