The members of 2 Ring Circus have gone a few threats beyond triple: They sing, act, dance, and play instruments, all while performing circus acts. And they’re lending their many talents to theatrical productions far afield from their home base in New York City. They’re currently in Arkansas working on a circus version of Godspell which runs June 2-25 at Arkansas Rep.
The company’s artistic director, Joshua Dean, first fell in love with circus work by accident. Cast in a show in Chicago that required him to learn some tricks, he loved the training. Back in New York City, Dean focused on musical theatre, but his circus side kept nagging at him. “Eventually I kind of stopped doing musical theatre and went full-fledged into circus,” he recalls, coaxing his partner, Ben Franklin, to do the same. Not long after, they met Lani Corson and Kenneth Ziegler, a husband and wife with similar interests and abilities, and their duo became a foursome in 2011.
“When we first formed it, we didn’t plan on doing musical theatre with it,” says Dean. “We were actually going to do our four-person shows.” These original shows, with titles like Cirque Le Jazz, A Vintage Affair, and 2 Ring Bros, are circus variety acts, what the team calls “huge little shows”—i.e., quality entertainment with minimal setup and budget required. Theatres can still hire them to perform these acts. But recently they’ve found more takers for their “theatre collaborations”—in fact they’ve been booked solid.
Theatres around the country hire 2 Ring Circus to collaborate on a show if they envision a particular play or musical including circus elements. The four members are cast as characters, usually as part of the audition process, and they sometimes serve as choreographers as well. They’ve now reached a point where artistic directors will often hire them first, then decide on a director.
“Our friends we used to perform with are now often our directors and choreographers,” explains Dean on how the collaborations began. “They would get this idea to want to put circus in their shows, and they would call us because they knew we have musical theatre backgrounds.” The trend caught on from there, and now they spend most of the year on the road, traveling across the states to share their circus skills with the theatre community.
Some of these collaborations include Peter Pan with Alabama Shakespeare Company, The Tempest with Hartford Stage, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Geva Theatre Center, The Little Mermaid with Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and The Ghosts of Versailles with L.A. Opera, for which they had to accommodate 85-90 people onstage at once. After Godspell, they’ll next tackle The Wizard of Oz with Syracuse Stage, then leap right into rehearsals for Seussical the Musical with Cape Fear Regional Theatre in North Carolina.
Melissa Rain Anderson, who directed both A Funny Thing and Little Mermaid with 2 Ring Circus, enthuses about the ease of collaborating with the team.
“The language was really easy between us,” she says. “What I love about them is that they’re theatre-based, and that’s very rare for the amount of skill sets they have beyond theatre. They always want to go back to the story.” Anderson will also direct them in Seussical early next year.
The members of 2 Ring Circus describes saying “yes” as their key to success so far. “We’ve always done this thing of just following the path that’s been provided and saying ‘yes,’” explains Franklin. “So I think we’ll just keep saying ‘yes’ until we have to go, okay, we have to do something different.”
The approach to each production is unique and entirely dependent on the director and artistic director’s vision. “It’s all about the storytelling,” Franklin says. “It’s never about putting in an element just to make people happy. If it doesn’t work or feel organic, it can’t be done.” Some teams simply want circus elements incorporated intermittently throughout the story to bring spectacle to a well-known plotline, as with The Little Mermaid. But the current Godspell at Arkansas Rep, is set in an actual circus, giving more freedom to use continuous circus elements.
“It’s all very seamless,” Corson says. “We can transition in and out of the elements so much easier because it’s like they’re a part of the set, so it’s not like all of a sudden we have to get something onstage.”
There’s a reason this Godspell is so rife with circus elements: It’s not a for-hire gig at all. Instead it was conceived and created by 2 Ring Circus. A long-time favorite of Dean’s, it’s a show he’s always wanted to see as a circus act. They contacted Donna Drake, a New York City-based director who has known the team a long time, to collaborate (she’ll also be directing the upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz with 2 Ring Circus later this year). After working on the show for about two years on their own, they pitched the idea to Arkansas Rep, half-expecting to be put off for a few years. Instead, Arkansas Rep responded immediately and put them in their 2016-17 season closer.
Godspell tells a series of stories from the Gospel of Matthew, intertwined with contemporary songs, some set to the lyrics of traditional hymns. While 2 Ring Circus’s version sticks to the original script, it sets the story in a small family-run circus in the South in 1968. The characters are members of the circus, some clowns, some jugglers; Franklin spends a whole number hula-hooping, and Corson performs with a whip.
“When you’re able to use the circus elements to complement the storytelling, it can often take it much more beyond than what has been done before,” says Franklin. Or at least, not done before in theatre: In Godspell they employ a 1950s-era giant metal ring called a Cyr Wheel, in which a performer stands and spins around the stage.
When they’re not out making shows, they run a circus school, Aerial Arts NYC, in midtown Manhattan. Looking to the future, 2 Ring Circus sees this circus-influenced-theatre as a growing trend. They may look to expand their company in years to come, but right now they are enjoying being the “core four” and doing what they love every day.
“I think we’re going to do it as long as we can because it’s a really great, enjoyable ride, and we have dreams for this company and for these shows,” says Franklin. “There’s a reason that we created Godspell—we hope that it has a life.”
New York City-based arts journalist Estelle Pyper is a former intern of this magazine.