Feature Article Vol. IV, No. 3

 

From Gadjo* to Parents of Stars

The Wunderle and Monday kids at a Clown College Reunion.

Second Generation at a Clown College Reunion.

When the new circus movement began to emerge 40 years ago it was highly unlikely, if not all but impossible, for anyone who was not born into a circus family to become a circus artist.  Along with the emergence of new circus companies the movement also engendered more and more circus schools which welcomed students with little to no circus background but a desire to train and learn.  In the intervening years these young artists used what they had learned in these programs and not only became successful and prominent members of the new circus, they also married and had children of their own.

Ironically they have also preserved one of the most ingrained traditions of the circus, and their offspring have now become  a second generation of new circus artists, following in their parents’ footsteps just as circus artists had been doing for centuries before there was anything called the new circus.

The Pickle Family Circus is now only a cherished memory, but as the step father of Gypsy Snider and the father of Lorenzo Pisoni, its founder Larry Pisoni has made a significant impact on the continuing evolution of the American circus, far more than perhaps he ever envisioned.

Lorenzo began appearing in his father’s clown acts as early as two years of age.  Eventually he was allowed to do his own act during intermission.  The band was so delighted with his performance they even wrote some original music for him.  The audiences loved his act so much they stayed in their seats through intermission and concession sales suffered.  The act had to be cut.

To learn what it meant to be a professional, his father had Lorenzo sign a contract which he was expected to live up to as a full-fledged performer.

Now, as a mature young actor, Lorenzo has tended to work in classical theatre more than the circus, but he did write and perform a one-man show about growing up with a clown for a father.  It was called Humor Abuse.  He is now working on a documentary about his father.

Like her brother, Gypsy Snider began working in the Pickle Family Circus as a performer at the age of six.  As a young adult she eventually earned a role in a production of Cirque du Soleil.  But her importance goes far beyond her work as a performer.  Gypsy was recently honored with the Evolving Circus Award at the First Celebration of American Circus this past January.  The award is intended to recognize an individual whose personal and professional contributions have made a significant and permanent impact on circus in America.  It is now mainly her work as a producer and director that accounts for Gypsy’s most important work.  She is one of the founders of the award-winning circus company known as Les 7 doigts de la main (Seven Fingers), which continues to exert a huge influence on the new circus movement around the world. (See a review of their latest production Sequence 8 in the Passing Spectacle page of this issue.)  She was also the creator of the circus acts in the Broadway revival of the musical Pippin, thereby enhancing the reputation of circus in general.

 

By the time that Circus Flora moved to St. Louis, Missouri,  Jessica Hentoff had already had a significant career as a circus performer, most notably as one half of an aerial act billed as Hentoff and Hoyer.  In St. Louis she  got more and more into training young, at-risk youth in circus arts, eventually founding the St. Louis Arches performing ensemble and Circus Harmony, her own youth circus at the St. Louis City Museum where they have remained in residence since 1997.  Her marriage to Mike Killian eventually produced three children, Elliana, Keaton and Kellin.

Being home-schooled and growing up in a circus school that did hundreds of shows a year, and hanging around the St. Louis Arches, it was more or less inevitable that Jessica’s children would become involved themselves.  “They didn’t have to go far for performing opportunities,” she points out.  Elliana, who is now twenty-three, was a mere two years old when she first appeared with the group; twenty year old Keaton began when he was four years old;  and Kellin, who wanted to wait until he felt he could really present some skills, debuted when he felt he was ready, at the ripe old age of six.

One day Kellin came to his mother  and asked if he could present the 2 pm show the next day at City Museum.  “You don’t have an act,” she replied.  In response he revealed that he had been working on one on his own, and she told him he would have to audition.  He did, with a fifteen minute juggling piece that had a clear beginning, middle and end.  The next step was to negotiate salary.  They agreed on $3 a show, and he became the first solo youth circus act at Circus Harmony.

He is now eighteen.  Both he and his brother Keaton are now students at the Canadian National Circus School in Montreal.

