Interviews

Circus Friendships

It’s easy to take on different roles in different kinds of circus relationships. Some friends are more like mentors, some are like apprentices, and others are just sorta friends you hang out with. It all the depends on the circumstances where you meet.

Recently, Julaine Hall and Jordan Rempel-White, both Hup Squad members and students at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA), sat down together to talk about circus friendships – with each other and other people.  Julaine and Jordan both took a straps class at SANCA not long ago and became closer through it. They also both performed solo straps acts at SANCA‘s annual spring showcase. How do circus relationships differ and how are they similar? Every circus relationship has a story.

Jordan Rempel-White (JR) – Hey, it’s great to see you!

Julaine Hall (JH)  – You too!

JR – How’s training been? I see you have pole face all over your neck. (Pole face is when the rubber coating of a Chinese pole rubs on the skin near or on the face making you look like a chimney sweep.)

*We both start laughing and the conversation totally derails, a few minutes later we continue*

JH – Yeah! I’ve been trying to train pole more recently since I came back from the big top tour. I did a rope act there, so I didn’t get a lot of time to train pole. But now that I’m back I’ve been training it more to get ready for an audition.

JR – That’s awesome! Good luck!! How did your relationships with your friends at Smirkus differ from the ones you have at SANCA?

JH – My friendships at Smirkus were very durable. Because we spent so much time together traveling and working together we all had to get along really well. But since we were all striving for a common goal it made it really easy. I’d call every trooper a close friend. They’re like a second family!  I think my friendships at SANCA are much more varied.

JR – Really? How so?

JH – Well I befriend lot of people in the younger performance groups and in other classes, but with Cirrus, the performance group I’m in, it feels like a little more business-like than at Smirkus. (Cirrus is the oldest performance group at SANCA (ages 12-18) Nimbus (ages 9 to 12) and Stratus (ages 5 to 9) are two younger performance groups also at SANCA. Julaine has been a member of all three and is a member currently of Cirrus.) But now it’s my turn to ask you! How the tables have turned!

*We collapse into giggles as Julaine accidentally throws a pencil across the room. Conversation continues several minutes later*

JH – Who do you think your first circus friend was?

JR –  Yikes, that’s a tough one. I think my first close circus friend was in a couple aerial classes with me, and then a tumbling class, so we really were able to bond over all of our miraculous failings together.

JH – That’s definitely a good way to bond. It takes 1,000 tries to get a skill, and boy, do we know that. Training is a great way to get close with someone.

JR – Very true. That reminds me of our straps class.

JH – And all the bruises too, from all the failed star roll ups we did.

JR – Yeah, I remember after accidentally bending my arm one too many times during a roll up in class, I went home with massive bruises on my upper arms, but unfortunately forgot about them the next day when I went to go see a play with my school.

JH – Ooch, what happened?

JR – I was in a rush leaving the house and forgot to wear long sleeves, so when I was using the bathroom during intermission, like 3 people came up to make and asked me if I was doing okay and my home life was safe for me. They then told me I could borrow their phones if I needed to call a hotline.

JH – Oh, no! What did you say to them?

JR – I tried explaining that it was all from circus, however I think the idea that I willingly let it happen to me via circus worried them more.

JH – Ack, I can feel their disapproving stares from here.

JR – *shivers*

JH – Straps are really nothing to worry about though. They just hurt.

JR – And give wicked bruises.

JH – True true. Well I have to get back to training, but it was awesome talking to you!

JR – You too! It was really fun to catch up. See you around!

JH- You too!

