“Strings”

I’m Sam Gurwitt, a clown in Starstruck. I grew up in Norwich, Vermont, and just graduated from Yale. I was in Cirque Us’s first tour in 2016, and I’m thrilled to be back for a second summer. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes this company and this show uniquely fun and challenging, and here are a few of my thoughts.

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One fundamental feature of a Cirque Us show is interaction with the audience. In traditional circus shows, audience interaction is a key component and happens in very overt ways; the show is presented as simple performance—constantly conscious of its audience and often literally pulling them into the action—to please the crowd rather than convey some story, theme, or emotion. As circus begins to enter the theater and dance world, it sometimes loses the audience interaction component, and becomes a highly choreographed exposition of skill and theme. Cirque Us tries to walk a line in between. Its shows are structured around a theme and through-lines, but its characters are always conscious that they are performing for a live audience, and they invite the audience into the world they create rather than allowing them to sink into their seats as passive spectators.

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This type of show is great for clowns. Clown is distinct from theater partly because it always breaks the fourth wall. Unlike theater, the clown exists simultaneously in his or her own world and in the world of the audience. Rather than just telling a story to a passive audience, the clown brings the audience into the world he or she creates so that they are an active part of it. The clown has to act as the bridge between the imagined reality he or she creates and the reality of the audience. By existing both in a place created by his own imagination and at the same time consciously on stage in front of an audience, the clown invites the audience into an imagined world so that for the duration of the performance, the clown and the audience float in a sort of suspension of disbelief which exists neither entirely in the audience’s reality or in the clown’s constructed world. One of the most important moments in any clown performance is the when the clown establishes a connection with the audience captures their attention, imagination, and sympathy so that they are willing to come along for the ride. Whenever I manage to do this and a performance is going well, it feels like there are strings attached on one end to every part of my body and on the other to the audience’s emotions. Once I’ve captured the audience, it’s as if I can pull gently on each of those strings and evoke a little giggle here or yank on another to get a large peel of laughter.

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Starstruck, though a great show for clowns, also presents an interesting challenge because every character has many moments of interaction with the audience but also has many moments in which he or she is on stage but not performing. We spend almost all of the show on stage, but only for a portion of that time are we the focus of the action. The rest of the time we support in various ways—by throwing focus, by moving props, or by doing choreography. For me, one of the most difficult parts of this show has been figuring out how to maintain the audience connection for the whole show while also spending a lot of the show on stage but not exactly performing. When I’m simply in the background—still onstage and a part of the world we create, but not exactly performing—I cannot keep one foot in the audience and one on stage as I do when I’m clowning because if I try to maintain a connection with the audience I risk distracting them from where they are supposed to look. During Lindsey’s (formerly Rena’s) contortion act for example, the cast moves chairs in slow motion upstage of where Lindsey is performing. In this moment, the rest of the cast has to be only in the world of Lindsey’s act, not interacting with the audience trying to bring them into the action. This in itself is not difficult. All it takes is moving a chair in slow motion. But the transitions between these background support moments and the active clown moments are one of the most challenging parts of this show for me because I have to be able establish my “strings” to the audience and then dismantle them without ever leaving the stage. The balance that the clown has to maintain in which he or she brings the audience into the performance is delicate and must be actively maintained at every moment the clown is on stage. In most shows, the performer drops that connection simply by leaving the stage. This way, the connection never has to be built or broken onstage; rather the entrances and exits to the stage do the work for the performer. In Starstruck, however, I’ve had to learn how to turn that audience connection on and off without ever leaving the stage, and without simply dropping character. My character is on stage for the whole show, but only sometimes is the character conscious of the audience.

Photos by Grace G.

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Hi there! My name is Rena, I am an aerialist, contortionist, and dancer with Cirque Us this summer. If you have already seen our show, StarStruck, you may recognize me as the character Mars. This summer and this production hold a particularly precious place in my heart for a couple reasons- this is not only my first season performing with Cirque Us but it is also my first time on tour, so naturally there are a lot of accompanying feelings. Now that we have been on the road for a few weeks, I have had some time to unpack my thoughts about it all.

