Circus Smirkus kids' play.
Emma Rogers went to see the circus when Circus Smirkus came to town when she was a girl. She didn't run away and join it.
First, Rogers, who lives in Peterborough, N.H., attended the Circus Smirkus summer camp in Vermont. The next year, however, she was a "trouper," joining Circus Smirkus for its annual summer tour along with about 30 other talented young circus artists from across America and around the world. Ranging in age from 9 to 18, they perform in more than 70 shows in 14 towns and cities in just seven weeks.
Now Rogers, 17, is in her third season as an aerialist and acrobat, and will be part of the troupe when Circus Smirkus puts up its 750-seat "Big Top" tent for four performances Saturday and Sunday at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton. The performances are presented by the Worcester Jewish Community Center.
"It's just super exciting," Rogers said of being a Circus Smirkus performer. "The audience is real close and they want you to succeed."
The same is true of her circus colleagues. "It's like a family in a way," she said of her troupe. "You have this commitment."
Troy Wunderle knows that circus feeling. The artistic director of Circus Smirkus since 2006, he graduated form the Maryland Institute College of Art with the intent of pursuing a career in graphic design, but felt that would be too narrow a picture for him. So he went on to graduate from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and is a former international clown performer with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
"All my random interests consolidated into one interest, which happened to be circus," he said. "And the spirit that `the show must go on' rang true for me."
Wunderle is the lone adult performing in Circus Smirkus shows, serving as a sort of ring master. The theme of Circus Smirkus shows this summer is "Oz Incorporated!" "I'm the Wizard of Oz," Wunderle said.
The show "has everything you'd see in a full-blown professional show other than animal acts," he said of what people will see at Wachusett Mountain. "Oz Incorporated!" follows the yellow brick road with a variety of aerial, acrobatic, wire walking, trampoline, juggling and cycling acts, as well as clowns and audience participation.
"One of my favorite things about the show is exceeding people's expectations on a yearly basis," Wunderle said.
Some adults may make the fact that Circus Smirkus is a "youth circus" a reason play to down expectations of seeing a really great show, Wunderle observed. Instead, such adults are usually pleasantly surprised.
"They become hooked, whether they're with a kid or not."
Meanwhile, "The spirit and youthful energy is unique to any circus I've worked with."
Circus Smirkus, which was founded in 1987, is based in Greensboro, Vt., and runs its annual Big Top summer tour, a summer camp, and has year-round school residency programs.
"We're unique in what we offer. You can't get the performing experience that we offer," Wunderle said.
People interested in becoming a Circus Smirkus "trouper" have to send an audition tape in the fall, and then come to Vermont for a live audition in January. This year's group of performers includes circus artists from Mexico and the United Kingdom. In June, the selected troupers came back to Vermont for three weeks of intense rehearsals before going out on the road. It's a complete immersion in circus life, including rigorous daily training (with special emphasis on safety), daily chores, loading in and loading out of the Big Top, as well as performing. Troupers stay with host families in each community they visit. Adult crew members usually stay in tents at the performance site location.
"They have to come with a lot of skill, and a really strong head and heart about them," Wunderle said of his young charges.
"It's not an easy way to make it through the summer, but it's a life-altering experience for them, learning how to spread magic under the big top."
Rogers was familiar with Circus Smirkus, which comes to perform near Peterborough almost every year. By the age of 12 she was a gymnast, but was "looking for something else."
She found it at the circus.
"Gymnastics was a great thing," she said. But whereas in gymnastics you are competing against 30 other people, with Circus Smirkus "it's 30 kids all relying together and working together in the show," she said.
Beyond the performance, "Everyone does a lot of work to make the show happen. There's always something to do. ... We all get along pretty well. We're different ages, from different places, but we all have one thing in common - we love the circus."
Looking ahead, Rogers said she has given some thought to joining a circus professionally. There are many kinds of circuses out there, she noted.
"I'm entering my senior year (in high school). It's on my mind," she said.
For Wunderle, things have pretty much gone full circus, so to speak. From being a clown student he is now also director of clowning for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His two daughters, Ariana 9, and Emily, 12, are both Circus Smirkus troupers.
"My youngest daughter stepped into the ring without an invitation when she was a year old," he said.
However, Wunderle did not meet his wife, Sara, at the circus.
"I met my wife in high school. She's still wondering how all this happened," Wunderle said.
But she is now the circus's tour manager.
Circus Smirkus is presented in most towns and cities it visits by a local nonprofit or community organization. Proceeds from the performances July 13 and 14 will go to children and youth scholarships and programs at the Worcester JCC.
When: 1 and 6 p.m. July 13; 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. July 14.
Where: Wachusett Mountain, Princeton
How much: $22; $18 children. Tickets can be purchased online at www.worcesterjcc.org/smirkus/ or at the gate.
Contact Richard Duckett at firstname.lastname@example.org
CUTLINE: Circus Smirkus features performers ranging from 9 to 18 years old. "They have to come with a lot of skill, and a really strong head and heart about them," says Troy Wunderle, right, who has been artistic director of Circus Smirkus since 2006.
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