FREEPORT – Circus Smirkus, the acclaimed international youth circus, will return to Merriconeag Waldorf School on Desert Road in Freeport with four shows next week, marking the ninth time the Vermont-based circus has visited Freeport.

“It’s a very unique and interesting program that is almost like Cirque De Soleil,” said Mary Martin, events coordinator for the Merriconeag Waldorf School.

Unlike traditional circuses, the stars of the show are 28 teenagers from all parts of the country. Performances include aerials, acrobatics, high wire, juggling, trapeze and clowning.

For its 26th annual tour, the youth circus is using the “Wizard of Oz” as inspiration, as the aptly titled program, “Oz Incorporated,” would suggest.

“What you’ll see is a nod to all of the classic storybook characters. We’ve got Dorothy. We’ve got Toto. We’ve got witches, both good and bad. We’ve got a Cowardly Lion. We’ve got Scarecrow. We’ve got the Tin Man,” said Troy Wunderle, Big Top Tour artistic director. “I play the character of Oz.”

During the course of the seven-week summer tour, troupers learn the ropes of traditional circus life through hours of practice, full two-hour shows twice a day, months away from home and the demanding labor of loading the show in and out. While the Merriconeag Waldorf school does offer a course in circus arts, no students have been able to make the final cut, said Martin.

“It’s extremely competitive,” she added.

According to information provided by the group, Circus Smirkus is the only American youth circus to travel “under canvas;” that is, the only youth circus to put on a full season tour under its own big top – a 750-seat, one-ring, European-style tent. The touring company consists of some 80 people, including the performers and coaches, counselors, costumers, tech crew, tent crew, circus chefs and a live circus band. The tour caravan requires 23 support vehicles: five equipment trucks, three equipment trailers, four bunk trailers, seven pickups, three passenger vans and one “pie car,” where the meals are made. It takes eight hours to set up the big top, backstage and concession tents, and to prep and organize 200 costume pieces, 100 props, 70 spotlights and a mile of electrical cable. The crew will arrive in Freeport on Aug. 4 and begin the process of turning the grounds of the Merriconeag Waldorf School into a Big Top.

“‘Circus Day,’ the day the circus came to town, was historically a holiday-like celebration,” said the Circus Smirkus executive director, Ed LeClair. “We try to keep that tradition alive. Watching the show pull onto the lot, watching the tent go up, it recreates all the excitement and spectacle of, ‘The circus is coming!’”

So how does one run away and join the circus in 2013? Troupers, as they’re called, are selected for skill, character and personality through an audition process that begins each fall. The show is created during the winter months. Then, in three intense weeks in early June, the troupers arrive and the show is rehearsed at Smirkus headquarters in Greensboro, in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom. During this time, troupers work closely with coaches, a choreographer, composer and costumer. Then the circus hits the road for a seven-week tour, during which troupers learn the ropes of traditional circus life. In addition to circus arts, the troupers learn about teamwork and community, and give back to the larger community through free performances at children’s hospitals and nursing homes.

“Smirkus was an incredible experience for me, and continues to be the source of my most precious and cherished memories ,” said Joy Powers, a Smirkus “graduate” who went on to work for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and now performs, with two other Smirkus alumni, as The Piccolini Trio.

“It was exciting, nurturing, enveloping and breathtakingly enjoyable. I think that I can speak for most of my fellow Smirkus when I say that we will spend the rest of our lives searching for another environment like Smirkus,” she said.

Over the years, Smirkus has received accolades from the world over. It is the focus of the award-winning documentary, “Circus Dreams,” which has been shown in film festivals worldwide. The performance group has also been profiled in the New York Times, been the subject of a Disney Channel reality show called “Totally Circus” and been lauded by the late French mime Marcel Marceau.

Smirkus has entertained luminaries including Julia Child, Norman Lear, David Mamet, and former President and first lady George H.W. and Barbara Bush. The Bush connection also led to a special performance this year at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland on Sunday, Aug. 4, for those children who cannot attend a performance.

According to a history provided by the organization, Circus Smirkus is the brainchild of Rob Mermin, who ran away to the circus himself at the age of 19. He performed as a clown for more than a decade in the national circuses of Europe, studied with Marcel Marceau and became an accomplished and skillful performer with his own show on Swedish television. Along the way, Mermin developed a keen understanding of both how to move an audience and how to manage a small circus company. When he returned to the United States, he was ready to teach, serving as director of Ringling Brothers’ Clown College. He moved to Greensboro in 1987 to create a format for youth to experience some of the adventures he had enjoyed with a traveling circus. The notion of a circus providing entertainment for children may seem antiquated in today’s world of iPads and video games, but Martin disagrees,

“Once it begins it’s absolutely breathtaking,” said Martin. “It’s amazing to see how well they work together and they’re kids, which kids can relate to.”

A closer look

Circus Smirkus will perform its latest production, “Oz Incorporated,” at the Merriconeag Waldorf School, 57 Desert Road, Freeport, on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 5 and 6, at 1 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $17 for children ages 2 through 12 and 65 plus, $20 for ages 13-64, younger than 2 admitted free to sit on adult’s lap. Tickets available at Royal River Natural Foods, Route 1, Freeport, and Standard Baking Co., Commercial Street, Portland, or online at www.smirkus.org, or by calling 877-SMIRKUS.

This high-flying teenager is among nearly 30 performers in Circus Smirkus, which will be making its ninth appearance in Freeport Aug. 5 and 6 with four shows through the two days.


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