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In retrospect, perhaps I did not really know what to expect of life on the road and how it would feel, although I knew it would have its share of highs and lows. Much to my surprise, the “work” side of tour (I say work with quotations because, in all honestly, it never feels quite like serious work) was the easiest part to adapt to, primarily because it was familiar territory. From setting up and tearing down the rig to long jump day drives, from rehearsals to shows and the gaps between them, these are all elements of working in circus and dance that I already knew what to expect and how to problem solve in, so in that sense life was not all that different than before. Rather, the part of this journey which has most made me think “Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually on tour!” has been during the quiet moments, the late night conversations, and the breathtaking views of the New England countryside- the “muggle” moments, you could say. More than anything, these moments of pause have made me think a lot about the notion of home, and how that has changed for me since leaving my pedestrian life behind.

IMG_4230.JPGWhat first made me question my concept of home while on tour was when I realized, with great surprise, that I did not miss my physical home in Brattleboro, Vermont one bit. While there are certainly small creature comforts and routines I miss sometimes, I’ve never felt quite as comfortable and at-home in my identity as I do right now while moving around, meeting new people, seeing new places, and performing. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that home, or at least the sort of home I had found, is more abstract than a single, physical place. Rather, it is a collage of people, experiences, and memories, and this summer has gifted me with an abundance of all these.

One source of this sensation has come from our many homestay hosts, who have housed the cast from site to site. With every meal, couch, and conversation, I have been repeatedly both surprised and humbled beyond measure by our hosts’ warmth and generosity with their own homes. Another, related source has come from the many people, both within the company and beyond, who have made this tour so memorable. When I pause to think about my favorite moments of this tour, from backstage antics to family dinners to meet and greets with the audience (hands-down my favorite part, by the way), these memories are as special as they are because of the friends and family that they happened with. Lastly, at a more personal level, a critical source of “home” has come from within myself. Being on tour has shown me, more than any other experience in my life, the importance of striking a balance between social time and personal time. As cheesy as this will sound, this taught me that home, as a place to belong in and take refuge in, starts not with a place but with yourself, and recognizing what you personally need in order to function and feel OK as a person.

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As my run with StarStruck comes to a rapid close and I prepare to go back to my apartment-home in Vermont, I cannot stop thinking about how this summer has blessed me with great friends and unforgettable relationships, and this makes me smile. Without a doubt, I could not be more proud to say that my first tour was with Cirque Us.

 

 

Photos by Grace Gershenfeld

Cyclic car travels, bag draggings, and ambiguous meal opportunities

Hi my name is Lindsey, and this is my first year touring with Cirque Us. I am clowning and hand balancing in this year’s production of StarStruck: A Cosmic Circus. We’ve been touring for about one week and have thus far been to Brattleboro, White River Junction, Hartford, Brooklyn, Trenton, and Philadelphia.

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The structure of our lives has altered dramatically since creation. Where before we had an intensive 9AM to 9PM training, rehearsing, and rewriting schedule, we now are in an exhaustive cycle of performing and traveling. The Hartford, Brooklyn, and Trenton shows were on consecutive days, meaning that for three days we were on a set-up-show-teardown-go schedule. It’s amazing how the actual circus part is no longer the aspect of this process that saps our energy, but that the seemingly cyclic car travels, bag draggings, and ambiguous meal opportunities is now what weighs us down.

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However, once away from the woes of travel, we find ourselves in striking new locations and surrounded by diverse crowds of people with whom we can share our art. One of the highlights from the past few days was teaching a juggling workshop in White River Junction. The whole cast was burnt out from a dense training-creation process, and our first weekend featured back to back two show a day show days. On the second day of the site, we were scheduled to lead a free juggling workshop for folks from the area. Most of the attendees of the workshop ended up coming to the show, but one girl in particular who came to DreamCycle, last year’s production, had collected all the performers’ signatures, and had come back to retrieve this years’ cast autograph. She told us that she eventually dreamed of being on tour with Cirque Us. Regardless of how many tricks we may have missed or the number of people in the crowd, what she took away from the show was that we were all working hard to make our dreams a reality.

