BRATTLEBORO — COVID-19 prompted local circus artists to get even more creative, coming up with performances tailored to their backyards and inviting friends in the industry to develop their own parts.
Serenity Smith Forchion, co-founder and creative director of Nimble Arts, said the concept of the outdoor show is the same as the inaugural Circus in Place last year, but all of the performances will be new.
“What I like to do as a director is provide a stage and a time and a place for the performers so they can have a bit of a more open-ended opportunity to do what speaks to them during the pandemic,” she said. “What came through last year is every performer had a kernel of something they wanted to bring to the surface so I didn’t want to disrupt that by dictating or setting a theme.”
Still, a theme emerged last year. Forchion said performances are based on politics, activism and social context.
This time around, climate change and the environment have become the theme for Circus in Place happening at 420 Meadowbrook Road in Brattleboro at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
“The pandemic gave us a really interesting opportunity to see what the world looks like when we slow down,” Forchion said. “I think for a lot of reasons, people had to stay at home and stop buying things, and we saw remarkable things.”
She recalled how waterways cleaned up in Venice, resulting in dolphins returning for the first time in hundreds of years and skies cleared up in London so that her photographer friend could get “incredible photos” of mountains.
Forchion said she feels like she’s a bit of a chef, getting ingredients for the show from all artists who bring her ideas.
Theatrical circus artists Brooke Locke and Rachel Rees are teaming up for acrobatic and aerial acts that “blend astonishing physical talent with emotionally rich context,” according to a news release. Juggler Tony Duncan is returning for the show.
A shadow puppet theater show from Cripps Creations will take place on a covered stage with access to electricity. Three tree dancers including Forchion will be on trees, and Abenaki singer-songwriter Bryan Blanchette will sing.
A tree arborist considered the health of the trees and safety of the artists. When Forchion first met him, she said, she told him he needed to be able to say “’no’ when I come up with some harebrained idea.”
Workshops with the arborist led the performers to learn more about trees. Forchion said the artists feel like they can be the voices for trees who can’t talk and say, “Hey, this climate thing isn’t good.”
The approximately 70-minute show goes through properties owned by Forchion, her twin sister and fellow circus artist Elsie Smith, and Circus Minimus Artistic Director Kevin O’Keefe. The audience brings blankets and chairs to the event, which will be held rain or shine.
Forchion believes the show might become a tradition.
“We really enjoy this process and it’s a great time of year to be at home,” she said. “I think if we get enough interest from our audience, then we’ll make this a regular thing.”
O’Keefe sees the potential for hosting the event in other outdoor spaces outside of the area and tying the performances to the locations.
Most of the artists in the show are not making an income by performing in Vermont, Forchion said. She’s typically traveling through Europe in the summer and fall but that hasn’t happened during the pandemic.
Forchion participated in a couple of outdoor events this summer and expects this winter to be “slow or nonexistent” in terms of productions. Fundraisers and galas usually held during this time have been canceled or postponed due to the Delta variant of the virus, she said.
“It’s still a tough time for any performer who relies on this for income,” she said.
She said every cent of Circus in Place goes back to the performers and to continue with the show next year will likely require getting grant funding or other financial support.
During the pandemic, O’Keefe started writing a novel about climate change featuring an adolescent woolly mammoth who becomes what O’Keefe called “a reluctant climate prophet.” His performance in Circus in Place involves storytelling in which the audience will go back about 18,000 years ago, meet the woolly mammoth, walk through geologic history up to the current moment, and even look into the future.
O’Keefe said what he finds exciting is, “If you don’t like the ending of this piece, that’s great because you can write your own. You can be the change.”
“I’m telling this story, I think, it’s supported by science and math and history and geology and physics, things like that,” O’Keefe said. “But it’s also animated with a lot of imagination.”
O’Keefe estimates he is performing about 10 percent of pre-COVID levels. Lately, he’s been helping his wife Erin Maile O’Keefe with Artful Streets during Gallery Walk in Brattleboro.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic, O’Keefe said, is the ability to focus more on making the community stronger.
Circus in Place will follow all state COVID protocols for outdoor events. Tickets are available at nimblearts.org and cost $15.