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A Pathway to Circus: Interview with Cirque du Soleil Artist Beejay Joyer

Zoe circusing it up on a statue outside the Luxor in Las Vegas

Over my spring break, I had the awesome opportunity to travel to Las Vegas with my aunt to see some of the world’s most renowned Cirque du Soleil shows. I was there for four days, and managed to squeeze in four shows: The Beatles Love, Michael Jackson One, Mystere, and Ka. As always, I was astounded by the colors, set, stage, costumes, apparatuses and choreography which all made me daydream about performing with Cirque one day. But by far the best part of my trip was my chance to interview an artist. Beejay Joyer is in Michael Jackson One, a Michael Jackson tribute show described by Cirque du Soleil’s website as “An electrifying fusion of acrobatics, dance and visuals that reflects the dynamic showmanship of the King of Pop”. In the show, Beejay’s character is the thread which holds the acts together as he and his friends explore a Michael-Jackson-themed wonderland.

On a Thursday morning he picked my aunt and me up at our hotel on The Strip and brought us to a small restaurant near Fremont Street. Beejay offered to answer a few of my questions in exchange for some excellent breakfast, so I got out my notebook and started asking him about his history with circus.

Beejay’s first circus experience was when he was very young. His family took him to see the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. He began truly training circus in junior high, when he discovered juggling. When I asked him how he chose this discipline he simply said, “I’m not really sure… I just found it, and then it stuck.” After high school he attended the San Francisco Circus Center, where he trained for two years with an eye to a professional career in circus. All his training paid off when he joined Le Reve – The Dream, a show in Las Vegas produced by Franco Dragone. Beejay stayed with the show for seven years. After his run with Le Reve – The Dream, he auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, and has been with the company for two years.

One of the burning questions I had for Beejay was about the audition process for Cirque du Soleil, and what advice he could give to younger artists who want to join one of the most prestigious circuses in the world. He was quick to answer: “Of course you have to train, but really what’s important is that you be on their minds. When the casting crew has an opening, it needs to be you that they think of first.” I was curious about how to “get on the minds” of casting directors, but Beejay said the answer was simple: Be kind. Reach out. And make an effort to KEEP AUDITIONING. Beejay mentioned, “Some of the best people I know in Cirque had to audition 10 or 12 times before they got in.” He reassuringly noted, “Not making it the first time shouldn’t scare you.”

One thing I began to realize about Beejay as we talked more was his emphasis on trying things more than once and trying everything you can, even if it scares you. In fact, when I asked Beejay what he would change about his pathway to professional circus, his one comment was, “I wish I had tried more of what scared me.” He pointed to one of his friends in Cirque du Soleil who always tries to go to dance classes, even though he isn’t a dancer. “He goes every week,” said Beejay, “which I couldn’t do because it would scare me, even though I know I should try more things.” He pointed out that the more you can do, the more likely you are to be accepted into a show. For instance, Beejay is a juggler, but in the show One he mostly does character acting, and wouldn’t have gotten the role if he didn’t feel comfortable with that skill.

The final question I asked Beejay was about the possibilities for circus artists after performing. He sat back in his chair for a moment before listing the various other options he could think of, such as going to school or learning more about things that interest you. “Or,” he said, “be part of another department, like rigging, in Cirque.” As we finished our eggs and got ready to leave, Beejay left me with a final thought that applied both to circus and to the rest of life: “You can’t know too much.”

– Zoe

Carlo Pellegrini, Circus Coach

While growing up as a circus kid, many look to their coaches not only for advancing their skills and getting advice about their acts, but also learning about life. Carlo Pellegrini is one of my circus coaches, and he has many bits of advice as a coach, a businessman, and as a professional clown and ringmaster.

Carlo was first exposed to circus when he was six years old and had a recurring dream that he was a juggler in the 12th century, entertaining people as they traveled down a road. When he was about nine, he would stay up past his bedtime peering through a crack in his door to watch The Ed Sullivan Show and memorize the acrobat and juggling routines. He would practice these routines extensively in his backyard. Carlo failed a lot, but kept at it every week.

The first piece of advice from Carlo is to keep practicing. If you want to get really good, one hour per week will not be enough. Ten hours a week is a good start. Even though you fail, you must keep practicing.

Later in his life, Carlo was in college striving to be the accounting major that his father wanted him to be, but as Carlo dabbled in acting and philosophy classes he learned 1) that he was terrible at math, and 2) that he really wanted to be a dancer and join a circus.

