Clown college

Unique space for a unique group: The Runaway Circus performance troupe needed a place that could accommodate acrobatics, juggling, aerial arts and general mayhem. So they’re opening Toy Boat for the whole community to learn and watch.

If you’ve ever dreamed of walking away from your desk to dangle from the trapeze, or of juggling the contents of the fruit bowl on your kitchen table, load up your clown car or strap on your stilts and make your way to Biltmore Village. The circus has moved to town.

On Saturday, July 14, from 8 to 11 p.m., Toy Boat Community Art Space opens its doors with a gala event featuring music, juggling, trapeze, magic and dancing. The event is free and open to all ages, with light hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.

Toy Boat will function as a multi-purpose space where performers can meet and practice their skills, where music and theater events can be held and where the public at large can learn various performance techniques. So, it's much more than a circus, although that's there too.

Nina Ruffini, one of Toy Boat’s founders, explains that, initially, the venue was to serve as a practice and performance space for her troupe, The Runaway Circus. “Many community centers in Asheville have cut back their hours,” she says. “We also have particular needs — such as high ceilings and large stages.” Performance-wise, the Runaway Circus struggled to find a consistent, appropriate arena for its act. Bars had been difficult to work in, as many of the shows are family-friendly. There were scheduling issues aplenty. The ensemble could clearly identify a need for a unique space to suit their needs.

Ruffini joined forces with some of her circus cohorts — Sadye Osterloh and Ingrid Johnson — to open a community center of their own. But not without some pavement-pounding fundraising, including a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $3,423.

Once the group secured funding, there was the matter of the appropriate facility. The owners of 101 Fairview Road came forward with a rental opportunity. The former music venue/performance space, with its open floor plan, steel rafters and stage, proved a perfect fit.

While Ruffini, Osterloh and Johnson spearheaded the Toy Boat project, each of them stress that the efforts of many individuals and performance groups, including Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth and The Loose Cabooses, made securing the space possible. Many volunteers have worked on the venue, spending their evenings after work patching and painting walls (with a few juggling breaks thrown in).

The weekly schedule at Toy Boat will include time for classes, rehearsals for performance groups, shows, concerts and open gym. As Johnson emphasizes, “We don’t want this to be a space strictly for professional performers. We welcome anyone who has interest in circus arts, regardless of their experience.” Open gym is particularly important for this reason. Taking place at least twice a week, it is a time for people to gather to meet other performers, to learn from each other and build community.

For those with less experience, classes may be the best introduction. Beginning July 15, sessions include juggling, trapeze, acrobatics, stretching and conditioning, improv, magic, prop-making, percussion and mask-casting. Ruffini, who will teach improv, comedy and props, expresses her delight at seeing the talent and skill that’s possible in a learning-focused environment. Many of these classes last for six weeks, and range from $60 to $125.

At the July 14 event, attendees can meet Ruffini and other instructors, as well as simply tour the space and enjoy the night's entertainment, which includes Michael Luchtan and Patrick Kukucka of the Asheville Tango Orchestra, playing accordion and piano from 8-9 p.m. After that, The Runaway Circus performs magic, juggling and trapeze. Music (and a dance party) begins at 10 p.m.

Beyond the grand opening, Toy Boat plans to further involve other groups and communities in Asheville once the ball gets rolling. Cumbia night (Latin dancing) will take place once a month. Past performances by The Runaway Circus and the Loose Cabooses have raised money for many local nonprofits, including The Odyssey School, and such ventures will continue. While the first six weeks of classes are currently set, Toy Boat welcomes proposals from individuals who want to teach classes related to circus arts.

The enthusiasm for the project is contagious, and the creativity and experience of the founders is obvious. Osterloh, a self-described “ham,” learned Chinese acrobatics in San Francisco, and met Ruffini on the set of a puppet show. Toy Boat is an important step in the history of The Runaway Circus, now in its seventh year. According to Johnson, the plans for the space are simple: “We want people to come have ideas, to come teach, to feel welcome in the space and have fun.”

Learn more about classes, see images of the space and meet the groups involved at

— Bridget Conn is an Asheville-based artist, designer and photographer. Visit her website at

who: Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat community art space
what: Grand-opening gala with music, juggling, trapeze, magic and dancing.
where: 101 Fairview Road, site of former Garage at Biltmore.
when: Saturday, July 14 (8 to 11 p.m. Free.)


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3 thoughts on “Clown college

  1. Jaye Bartell

    Correction: In the print version of this story, we mischaracterized the status of the Garage at Biltmore. Although Toy Boat Community Art Space now occupies 101 Fairview Road, the Garage will continue to hold events at the space, according to owner Chris Hart.

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