That old adage of running away to join the circus just came true for three Philadelphia-area teens.
Well, not the running away part. But the performers — Naomi Eddy, 18, of Haverford Township; Scott Raison, 16, of Springfield Township, Delaware County; and Sophie Robinson, 15, of Chestnut Hill — will hit the road on June 6 for a 10-week tour with Circus Smirkus, the renowned international youth circus. They’ve been accepted into the nonprofit organization’s prestigious Big Top Tour.
They’ll juggle, unicycle, tumble, and fly though the air under a 750-seat European-style, one-ring circus tent for about 70 shows in 14 New England locations. The tour is part summer camp (the cost is $7,000), part apprenticeship, and part job.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Adam Woolley, program director and managing partner at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (PSCA) in West Mount Airy, where the teens train for about 15 hours a week. Being accepted into the Big Top Tour is the circus equivalent of getting into a pre-college music program at The Juilliard School, he said.
PSCA, one of about 400 circus schools in the United States, is located in the former St. Madeleine Sophie Church on Greene Street. Where once there were church pews, there are now thick gym mats; trapeze equipment is suspended from the 40-foot ceiling. Each week, about 500 to 600 children and 200 adults descend on the former sanctuary for classes that range in skill from beginner to advanced.
A few years ago, a couple of PSCA students auditioned for Circus Smirkus, putting the school on the Big Top radar. Since then, Smirkus’ interest in the area’s circus skills has expanded. (Among other schools in the region are Secret Circus in North Philadelphia and Trenton Circus Squad in New Jersey.)
“It’s unusual to get three kids from the same school” into a Big Top Tour, said Robin Allen LaPlante, director of external relations for Circus Smirkus. “We’re starting to build a relationship with the circus school in Philadelphia, and the circus community there.”
About 100 performers ages 10 to 18 apply for the Big Top positions, said Allen LaPlante. Forty-five attend a live audition at the Greensboro, Vt., campus, and 30 are chosen. Most campers are from the United States and Canada, with a few from Europe. This year’s tour will include a performer from Zambia.
Applicants are judged on performance skills, personality, and the ability to work in a group and take direction, among other attributes.
“We expect the highest level of professionalism,” said Allen LaPlante.
The Big Top Tour performers comprise the core of the traveling group, which also includes tent crews, coaches, cooks, and other staff members. Along the way, the campers develop skills that transcend physical accomplishment, like dedication and perseverance, which then manifest in other parts of performers’ lives, such as academics, said Allen LaPlante.
The tour features no animal acts, so the “Smirkos,” as the young performers are called, will not be balancing atop elephants or helping tigers jump though fire hoops. Instead, they play the part of clowns. First up are three weeks of intense coaching and rehearsals. On the road, the young performers will be responsible for some of the show preparation, helping with transitions between acts and lending a hand with concession sales.
“It’s the most intense summer camp in America,” said Raison, who attends the online Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School and was a Big Top performer last summer. “You’re constantly working on tour. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done but certainly the most rewarding.”
When he was little, Raison was the kind of kid who would climb up a door frame and hang off its head. His mother heard about PSCA from a coworker and, when Raison was 9, enrolled him in the school. That’s how he found himself in “a big open space with a bunch of kids who all seemed to know what they were doing," he said. He was a bit nervous, but willing to try something new.
Now, as an accomplished juggler and unicyclist who also does contortions, aerials, and acrobatics, Raison is eager to begin his second tour with Circus Smirkus.
“I fell in love with it,” the teen said.
This is also Robinson’s second year with the traveling troupe.
“Being a Smirko is a unique and defining experience,” said Robinson, a freshman at Abington Friends School. Her specialty is aerials and acrobatics, which translate to a physically demanding routine of tumbling, gymnastic moves, trapeze, ropes, and silks.
Robinson was in kindergarten when she first attended a PSCA camp, but it wasn’t until she dropped out of soccer in 6th grade that she picked up the pace with training. Being part of a circus has helped her grow friendships and develop a positive outlook on life.
“I like the ability to be creative,” Robinson said. “I like the way you can really push yourself more and find what you like to do.”
As for Eddy, she decided to audition for The Big Top after seeing one of its traveling shows.
The Haverford High School senior is no stranger to the circus world — her parents are accomplished jugglers. But when she was younger, her first love was mixed martial arts. It wasn’t until she obtained a black belt in the sport that she switched to circus.
“I was always naturally flexible,” said Eddy. Rolling around and making gymnastic-type bridges were easy. “I never knew what to do with my flexibility, and then I found out about the contortions program.”
Circus has been her passion since. She now has a job doing contortions and “ambience work” (which involves performing while mingling with the crowd to create a party atmosphere) for Jewelz Entertainment in Philadelphia.
“I love everything about circus,” she said.
Eddy had planned to attend college in the fall but will defer enrollment for a while. Instead, she will apply to professional circus schools. Her dream job? To work for Cirque du Soleil or The 7 Fingers, a collective founded by circus artists. After that, she envisions becoming a coach and physical therapist.
Most of PSCA’s students probably won’t pursue circus arts professionally, said Woolley. They often head to college for other disciplines but continue to do circus recreationally. The training gives them a sense of community.
“Circus really is about that sensation of belonging‚” he said. “We’re all looking for that in our lives.”