At his Catholic college, Carlo met a Jesuit priest, Nick Weber, who had his own one-man circus show, The Royal Lichtenstein ¼-Ring Sidewalk Circus. Later, after rejecting the advice of his father to major in accounting, his father said he should at least pursue a legitimate theater career. That’s when Carlo “ran away to join the circus.” He joined the first national touring company of The Royal Lichtenstein Circus. At this point, he regrets he didn’t give his father’s advice more credence, but life is funny: he did have to learn how to use accounting as a producer and executive director of circuses. Proving the point that in the circus you have to learn to do everything!

Carlo’s second piece of advice is to follow your dream, and make it into something with which you can support yourself. Even though he didn’t finish college, he balances his “follow your dream” advice with this advice: complete your college degree. Of course, circus arts learning improves a student’s ability to succeed academically, so completing a degree should easy.

Years later, after having moved on to performing with the Nikolais Dance Company and working in TV commercials, Carlo met a man on a New York City subway who was carrying a trapeze over his shoulder. Carlo asked this circus-stranger where he was working and received an invite to come to Battery Park City to check out the Big Apple Circus. Carlo sought a job there, and was offered the position of Ringmaster. Later, the owner asked him to perform as a clown. During his season with the Big Apple Circus, Carlo was always working on perfecting his skills. Between shows, he knew he had access to world-class performers, and he asked them to teach him more acrobatics as well as the trapeze.

Carlo’s third piece of advice is to learn everything you can. Part of that general advice is that Carlo believes an aspiring circus performer should master a ground skill and an aerial skill, and that an aspiring circus coach should be able to teach the basics of every circus skill.

Carlo realized he couldn’t support his family on the then seasonal business of the Big Apple Circus, and so he took a job in advertising. Circus was never far from his day-to-day work however, and he taught all his clients how to juggle. Ultimately, he developed a motivational speaking program based on juggling called ‘The Juggling MATRIX’!

While working as a motivational speaker, Carlo led his church’s youth programs. As a result of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, many families in his hometown of Nyack, New York, had been personally affected by losses of loved ones. During counseling sessions with his teen youth group, they asked Carlo to help them put together a fundraising circus show for their community. The teens named it after their church, and called themselves THE AMAZING GRACE CIRCUS!

Carlo and his AGC co-founder Janet Hayes agreed to help them put together a show. After the show, the kids wanted to continue to work and perform together and the AGC! Teen Troupe was born. Today AGC! runs circus arts programs in schools with their signature family fun night fundraisers and community events. Over the past 15 years they have performed for and trained over 70,000 children and teens.

Carlo has always worked with students with a wide range of abilities and personalities. He studies constantly, reading books and attending educational seminars on human behavior and child development. Fundamental to his work is understanding how people learn to learn. Carlo says that he can study a kid for a few minutes and determine his/her learning style. He has learned what approach works with different learning styles. Carlo classifies learners into the following categories: action-oriented learners, analytically-oriented learners, adaptive-oriented learners, and intuitive/creatively‐oriented learners.

Click here to see The AGC Pedagogical Model!

I asked Carlo what he hopes for in the students he teaches. He responded that he hopes his circus students 1) are hungry to learn; 2) are open to learning a full breadth of skills; 3) are willing to put in the time to learn; 4) have a sense of humor, understanding that the basis of circus is improv and Vaudeville; and 5) look at their coaches as a source of extensive experience for students to tap and a resource for contacts and networking.

I also asked Carlo his favorite part of being a coach. He responded that he loves “seeing students get the look of understanding in their eyes.” He loves to see that “look of understanding translated to their bodies in a trick, routine or piece.” He is fulfilled knowing he has “gotten through and now they have a bridge of communication.” His goal is student independence, but for them to always have “an island of security to come back to – to the circus.”

Click here to see Carlo’s Circus Philosophy!

