It might look like the Circus Smirkus troupers — called “Smirkos” — are just clowning around, but being part of the country’s only traveling youth circus is serious business.
Circus Smirkus, based in Greensboro, is closing in on its final show of the year, Aug. 18 at home base in Greensboro, and the 30 kids who make up the show are getting ready for some much-deserved rest, said Troy Wunderle, artistic director for the organization.
The troupers have been on the road all around New England for 10 weeks, preceded by three weeks of intensive training.
They do two shows a day, and they travel with a big top that seats 750 people.
“This is not an easy occupation by any means, but it is a blast,” Wunderle said.
The troupers come from all over the nation, and this year four are Vermonters, including Wunderle’s daughter, Ariana.
They’re chosen through an extensive, thorough audition process that begins in November, when would-be troupers ages 10 through 18 submit videos and references, showing both their technical circus skills and “the best of who they are … including what type of person they are, what the caliber of head and heart is,” Wunderle said.
From there, he whittles the applicant pool to 40, and meets each kid in a two-day audition process that includes technical skills and a creative presentation “to see how much they’ve thought about the theme” for that year.
This year’s Circus Smirkus shows are themed around the traditional American carnival. Several troupers’ creative presentations were incorporated into the final show, Wunderle said, including a clown routine involving a comedy concession stand and an aerial act involving a carousel horse.
Wunderle says the kids accepted by Circus Smirkus are a rare breed.
“I need to know that the kids who accept this offer not only have the skill but the head and the heart that’s required to survive this experience,” he said. “They’re asked to have a good attitude through good and bad times and they have to do it with a humble heart. That’s a special kid.
“What I’m looking for is someone who either has fantastic skill or fantastic potential and, on top of that, someone that I know from interviewing them that they have grit, that they have the ability to do this art form day in and day out for 10 straight weeks and to make this their primary focus for those 10 straight weeks,” Wunderle said.
A roller coaster gag
Circus Smirkus’ four Vermont kids are up to the challenge.
Ariana Wunderle, Troy’s daughter, said she was “born into it” and has a deep love for aerial work and clowning.
She’s been doing wire acts — circus acts involving balancing on a thin wire — for about eight years; she’s 15 now. She was nervous when she started, but now has a rock-solid confidence in her abilities.
“I get nervous if it’s a big trick and it’s the first time I’m doing it, but not as nervous as I usually would get,” said Ariana.
Right now, she’s working on a “double tempo flip jump. Basically, you jump and then you jump again, but the next jump is a flip jump. You jump into the air and split your legs and bring them together and land on your feet.
“I don’t think there’s another person in my school who does circus the way I do it,” said Ariana, who lives in Rockingham.
“I really like how you can dance on the wire. It’s fun how you are bouncing on this small thing, but you can do stuff that you would do in a floor.”
She’s gotten more into clowning this year.
“It really depends on what they give me to do. I’m doing some slapstick this year, which is like hitting people and being slapped. I’m part of a water gag with slapstick. I’m in a roller coaster gag, so miming you’re on a roller coaster,” she said.
Hours of practice
Asom Hayman-Jones, 17, of Glover attends St. Johnsbury Academy. He’s a self-taught juggler and part of the base of a human pyramid.
“I’m a super late bloomer to the circus arts, but what initially got me inspired was when my mother was working at Circus Smirkus in an office job. She took me to see the final show, and I got to see some of the people performing.
“It really inspired me, and I got invited to the circus camp the following summer. I was inspired enough to audition the next year, and somehow, I got in due to some amazing circumstances due to next year’s show,” said Asom.
Right now, he’s qualified to juggle seven balls, a skill he taught himself by carving as many hours as he could out of his school week to practice.
He says he trains about seven hours a week, more during the three-week intensive Circus Smirkus training in June.
“Juggling is like any other discipline. It’s a lot easier to have a coach to instruct you. Because I’m at a boarding program, I don’t have time to have a coach teach me,” he said.
“The first show I remember was 2016, and now that I perform, I understand how many hours of practice it took to get good. Instead of tricks, it seemed like magic to me. It’s really fascinating, being able to share that with other people.
“I know people in the crowds, one day, will be in my situation. A lot of the performers see the show for the first time and they’re inspired by the magic,” he said.
Asom said he’s made a lot of friends through Circus Smirkus.
‘Actually really cool’
Will Ciardelli, 15, of Norwich is good friends with another trouper; they met at a prior circus camp.
He says being part of Circus Smirkus has honed his abilities.
“I was like, this is actually really cool, I want to do this for the next two years of my life, because it was really fun and I love performing and it was a really cool way to be a little bit different and express that,” Will said.
In the show, he’s a clown and a juggler, qualified for four balls.
“A lot of the time we’re in training, those really first few weeks really are a lot of figuring out what our characters were. If we make those characters beforehand, it makes the gags a lot easier,” Will said.
‘How happy the audience is’
But it’s not just clowning around when Circus Smirkus goes on tour; sometimes, troupers need to help deal with emergencies, like at a show in Marshfield when the big top flooded and troupers had to bail it out.
“Somehow, we pulled off the impossible and pumped out the 6 inches of water from the tent,” said Asom.
Wunderle estimated they bailed between 5,000 and 8,000 gallons of water that day, and just two audience members stayed, but they performed anyway.
“The mantra ‘The show must go on’ is alive and well,” Wunderle said with a chuckle.
For the kids, it’s worth it, because they love performing.
“My favorite thing about performing is seeing how happy the audience is and making them super happy,” said Miki Hertog-Raz, 15, of Norwich.
“Probably one of my favorite parts of performing is making audience members smile. It’s really great. It’s like you’re having a bad day and then you make somebody smile. It really boosts your day,” said Will.
“You come to a circus, no doubt you’re going to be transformed. Your emotions are going to be uplifted. These kids worked two straight hours with a smile on their faces with one goal, and that is to bring passion and joy to their audiences,” Wunderle said.
People often come with a “very simple opinion on what they’re going to see. It is so much fun on a daily basis to astound those audience members who have no idea what they’re going to see,” he said.