The prospect of performing at Diana Wortham Theatre has been more than an aspiration for Jeff Anderson, founder and director of Clan Destiny Circus. “It’s been my Moby Dick,” he says, likening himself to the obsessive Captain Ahab from the Herman Melville novel.
On Saturday, July 13, Clan Destiny will grace that coveted stage for the inaugural showing of TROUPE. The musical shares the story of misfit refugees and performers who band together for survival in a war-torn world.
“We’ve performed on grass, sand, cobblestone, inside warehouses and on various outdoor stages,” says Anderson. “When I first saw Diana Wortham, I thought, ‘I’d really love to be on a real stage and show folks this thing we’ve created.’ I think if this show is successful, it could really change the way people see the circus in Asheville.”
Nearly 20 performers train with Clan Destiny and have further developed their skills under Anderson’s coaching. Eight have a role in TROUPE, which unravels its poignant yet lighthearted story through dance, acrobatics, hula hooping, flow arts and mime. Two musicians — Raeph McDowell and Peter Strong — will underscore the refugees’ journeys with lyrical, contemporary folk music. There will be no spoken dialogue.
The performers represent a wide swath of ages and life experiences, from “Kenny the Clown” Cowden to McDowell, who works as a professional busker. There’s also Gillian Maurer, a dancer, aerialist and UNC Asheville student; and Nicky Murphy, a hula-hooper, fire performer and full-time mom.
In many ways, the story of TROUPE is a story about its performers.
“We’re a bunch of misfits who found each other here and are working to create something,” says Murphy. “To create art that might open people’s eyes to what’s going on in the collective whole.”
She continues, “My character is the flyer. I’m kind of like the mother of the whole tribe of circus folk. My character has been through bombings and lost her family. In real life, I am a mother of two children, so we’ve created this character that’s somewhat me — but it’s me in the deepest, darkest time life could hand me.”
“The character I’m playing is a female-bodied person who has gone through the gendered violence of a broken Western society,” says Maurer. “My work in the show explores reconnection with self and community.”
By giving a voice to the suffering, Anderson says, “We wind up helping each other heal.” He also draws inspiration from the historical narratives of refugees, particularly in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I’ve interviewed refugees and used specific stories from their lives,” Anderson says. “I want people to think, ‘Hey, this could actually happen. What do you do when things come crashing down? What happens to society, and what do people do to each other?’”
According to Murphy, Anderson is the main reason the show is coming to life onstage. “He’s the rock star behind it all. He has found investors for it and is taking a really big chance because it’s a story he wrote and he is directing. It’s a story born within him, and he’s feeling compelled to share it. He’s really orchestrated the whole thing. It’s really special.”
Anderson — who has been involved in the circus arts since 1996 — has a B.A. in theater from Georgia State, the place where he also first became interested in mime as an art form. “We’re an every-person circus,” he says of Clan Destiny. “We all have full-time jobs or other responsibilities but also have this circus life. We really try to co-create and inspire audiences to push themselves as much as we are pushing ourselves. It’s pretty cool because whenever we perform, the crowd always feels bigger at the end than when we started.”
Getting TROUPE, a self-produced show, to the stage hasn’t been easy. To fund the endeavor, the troupe acquired a small-business loan from Mountain Bizworks. And then there was the matter of rehearsal times that worked for all involved.
“You can’t make a living out of it, which takes away from being able to build ourselves,” explains Murphy. “The money isn’t there, which makes it hard to be able to dedicate time and create more elaborate feature shows that would serve to build up the circus scene itself.”
Anderson adds, “We’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much. We’re getting up at 5 a.m. to get a workout in before we go to work. We’re meeting to practice whenever we can. It can get tiring to perform while everyone else is relaxing.”
But, he adds, “Everyone deserves the circus. That’s our motto.”
WHAT: Clan Destiny Circus presents TROUPE
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m. $20-$30