Aug 072017
 

During our annual visit in the Berkshires, Shelly and I have always looked for excellent theatre choices. We’ve attended Shakespeare and Company in Lenox and Barrington Stage in Pittsfield. This year, Barrington Stage featured a clever farce by Alan Ayckbourn, Taking Steps. The play is a classic exaggerated British physical comedy. Here’s some photos of Taking Steps:

Some of the cast on the unique set of “Taking Steps”.

Cast members (L to R) Matthew Greer, Richard Hollis & Carson Elrod.

Cast members (L to R) Richard Hollis, Claire Brownell & Matthew Greer.

 

I also had the opportunity to visit with my old friend and colleague, Gypsy Snider, who is an original company member of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus and founder and Artistic Director of Montreal’s famed Seven Fingers of the Hand (Sept Doigts de la Main). We discussed her latest work and future projects, perhaps even with the new Big Apple Circus. Many of you might remember that Gypsy created all of the circus work for the brilliant Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Pippin.

 

Gypsy Snider.

Here you can see a flavor of Gypsy’s circus creation in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of “Pippin”.

 

This year we didn’t have time to go to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which is featuring iconic American images of Andy Warhol alongside Rockwell’s iconic images. We also didn’t have the chance to go to a wonderful dance concert at Jacob’s Pillow. If we can, we’ll return later this year for some of the wonderful events that the Berkshires offer.

Aug 072017
 

Shelly and I spent a wonderful week in western Massachusetts in the Berkshire Hills, which is a vital center for the performing and visual arts. The Summer months bring out the best of both. We schedule our annual visit so that we can have a mini-reunion with my Dartmouth classmates (1963) and attend Tanglewood on Parade, a day long celebration highlighted by performances by three extraordinary orchestras: the Boston Symphony (BSO), the Boston Pops, and the Tanglewood Symphony Orchestra, each with its own distinct and unique flavor.

The crowd on the lawn outside the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

The youthful performers in the Tanglewood Symphony generally lead off the program. This year they performed several pieces, the most familiar of which is Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (believe it or not our eight piece Big Apple Circus Band actually performed this orchestral number as an entrance piece for our aerialist Sacha Pavlatta’s Cloud Swing Act in 1981). Pictured below is Charles Dutoit conducting the Tanglewood Symphony inside the 5000 seat Music Shed.

The Boston Pops performed several numbers with Keith Lockheart conducting two songs, Love is Here to Stay by George and Ira Gershwin and I Won’t Dance by Jerome Kern. The revered 85 year-old John Williams, the Musical Director Emeritus of the Boston Pops, conducting three of his own wonderful motion picture compositions, including the stirring and thrilling finale from Star Wars.

Keith Lockhart (L) and John Williams (R).

The grand finale of the evening is the combined orchestras performing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Opus 49 with Keith Lockhart conducting. Those of you who are familiar with the piece know that Tchaikovsky wrote into the score the sound of live cannons firing blanks accompanying the final movement. Sure enough Tanglewood on Parade had those cannons in a nearby field firing on cue.

And then, the evening ended with a spectacular display of fireworks.

Jul 182017
 

This is “Grandma” and Keith Nelson. As you can see they are proud to be on the National Mall.

Here are several more wonderful events that took place at the festival.

Circus Harmony, from St. Louis, who I wrote a little bit about in my recent post on Circus Flora. They are a very successful inner-city youth troupe.

Eliana Grace is the daughter of Jessica Hentoff, founder of Circus Harmony and has a wonderful one-woman show. Here’s the only photograph that I have from the festival. Unfortunately, she is moving into a trick so she doesn’t look nearly as graceful as she, in fact, is.

Eliana Grace

Here are a couple of photographs from Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, one of my favorites.

Left: Adam Kuchler
Right: Stephanie Monseu, ringmaster extraordinaire

And a new favorite: Happenstance Theater. They are very clever, fresh and simply lovely.

Here’s one grouping of the show they did at the festival. They have several more shows.

 

[ Below: Continued from last post ]

3. My long-time performance partner Michael Christensen, founder of Big Apple Circus Clown Care, which became a worldwide movement of clowns visiting the bedsides of acutely and chronically ill children, sat on several presentations at the festival about medical clowning.

Big Apple Circus Clown Care logo created by Dominique Jando.
That’s Michael as “Dr. Stubs” creating a bubble through a stethoscope.

Here’s a wonderful group of New York Clown Care “Doctors of Delight.” They are some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever known.

4. Finally, I sat on one of seven panels and three presentations at a day-long “Circus Town Hall” at the National Endowment for the Arts concerning circus as art. It was an extraordinary day.

