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
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.”
In addition to its regular shows in Wellfleet and North Truro, Payomet’s circus program—like The Doobie Brothers—takes its act to the streets when inspiration strikes. “We also send our circus performers to Truro, Provincetown, and Wellfleet—all over the Outer Cape—to do impromptu performances,” says Rice. “We set up an aerial rig and do a small, free show, which is good practice. It’s a great way to get a lot of attention for the program, and we hand out information about the shows.”
These performances, known as “stand-outs,” also take place at farmers’ markets in Truro and Wellfleet, and the troupe conducts scheduled shows in the Truro and Wellfleet school systems as well. “Kids respond to the circus in a way that they don’t respond to almost anything else,” says Rice. “It captures their imagination and gets them out of themselves. Kids might not be interested in much, but when I mention the circus, they really get excited.”
With approximately 200 children enrolled, the Payomet program has certainly struck a chord. Whether it’s the children of the region’s working-class fishermen or the kids of Manhattan doctors who have a summer home in Truro, the program appeals to people from all walks of life, Rice says. And given that there’s rarely any speaking involved, the nouveau cirque movement holds cross-cultural appeal for viewers as well.
The venue’s location has played a pivotal role in the circus program’s birth and evolution. “We’re not in a remote area,” Rice says, “but we’re off the beaten path a bit. We originally were running acting classes for kids, but the circus program evolved partly in response to our environment. The circus arts require a lot of room, and our location is perfect for it.”
Located at The Highlands Center, a former military station during the Cold War era, Payomet occupies land in the Cape Cod National Seashore, which is part of the National Park Service. “The Payomet is a little island of culture in the remains of this old Air Force radar station,” says Maureen Burgess, a member of the Truro Board of Selectmen who lives near the center. “My first introduction to Payomet was seeing ‘Hamlet’ and a couple shows back in the early 2000s, and my husband and I have been attending several performances a year ever since.
“The Payomet started out in a small tent on private land across from its current location,” adds Burgess. “But under Kevin’s leadership, Payomet has grown and thrived. I’m amazed at how he’s able to get such diverse talent to the Outer Cape. I’ve always been impressed by Kevin’s enthusiasm, steadfastness to see this through, and desire to provide quality entertainment for the region.”
Learn more about the Payomet Performing Arts Center at payomet.org.
Joe O’Shea is a freelance writer from Bridgewater.
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