Carlo has been a great coach to me. In addition to teaching me skills and providing me performing opportunities through AGC!, he offers constant encouragement. He helps me balance my passion for circus with a rigorous high school academic schedule. He has provided me leadership opportunities helping to choreograph for the junior troupe and guiding new Teen Troupe members through their first performance. Carlo and AGC! have provided me many opportunities to give back to our community through performing at events like the YMCA Family Fair and volunteering at the AGC! summer camp. Like Carlo, I love to see the excited look in a child’s eyes when he/she accomplishes a new skill!

– Allie

 

INTERVIEW: Brian Foley, Clown Extraordinaire

In character

What do you love about being a clown?
The joy it brings me and others, the freedom it offers me and inspires in others.What is your clown name?  How did you choose it?
I have performed as various characters–some named Otto or Bouk, but mostly, I believe clown is about telling the truth. So, I’m Brian.

Do you take on a different persona when you clown? 
My characters like Otto are based on other people, but when I’m really clowning purely, I’m just being honest about my strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and sense of humor. So I exaggerate things about me, but it’s all me.
Where did you get your circus education? 
I had a wonderful clown teacher in college named Stephen Ringold. He taught me much about pure clown and how difficult it is to find in oneself. Then I worked with many teachers like Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley, Barry Lubin, Larry Pisoni, and many, many others. My peers and colleagues also taught me much as I was fortunate enough to work beside them on many jobs.
How do you come up with your routine?
Honest answer–I find a toy and I play with it. Then when I have some ideas, I find a piece of music and add that in. Then I perform it in front of an audience for a while, and make lots of mistakes. I come back home and think about the mistakes and why it’s not working. I then look for the most truthful answer. The key to unlocking the routine is usually in there. I also ask myself the questions I would ask my student–what is my character’s relationship to the audience?, etc.
What do you do when people are afraid of clowns?
When it is children, usually they’re not afraid of me. But I would give them space or let them decide that they like me. When it’s adults, I educate them. Clown is a verb. I can clown in any article of clothing or without makeup. If you’re scared of makeup, you’re not scared of clowns. You’re scared of makeup. That’s different.
How can someone go from being interested in clowning to being where you are?
Well, my path began in the theatre. I had a good solid foundation in dance, music, acting, and more. I can control my body, am comfortable onstage, and had some skills to begin with.  Then I made a point to seek out good teachers, and study with them. I practiced very hard, auditioned for theme parks and cruise ships and other performance jobs where I could improve my circus skills, and then I began developing my own material–both solo and with a partner. After proving myself as a performer with potential to my teachers (who were also well-connected in the markets I wanted to break into) they began recommending me for work. And because I worked hard to do a good job, I rose up the ranks.
– Cailey

Out of character

INTERVIEW and REVIEW: PARAMOUR and KYLE DRIGGS

Kyle Driggs and Allie, photo by Lilly Voltaggio

Paramour is a story of a simple love triangle, but the activity around the story makes the show a spectacle.  Not only are the music and dancing beautiful, but like any circus show, there is activity on every inch of the stage and from the ceiling to the floor!  I had the same feeling I have at any circus production — wishing I had multiple sets of eyes so I could see everything at once and not miss one performer.  Also, having tall people in front of me became a special challenge at Paramour because every inch of stage that’s obscured means missed action!

The show includes so many circus skills including juggling, acro, unicycle, mime, CYR wheel, pole, lyra, trapeze, clowning, contortion, Spanish web, and straps.  The aerialists hanging from the chandeliers made me want to go home and find something in my house to hang from.  During a dream sequence, a zombie came down from the ceiling over my head!  The show also incorporated flying drones decorated like lampshades that “danced” around the actors as they were singing.

Paramour is set to close April 16, 2017, one year from its opening date, due to planned renovations in the Lyric Theater where it is playing.  You have just a short time left to see it! I hope it will reopen in some form down the road so I can go see it again!

Thankfully, an AYCO board member helped me arrange an interview with one of the performers, juggler Kyle Driggs.  Kyle was very generous with his time and not only answered all of my interview questions about Paramour and his career, but offered advice for me to share!