On the left is Tisha Tinsman and on the right is Dolly Jacobs. The photograph that they are standing alongside is of Dolly in performance.

Tisha Tinsman with Sacha Pavlatta, our first tent master, virtuoso performer, and original company member.

Here’s a wonderful group at the NEA. Left to right: Dominique Jando, Murray Horwitz, Peggy Williams, Dolly Jacobs, myself, Pedro Reis, Jimmy Tinsman, Tisha Tinsman, and Vanessa Thomas.

 

Peggy Williams is in the preceding photograph. She was the first woman clown at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, forty-plus years ago. She also headed up the extraordinarily lively roundtable discussion at the NEA “Physical Comedy as Performing Art.”

This wonderful convocation or “Town Hall” at the NEA was a highlight of this festival and was a great demonstration of the passion of the various people who are engaged in circus arts in America. I’m hoping that we can continue this amazing event going into the future.

 

Jul 172017
 

From June 28th till July 6th I had the honor and pleasure of attending the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

[ What follows is the first of two blogs that I’m posting about my visit to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. ]

This year’s festival theme was Circus Arts.

The Festival estimated that there were over a million visitors.

Michael Christensen, my fellow Big Apple Circus founder, and myself were invited to the festival for several reasons:

1. Tell the story of the Big Apple Circus, which we did daily on the Circus Stories stage. And then we presented the “keys” of the Big Apple Circus to the new management. The “keys” were a beat-up old top hat and a rubber chicken named “Leonard,” who had been our juggling “partner” over the many years of the Big Apple Circus and its predecessor, our street juggling act. That great adventure was a journey from San Francisco all the way to Istanbul.

That’s Michael and me presenting the “keys” to the Big Apple Circus to the new management. It looks like “Leonard” was sleeping.

2. Present “Circus of the Senses,” a program that serves sight and hearing-impaired kids and adults. I am proud to say that I originally created “Circus of the Senses” for the Big Apple Circus. Our role at the festival was to narrate and describe, over headsets, to blind kids and adults, a performance of Wonderland by Circus Juventas, a wonderful youth circus from St. Paul, Minnesota. (For the hearing-impaired audience members, there were American Sign Language interpreters.)

That’s me in the top hat with the legendary sportscaster Marty Glickman, at the very first “Circus of the Senses.” Note the kids wearing headsets. The other person with a hand mic is Dave Jennings. The clown is Mr. Gordoon, Jeff Gordon.

Here’s some photos from Wonderland.

Here’s the poster for Wonderland and two photos of the young lady who performed the role of Alice.

The Red Queen and her court, with Alice in the foreground.

Here’s a quadruple trapeze group. Also an aerial cube with four performers. Finally, a Russian barre trio.

We described a one-hour version of what had been a two-hour show. Following the performance, there was a “touch session” in the ring where blind kids and adults could touch costumes and props of the various performers as well as talk to the performers and myself.

Here are three photos from the post-show “touch session”: the lady in the top left told me that she had been blind since birth and was “thrilled to hear a circus described.” I was thrilled that she wanted to tell me that. The top right is with the Red Queen and the bottom is the Caterpillar and the White Rabbit.

Here’s one with the Cheshire Cat…

.. and finally the director of Circus Juventas, Betty Butler who along with her husband Dan Butler are co-founders of this wonderful, youthful and energetic organization. I’m grateful to all of them.

[ To be continued in the next post. ]

Jun 302017
 

I spent this past weekend at Circus Flora in St. Louis. A simply lovely show, filled with special highlights, and outstanding performers. It was well worth the trip!

Here is the show statement from the Circus Flora program:

Imagine that you could travel through time. Would you go back to relive historic events? Would you try to change history?  What if you could alter the course of your own life?  Now imagine you had the grace, power, and beauty of an acrobat or an aerialist.  Circus Flora’s all new production will use the timeless art of circus to explore the fabric of time.

On the High Wire (sitting in the chair) is Tino Wallenda, patriarch of The Flying Wallendas. Walking on the High Wire with Tomas Wallenda Cortes on his shoulders is Alex Wallenda. The juggler with hoops and umbrellas is Kyle Driggs, who I first saw at the Paris circus festival, Festival du Cirque de Demain.  The juggler with the cigar boxes balanced on his chin is Adam Kuchler. The lady with the “Big and Little” horse act is Cassidy Herriot…she is a team with veteran horse trainer Heidi Herriot (her mom).

Featured annually in Circus Flora is the acrobatic team from Circus Harmony. The kids were remarkable as the dove into each others arms and even performed a “passing leap.”

