Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Kids on film: Big top on the small screen

Published in the Portland Phoenix


Circus Smirkus, the Vermont-based youth circus that visits Maine every summer, will appear on Maine televisions in a documentary highlighting both the performances and the struggles — physical and financial — of a small traveling show.
Circus Dreams will be shown in two versions — the 90-minute full-length film and an edit of that footage down to one hour — on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network's television stations this month.
Signe Taylor, a producer for PBS's Zoom, has put together her second child-related documentary (the first was about the Iraq war's effect on Iraqi families), following the 2006 summer season of the circus from auditions through training, and on to 70 performances over seven weeks. The twist of this circus is that performers are between the ages of 10 and 18, which obviously improves the show's appeal to children, and is part of the draw to its annual performances in Freeport and Kennebunkport (this year August 6-7 and 9-10, respectively) as well as elsewhere around New England.
None of what's shown is truly startling or eye-opening; the film is simply a view into a world where teenagers put on makeup and costumes and run around a show ring trying to get other people to enjoy themselves. Which is very much like simply being a teenager.
As you might expect in a story about teenagers, there are a goodly amount of clich├ęs. Some lines, for example, have likely been spoken by anyone who ever went to camp as a teen and really connected with the people who were there: "It's kind of relaxing to know that there are other people in the world who are as strange as you," says trouper Jacob Tischler of his first summer with the circus. And there are tears at the finale as the performers part ways at summer's end and return to places where they again feel like outcasts.
It's worth checking out this weekend, but in truth, the better version to see is the longer one (both feature cameos by Maine's Fritz Grobe, of Eepybird). The shorter version (which I watched first, as people who watch both showings on MPBN will do) feels rushed. Even just the extra 30 minutes in the full-length piece allows significantly greater depth and insight.
It introduces more of the performers as characters, shows more of the backstory behind these kids and their summer-long run-away-to-the-circus exploits. It also spends more time with the adults, paying attention to things like casting, logistics, and finance — but the central drama is really just the kids challenging themselves.
There is a subplot showing the financial tenterhooks by which the company clings to existence, but it seems added in an attempt to inject dramatic tension into this otherwise heartwarming, smiley film.
Circus Dreams | by Signe Taylor | one-hour version on MPBN's regular TV stations: April 5 @ 10 pm, April 7 @ 11 am | 90-minute version on MPBN's World channel (10.3 on the digital spectrum and TimeWarner channel 173 in Cumberland and York counties; see mpbn.net for channel information elsewhere): April 24 and 25, times TBD | mpbn.net | circusdreams.net