“It’s a circus around here,” sighed Kevin Venardos. It was a Wednesday afternoon and Venardos was stretched out in a seat under his self-named circus’ big top, a huge red and white striped tent on the grounds of Tacoma’s Star Center. All around him was the activity of his circus performers and crew, making final preparations before their first show of 11 days of performances in Tacoma. A juggler expertly kept five rings flying in the air. The crew busily stocked the concessions with cotton candy and glowing wands. A rigger sat attentively at the end of a rope while two young aerialists defied gravity, swinging gracefully over the stage.
Venardos’ circus begins and ends with large musical performances that link together the many different acts. The circus performance lasts an hour and a half with a short intermission. The big top opens an hour before show time, allowing the audience to meet performers and participate in pre-show activities and take selfies. Following the show there are additional opportunities to meet and pose with the performers.
“This is the little circus that could,” says Venardos. His circus has been defying the odds, surviving in an era when travelling circuses, most notably the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, have closed. At a time when the movie “The Greatest Showman” has fueled interest in the circus art form, Venardos’ circus offers a rare type of entertainment both to families hoping to be dazzled and to adults looking for a pleasant date night. Venardos is dedicated to keeping this alive. “We don’t have to listen to the bullies’ voices,” he said, “voices that say you cannot do it, you don’t have the money for it, it won’t work.”
Venardos watches as aerialists PJ Perry and Laura Gwendolyn Birch practice over the stage. Birch is a Texan who travelled to Bellingham, where she learned her craft. Birch says that Bellingham has become a focal point in the circus world, with many students and performers gathered in that community where they occasionally get to meet producers like Venardos. Before Venardos hired Birch, he saw her perform in Vaudevillingham, the Bellingham Circus Guild’s monthly variety show and fundraiser.
Birch hangs over the stage from scarfs, whirling and twisting with fine control. Birch talks about how the five minutes in her performance took three years to create. “I can spend four days working on 20 seconds of choreography.” Birch started her career as a performer when she was 26; almost 10 years later she cannot imagine doing anything else. Birch is older than typical aerialists. “There is a timeline for me,” says Birch. “Fifteen years from now I may be in a producer role.” Birch is philosophical about her role. “I don’t have a typical body shape for an aerialist,” she said. “I’m almost six feet tall, but I am very fast. I want to inspire people who have different body shapes, and are different ages.”
Perry takes the practice stage after Birch. While Birch works with scarves, Perry dangles and spins from ropes. Similarly, her performance is distinguished by fine muscle control and fluid dazzling moves far above the stage. In 2008 Perry saw a circus in Bellingham and decided that she could be an aerialist like the ones she saw. Nine months later she was giving performances. Like several other performers here, this is her first tent circus. A product of the Bellingham Circus Guild, Perry has performed internationally in Germany and Australia, as well as nationally, recently in Dallas. “In a tent circus,” said Perry, “you are roughing it. You don’t have the typical accommodations that come with some of the tours I have been on. The people here — they are here because they love it. Here everyone is excited. The performers love to be here.”
Perry talks about her goal of connecting with the circus’ audience, which she describes as difficult when aerialists are far over the heads of the observers. “I hope everyone really feels invited in. I don’t want to just be a spectacle in the air; I want the performance to be something the audience is a part of. It’s not just about pretty costumes, but being drawn in to a story.”
Circus clown Kirk Marsh has been on and off with Circus Venardos for two years. Like many others at Venardos, Marsh shares a strong connection to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As a child, he attended one of the Barnum and Bailey performances and knew he wanted to be a clown. Years later he returned home after falling out of love with college. He found in his room his old program from when he saw Barnum and Bailey as a child. In the back of the program was an advertisement inviting people to attend clown college. Marsh wrote a letter to the college, and of 3,000 applicants he was one of 30 invited to attend. Marsh described the college as harsh, exciting, grueling, and enlightening. “I learned that clowns have the power to change people’s day and life, by making them laugh when they may not be able to. I have had people come to me after shows, saying they have had many hard months, and this show was the first time they could laugh.”
As the practicing continues, other performers are taking breaks. Behind the tent, sitting in front of one of several campers, is the Harden family. Nick and Wendy Harden sit under an awning of their trailer playing with their 1-year old son Felix, all three enjoying the afternoon sun gracing Star Center’s field. The Hardens are veterans of the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) in Seattle. A playpen sits under the big top to the right of the stage. Felix stays close to his parents during practices and performances, and may even make stage appearances. The Hardens are a duo unicycle and comedy act. Their juggling and gymnastic skills are also featured.
The connections between Venardos Circus and Ringling Brothers are evident in many members of the 17-person crew. Alex Petrov is tent master, directing the raising of the tent, constantly ensuring the safety of the facility. He was with Ringling Brothers for 28 years. The Venardos circus crew respects and relies on Petrov, not just to keep the aerialists safe, but to draw from his decades of circus experience to improvise and construct everything and anything the performers need, occasionally in dawn hours with little notice. “He never sleeps,” says Marsh. “He is McGyver.”
Venardos, the youngest ringmaster in the history of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, started Circus Venardos five years ago. His time with Ringling Brothers gave Venardos a special understanding of circus life and circus performers. Venardos lived on the Ringling Brothers train during his five years with the circus. One of the families he travelled with was the Zsilak family. Richard Zsilak is now traveling with the Venardos circus. Zsilak immigrated from Budapest with his mother when he was an infant; his mother came to America to work for Ringling Brothers. Zsilak travelled with that circus for 18 years. “I loved the diversity of cultures and arts like gymnastics. I loved being close to the animals – the tigers and elephants,” said Zsilak. He started performing when he was 13, doing a pre-show juggling act with his mother.
Now Zsilak is working as a rigger for the Venardos circus. “I am learning the safe way of preparing the tent and the ropes. The routine is important.” This is the first tent circus Zsilak has worked on. “I love seeing the excitement in the community when we raise the tent,” he said.
Venardos has been busy since arriving in Tacoma. He took several performers to DeLong Elementary to visit with members of the Young Ambassadors program. Also planned are visits with members of Emerald City Trapeze and SANCA – both in Seattle.
Four days later, the circus is in full swing. On Sunday afternoon Birch is on stilts, Marsh is with her, and Perry is joining them in greeting visitors outside the big top. They pose for photos with families and answer questions about circus life. Birch talks about how pleasantly surprising it is that the community has embraced the circus, and most shows have been sold out. “We gave four performances yesterday!” Inside the tent, before show time, an artist with a basketball is challenging audience members to steal a basketball from him. Children line up excitedly for the challenge. The artist dribbles wildly, passing the ball between his legs, between the legs of the children trying to grab the ball. The basketball seems to disappear as the confused children look about, only to reappear from behind the artist’s head.
One of the children grabbing for the basketball is Violet Wells. She is 7 and goes to St. Nicholas. She has come to the show with her sister Ruby and mother Paige Wells. Paige remembers going to see Barnum and Bailey when she was a child. This is the first time she has seen a tent circus since then, and it is the first for her children. “My husband got us tickets to this because our daughters are super obsessed with ‘The Greatest Showman.’” Ruby points to the hoops excitedly. “They both want to be aerialists,” says Paige.
Venardos Circus offers performances through July 22. Find the big top next to Star Center’s splash park. For more information or tickets, visit: www.venardoscircus.com/events.