The White River Valley Herald

A Clown’s Life with Circus Smirkus

Henry Cesari (at right) performs with Pinocchio (Jacob Bloom, 18, from Massachusetts).

Henry Cesari (at right) performs with Pinocchio (Jacob Bloom, 18, from Massachusetts).

Henry Cesari, a 15-year-old student at Chelsea High School, first saw a performance of Vermont’s famous youth circus when he was 10 months old, and it’s been a family tradition ever since, according to his mother, Cornelia Cesari. This year, Henry made the transition to the inside of the ring, and he writes about it for The Herald.

By Henry Cesari

ome day I’ll be inside the ring."

I cannot remember when that thought first entered my head, but I’ve been outside the ring, laughing my head off, since I was ten months old. Boy, do I love to laugh. I always have, my parents say. People turn and look, I laugh so hard. But then they start to laugh, too. And if there’s anything I like more than laughing, it’s sharing laughter with others.

Circus Smirkus has been a highlight of my summer forever. From our accustomed seats under the Big Top, my family has felt like part of the Smirkus family for years.. Each year, we have guessed at the theme, reunited with returning troupers, and met new, talented performers.

Founder Rob Mermin, Ozzie Henchel and Troy Wunderle have been heroes in our household. My sister was chosen from the audience during the Pirate Queen tour—she still has the plastic beads Rob gave her. My prized possession is a foam clown nose Rob gave me as a second place prize for the musical chairs gag in 1997—and during the Robin Hood tour, my brother and I laughed so hard we appear in an audience shot on the videotape of the show!

After the show, I would hang around in the ring, collecting the troupers’ autographs, feeling the hot lights, looking up at the rigging and out at the bleachers.

I wanted to learn clowning so I began circus training when Smirkus’s Russian coaches, Zina and Volodia Augustov, taught at NorthStar Gymnastics in Berlin. That was some serious work with serious coaches! I learned the basics of tumbling and discovered my favorite element, the Chinese pole or "perch."

I also attended Ted Lawrence’s VanLodostov Circus Camp in Norwich. Working with Ted (a.k.a. "Dr. Quark"), I expanded my juggling skills and learned trick bicycle and mini-tramp stunts. I improved my perch skills as well.

Most important, Ted, a former Ringling clown, taught me the structure of a clown "gag." It must have a beginning, middle and end (or inciting incident, friction, climax and resolution), common to most theater and performing arts. The following summer I was accepted into Circus Smirkus’s Advanced Camp. I was getting closer to my dream! My audition tape was selected for a live audition, so in January, I spent an exhilarating (and nerve-racking) weekend with 20 former troupers and 40 new auditionees. A week later I received a phone call I had been waiting for for ten years. I was going on tour!

Pulling it Together

On June 4th, I reported to Circus Smirkus World Headquarters: “the Circus Barn” in Greensboro.

The farm was bustling. Excited troupers were greeted by Rob, Troy and his family, and also by a staff of counselors, cooks, tent crew, riggers, technicians, concessionaires, musicians, and costumers. And—in keeping with the Pinocchio theme—two miniature donkeys, Jiminy and Figaro! Who knew that for the 30 troupers I saw in the ring, there were another 30-40 people on tour?

The next three weeks were a whirlwind. There was plenty of work for everyone! There was a fleet of trucks, lighting and sound equipment to be rented. There was food to be planned, ordered, and prepared. There were details to be worked out at every site on the tour. And there was a show to be put together! The creative team, headed by Rob, met to discuss his artistic vision of Pinocchio. Sewing machines hummed in costumers’ tents as prototypes appeared hanging in the kitchen. The band, under direction of Peter Bufano, seemed to compose around the clock. Old Italian tunes, klezmer-style clarinet, and jazzy saxophone riffs oozed from the top floor of a nearby shed at all hours as the soundtrack took shape.

As for the troupers, we worked with coaches from around the world (England, Sweden, Russia, Chicago, and Vermont) in small groups and as an ensemble. We practiced, practiced, practiced. Working with the troupers was refreshing: intensely focused and determined, without the competition you might expect among such talented athletes.

For many troupers it was a reunion of old friends; but for us first-timers, there were questions swirling. Am I in good enough shape? How can I contribute to the show surrounded by all this talent? What acts will I be in? How can we be ready in time?

It was new for me to be "at the bottom." At Smirkus Academy in Essex Junction, I had become used to being one of the bigger kids in a group. In pyramids I was always a "base," lifting girls onto my shoulders. Now I was a "flyer"! I felt awkward. There are some big teenagers here and I found myself in the middle. My element, the perch, wasn’t on tour, so I felt a little lost. I wasn’t among the strongest bases, the best jugglers or acrobats. Where would I fit in?

