Jugglers and Unicycles and Clowns, OCircus!
Utter panic. One of the contact improv dancers had yet to show up and there were only two minutes left to curtain. He had been kidnapped by a womb chair in Mudd, but there was no time to find him. Desperate, the other contact improv-ers ran out into the crowd, asking every audience member if they knew how to do contact improv.
Their eyes fell on senior Colin Gunn; although he had some knowledge of contact, he had, more importantly, attended both of the first two performances. Hurrying him backstage, they fitted him into an extra blue suit and he danced in the show.
“He did fine,” said Ringmaster and College junior Liz Johnson, laughing. This incident occurred at last semester’s OCircus! performance, a wildly popular event that drew in students, members of the community and many children. Attendance increased every night of the performance and by the last night, when Gunn was thrust on stage, 400 people were crowded into Hales.
OCircus! began organically as a hodgepodge of circus-related ExCos and people who liked to stand outside Warner doing tricks. Recognizing the interest in circus arts at Oberlin, Johnson began a networking process with senior Naomi Altman to organize the diverse groups. Slowly, a patchwork of people who each knew an interesting trick began to come together.
“People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, did you know I can unicycle?’” said Johnson.
“It sort of bubbled up out of the ground,” said junior Andrew Broaddus, who began as one of the students juggling outside of Warner. “It had to happen. It was time.”
Now, OCircus! draws from a connected series of ExCos and clubs, including the contact improv, poi, step, aerial arts, stilting and beginning tumbling ExCos, as well as the organizing OCircus! ExCo taught by Johnson. The event itself is part of Johnson’s senior project — along with writing a research paper, she is directing and organizing the entire upcoming show.
This year, the circus will be more structured. While last year’s performance was a huge success, there was a lot of confusion, missed rehearsals and last-minute preparation, not to mention absent contact dancers.
The circus had a plot loosely based on themes from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, even borrowing some of the music. Two lovers were separated at the beginning and then reunited by the end. Not every circus company in the world uses a storyline in their performances, but sophomore Caitlin Rodriguez, clown extraordinaire, said “shows should have an arc.”
Johnson agreed, saying, “We’re creating a world...you’re willing to go along with it because you totally believe in that world.”
Broaddus, a contact juggler, noted that there was a terrible thunderstorm during opening night, which coincidentally timed exactly with the music.
“Everyone gasped...nature could not have been more perfectly aligned with the show,” he said.
Now, Johnson has a tight production schedule with strict deadlines. “I have to be a hardass,” she said. “There’s a balance between trying to make it as organized as possible but also still fun.”
This year’s show will incorporate new acts — step, hula-hoop, aerial arts — as well as the old favorites. Another major change will be the music; instead of borrowing from an established musical, Johnson has enlisted five or six Conservatory composers. The new music will directly underscore the action in every act, meaning that there will be less room for improvisation.
As Rodriguez said, “We can’t throw in a unicycling act at the last minute.” Johnson refused to give away the theme of the upcoming show, but hinted that the plotline will be “a little more involved.”
As well as directing, Johnson will once again be playing the ringmaster. Broaddus will be juggling, and, Rodriguez will be moonlighting as Grumblecakes the Clown, in addition to her roles as community liason and clown wrangler.
Though overworked, Johnson is excited about the upcoming show, and very committed to achieving technical perfection.
“We want it to have artistic integrity and flow and development,” she said. “but if we can support the production aspects, everything will look better.”
The OCircus! show is scheduled to take place during the weekend of the Big
Parade in late April.