Frederick Buford stepped into the ring at the Circus Smirkus Circus Barn in Greensboro last week dressed in a checkered vest, knee-high red socks and a matching red nose. The 16-year-old juggler began his routine by animatedly tossing and catching several orange balls at once. Then, with the ringmaster, he performed a whimsical act about cleaning a car involving lots of sponge throwing and water squirting.
The Brooklyn native has been a clown and juggler in circuses his whole life. But since the pandemic wiped out two years of Circus Smirkus’ shows, pursuing his passion for performing to live audiences has been nearly impossible. Last week’s show was just a dress rehearsal, so the only spectators were Buford’s Smirkus colleagues and coaches. But as he prepared for the youth circus’ first Big Top Tour since 2019, Buford was ecstatic.
“It’s electric, being able to do my craft in its fullest, here in front of an audience,” he later told Seven Days†
The 30-member, Northeast Kingdom-based youth circus kicks off its six-week 2022 Big Top Tour on Wednesday, July 6, through Sunday, July 10, at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. It then travels to six other New England towns, performing through mid-August.
This year’s tour is called “On the Road Again,” a reference to the road trip theme the organization had planned for its 2020 tour, canceled during the pandemic. Buford, who has been a member of the touring troupe for four years, thinks the name is appropriate.
“It is very like Smirkus,” he said, “because we are a big road trip going from place to place.”
“On the Road Again” opens with the entire troupe onstage, boarding a bus departing Vermont for the West Coast. The first act sends the troupers on a fictional trip across the country, with stops in Niagara Falls State Park, Yellowstone National Park and Hollywood. The second act follows a similar course, with stops at other US landmarks on the journey back east.
Each destination is an opportunity for the performers to show off their varied skills, from silks to juggling, unicycling to plate spinning, acrobatics to trapeze. In Niagara Falls, eight troupers take the stage for a silks routine. Outfitted in blue leotards to match the blue silks, the kids’ grace and flexibility bring to mind a waterfall.
Ten acts and 2,500 miles later, the performers are on the red carpet in Hollywood. Four acrobats in sparkly black costumes take turns doing handstands and contortions on balancing stands while the others act as paparazzi, taking pictures.
Though the basic set, decorated with road signs and state postcards, remains virtually unchanged throughout the show, frequent costume and prop changes bring the cross-country traverse to life.
According to Josh Shack, Smirkus’ associate artistic director, choreographing the show requires balancing circus traditions with new, innovative acts.
“What [the audience] is used to seeing [are] surprises and creative risks every year,” Shack told Seven Days† †[This year] is different and the same, which is what we are always aiming for with Circus Smirkus.”
Stringent COVID-19 protocols made preparation for this year’s tour — and the tour itself — look somewhat different for the troupers. For one, Smirkus will only perform at six venues instead of the typical 14. Still, the organization has retained the same training and performance framework for all of its 35 years.
Founded by renowned clown Rob Mermin in 1987, Smirkus is the only tented youth circus of its kind in the United States. The troupers, along with a caravan of coaches, cooks and other support staff, travel from site to site, performing each show in their own one-ring, big-top tent, which can hold up to 750 spectators.
According to executive artistic director Steve MacQueen, the company has cultivated a loyal following of people who come to see the shows year after year.
“Smirkus has developed a relationship with so many people along these stops that it is like going to visit friends,” MacQueen said.
Because the big-top tent is so large and requires flat ground for the circus ring, finding suitable performance venues is difficult. In addition to the Champlain Valley Exposition, the troupe will perform at a farm in Hanover, NH, and at fairgrounds in Massachusetts and Maine.
Smirkus draws from the country’s best 11- to 18-year-old circus talents. This year’s performers hail from places as varied as California, Colorado and New Jersey. The casting process is competitive, with two rounds of auditions in the fall and winter.
About 80 kids typically submit audition videos, Shack said, for 30 spots in the troupe. Each cast includes a mix of first-year and returning troupers; there are 10 new performers a year, on average.
The circus also recruits coaches with international circus experience. The programs nine coaches include an acrobatics coach from Morocco, a contortion coach from Mongolia and a wire coach who is a Smirkus alumnus.
“The talent among these teenagers is insane, so they need to come and train with someone who really knows what they are talking about to develop that talent,” MacQueen said.
According to Shack, Smirkus attracts kids who are serious about being involved in the circus world — roughly one-third of its alumni have developed careers in either the circus or the performing arts.
“For those who are interested in continuing on in this professionally, it is very high-level training, particularly from the performing side,” Shack said. “It’s a great gateway into the circus world.”
Owen Lawson-Spratley, 15, of Greenfield, NH, was accepted as a trouper for the 2020 summer tour. But, due to the pandemic, this is his first year on the road.
“It’s been a three-year wait, and it’s great to be back in the ring,” Lawson-Spratley said.
Several other troupers haven’t been on tour before, either. Just eight of the 30 troupers participated in the 2019 tour, Shack said, making this year’s group particularly inexperienced.
However, Smirkus was able to host in-person training sessions during the 2020 and 2021 summers, Shack said. And the circus produced a virtual show called Smirkle Vision at the end of both summers.
Smirkus is a nonprofit organization that gets about 60 percent of its funding from revenue — ticket sales, camp fees, etc. — and 40 percent from donations. In addition to its tented tour, Smirkus offers summer camp programs and clinics during the school year.
About 400 campers will attend this summer’s camp, which includes a one-week session, two two-week sessions and a three-week advanced camp. This is the first summer since 2019 that all of Smirkus’ programs have returned to normal operations — which, at a circus, are decidedly abnormal.
Near the end of the rehearsal, exhilarated performers watching around the ring enthusiastically cheered when one trouper landed a flip on the balance beam. Giddy energy was evident again when another caught an elaborate ring toss, earning more applause from the troupers and audience alike.
Buford emphasized the excitement they all feel showing off their hard work and finally having a live audience.
“This is us coming back strong,” he said. “The energy is wild. We are showing a reinvented Smirkus.”