Kyle began juggling as a teen and was supported by the Philadelphia Juggler’s Club.  He was also involved with AYCO member school, Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.  By the time he was a high school freshman, he knew juggling was his future.  He attributes his successful start in circus arts to the unwavering support of his parents.

In high school, Kyle mostly juggled juggling balls and clubs. In his senior year, he became interested in using rings because of the 1950s technique of rolling them around the body and over the back, coined by the Bramson Family. So when it was time for Kyle to audition for École Nationale de Cirque (ENC), the National Circus School in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he auditioned with rings.  For three years at ENC Kyle developed his skill base and routines.  Kyle also minored in dance at ENC, which was evident in his beautiful Paramour acts.

Kyle took my family and me on a backstage tour and showed us small dressing rooms, halls lined with tons of costumes, and a wig room complete with wig drying machines, telling us, “The wigs are constantly washed and styled. They are all human hair.” He took us below the stage where eight musicians play multiple instruments each.  Violinist (and mandolin player) Paul “Woody” Woodiel described how when fellow musician Seth Stachowski is unable to perform, his position must be covered by two replacements because he plays five instruments!

The costume room at Paramour taken by Allie

The wig room at Paramour, taken by Allie

Violinist (and mandolin player) Paul “Woody” Woodiel, taken by Allie

Paramour schedule, taken by Allie

Kyle described working on Paramour as intense.  After four months of rehearsals, the show opened with eight or nine performances per week.  Usually Kyle has one day off per week and only had two weeks of vacation during the whole year.

At the end of our tour, Kyle led us to the stage and enthusiastically described his career path. Of course we wanted to know how Kyle started juggling with umbrellas — his signature object!  The story is just how you might imagine:  he was playing out in the rain one day with an umbrella, and he discovered he liked the “feeling it had”.  Kyle describes himself as an object manipulator who looks to work with objects “with charisma and feeling”. He says that the story he is telling and the feeling he is portraying is more important than technique.  Kyle described the many emails he receives from aspiring jugglers asking him what kind of umbrella he uses.  He typically answers that he feels it’s a personal choice and that he had to break hundreds of umbrellas before he found what worked for him.

Kyle Driggs answering questions from Allie, photo by Lilly Voltaggio

Kyle left me with a few interesting thoughts about ENC (Ecole Nationale de Cirque, in Canada).  He described the audition phases which include physical tests (acrobatics, physical conditioning, and flexibility) and artistic tests (dance and acting).  Kyle recommends making sure the physical tests are “easy for you” before you audition.  I expressed my personal concern about attending a college with French-based communication when I have only studied Spanish in high school.  He eased my fears, telling me that the instructors don’t only speak French to students and speaking French is not a requirement.  He called ENC the best immersion program for learning French; however, and considers himself fairly fluent now.  Kyle cautioned that his three years at ENC were very challenging and that he had to work very hard.

Kyle lives a life of an artist entrepreneur.  He said, “It is hard to make a living as an artist in the US… in Europe, it’s different.  In France, for example, the government pays artists.  In the US, you have to constantly get gigs.  And you have to pay for your own medical insurance and cover your own liability. As a freelancer, you have to have a lot of hustle.”  He described that working for Cirque du Soleil is an entirely different experience similar to working for any big corporation: you have job security and perks such as very good healthcare, but that you surrender some creative control.

Kyle values his creative control and his ownership of his own routines. In fact, though currently employed by Cirque, he legally owns the material he performs in Paramour, a situation he describes as unusual and that required extra legal advice and negotiating on his part.

Once Paramour closes, Kyle will spend June with Circus Flora in St. Louis, Missouri.  He is spending his free time applying for grants to fund his independent projects and working on his next big step in life – starting his own company to produce shows himself.  He is working with a partner/theater owner in Philadelphia to bring that dream to fruition.

Advice from Kyle:

Network.  You can’t do it alone.  Reach out to people who might be able to help you.