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At the end of the day, we’re doing all this work to spread our love of circus around our communities. We all start in small places, and inspiring just one kid to try circus makes up for all the travail of travel.

Photos by Steve Sarafian

 

We are officially on the road!

We are officially on the road! Which means that creation is over and we have a show. My name is Delaney Bayles, and this is my second season with Cirque Us. Long drives and messy suitcases become our lives, and a pair of head phones are the most valuable item I own. But in all seriousness, this is my favorite part of the summer. It is the time when the show takes on a life of its own and we see how an audience will react to all the hours of work we have put in. Over the summer the show will change some parts will speed up and others will slow down. A moment of clowning maybe added and a trick will change here or there. But the heart of the show will remain the same from opening to closing.

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Delaney Juggling Rings in DreamCycle

Our opening show went well. The audience was warm and filled with a lot of friends and family. Thanks to our director we were able to run the show five times before opening leaving us feeling prepared. The morning of the show was filled with last minute costume changes and early morning training. Before the show we met in a circle and did our cheer, a reminder that all we have on stage is each other. Then it was show time and the moment of truth.

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Delaney’s entrance as Saturn in StarStruck. 

Once the show was over we could all relax and catch our breaths only to remember that we had four more shows over the next three days.

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Rings Act in StarStruck 

After packing the cars and moving out of the house we were staying in we set out for our first jump. A nice hour drive up north to White River Junction. And that is were we are as this is being written. Performing two shows a day.

It is exciting and a little intimidating to look at the tour schedule that lies ahead of us. Over twenty sites to perform at and thirty-five shows. So much hard work has gone into the making of the show and the company. It is a great place to call home for the summer.

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Rings Act in StarStruck

Time moves differently on tour, days are long, weeks are short, and the next month will pass in the blink of an eye. The ensemble will grow close and inside jokes will pop up.

Getting to know the cast and hearing stories from their lives is fascinating, and the interesting thing is that we are all so very different yet each of us has found our way here and become seamlessly bonded by the same thing. We spend so much time getting to know each other, which makes the summer sweeter, and the idea of an end so very bitter. But for now we have 32 shows left and a summer of fun to look forward too.

“We love what we do, and do what we love”

My name is Ivan Jermyn and this is my second year on tour with Cirque Us. I was a participant in last years creation, the 2017 Dreamcycle, though had little expectations for this new adventure. This year has a new crew, this year has a different director, this year we have 35 shows! And though I am not new to this company, this year has challenged my beliefs of what I am capable of as a performer as well as someone just trying my best.

 

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Ivan as a sheep in the 2017 production of DreamCycle 

Though the group dynamic is different, I find no lack of sincerity or perseverance. We find ourselves neck deep in a creation that threatens to take more from us than we can give, and yet we continue. Our legs and backs are sore, our minds are juiced to a pulp, and yet we continue. We have never wanted more to take a nap in some corner when instead we try again, and again, and again.

We pursue onwards into our third week, watching the product of our sweat and tears come alive. What seemed like a far fetched dream only a week ago is quickly becoming our reality. Our time of exploration is over, we are running full acts, transitions, and sequences every day. We have less than a week now before our first performance. This signifies the end of our training, but the beginning of a long and bumpy tour on the road ahead.  

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Ivan’s Bow in StarStruck 

Our final week of creation consists of standing for hours during tech rehearsals. Tech week provides a rest for our bodies, but does little for our spiritual essence. Though the distant heat emitted from the lights is a familiar presence, my legs will not soon forget this lasting burning sensation. Tech week brings Satisfaction in seeing the spectacle of our show, we finally witness the colors come alive as the music fills our ears. We are getting a feel for our show which will carry us through this time of our lives. Soon the time will come to perform for the masses. Soon we share our souls with audiences across the country, and soon we learn how to step back and take it all in. My hands are stained from dying costume pieces, my stomach growls for a long overdue snack, and I am in desperate need of a haircut. But the show must go on; here at Cirque Us we breathe that phrase, that no matter how difficult it seems, how tired we feel, we love what we do, and do what we love.