My thanks to Artistic Director, Jack Marsh, Show director (and old friend) Cecil Mckinnon, Equestrian Advisor, Laura Carpenter Balding, Circus Harmony Director (and original Big Apple Circus performer) Jessica Hentoff. Musical Director and Composer Janine Del’Arte and old friend Hovey Burgess. And a salute to new Executive Director Larry Mabrey and the Circus Flora Board of Directors.

Jun 022017
 

This past Wednesday night, I had the great pleasure of attending the Tony nominated musical, Dear Evan Hansen. It was an outstanding evening of theatre.

How can I convey how unusual this show is? Let’s start with the simplest element, the costumes. They are contemporary. The characters you see on stage, could just as easily be seen walking down the street. The set and lighting are clearly married as one element. We see moving projections on screens (which are, sometimes, also moving) completely evoking the internet and social media. But, I’m not doing justice to how these visual elements effect our view as an audience. A good deal of the time, what we see on stage is very cold and alienating. BUT then, the characters on stage are emotionally rich, in contrast to their “stage” environment. Perhaps you can understand that from the photo (below).

The music is contemporary, played by a small orchestra creating songs sung by actors on stage with excellent voices. Particularly, the title character, Evan Hansen, is brilliantly portrayed by 24-year-old Tony award-nominated, Ben Platt. He is Evan Hansen, totally inhabiting the character. He actually sweeps us up into the emotional rollercoaster that Evan Hansen is going through. Whew!

The cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” with Ben Platt center.

This is an extraordinarily difficult ticket to get on Broadway, but if you can find a way, it’s absolutely worth seeing!

May 222017
 

Big Cat Trainer, Alexander Lacey, performs one last time with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Last night, May 21, I had the great honor of attending the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was a very special evening, which started with a moving tribute to his 50 years of stewardship of the Ringling enterprise by Kenneth Feld, the CEO.

It was performed to a packed house at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. The show spoke eloquently to 146 years of American history. There were a lot of great moments, but perhaps the greatest was saved for after the end of the show. Ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson made an impromptu speech and invited all of the employees and their families from backstage to join in the arena and sing Auld Lang Syne.

Johnathan Lee Iverson with the Circus company

The NY Times quoted one ticket holder as saying, “…perhaps it will return, retooled and rebranded.” I join him in his sentiment.

May 152017
 

I want to share with you a fun evening I had on Saturday, May 13. Shelly and I went to see the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus presenting A Cardboard and Duck Tape Spectacular!.

Stephanie Monseu (L) and Keith Nelson (R)

This is terrific live entertainment! There are no weak members of the cast. Stephanie Monseu is her usual dazzling self as emcee and juggler. Keith Nelson is a true burlesque top banana. Ekaterina Skmarina a goofy aerialist and floor gymnast. Ivory Fox a very clever acrobat capable of doing a variety of things, she has wonderfully graceful movement with a touch of comedy. Jared Kuchler is a multi-talented juggler, his specialty is a cigar box routine.

All of this accompanied by Peter Bufano’s original music on accordion, with Jeff Morris and Nate Tucker. The production was directed by our good friend Joel Jeske who will star in the upcoming Big Apple Circus.

What’s my review? Bindlestiff is a very clever variety arts theatre.

So, if they’re ever in your town or mine, go see them!

May 052017
 

 

It occurs to me that the only photo that we published in my post on Sunset Boulevard was the poster photo of Glenn Close. Of course she’s in makeup and wig to appear to be a “has-been” actress from silent movies. So I’m including two other photos of her out of costume. And, as a bonus, here’s one of her in costume and wig taking her finale  bow. If you hope to get to see the show, it’s a limited engagement, performing only until June 25th.

 

 

 

May 032017
 

­I met Glenn Close when I worked on the Broadway musical “Barnum.” I had the task of teaching her (as Barnum’s wife) to juggle….while she was singing..in a special light. Years later, she volunteered to write the foreword to my book, Never Quote the Weather to a Sea Lion. She was a regular attendee at the Big Apple Circus and I never missed anything, movies or shows, in which she performed.

Last Friday, Shelley and I went to see Glenn star in Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it “One of the great performances of this century!” A powerful artist as I’ve always known her, Glenn gave an exquisite performance that evening. Her range as an actor is enormous as is her singing voice. We felt honored that she kindly invited us backstage after the show for a long overdue catch-up. I wouldn’t be talking out of class to reveal to you that this great star is a warm, open-hearted and generous person and I take great pride in calling her, friend.