Mark Lonergan and circus mashup

Running Away to the Circus with Mark Lonergan, Big Apple Circus Artistic Director

Who among us hasn’t wanted to run away to the circus? Mark Lonergan, Artistic Director of the acclaimed Big Apple Circus and a co-creator of Opera North’s signature opera/circus mash-ups, talks about life under the big top and the impact of the Opera North collaborations.

Evans Haile (EH): How did you get into circus?

Mark Lonergan (ML): I trained as an actor and then met Joel Jeske who tipped me off to the physical comedy of the great silent film actors: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields and later, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.

Here in the US, clowns have odd connotations, so we avoid using the term. I was intrigued by how physical comedy can convey a complete story without speak a word. Bill Irwin and his range of work came next. I was impressed with how he created something very special and made it a legitimate art form, and elevated what had been a sort of low-brow performance. He paved the way to make what we do possible.

When I formed my company Parallel Exit and toured Europe I experienced the respect and awe the art receives. Whenever they heard what my company did, it was greeted with “Oh! What great energy!” because it fit into the revered and ancient history of forms like Commedia Dell’ Arte in Italy. It’s a treat as an American to go there because you get a different interaction with the audience. Bringing that back to the US, when the audience sees it done well you get the same response and joy. It is received the same – it’s truly a universal art.

EH: Talk a bit about how have you worked with Opera North to create a show with the music.

ML: it starts with a very collaborative effort. Usually a physical comedy artist works with one piece of music. Sometimes for their entire career. Coming in and being asked to work with an entirely new piece of music, it takes time to get used to it. Louis and I always provide the music well in advance so by the time the get together with the orchestra it feels right, it feels natural.

EH: What is the thought process to creating a piece?

ML: There’s something quite magic about a circus tent. Even though circus is now performed in theaters and other indoor venues, we really prefer the tent even though it can be challenging. For example, Kyle and Andrea juggle umbrellas and one change in the air flow can throw the timing all off. And I remember the first show when we had to work out all the safety issues, like what if lightning hits the center pole? Then we could focus on the theatrical elements and not worry about those details.

EH: So Opera North decided ‘let’s put on a circus’ and now we’re doing our third production, Louis. What are your observations?

Louis Burkot (LB): I’m excited about the planning we’re doing now for this summer, choosing the music. I watch Mark’s face to catch his initial reactions, which are always a good barometer. He’s always very open and very candid, willing to keep the discussion going. I have to say that figuring out how it will all fit together has made this work one of the most liberating experiences of my career. There are conventions in opera; it’s a formal experience. But circus artists are used to a different audience. In opera the audience traditionally holds the applause, but here we cued to the excitement of how the audience reacted. The orchestra and the singers became one with the performers, and watching the physical strength of the circus artists made the singers dig deeper. We wouldn’t have gotten that if we hadn’t put it together.

EH: How did the singers react to that audience response?

LB: They were shocked, but very quickly adapted. Some started to tailor their performance to incite the reaction when they wanted one. It allowed the performers to call upon their deepest physical feelings of the music. They prepared intellectually to know and present their piece but then gave over to the physical and spontaneous. They’ve said it was a good keepsake from their time here with Opera North.

EH: One of the terrific benefits of Summerfest is that the audiences have broadened – we have opera fans and families at Blow-Me-Down Farm. Talk a little about what we can expect in 2021.

ML: Those who attended before know that this year’s Havana Nights shows will be something that hasn’t been seen before: half a dozen circus artists, flying in the air and on the ground. Jan (Damm) and Ariele (Ebacher) for example are doing things physically that are quite remarkable. Joel Jeske is returning. Louis and I collaborate on the feel and sound to evoke the spirit of the theme that carries through the evening. It’s such an incredible blend of physical artistry and humor, both large and intimate. What the collaboration has done to the circus artists is it elevates their game. With music usually heard in a concert hall or opera house, they take it in and it change how they execute their work. It’s an experience I’ve never seen or expected except at Opera North.

EH: Talk about Kyle and Andrea. (Andrea Murillo and Kyle Drigg) It’s interesting that we’ve enjoyed so many couples who are circus performers. (It’s certainly very helpful as we try to arrange housing!)

