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A circus for the 21st century

In addition to a loaded concert lineup, Truro’s Payomet Performing Arts Center offers a circus camp for kids

Truro’s Payomet Performing Arts Center

Under the starry summer skies of North Truro, when the lights wink out after a well-attended concert at the Payomet Performing Arts Center, most attendees don’t realize that they’ve invested in far more than a breezy evening of memories.

Whether fans this year enjoy the tunes of time-tested stars like Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Blue Oyster Cult, and Little Anthony and the Imperials—or emerging artists like Ireland’s We Banjo 3—not only will they get a great night of entertainment for their ticket price, but they’ll also be supporting an initiative near and dear to the heart of Kevin Rice, Payomet’s artistic director.

“We host big-name musical artists to serve our audiences, but our heart is in our circus program,” says Rice, an award-winning playwright and self-described “theater guy” who has overseen all aspects of Payomet’s programs for the past nine years.

Depending upon demand, the not-for-profit Payomet can house anywhere from 100 to 600 guests for its music, theater, or spoken-word performances. “The larger shows,” Rice says, “subsidize our Circus Arts Program.”

For the past four years, the Payomet Circus Camp has offered classes in aerial arts, juggling, hooping, tightrope, German wheel, acrobatics, mini-trampoline and physical comedy/improvisation ( clowning). The camp instructors—who are also professional performers—rehearse, create, and perform a family circus show twice a week. During peak tourist season in July and August, the shows are performed on Tuesdays at Wellfleet Preservation Hall and on Wednesdays at Payomet.

“We’ve worked closely with Kevin and Payomet since we opened five years ago,” says Janet Lesniak, the executive director of the hall, which housed Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church on Wellfleet’s Main Street for nearly a century before its recent conversion to an arts center. For the past few years, Lesniak adds, the partnership with Payomet has revolved around the circus performances and the camp for children.

“A few years ago, Kevin became entranced with the circus,” Lesniak says. “He has an incredible passion for it. Kevin is a very engaging guy, so when he gets excited about something, everyone else gets on board.”

After a great deal of research, Rice managed to discover highly qualified professional performers who could teach and, remarkably, reach kids. “That’s not an easy thing to do,” Lesniak says.

When Rice refers to the circus arts, he’s not referring to your grandfather’s traveling circus. While the traditional three-ring extravaganza of lion tamers, fire-eaters, contortionists, and human cannonballs is still popular, Payomet’s circus has much more in common with Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Bros.

The Payomet program trains children ages 7 to 13 the contemporary circus. Also known as the cirque movement or nouveau cirque, the contemporary circus movement can be traced back to the 1970s, when circus performers in France and in other pockets around the world began to experiment with a new approach.

While the traditional circus boasts remarkable—but disjointed—acts in three or more rings, the new circus movement focuses more on storytelling or performances with a common theme. Animals have been deemphasized or dropped from shows entirely.

“In the last few decades, the circus has been evolving into more of a combination of dance, physical theater, and dynamic movement,” says Rice, a big fan of physical comedy. “Last year, we called our show ‘The Circus of the Living Wage,’ and our performers dressed in workers’ clothes, punched a time clock, and went to work in the ‘circus factory.’ The workers were looking for a living wage, but the boss came out and conflict ensued.

“This year’s show is called “Cirque de Circle,” adds Rice. “The theme will be one of reaching out and joining something. The underlying message will be that no one should be excluded.”

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