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Ivan BreakDancing at Opening at the New England Center for Circus Arts 

 

The creation process through the eyes of a stage manager

Hello!  Welcome to the Cirque Us blog!

My name is Hannah and I’m the Stage Manager for Cirque Us for the next month helping director Jesse Dryden and the ten cast members create their show, StarStruck: A Cosmic Circus! I’m absolutely thrilled to work alongside this incredible team.

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Myself alongside Director, Jesse Dryden during a rehearsal. 

We’ve been in creation here in Brattleboro, VT, for a week and I’m happy to report that everyone is still alive! To my surprise and pleasant satisfaction, Cirque Us has officially entered week two of training. Surprise is a word I mean retrospectively; I’m surprised that after the whirlwind of a week everyone just went through, we are continuing to make enormous strides forward!  When I agreed to stage manage this kick-ass crew, Doug tried his best to paint a picture of the insanely hectic scene that occurs at the Austine gym and circus house all 12 of us share. He eventually confessed that it’s an experience you have to live through to understand. Although his answer triggered seven more questions in my brain, I decided to be patient. Maybe it’s a circus thing; something completely  intangible and indescribable. Almost like magic.

A little background about who I am… I currently attend Columbia College Chicago where I am pursuing a bachelor of arts in Theater. This is my first summer working for Cirque Us, although I’ve been best friends with Doug for three years now. Within those years of friendship, he introduced me to the wonderful world of circus. His enthusiasm and genuine love of this art form is what led me to accept the position of stage manager this past October without a second thought. My parents took some additional convincing, understandably so; picking up to join a circus created by a 22-year-old entrepreneur is not what they were expecting to hear when they asked about my summer plans. But Doug’s god-given charm and Cirque Us’s solid business model eventually pull them onboard.

The creation process began before training; way way back in January when Doug and Jesse were casting the show. Instead of character roles that need to be filled in a play or musical, it’s almost the reverse in circus. Each circus artist has their skill which is then strategically placed in the show. For the most part, it’s a game of numbers and skill level. Once the show is cast, it’s a few months of brainstorming show themes and big picture ideas. It’s not until everyone is in the training space that the meat of the work can begin.  And there’s a lot of meat.

Before day 1 was day 0.  Day 0 was the day before training and also the day I arrived in Brattleboro.  That morning I was welcomed to a house with 5 bedrooms and 11 new faces, all of whom I’d be living with for the next three and a half weeks. I immediately started doing the math.

That’s 21 days.

That’s 504 hours to be exact.

Of those 504 hours, 210 of them would be spent training, creating, and polishing a show. I can’t imagine a more collaborative and collective environment than that.

I was already overwhelmed and I had not even met the director yet. Of my list of scary things I was about to do, meeting the director, Jesse, was probably number one. That and if I was going to have a mattress to sleep on or not. The past Hannah had nothing to worry about! Jesse has been incredible to work with so far. His insight and knowledge of circus is incredible and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor to learn from during my first circus stage management experience.  

Jesse, Doug, Marieke, and I sat in one of the five bedrooms and conducted the first production meeting at the end of day 0. We discussed the type of environment we all expected in the Austine gymnasium starting the next day and throughout the next 210 hours. After we established a common vocabulary and scheduling system, we started to sketch the beginnings of a storyline. But none of us could foresee the attitude of the cast. None of us could have predicted the caliber and sheer determination that they brought into day 1 of creation. I was blown away by the professionalism of each cast member. Into days 2 and 3, it was their open mindedness and inhibition. Day 4 and 5 brought the dreaded yet expected exhaustion;  these are the days that stage managers start watching with a sharper eye. The heat, lack of sleep, and sore muscles can bring up disputes or negative energy. I’ve worked with singers, dancers, and actors of all types, and I must say circus artists have something special. Disagreements occurred, but they were all minor and remained respectful. I suspect it has something to do with this one thing Doug told me about when we first met, and Cirque Us was this crazy idea in his head. He called it “circus magic”. I look forward to this expression revealing more of itself to me in the next few weeks.

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Photo by Justin Durham of our rehearsal space at NECCA’s Austine Campus in Brattleboro, VT