The world, filled as it is with war, poverty, corrupt officialdom and all manner of skullduggery, doesn’t often give us reporters the chance to set aside the necessary cynicism of our chosen profession to write about something joyous, and maybe even have a bit of fun in the process. So it was with a light heart that I caught up with the Mendocino-County-based Flynn Creek Circus for its weekend stint in Calistoga to both check out a performance and talk with one of its creators and two of its young interns: aerialist partners Jena Dance and Maya deLoche, both recent graduates of Mendocino High School.
Getting out of my car at the Napa County Fairground was like stepping into a blast furnace, 97 dry, dusty degrees outside and not more than a couple degrees cooler inside the cheery circular striped PVC vinyl circus tent. Man-and-wife Flynn Creek Circus creators and performing team Blaze Birge and David Jones bought the tent in Denmark to house their circus just five years ago. Before that they didn’t have a portable space of their own.
“They used to be made out of canvas,” Birge said. “That’s why they had so many fires.” Making the likelihood of fire even higher, she added, the circus tents of yesteryear were also coated in paraffin to increase their weather worthiness: paraffin, as in what candles are made of.
Still in the early weeks of the circus’s 2019 traveling June-to-early-October run, Birge told me that this summer’s cast has 23 performers, including interns Dance and deLoche, and that the usual number of performers fluctuates between 16 and 22. “The number fluctuates depending upon the acts,” she explained. The weekly schedule is grueling, and Dirge says that it takes every one of the performers to set up the tent. “It’s a lot of work, we do it together,” she said. “It’s about a long, hard, 14-hour day, with everybody helping.” So everything gets torn down after the last performance Sunday, they drive caravan-style to the next location on Monday, set up and get ready on Tuesday and Wednesday, then it’s off to the races for another series of weekly performances, each typically drawing crowds of between 250 and 310. “We’re very small,” Birge said. We’re one of fewer than ten circuses in the whole country of this size. We all have to learn to do everything.” Flynn Creek Circus performers will do more than a hundred performances this summer season.
There’s nothing quite as disorienting as walking into a glamorous venue during its pre-performance down time─kind of like seeing Dolly Parton without her makeup on. I walked into the tent under a fine mist of cool water, like they have along the sidewalks in desert towns like Tempe, Arizona. Inside the tent giant fans worked at full tilt to blast the stifling air out of the tent. A young woman crawled across the stage with a hand-held vacuum, seeking out and sucking up tiny obstacles that could slip up a performer. Other cast members walked the perimeter of the stage, checking cables and other equipment. Jena Dance and Maya deLoche athletically bounded over to meet me in a small side room next to what would be the popcorn-and-drinks area, Jena with green salad in hand. “I try to eat healthy,” she said. Performers buy their own food and sleep in portable cabins that move with all the other circus equipment. Many, like Dance and deLoche, drive their own cars from place to place.
Sitting fresh-faced in modest shorts and t-shirts, the two young Mendo women talked about life with the circus. “You never get bored,” deLoche said, though she added that it can get old being with the same people, day in and day out, for months on end. I asked her if all those artistic temperaments play a role in that dynamic. “That’s a good way to put it,” she laughed. Do they ever get injured or just plain get sore from all those physically demanding performances? “It’s part of the job description,” Dance said. “It can happen while stretching your body every day.”
What makes a successful circus performer? “You have to be tough to survive, and you have to love it,” deLoche said. Paradoxically, she added that you have to be both self-sufficient and a good team player. “We’re all in this together.”
“It definitely takes a certain type of person,” Dance added, stressing that the rewards are great. “When you do a great job, it’s so satisfying.”
At a quarter to eight it was time to settle in for the performance. Rings of chairs─everything from ornate wrought-iron two-seaters to folding chairs nearer the back─curved around the stage, about a third of them filled with children virtually humming with excitement. A 3-man band played away in the stage’s right corner, and it was much cooler than it was a few hours earlier; the drab before-hours ambiance was swept away with the twinkling lights and gold stars that ringed the lower inside edge of the dome. Colored lights trained on the stage made everything sparkle, from the red vertical stripes running down the walls to a giant red hat (soon to reveal a rabbit), which matched the red bunting along the edge of the stage. The lights blinked quickly and voila! It was show time, circus-style.
The house went wild as wide-eyed kids watched the hapless rabbit chase a just-out-of-reach carrot. Jugglers in matching navy-blue suits mesmerized with their split-second timing as first balls, then rectangular boxes, flew into the air, their hands a blur. Kids and grown-ups alike gasped as a cat-woman, dramatically grooming her whiskers, stepped onto the head of her partner circling around on his unicycle without a wobble. And the aerialists Dance and deLoche, joined by a long braid attached to the backs of their heads and dressed in sparkly sapphire vests and red socks, bent themselves into impossibly complicated shapes as they writhed high in the tented sky, twisting and turning through, up, and around their acrobat’s ring. The card-trick master recruited a plucky pre-teen girl from the audience to demonstrate the authenticity of miraculously finding the card she secretly pulled out of the deck, no matter the amount of shuffling and reshuffling. The joy of watching the kids in the audience was contagious. The magic of live theatre is just so much more than anything they could watch on a flat screen or in the palm of their hands.
As we walked out to the parking lot, now a comfy 75 degrees of soft darkness, I reflected that running away to the circus can be a good thing for today’s teenagers, so many of whom turn into digital couch potatoes over the long, idle summer─and also what hard, exhausting work it is for the young people who choose to follow the focused, hard-working, and exhausting circus path. I asked Dance and deLoche if they ever feel like kicking up their heels and celebrating after an especially satisfying performance. It didn’t take but a moment for them to debunk that silly notion. “We take a shower and go to sleep,” they said.