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Mermin Discusses New Book at Town House

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HARDWICK – Rob Mermin, the founder of Circus Smirkus, has just published a new book,  “Circle of Sawdust, A Circus Memoir of Mud, Myth Mirth, Mayhem and Magic,”  and on the evening of June 11, he gave a talk about it to an enthusiastic audience at the Hardwick Town House, sponsored by the Galaxy Bookshop.     He was joined by Rachel Schiffer, the executive and artistic director of Circus Smirkus, who herself spent 12 years with that circus in her youth, developing her tightrope and high wire cradling skills, than later, after college, living in France as a professional performer.

Mermin has already written two books,  “Circus Smirkus, A True Story of High Adventures and Low Comedy”  (1997) and  “Circus Smirkus, 25 Years of Running Home to the Circus”  (2012 with Bob Gurwitt), plus a very moving play,  “Act 39,”  about a close friend’s  journey to death with dignity.

“In  Circle of Sawdust,”  he recounts his amazing adventure when he first went to Europe in 1968-69 to learn the basics of life in the circus, in particular to train to be a clown but especially to work with a traveling tent company. The title refers to what remains of a  mobile circus after everyone has packed up and left for the next town, just the archetypal ring of wood chips with its evocative smells and rich memories, exactly as portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in the last scene of his classic film,  “The Circus”  (1919).

At that time there were no circus schools in the United States, whereas in Europe, there were many established permanently housed and traveling circuses with which one could in effect apprentice to multi-generational families of highly talented artists.

In the over 50 chapters of his book, Rob tells numerous stories of the delightful but often improbable experiences he had over a dozen years with circuses in Wales, Copenhagen and Sweden, which were deeply formative for developing his individual character as a clown but also for nurturing his vision of starting his own circus that would give young people of all ages the opportunity to become circus performers, to share what they love to do best, combining the traditional with the modern, and thereby make a better world through the arts. The last section of the book culminates in the modest beginnings of Circus Smirkus at the Richardson farm in Greensboro in 1987.

“Circle of Sawdust”  is consistently well written, vivid in its descriptions and quite humorous, altogether very entertaining, with great momentum that makes it difficult to put down. But, beyond that it is a testimony to the inexplicable persistence of all true artists like Mermin who, against conventional advice, never give up and are able to inspire others to join in making an imagined vision into a reality. 

There were a number of questions from the audience, including some about animals in circuses  in general and Circus Smirkus in the past, and how that has changed, with few wild animals now, and how the trainers always showed great love for their animals. 

Mermin’s own memorable dog, Rufus, was a central part of his act while he was in Copenhagen and in the early years of Circus Smirkus.

Another question was about how he ever got welcomed into circuses, which repeatedly seemed to involve both spontaneous chance as well as a deeper drive to fulfill his vision. Typically circus people would test him by literally throwing him into the ring and seeing if he could survive, his first job in Wales was riding a camel bareback!

As Rob put it, “You  are  circus, or you’re not.” You have to love it, be willing to do anything, work 12 hours a day, always be improvising, because unlikely things sometimes happen during performances.

The differences between general personalities of clowns in America and Europe was  another question. Here, clowns have been cast as scary to children, with fright wigs and garish makeup, while in Europe clowns were seen as artists, much more subtle in their humor.

Lastly there was curiosity about Rob’s connection to the world famous mime, Marcel Marceau, whose school in Paris he attended, starting in the fall of 1969, after his own father gave him the best advice: “You’ll never know unless you go.” Marceau became Rob’s mentor and came to Middlebury in 1999 for a Circus Smirkus benefit show, where he spoke as never before to a live audience about the power of art to bring people together and his love of the circus.

Hopefully Rob’s next book will be about his evolution as a mime and his lifelong relationship with Marceau. 

Circus Smirkus will be performing its first show of the season in Greensboro on Saturday, June 29, at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., entitled  The Imaginarium. Get your tickets now as these initial performances are always sold out. Signed copies of “Circle of Sawdust” are available at the Galaxy Bookshop.

David K. Rodgers

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