Go for it.  “Whole heartedly go for it!” For me as an aspiring aerialist, for example, he recommended reading and viewing on line everything there is on my tool of choice, silks.  He told me to learn everything there is to know and to study it like I would a school subject that really intrigues me, above and beyond what is assigned.

Work hard.  Working as a circus artist entrepreneur is hard work.  Prepare yourself.  Make yourself an expert at your skill, and work until the physical parts of the ENC audition are easy for you.

Circus is an opportunity:  Circus is one of the few disciplines that is still “do it yourself”.  With dance and acting, so much has already been done that it seems like you are defined (in one style) before you even go to school.  You are pigeonholed.  Circus is still undefined and open to more creative interpretation.

Final interesting tidbits:

1) The performers actually do say “hup” (softly) on stage – I wondered where it came from!

2)  Kyle won the Paramour Blooper Award for once falling off the stage during a performance!

Thank you, Kyle, for spending so much time with me!  Best wishes for the future!  I hope to see you again down the road!

– Allie

INTERVIEW: Viveca Gardiner

Marzi got the chance to interview Viveca Gardiner, who works at Big Apple Circus, founded the NYC AYCO festival, has directed the youth program at Bindlestiff Family Cirkus for the last 14 years, and runs her own company, Playful Productions.

 

What are you working on right now?
I have a lot of different roles right now, for example with the Big Apple Circus I work on a program called Circus To Go that provides circus performers and performances for events outside of our ring, for example, special events, school assemblies, theater shows, or workshops. We book events for outside clients, people who pay us to come and put on a show in their town, and we also serve internal constituencies, so if the marketing department wants to book a performer for a special event, or if the development department wants to send performers to a fundraising event, then I coordinate all of that.

 

Are those performers from a separate cast than are in the touring Big Apple shows?
Mostly. We do use performers from the touring unit now and then, but the unit is in Boston and they have two shows a day and aren’t available often. So we usually use performers from our community programs, especially from our Clown Care program. We have 80 clowns in our Big Apple Clown Care program whowork in children’s hospitals around the country. I also coordinate our adaptive shows. This year we did four shows for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and/or blind or vision impaired and four shows for children on the autism spectrum. I also am a teacher in an after school circus program for children with incarcerated parents.

 

When did you get involved with circus?
I graduated from business school in 1993 and moved to New York, and I got a job in strategic planning and development for Big Apple Circus. I really came into circus backwards from everyone else I know; everyone else started as a kid with circus as a hobby or came from a circus family and learned the skills and started performing and moved from performing to management. I started in management and went the other way.

 

Since you came into the circus community later than most, like you said, what aspects of the community and circus arts appealed to you as an adult?
There are many things I like about the community. For example, I started juggling at 29, and it was very hard for me to learn since I had never done anything that was just up to me to do that way. Obviously some people are more talented than others, but nobody can do juggling or circus without putting work into it and nobody can be prevented from doing it if they do that. There’s no amount of money you can pay to be able to juggle five balls. It’s up to you how much work you want to put in and how much payoff you get out of it. When I work with children of incarcerated parents, in impoverished communities, or in special education, I like being able to give the kids control of their own outcomes, because they may not have control of many other aspects of their lives. I like that in circus, they can determine what they want to do with their own effort. That’s what I love about teaching and circus skills.

 

What’s different about working with youth versus working with adults?
I don’t know if much is different. Kids don’t know what’s hard, I suppose, and I think adults will say “I can’t do that, I can’t do that,” and they won’t bother to try, but kids will say, “I can’t do that,” and then they actually will.

INTERVIEW: Brent McBeth

Matthew, AYCO’s Twitter Correspondent and a Hup Squad alumni, recently interviewed Brent McBeth, a clown with the Big Apple Circus!

To listen to the full audio from the interview, click below:

Tap Dancing

Rhythm Comedy (Brent is all the way to the right)

The American Youth Circus Organization would like to extend thanks to Mr. McBeth for taking time out of his busy performing schedule to sit down with us for an interview.