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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: July 31, 2018

South Portland teen clowns around with Circus Smirkus

Written by: Ray Routhier

Theo LeBlanc of South Portland (front) is touring this summer with the youth circus group Circus Smirkus. The circus will perform in Freeport Monday and Tuesday and in Kennebunkport Aug. 9-10.Photos courtesy of Circus Smirkus

Nobody is going to tell 15-year-old Theo LeBlanc to stop clowning around. In fact, he’s being strongly encouraged to keep on doing it.

LeBlanc, of South Portland, was picked to join Circus Smirkus on its tour of the Northeast this summer. He’s among some 30 performers – ages 10 to 18 – from all over the country deemed skillful enough at juggling, unicycle riding or clowning around to become part of the troupe. LeBlanc and Circus Smirkus will perform eight shows in Maine – four in Freeport Monday and Tuesday and four in Kennebunkport Aug. 9-10.

Started in 1987, Circus Smirkus is an arts and education organization focusing on circus skills. Part of that is the annual Big Top Tour, where young performers get to travel and perform for an audience. Alumni of Circus Smirkus have gone onto work in circuses full-time, or in some other performance genre. So far this summer, Theo is loving being a clown but is not sure yet he’ll pursue circus arts as a career.

“I think it’s too early to say, but I’ve certainly considered it,” said Theo, who will be a sophomore this fall at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland.

The show Theo is part of this summer has a vaudeville theme, with the young performers each playing characters you might find at a 1930s vaudeville show. There’s a sister act, a diva, singers and dancers, and comedic stage hands, said Troy Wunderle, artistic director of the show.

Theo is one of several clowns who play the stage hands. In fact, he plays the low clown on the totem pole, taking orders from others. He’s also seen balancing a ball on a stick, while the stick is in his mouth.

“They come on stage to strike (remove) equipment, and that’s when a lot of comedic chaos happens,” said Wunderle of Theo and the other clowns. “The show has ladder acts, water gags, strong man routines. Theo is involved in some knock-about stuff.”

The show also has some classic circus-style acts, including performers who walk on a wire.

Theo started juggling about five years ago after seeing a magician juggle knives and has steadily become more and more interested in circus arts. It’s a good time to be a young person interested in circus arts, with troupes and circus schools offering courses on how to use aerial equipment, like hoops and a trapeze, as well as on balancing, tumbling and physical comedy.

At age 12 ,Theo started riding a unicycle and later took classes at Circus Maine in Portland, which has since closed. He attended circus skills summer camps, including one run by Circus Smirkus in 2016. To become accepted to the touring summer troupe, he had to submit a video showcasing his circus skills.

Circus Smirkus got about 150 videos from youngsters, with 14 spots in the troupe open, Wunderle said. After seeing the videos, Circus Smirkus invited 40 performers to audition live, including Theo, in Brattleboro, Vermont, in January. There they were critiqued on a variety of physical and acting skills. They had to complete in several “clowning challenges” and undergo a “human pyramid assessment.” That last one means they were evaluated as to how well they do with people standing on top of them, or standing on other people.

Theo was judged to be a good base for a three-high pyramid. Somebody stands on his shoulders and someone else stands on that person’s shoulders.

“The base has to be strong, but also trainable, because 90 percent of it is technique,” said Wunderle. “Your middle and flier (the top person) have to trust you. You have to be a team player.”

After being a base for a while now, Theo said it involves “engaging your abs and your back” and knowing when to move, and when not to move.

The Circus Smirkus tour Theo is on will last seven weeks, stop in 16 towns and cities in New England and New York, and include 68 shows. So Theo is getting a first-hand look at what working as a circus performer is like. A typical day can include a two-hour show, followed by troupe chores, some rehearsal, a meal, then another two-hour show. Not to mention travel. When the troupe comes to Maine they’ll do eight shows in five days.

“It’s awesome, and really fun. I really like playing a character, being a clown,” said Theo, adding later, “It’s exhausting.”

CIRCUS SMIRKUS

WHEN: 1 and 6 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Aug 6 & 7 and Aug. 9-10
WHERE: Maine Coast Waldorf School, 57 Desert Road, Freeport, on Monday and Tuesday; Rockin’ Horse Stables, 245 Arundel Road, Kennebunkport, Aug. 9-10
HOW MUCH: $18 to $23
INFO: smirkus.org

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