By Jim Sullivan
---- — Brace yourself, folks. The circus is coming to town.
Newburyport’s Theater in the Open is bringing Circus Smirkus to Newbury’s Manter Field on Friday, Aug. 2, and Saturday, Aug. 3.
For Theater in the Open’s artistic director, Edward Speck, it’s been a dream come true.
“It’s really a magic process to be a part of,” Speck said of Circus Smirkus. “It’s all the things you’d expect from the circus except for the animals.”
Currently in its 34th year of operation, Speck’s nonprofit theater organization has been busy preparing to welcome Circus Smirkus for the second time in two years after a long hiatus. This year’s circus theme will be “Oz Incorporated,” based on “The Wizard of Oz,” and promises everything from the Yellow Brick Road to the flying monkeys.
Speck, 31, grew up with Theater in the Open, starting with its summer arts workshop as a youngster. When he was 15, the circus came to town for the first time.
“It was a huge step for Theater in the Open,” Speck said. “To work with another organization that was working on a slightly larger scale than we were and doing a large tour every year, and it became a rather large fundraiser for us. So, culturally and economically, it was a huge boon for Theater in the Open.”
The Circus Smirkus event became Theater in the Open’s biggest fundraiser for the next four years.
“Really, it was a win-win,” Speck said. “The area gets this wonderful program to visit each year. Theater in the Open got to help its operating budget, and Circus Smirkus was able to tap into the wonderful, artistic families of the Newburyport and surrounding areas.”
But, as with all good things, the theater’s time with the circus came to an end. So, when Speck became artistic director in 2009, he knew what he wanted to see return to the area — it just took a few years to make it happen.
“It was one of my main goals,” Speck said of returning Circus Smirkus to the Newburyport area in 2012. “Honestly, from a cultural standpoint, I missed it so much. It takes a lot of work to bring the circus here each year. They run an extremely tight ship, and they rely on organizations like ours to do the groundwork and to get the field, the advertisers, the signs up and the tickets sold. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic relationship. So we have to put a lot of energy into making sure the event is a success. But at the end of all that work last year, getting to be able to sit under the big top next to the circus ring for the first time in 11 years and to be able to see all of these young people and very old people with very young smiles on their faces, I was overwhelmed.”
The relationship between the two companies became symbiotic enough that two Theater in the Open alums would go on to join circuses of their own. Ariel Ebacher is currently touring Great Britain with a Welsh circus, and Dylan Fuller got into professional clowning.
The Vermont-based international youth circus is a true traveling show, spending the summer moving up and down the Northeast.
“They come in Thursday evening, set up shop, do their two shows Friday and Saturday and by Sunday morning, they are gone with the wind,” Speck said.
The one-ring big top event also features 29 performers, ages 11 to 18.
“Much like Olympic gymnasts, they are going to be young because that’s the only age where you can pull this stuff off at,” Speck said of the circus performers. “So these kids are performing at an extremely high level in terms of quality. Then you have the experience of children in the audience getting to see people their own age performing these amazing acts.”
Theater in the Open provides free, family-friendly theater in Maudslay State Park and is currently working on a production based around the myth of Orpheus.
“Our two missions are really to entertain and educate using art,” Speck said. “Right now, we have 85 students who are learning dance and art and drama, and we try to use different forms of art to create more well-rounded human beings because that’s the experience we all had growing up.”
If you go
What: “Oz Incorporated,” Circus Smirkus’ 2013 Big Top Tour
When: Friday, Aug. 2, at 2 and 7 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 3, at 12:30 and 5:30 p.m.
Where: Manter Field, 81 Central St., Newbury
How much: $21 for adults, $17 for kids ages 2-12. Tickets are available at Eureka Toys at The Tannery Marketplace in Newburyport, online at smirkus.org or by calling 877-SMIRKUS.