BRATTLEBORO -- What's better than running away to join the circus?
How about running away to join the circus and falling in love?
Ivan Hennessy and Allyson Wendt can tell you how great that is. The husband-and-wife duo met at Circus Smirkus a decade ago when both found themselves -- and each other -- working on Tent Crew. Their first date was about as romantic as it gets.
"Wine and chocolate in the big top in the rain in Newport, Rhode Island," recalled Wendt.
Married a few years later, the two lived in Chicago and then in Bellows Falls, before settling in Brattleboro. Wendt worked at Building Green and now at Stevens & Associates. She is on the board of Building a Better Brattleboro. Hennessy was a downtown business owner, operating a home beer brewing shop on High Street before it recently closed. With all the certainty of driving in a tent stake, they've put down roots here. They have a 2 1/2-year-old son, Blake; people have told them he is the first "My Parents Met at Smirkus" child.
Yes, it's fair to say Ivan and Allyson owe a lot to Circus Smirkus.
"It was certainly a special time. It's really the foundation of our marriage," said Wendt. "How does anyone look back on their early 20s when they met their mate?"
Needless to say, Hennessy and Wendt will be bringing Blake to the big top when Circus Smirkus rolls into town for its annual performances at the Vermont Agricultural Business
A Vermont-based youth circus whose performers are ages 11-18, Circus Smirkus is celebrating its 25th anniversary by doing what it always does -- going on tour, performing nearly 70 shows for audiences totaling 50,000 in 15 cities and towns throughout Vermont and the Northeast. Even if you didn't meet your mate there, it's good entertainment, for all ages.
"I hate to sound corny, but it's good old-fashioned fun. There is actually something magical that happens in the ring," said Wendt.
"The mission is really great, but they just put on an incredible show," said Hennessy, who owes his time in Circus Smirkus to his mother.
Hennessy grew up in Weathersfield and remembers when Circus Smirkus used to make stops in nearby Springfield. It was on one of those stops, his mother, renowned as a great cook, was hired to do cooking and baking. A couple of years after she ran away to join the circus, Hennessy needed a summer job and was hired to be on Smirkus tent crew. It was a life of pounding spikes, climbing in rigging, driving the circus trucks, and working hard to get everything set up when the circus came to town. "Blood, sweat and tents" is how they described it.
It was hard work, but Hennessy liked it and was challenged by it. In his second summer, he became Tent Boss. One of the people on his crew was Wendt, newly graduated from Dartmouth College, where she'd served on backstage crews at the Hopkins Center and thought that doing that on tour would be a cool summer job.
"I was looking for a rock and roll tour, much to the dismay of my parents, and I found a circus tour instead," she said,
She also found Hennessy.
"I remember seeing you on the porch that first night," Hennessy said.
Within a few days, they had started talking about books and "developed sort of an instant crush," said Wendt. It isn't uncommon for summer romances to bloom in the hothouse full of young people that Circus Smirkus is. "Ours ended up being more than a summer fling," Wendt said.
In all, Hennessy worked at Circus Smirkus for four summers and Wendt for two. The circus still holds them in a spell, even if it's tempered by memories of hard work. In their time at Smirkus, they overcame heat stroke, bumps and bruises, long hours, long drives, trucks stuck in the mud, encounters with officious fire marshals and more. A host of problems to solve.
"Of course we look back on it now, and it was hard work. It wasn't all roses and peaches," said Wendt.
But through it all, Circus Smirkus remains one big happy family.
"I think Smirkus really does a good job of modeling respect for the other people that you work with," said Hennessy.
That's music to the ears of Smirkus Artistic Director Troy Wunderle, who grew up in Saxtons River, graduated from Bellows Falls Union High School, followed his dream of becoming of professional clown to the highest levels -- he trains clowns for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- and has spent the last 16 summers with Circus Smirkus.
"What I love most about circus is there isn't a single link to the company that's not needed," said Wunderle in an interview last week between shows at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "What's beautiful about this organization is the kids know it's only because of the efforts of everyone else around them that they're able to follow their dreams."
Among those kids following their dreams are his daughters -- Ariana, 8, a Trouper-in-Training, and Emily, 11, who is in her second summer as a full-fledged Trouper. Even proud Mom, Sara, is into the act, serving in the all-important capacity of Assistant Circus Operations Director.
What that job essentially means is she's the one who makes it all happen and makes sure all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed. Porta-potties check. Diesel fuel check. Permits in hand check. Troubleshooting all the time. Last week, she smoothed out a potential problem when the fire marshal required Circus Smirkus to have an emergency exit in its backstage tent. She helped everyone figure out how to make that happen. Earlier, she had frantically figured out an alternate route for Smirkus' trucks, some of which are too big to take on just any road or get through low clearances -- to get to the site after an accident tied up traffic on the main highway there.
"We overcome obstacles daily here," said Troy Wunderle. "There's a real pride we take in our ‘Show Must Go On' spirit."
Initially, Sara was a performer in the ring - she was part of the 1999 tour; juggling and stilt-walking were her specialties.
"When I became a mom, I was happy to step out of that role," she said.
The Wunderles never pushed their children to follow in their big clown footsteps, but how could it not happen? And Sara and Troy wouldn't trade it for the world.
"I find they're more confident for their age. They're very mature. They work hard to solve problems. And they have a lot of big sisters and big brothers around here," Sara said. "As a mom it's been great. We're just a big, huge circus family."
This year, the theme of Circus Smirkus' performances is "Topsy Turvy Time Travel," subtitled "A Blast from the Past and Fun from the Future." Playing with the idea of time travel, the Smirkus show careens across time to different eras in history, with hilarious -- and beautiful -- results.
So far audiences have been large and very happy, and those fans with a more critical eye have told Troy that early performances of the show were a little tighter and cleaner than they usually are. That bodes well for Brattleboro audiences, who usually catch the show in mid-tour, when it's hitting its stride.
"It's definitely fun (to come to Brattleboro), because a lot of my friends and family are going to be there," said 11-year-old Emily, whose growing circus skill set includes an aerial fabric routine that she is performing for the first time this year. So far, so good, and the response has been good.
"The audiences have been loving it," said Emily, who has often found herself in the rare position for an 11-year-old of having to sign autographs. "I'm happy that they like me, and they like me so much they want my autograph."
She's also happy for the support of her fellow troupers. "I learn a lot from them. They're like a big example for me," she said.
When asked her favorite part of this year's show, Emily said "I love watching the clown gags because they're so funny. I also love the aerial show."
Little sister Ariana, who will be seen in the ring doing some aerial work and some clowning, had a more concise answer when asked her favorite part: "Everything. I like everything."
Tickets for matinees are $22 for adults, $16 for children ages 2-12. Evening performances are $22 for adults, $20 for children. Kids under 2 are free. Proceeds benefit Kids PLAYce, a nonprofit indoor play-space in downtown Brattleboro. Tickets are available in Brattleboro at Everyone's Books and Brattleboro Savings & Loan. They are also available through www.smirkus.org or 877-SMIRKUS (877-764-7587). For group sales, leave a message at KidsPLAYce at 802-254-5212.