When her kids were young Hentoff encouraged their practicing and performing, but told them that when they got older it would be totally up to them what they wanted to do.  One thing she wanted to make clear to them was that she was not having them do circus because it was something she had wanted to do but never got a chance.  She had had her career.  They didn’t have to have one for her.

Obviously being around the circus school they were exposed to some great teachers and trainers, people like Warren Bacon (who had been their mother’s teacher), Rosa Yagaantseteg, Sariya Saabye, Richard Kennison and others.

All three of the Hentoff kids have been performing professionally and getting paid by people and organizations other than their mother.  Elliana who was the human cannonball for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for a time, is now a member of the Circus Harmony Flying Trapeze Troupe.  When the boys work together they are known as the Awesome Brothers.  Keaton is a part of a new company called Rough Around the Edges and Kellin is a member of the juggling troupe McQuiggs and has traveled the country as a solo juggler.  This coming summer Kellin will tour with the Canadian circus Le Fabuleux Cirque de Jean Coutu, and Keaton has a gig he cannot yet reveal.

Hentoff’s participation in their careers these days is limited to helping them decide on their options, like which circus school to attend.  “ I am honored when they ask my advice these days, but mostly they make their performing decisions on their own with little or no input from me,” she says with obvious pride.

Dick Monday and his wife Tiffany have dedicated their careers to making people laugh.  Dick who performs under the name Monday is both a graduate of the Ringling’s Clown College and for four years its dean, and Tiffany, who works under the name Slappy, is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.  They are the founders of a comedy group called NY Goofs and created Slappy’s Playhouse in Dallas, Texas where they now reside.  They have had several clowning shows performed off-off Broadway as well as all over the world.  They are the parents of two children, Chet, now a freshmen at the Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, and Lily, who is eleven.

Chet made his debut in show business at the age of two with an appearance at the Midnight Clowns Show at the end of the 2001-2002 season of the Big Apple Circus.  He was an instant smash hit and bitten irrevocably by the acting bug at the same time.  When he was  five, he was the voice of Tiny Tim for the couple’s puppet soundtrack of A Christmas Carol.  His lines were written out for him despite the fact that he could not yet read.  Tiffany reports that after doing his lines a couple of times he threw the paper with his lines away and announced “I can’t work like this!”  Obviously a born ham.  At seven he worked with his dad in a classic piece called “Dead and Alive,” at a clown festival in Tiandu City.

For both Chet and Lily performing with their parents in circus was very organic.  All through elementary school both kids were taught the entire range of circus arts by their parents who also directed them in their spring productions.  The only serious discussion dealt with the concept of responsibility.  “If they committed to performing with us on an engagement, they  couldn’t’ decide half way  through they didn’t want to do it any more,” Tiffany says.

But the choice to perform in the first place was always theirs.  Once Chet started doing musical theater as well as clowning, he was always looking for performing opportunities.  He likes to mix his juggling with the theatrical gigs.  As for his juggling, Chet picks up juggling tips from every great clown/juggler he has met at the NY Goofs through the years.  Hovey Burgess, who is one of the instructors at the couple’s annual Ultimate Clown School held in New York, has taught him most, but he had also picked up tricks from his father, Jay Stewart, Greg  DeSanto and Joel Jeske.

With Chet being at the performing arts high school, there are many options concerning a professional career open to him.  He will probably go to a theatre school to further his education, and, Tiffany adds, “I think his juggling and comedy chops are an enhancement to his skills as an actor that he will tap into when necessary.  He often asks when we are going to go back on the road because I think he would like an opportunity to live the circus life full-time.”   Currently he performs with his parents in several shows each year and continues to develop his juggling act.  He most recently played Chef Louis in a production of The Little Mermaid, in which he got to sing, dance, act and juggle all in the same scene.”

Lily made her official performing debut at the age of five in a production of The King and I.  Unofficially she first worked with her parents in a parade in Tiandu, China when she was just three.   What with watching her older brother performing at every chance he got, it has always been generally assumed by her parents that she, too, would get into performing as well.

