OCircus Puts A Spotlight On Student Talent
Plenty of Oberlin students would secretly rather run away and join the circus, but not until this year’s OCircus! could they fulfill their dreams and go to school at the same time. The third annual big top, directed and coordinated by College senior Liz “Johnny” Johnson, was the biggest it’s been since its inception in 2005, with a cast and crew of 100. For the first time, the show faced some of the production challenges of an event like Cirque du Soleil, handling its “in the round” seating in Philips Gym, down-to-the-wire solidification of acts and the expectations of a sea of Oberlin students, Kendal residents, parents, and, most importantly, kids.
The tumblers, unicyclists, stilters, clowns and jugglers (and others) crammed their tricks into a simple narrative with a universal theme: school. College junior Mark Wessels, the show’s impish star, played Mark Wessels, a boy who falls asleep in class and finds his educational world turned upside down. Class, once boring, acquireds a circus spectacle to illustrate it. Even the janitor (David Brown) has a secret talent. College senior Andrew Broaddus, as Mark’s real-life and dream teacher, transformed with every act to become the weepy drama teacher, the stern principal and the lounge-boss chemistry instructor.
The earnestness and variety presented with each act’s performance was delightful enough, but each narrative frame made it even better. The storyline added grown-up humor — as when one group used contact juggling to punctuate a jumble of Shakespearean phrases in drama class — to a production that was also breathtaking for children.
Johnson said that this dimension is new for OCircus! “The first year we did the circus, the tumbling act consisted of three short interludes where [the tumblers] bounced around dressed like rag dolls, playing leap frog and having a handstand competition and [then] doing straight tumbling passes…This year they incorporated their tricks into a clever plotline, and created characters which were fun and enjoyable to watch.”
Although each act was a spectacle, the performers were not always as polished as they could have been. Johnson said, however, “I was okay with having a show that was a little rough around the edges.”
The charm of the characters and simple storylines around which the acts were woven mostly made up for an occasional dropped juggling pin. The only major downfall was the space itself. At times, the size and uneven acoustics of the gymnasium made it hard to hear the performers.
The production had the incredible boast of being entirely homemade. Everything from the storylines, the music, puppets, costumes, set and perhaps a crazy bike or two was composed or constructed by students. The cast’s devotion is evident in its plan to go on tour with OCircus! this summer (with a fraction of the production) along the East Coast.
Ultimately, the most important assessment of the circus was made quietly, from the lips of a seven-year-old sitting behind me as she watched stilters battle step-dancers:
“When I go to college, probably I’ll get to do that.”