I shouldn’t have worried. What Circus Smirkus is all about for me—what it has always been about—is the laughter. I’m happiest in "clown alley," so here I am. At our opening show in Greensboro, I looked down at the kids kneeling at the ring, and I thought, if I hadn’t gotten onto tour this year, I would be sitting by the ring curb, with the infants, toddlers, and occasional baby-sitter or older sibling… laughing my head off!  This is a show I would enjoy, so it’s something I can be proud of.

At first, I was concentrating so hard on my clowning, trying to get it just right, that I didn’t listen to the audience. I didn’t actually hear the laughter for a couple days, until I took a "prat fall" by the edge of the ring, and was waiting for a beat to jump back up. I know now the whole audience was roaring, but that day I focused on one boy sitting right behind my head, and he was in stitches!

The coaches were pleasantly surprised with my clowning at the first show, and how quickly it improved. I always work better playing off an audience than in rehearsals. There’s no feeling in the world like making 800 people laugh.

Returning the Laughter

Life on the road is exciting and exhausting. We’ll be performing Pinocchio over 80 times! It never gets dull, though; the show is always changing, which keeps it fresh. After a few shows, I felt like my character really clicked. We were reworking some of our gags with Sam Brown and Josh Shack, former Smirkus clowns. It’s awesome working with them; they’re great guys and talented clowns. There’s such a legacy to live up to, thinking of previous clowns: Sam, Josh, Ryan, Chris, John…

Even with two shows a day, there’s time to build up skills. Troupers are constantly practicing: during meals, at homestays, occasionally in restaurants or on the street! Troy and I have been throwing stuff at each other backstage whenever we have a chance during the show (which is to say our friendship has never been stronger) and I think I’ll be passing (juggling) clubs in no time.

On "move days," when the crew is doing the huge job of relocating, the troupers load up on the bus. Sometimes we’re sightseeing, shopping, or swimming, but sometimes we do "free" shows. One of the most intense days of my life we went to Camp Thorpe in Goshen, a camp for the disabled. We did a show for the campers and then left out the mats so they could try tumbling. All of the campers were mentally disabled, and many had physical disabilities as well.

There was one man who was really short, and a counselor explained that he didn’t have working knees. For a forward roll he had to do a straddle, roll over his head, and then muscle his way into a handstand. It was humbling to watch his struggle to master this simple trick. When he finished, he posed with traditional circus flair: he styled with a "hup, hey!" We all cheered him with sincerity and admiration.

He had the determination of a trouper and also the presence, totally proud and unselfconscious about performing. Everyone has to go into the ring, look the audience in the eye and say, "here I am—I am enough."

Watching determined Smirkos over the years has given me the gifts of inspiration… and laughter! Finally, it’s my turn to return the favor. Yesterday during a show, I saw a little kid peek over the bleachers with a foam clown nose (like the one I won in ’97). I waved at him and he waved back.

After the show, I was in the ring giving autographs, when this boy came up to me and asked for my autograph, please.

“He wants to be just like you,” his mom said.

As I signed the playbill I replied, “Well, when I was his age, I wanted to be just like me, and here I am! There isn’t a dream too big.”

“Did you hear that, Henry?”


“My son’s name is Henry.” 

I can’t touch every life. I can’t save the world. But maybe, one smile, one laugh, one dream at a time, I can make it a better place—for the residents of Camp Thorpe, for Henry, and for every one of the fifty thousand audience members with whom I have two special hours this summer! 

B-1 Sidebar

This Week in Montpelier, Next in Lebanon

ircus Smirkus is one of Vermont’s home-grown treasures. Since its founding in 1987, this circus made up of entirely of teenagers from 13 to 18 has become internationally acclaimed, appearing each year to more than 50,000 fans. It’s the only touring youth circus in the country that travels with its own circus tent.

This year Circus Smirkus brings its 2005 production, with about 30 performers, based on the timeless story of Pinocchio, on tour for 80 performances. Complete with period costumes, juggling, tumbling, high wire, trapeze, clowning, and live music, this year’s production also features amazing puppetry woven into the circus performance.

Circus Smirkus makes its closest pass to the White River Valley this week and next. On Aug. 12, 13, and 14, it plays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Montpelier High School. Tickets will be available at the door. On Aug. 16 and 17, the circus comes to the Elks Club in Lebanon, N.H.

Circus Smirkus is brainchild of Rob Merwin, who ran away to the circus himself at 19. After a career abroad, during which he studied with Marcel Marceau, and as director of the Clown College with Ringling Bros Circus, Mermin moved to Greensboro, Vt., and started the organization in an old barn.

Some 25 Circus Smirkus graduates have gone on to professional performance careers—so far.

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