ML: Kyle was accepted to train at the National Circus School in Montreal – the hub of the planet when it comes to circus. He was then invited to the circus festival in Paris where he was a medalist and then he joined Cirque du Soleil and the Big Apple Circus. He is an exquisite artist. When he met Andrea, she was a Martha Graham Company dancer. They have taught each other their respective art forms and in the past three years they have each evolved to become juggler/dancers. It’s astounding to see. There’s so much skill they can draw on and their so charismatic. They’ve elevated into one of the best, world class circus duos. They expect to premiere their own show this spring, if possible, in Philadelphia. Then they come to Blow-Me-Down Farm.

EH: Tell us about Joel.

ML: Those who saw Hoedown at Blow-Me-Down will remember him as the medicine show doctor. His story is fascinating. He trained as an actor in Chicago and then went to Clown College with the Ringling Brothers. The college was a training ground for the 20+ clowns Ringling used in each show. Joel toured with them for three seasons and wrote gags for them. Then he moved to NYC where I met him and brought him to the Big Apple Circus as an instructor. He was also one of the ‘clown doctors’ visiting children’s hospitals. With the Big Apple he then became the host or ringmaster. Paul Binder would open the show and then turn it over to Joel. It was Joel’s idea that built the 2015 season for Big Apple Circus.

LB: Evans, talk about the creation of the circus mash-up at Opera North.

EH: I have always loved storytelling through music. When I was twelve I played the piano at Shaky’s Pizza three nights a week, from 7 pm to 2 am. That taught me stamina but also is where I learned that people just want to have a good time. When we take people on that journey, that’s what’s exciting about Opera North.  I was thinking about how do we reach people and remove the artificial barriers using the beautiful park that is Blow-Me-Down Farm. Then right before I came to the job at Opera North I had done an orchestra concert series in Florida and collaborated with the [Flying] Wallendas one evening. I really wanted to do something with the circus. I love playing for the performers. When I played Claire de Lune for Kyle and had to gauge the moment of his catch – it was incredibly interactive.

EH: The Upper Valley, Brattleboro have become a great circus center too.

ML: There’s something in the air. Circus is a booming industry in Florida, with Sarasota as the hub; but 33 years ago, Rob Mermin created Circus Smirkus in Lyndon, Vermont – it seemed almost like a cult, doing circus out in the middle of nowhere. And then two sisters from Cirque du Soleil started the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA) in Brattleboro. Then the Upper Valley had a circus training program that worked with Opera North for summer camp in 2019. Vermont and this corner of New Hampshire are now a magnet for American circus artists. When they’re not traveling they’re working as instructors on shows with circus youth, 10-18 year olds training as a sort of circus Olympics with professional productions, which is extremely rare in circus. I am proud to be part of any of those programs. It’s my second home here now and I love it, as do my colleagues.

EH: The audience gets a spectacular experience that’s completely new for the circus artists and the singers. Tell us about this summer.

ML: Louis and I are due to start that collaboration.

LB: I’m able to make more concrete plans, music selection, now that I know who the team (of Resident Artists) will be.

EH: The Havana Nights circus/opera mashup performances are July 16, 17 and 18 (two performances on Saturday) and tickets are available at OperaNorth.org

It is a great opportunity to bring families to have that live experience. Some may never have experienced live classical music before.

Marcia Cassidy (ON orchestra): it was like playing in a jazz club when they’d break out clapping. And then having Sam Furlough juggle Paul (Cassidy)’s bass! Paul Cassidy: I have a background in physics, which helped me worry a bit less!

ML: Sam got the call from Cirque du Soleil while he was performing in Singers & Swingers, which was a huge opportunity for him.

Maria Laskaris: In the opera world, we’re all waiting to see about performance this year. Is the circus world dark, too?

ML: Yes, though it depends on the region. Circus is on pause so circus artists are doing programs like this. But if an artist needs equipment to train and has no apparatus that’s a massive obstacle. Fortunately, NECCA has been open since the summer, with masks, enhanced ventilation, pages and pages of protocols to keep everyone safe. They’re leaders in showing it can be done safely – they’ve had no transmissions of the virus. So the artists are trying to keep their training up as much as possible.

EH: Talking about the circus summer camps – the response was truly amazing. Kids have no barriers. They are open to experiences without built in prejudice. They just come and experience it. We should all be like kids – they opened themselves up to all the excitement and curiosity of it.

So – this summer we are back to Blow-Me-Down Farm! Opera North couldn’t be more proud of what we’re doing. Do, please, come and show your support.