Welcome to the Show
Story by Alex Burrows // Photos by Jon Bergman
Escaping from the cold, the people move inside and crowd together in a small room. Patchwork quilts, rainbow blankets and multicolored pillows decorate the cement floor. Children gather on the textiles and sit cross-legged in front of a plywood stage, which rests on milk crates. Every chair is filled. Those without a seat lean against walls or wooden beams jutting down from the ceiling.
At one point, the colorful space was empty with frigid cement walls and boarded up windows. Today, the multi-purpose warehouse is home to a unique group of performers, the Bellingham Circus Guild. The guild transformed the space into the Cirque Lab for practice and performance.
Maintaining the Cirque Lab is only one objective for the guild - a distinct Bellingham subculture of circus artists. The guild also hopes to create a sustainable group of performers in Whatcom County. Unfortunately, maintaining local circus artists can be difficult when performers migrate to bigger cities, like Seattle or Portland, in order to develop their skills as professional artists. These cities can offer artists more support and a bigger paycheck at times.
Richard Hartnell, 26, is a guild member who is working to sustain the local performing arts scene.
"There are a lot of circus performers in town interested in setting up the guild as a means for people to become professional artists," Hartnell says. In Bellingham, performers often struggle to earn a living, especially when the guild depends on their support. Each month, members are required to contribute $75 to help pay for rent and other expenses. Without a steady income from the circus, most artists are forced to maintain jobs outside of performance.
"We are all shucking an uncomfortable amount of money into this space because we want it to continue to exist," Hartnell says.
In the Cirque Lab, tonight’s show is about to start. A woman wearing a black dress and stockings jumps onto the stage. Her name is Becky Renfrow and she is the host for the evening.
She picks up a large black megaphone, the type cheerleaders use to excite crowded stadiums, and she yells, "Welcome to Vaudevillingham!"
Renfrow spends the night introducing acts. Mid-way through the show, she motions to a table resting along one side of the room. Behind it stands Hartnell, one of the sound technicians for the night. Renfrow introduces Hartnell’s act as one that will defy gravity.
Leaving his post for a few minutes, Hartnell takes to the stage to perform. He is a contact juggler. Instead of throwing objects into the air and catching them, a ball travels along his arms and upper body. When he is done performing, Hartnell returns to his spot to continue working the sound for the show.
He says he got serious about contact juggling after meeting with a group of performers at Summer Meltdown, a festival held annually in Darrington, Wash.
"I’m part of a school of contact juggling that advocates first learning a particularly difficult trick," Hartnell says. "It’s called a butterfly." He reaches down at his side and pulls an object wrapped in a white bandana out of his bag, gently placing it in his lap. As he unties the corners, the bandana opens to reveal an opaque orb. Hartnell rests the ball on the palm of his right hand. In one quick movement, the ball rolls down to his fingertips. His hand flips over. The ball now rests on the back of his hand.
He continues to roll the ball from the tops of his fingers into his palm, switching from right to left occasionally. He laughs and comments that it probably looks easy, but the skill was difficult to master.
"The first 10 hours of contact juggling are putting the ball on the back of your hand and watching it fall off," Hartnell says.
After mastering the basic moves of contact juggling, practicing becomes more enjoyable, he says.
"We put ourselves in positions in life where we forget to do things we are terrible at," Hartnell says. "We stop learning and then we get old really fast."
For Hartnell and other members of the guild, the circus offers a space to try something new without worrying about skill level. If he gets bored with juggling club, which meets every Monday in the Crique Lab, he might try something different, Hartnell says.
For Western junior Alissa French, trying different acrobatic moves led her to be interested in the circus.
"I went to the circus, and I realized that there were so many different moves and things I could do with my body that I hadn’t learned because they weren’t regulation gymnastics," French says.
French practiced competitive gymnastics for 10 years. But when she transferred to Western, she found herself without a gymnastics team and a place to practice. French says she started the Acro Club as a way to fill the needs of herself and other gymnasts.
"It was really successful at first," French says. "But it was hard to plan ahead for."
Without an adequate indoor space, the Acro Club had to meet on the lawn in front of Western’s Old Main. The grass provided a soft surface, which was necessary for practicing different tumbling moves.
In most cases, the weather determined whether or not practices took place. French says having to wait until the morning of the meeting to find out if it would rain made it difficult to keep attendance up.
"In Bellingham, it was hard to find a lot of sunny days," French says. "People couldn’t plan ahead for it."
With groups like the Acro Club falling apart because of the lack of practice space, maintaining the Cirque Lab is becoming more important for the guild. French says she was invited to check out the lab after guild members attended an Acro Club meeting and told her about the space. She says she enjoyed the circus, but found it hard to maintain the time commitment and pay member’s dues. When classes began in the fall of 2008, she decided to leave the guild to focus on school, she says.
In order to keep performers who are unable to afford monthly dues, guild members are trying to construct a work-trade program. The program would allow interested participants to work a certain number of hours in the Cirque Lab as a monthly payment. The program is not feasible at this time because the guild cannot afford to cut costs for members. The guild will have to find alternative sources of money to help maintain the Cirque Lab before the program will work, Hartnell says.
For Hartnell, this means devoting time to developing an upcoming show at the Back Porch Alley, which is located where the Callaloo used to be. Dinner and Delight is designed to be a two-hour variety show featuring performances by members of the guild. The show is currently scheduled to start in March and run through May, with shows happening the second Thursday of every month.
"That’s the funny paradox about the circus," Hartnell says. "To most people, the circus just shows up and you go see the show, and that’s it. You don’t realize that these are actually human beings that live their lives within the circus scene."
Events such as Dinner and Delight may be a solution to the guild’s financial needs. Hartnell hopes the performances will draw large enough crowds to continue on a regular basis.
"No one really knows where we are going," Renfrow says. "But we are expanding and figuring out how to maintain this."
Back in the Cirque Lab, Vaudevillingham is coming to an end, but the audience is hoping for one last performance. Renfrow introduces the crowd to Ukoiya Mastin and beckons her onto the stage. Renfrow tells the audience that Mastin is one of the founders of U&I Productions, the company that laid the foundation for the guild.
With cheers and applause, Mastin reluctantly stands up from her seat in the crowd. She pulls a piece of purple silk down from the wooden beams hanging above the stage. With one swift movement, she begins to climb the fabric. She twists and wraps the silk around her body. Her movements are simple and smooth but planned to perfection. Each has its own purpose.
She pulls her way to the top of the silk. Her body hangs in the air, several feet above the cement floor. The purple fabric wraps around her hips and ankles. Now she is able to extend her arms and legs and the textile holds her like a harness.
Then with a simple flick of her foot, her ankle comes unhooked. She tumbles toward the ground, her body flipping and turning. With each tumble, another yard of the purple silk is set free. In perfect grace and form, her slender body stops just before hitting the ground. The audience gasps, then bursts into cheers.