Rather than encouraging her to be a performer, her parents have always tried to instill in her the idea that she would probably have to work harder than her brother because there are so many more girls trying to break into the theatre business.  “As far as circus is concerned,” Tiffany says, “we have tried to help her find an act to develop, but her true skills are comedy.  She is extremely funny.”

In addition she is also committed to studying dance, voice, and acting.  She enjoys doing improvs and clown workouts when her parents are running one of their clown schools, and she is very good at them, which hardly seems a surprise given who her parents are.  “I think her comedy is partly innate,” Tiffany says, “and partly from all the years of watching the NY Goofs and the clown school.”

Troy Wunderle is also a graduate of Ringling’s Clown College and of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown alley.  He has also served as its director of clowning.  He has been associated with Circus Smirkus for nearly twenty years, most recently as Artistic Director and head coach.  His wife Sara is Circus Smirkus’s  assistant circus operations director.  With their year-round involvement in performing and the training of circus artists, their daughters Emily, now fourteen and Ariana now eleven, have been immersed  in circus their entire lives.

Troy’s first conversation about becoming a performer  with Emily was when she was  eighteen months, which occurred immediately after opening night of Smirkus’s 2002 tour.  The young audience member he had invited to come into the ring with him politely declined.  Upon seeing her father in a bit of trouble, Emily, who was sitting in the audience, climbed over the ring curb and joined her father in the spotlight.  Afterwards she asked if he would teach her how to become a circus performer.  He proceeded to teach her the fundamentals of comedy, and she became his bona fide clown partner at the age of three.  Ariana asked Troy that same question when she was seventeen months old, having watched her sister in the ring with her father.  During the ensuing offseason he coached her as he had Emily, and in 2006, at the age of two, Ariana made her debut in the ring.

Emily’s initial clowning consisted of stealing her father’s ringmaster hat and whistle, and Ariana started as a bug catcher in pursuit of a pesky man-sized mosquito.  Although both began as clowns they have subsequently trained in acrobatics, aerials, wire walking, pyramids, stilt walking and more. Troy taught them juggling, rola bola and rolling globe, as well as the essentials of stage presence and a love of the circus.  For much of their acrobatic training the girls were placed in the hands of world-class professionals, the greatest influence coming from the show’s master coach Sellam El Ouahabi, who has mentored them year round since 2008.

Both Troy and Sara left the decision about becoming performers up to the girls, and Troy says they know that if they ever decide to pull back from that they will still have their parents’ support.  Their interest in circus is re-confirmed every year as a new season approaches.  The decision is completely the girls’.  They do know, however, Troy points out, “if they do choose to perform, our expectation is that they do so to the best of their abilities.  We want them to model both a professional dedication to training and a sincere passion for performing.”

The girls have grown up surrounded by extremely talent people and motivated colleagues.  They have watched their friends pursue successful careers in and outside of the circus world.  Many of their friends have gone into circus colleges throughout Canada and Europe.  They are both fully aware of those opportunities.  They both train at New England Center for Circus Arts.  They have watched Smirkus alumni perform with some of the most important circuses in the world,  They have seen their father travel the world as a freelance performer, coach, director and producer, so according to Troy, “Above all they know that no matter what direction a circus artist takes, their success is directly linked to hard work, passion, skill and respect. Regardless of whether they choose a career under the big top or not, the life lessons, attitudes and influences of the circus will guide them forever.”

What the experiences of these circus families boils down to is what their children are exposed to on a steady diet from their earliest awareness of their surroundings and as they mature into adults.  They have watched their parents at work; they have attended circus performances of all types around the world, and they have met and worked with other professionals from all aspects of circus.  They have been surrounded by circus all their lives and seen how the business works inside and out.  So their decisions are seriously considered and supported by their own passion as well as that of their parents. With all that support they are all well on the path to success.

*A gadjo is circus lingo for an outsider.