Vermont’s Big Top Rebounds After Financial Problems

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(Host) It’s been almost six years since Circus Smirkus – the Greensboro-based non-profit that trains aspiring young performers – shut down temporarily to resolve a fiscal crisis. Now it’s going strong again.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright stopped by the Smirkus summer camp in Lyndonville for an update.

(Albright) Just after lunch on a warm sunny day, more than 50 campers stroll into one of three big, colorful tents on the campus of the Lyndon Institute.

Wide-eyed, they watch a counselor do a handstand on a skinny, shoulder-high metal rod. Then they hear their options for the afternoon. The kids choose classes in clowning, acrobatics, stilt walking, and high wire aerial acts.

Eli Silver, a short, wiry thirteen-year-old, is here for his fourth year. He wants to get better at tumbling – even though it can be scary.

(Silver) "A lot of it is just like a mental thing. Like I know personally I am deathly afraid of back tucks, but I have this year been working really hard at them and I’ve definitely gotten better at the fear. And you know all the coaches keep saying, ‘You know, you have the strength to do it. You just need to get over the mental block.’ And I think that applies to everything in circus; there’s a huge mental part of it that might not be expressed when you see a circus because the people are so good at it that they’re not afraid of it anymore."

(Albright) And Silver has plenty of older role models like that, including the camp’s artistic director, 37-year-old Daniel Frank. Frank successfully auditioned for Ringling Brothers Clown College at 17, but now he gets his kicks from training campers. He says sheer skill isn’t enough-a circus star needs charisma.

(Frank) "You could put 40 kids in a ring and look around and go, ‘Whoo, my eye went to that one.’ I don’t know why, but there’s a magnetism to it."

(Albright) No better place to test that theory than clown class. Today’s practice skit has three kids wearing, losing and swapping funny hats while sneaking up on a sleeping police chief.

(Counselor) "So number one, you’re the ring leader. So you’re the smartest of the three. So you’re clowns. So you’re also a little stupid, too, right?"

(Albright) Not every kid gets laughs, but one who does is 14-year-old Shelby Gamble. Instead of ducking behind the couch to avoid the awakening cop, she takes a fresh approach.

(Gamble) "When I went up, instead of hiding behind the couch I tried to look like I belonged on top of the couch, which was kind of amusing. It got laughs, so I guess it worked."

(Albright) Circus Smirkus Executive Director Ed LeClair calls that "playing elevated to an art." He says it’s what’s bringing kids and audiences to Vermont’s Big Top in droves.

The camp had a waiting list of 100 kids this year, school residencies are at an all-time high, and last year’s tour sold 94 percent of available seats.

LeClair says Smirkus is benefiting from a nationwide surge of interest in circus arts, spurred in part by the wildly popular "Cirque du Soleil."

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright, in Lyndonville.

(Host) Circus Smirkus began its 24th season in Greensboro on July 3, and is now on tour.


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