The circus is coming to town. But this isn't Barnum & Bailey.
The Runaway Circus and the Loose Caboose performance troupe is a homegrown Asheville ensemble that incorporates "anything from unicycling to juggling to trapeze to acrobatics to slapstick, belly dancing and magic," says organizer/performer-extraordinaire Ingrid Johnson. "There's a lot of heart and soul involved, and it's wholesome."
The all-volunteer group got its start a few years ago as a way for Johnson and her talented friends to creatively fight off the winter doldrums. "This was like, 'Let's, as friends, inspire each other and work on a really inspiring project for the community during a cold, dark time,'" she says. "There was one warm room in the house, and we all sat in there for hours and worked on stuff and threw together a show that was fun as crap, and we were like, 'This is something that needs to continue happening.'"
Moved to action by the particularly cold and doldrum inducing weather this winter (and perhaps more so by the sell-out crowds that supported them last year), the small group has now expanded to include a team of 30 artists and "possibly a small dog, which could be almost ferocious like a lion," reveals a very tongue-in-cheek Johnson.
The ensemble's six upcoming shows at the Reid Center are being billed as the "Sloppy Joe Circus," inspired by the all-too-common awkwardness of life as a middle-school student. The sloppy joe is "a symbol of the lunchroom cafeteria," says Johnson. "Middle school brings up a certain feeling, like a gag reflex," she explains with a laugh. "Maybe not everyone sees it this way, but personally I feel like middle school, man, those were some rough times — I think a lot us can remember those times so freshly, like, 'Remember when I got milk thrown at me?' I love bringing things up that are somewhat uncomfortable but then laughing at them, because what else are you going to do?"
In addition to contributing funny stories from her early adolescence to the shows, Johnson and other core members of the company bring a decade of experience in the circus arts. Local trapeze maestro Sadye Osterloh studied extensively at the Circus Center in San Francisco and now teaches private classes and directs the annual Beaverdam YMCA Youth Circus. Johnson studied and taught juggling, clowning and acrobatics at CircEsteem in Chicago and currently teaches classes at ArtSpace Charter School and Warren Wilson College (where, as a student, she founded the annual Hootenanny Circus). Her passion for performing and teaching has taken her throughout the U.S. and as far away as refugee camps in Palestine and community centers in Israel, where she helped lead programs that brought Israeli and Palestinian children together to work on circus projects.
"We weren't bringing up any political issues. We were just bringing two groups of people together for a common goal: to put on a show and learn," Johnson says of her time in the Middle East. "And sometimes that really works. I think dialogue happened around that — you end up talking about things and becoming friends."
In a similar spirit of community building, Johnson hopes the Runaway Circus will continue to grow, and that the upcoming performances will inspire more people to get involved with the circus arts in Asheville and to express themselves in general.
"Folks are like, 'I don't know what I could do in the circus,' and the next year they're doing awesome stuff. We want to give the idea to kids that there's not a wall here, there's this awesome thing that we're creating and they can be a part of it too," she says. "You just come into this space and you're just like, 'Wow!' — it's a magical time, where you're just there, you're laughing, and you're in awe. I want it to be inspiring for people because that what it was for me."
[Jake Frankel is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]
who: The Runaway Circus and the Loose Caboose
what: Family-friendly, all-ages performance of Sloppy Joe Circus
where: The Reid Center (133 Livingston St., Asheville)
when: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, March 19 to March 28 (Fridays & Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. with a 12:30 p.m. parade leaving from the French Broad Coop at 12:30 p.m. prior to the March 28 show. $10 donation, no one turned away. runawaycircus.com)