Feature Article Vol. IX, No. 1

Troy Wunderle and Circus Smirkus, Perfect Together

The one constant in Troy Wunderle’s relentlessly busy schedule is Circus Smirkus. To make his involvement as artistic director in that demanding job successful, while also maintaining his various other interests outlined in the previous issue, he has developed a Smirkus time line that he must adhere to strictly throughout the year.  “It has to be taken into consideration year round or I couldn’t pull off all these other projects, “ he confesses.

His first official season as show director was in 2006 (Tropical Vacation). When Rob decided to take a step back Smirkus interviewed a number of qualified candidates for the job. At that point Troy had already been a Smirkus residency artist, head camp coach and tour coach. He was also directing the academy shows for the company’s  year-round training facility and overseeing all of the company’s special events, so taking on the direction of the tent tour was a natural next step in his association with Smirkus.

Taking on the tour direction means he is working for Circus Smirkus on a month by month bases. In September he and the creative director are talking about possible themes for the coming show.  Troy says they have to be completely inspired by the theme that he  and his team are pitching.  He has a list of about forty themes he has collected and thought about over the years and which he would love to do in the future.  About twenty of these themes have a realistic chance of being adopted in the future.  After a theme is selected the next task is to give it a title.  That is so the in house staff knows what the show is going to be about.

In November the process takes a serious turn as they move into auditions. That process begins by looking at tapes that have sent in and trying to guess the type of talent would work best in the new show.  A huge piece of this puzzle has become the marketing of auditions.  This is the third time Troy and the staff have worked with tapes people have sent in.  With the proliferation of circus youth programs , especially those that offer more advanced training, Smirkus has ironically found itself receiving fewer and fewer submissions.  “Other organizations,” troy believes, “are leery of letting their best talent leave them for a summer and come work with us.  So we have less.  We want to turn that around and get the best talent.  In the eighteen days that comprises our rehearsal schedule in Greensboro, VT. we can’t be a circus school and a touring show.  We have to select people who already have  great skill and do the best with that skill in those eighteen days we have to create the new Circus Smirkus show.  To do that we have to show prospective auditioners that what we do is different from what they are doing at home.  So there is some friction out there. AYCO and our tour no longer mesh.”

Once the process of evaluating the tapes has been completed, those who have shown the most promise are invited to live auditions in January.  Troy is anticipating including four new disciplines in next year’s show so he is looking to match up potential talent with coaches.  The current year’s cast is also informed of what the directors are looking for next year.

The new show will potentially feature twenty-five acts, so Troy will start reaching out to possible coaches he will need for specific acts, gathering a creative team. In January Troy and company will also start putting people into specific roles or acts, so that in effect they are casting as well as auditioning. Having training happen before the rehearsals in June is a great advantage.  That relieves the pressure of having to start from scratch at the beginning of rehearsals.  The stress that took place in the first few days of being cast is no longer there.  Those cast have months to prepare for the roles they have been cast in and injuries have, as a result, been decreased.   The next step is to talk about the acts and dream up an opening and finale.  We try to come up with as many ideas to the overall theme as we can.  Everybody brings ideas.  “A good director,” advises Troy, “has to be a good filter.  Listen to everything and then filter.”

Once an act has a beginning, middle and end skill-wise, the creatives (the designers and musicians) are then brought in. In February all the creative minds get together on a conference call.   At this time there is a fairly good idea of the running order in place having been arrived  at after having considered the logistics of the performance. “This,” Troy observes, “is a major change.”   After that it is a matter of overseeing the creative people.

“I never want an audience to come and see the same aerial apparatus two years in a row,” Troy says of his thinking. That means props and apparatus have to be manufactured by May  when the running order is locked in.

Troy says that he never writes his role in the show until the last eighteen days in rehearsals. That’s tough because it’s in the middle of everything else.   His character, however, is predetermined.

Once the show is set Troy does a story board of the entire show.  The story board shows all technical pre-sets, the entrances and exits of people and props, rigging, and equipment.  It shows who is where, when.   The organizational ability to do this  comes from running residencies, which have hundreds of people involved.  “I love the logistical side of circus as much as I love the creative side.   I never want the people under me to think I haven’t thought about something.”

Every entrance and exit is designed ahead of time. For this he needs to talk with the music department.  With all this planning all the technical problems do not have to wait to be resolved at the tech rehearsals.  It is all done mostly before hand.  During these eighteen days the staff, especially Troy gets about four hours of sleep a night.

When in rehearsals in Greensboro, the coaches are given three days to assess what is possible. They then have three days to compose their acts.  Troy insists that the rehearsals can not be a school. “We don’t have the time for it.”

The third week is devoted to tech rehearsals, when lights, sound and music are added as their cues are written. It is also a time for daily coaches meetings.  While Troy oversees the construction of props and the art work involved, Mark Lonergan, the creative director, oversees the composition of the performance.

To keep all this running smoothly Troy writes the master daily schedule for the entire creative team, which will include two coaches who will tour with the show once it hits the road. They help keep the kids passionate all season long.

While on tour an hour to an hour and half is devoted to rehearsals every day. To cover any injuries or sickness that requires a performer not work, Troy must continually adapt the show to deal with any missing parts.  “When we lose talent for more than a performance or two, for example when someone must leave to begin training at the Canadian school.  In that case I must write what amounts to an entire a new show. “

Even on the road Troy’s work is never done. He directs any special events the show may be booked into.  He conducts mid-term evaluations of each cast member, focusing on them as humans not just performers. He talks about how the performers can improve their connections with audiences.  He is also the back lot layout manager. He has had a series of drone produced aerial shots of each lot showing the layout so it can be reproduced the following year if the show returns to the same venue.

“I love systems,” he says. “I make a book each year so we can archive what we have done so that  if we come back we will have some experience.  There are so many technical aspects to consider. Every single vehicle has to be able to leave at any time.  This book is a game changer for me.  I almost never get off  the lot.  I love this.   A normal creative director would not have any part in this.”

If all this is not enough to fill his time Troy also designs each season’s T-shirts and all art work including posters.  Pen and ink are his style, he says.  “I am passionate about various styles of design.  I love this part of my job, too.  This is why I got into circus because of the variety of requirements on someone in a directorial role, either the skill at or appreciation of.  Its fun to have your hand in so many aspects of production.”

At the end of the tour he conducts cast and staff evaluations to judge how and where they have grown and their potential for more growth.

Troy’s year became even busier when he was contacted by Ringling to be their director of clowning from 2009 to 2013, which included work on four major productions and four for the Gold Unit.

As Troy tells it he got a call from David Kiser, Ringling’s Director of Talent, one day after the Smirkus tour ended saying, “We have an opportunity for a clown director, and we think you’re the guy.”  Troy’s reaction was “Oh, my goodness.”  At that time he  had only one rule with his family:  “When we close Smirkus we take one week off and go on a family vacation regardless of what happens.  I vowed  never to book anything that week.  We were in the midst of packing.  I told David that the offer sounded amazing, but I couldn’t talk to him about it for a week.  I honor this every year.  I never expected them to wait for me, but sure enough they did, and we called them back and they said they were waiting for me,  and I was hired.

“That first year was supposed to be to just direct the red unit. I was there a week and a half when  Kenneth called me into his office, and said they needed me to oversee the comedy on the Gold Unit as well.  So there was pressure to get something that could get approved in a two day window.  I knew nothing about the show or the clowns, but thankfully we were successful.  So from that point I was asked to come back to be director of clowning for both shows.  I would be on one side of the divide, and I’d hear a director call me to come over to the other side.  I’d run across and try to remember where we were.  Then I’d hear my name called on the other side, and I’d be ping ponging back and forth.”

That, as it turns out, is a state Troy has been in for most of his professional life.


Photo by Daniel Portal.