Much of Portland was shocked last week when it was announced that the tenants for the forthcoming Thompson’s Point development would include a Circus Conservatory of America, the first accredited and degree-granting circus school in the country.
But does it really come as such a surprise? Maine has been a hotbed of nontraditional and original theater arts for decades now, much of it circling around Oxford County, where the Celebration Barn was founded by Tony Montanaro in South Paris in 1972. A residential theater and workshop space, the Celebration Barn has produced countless performance artists in Maine and internationally, and is no doubt one of the reasons why, as Circus Conservatory director Peter Nielsen put it, Portland is “the best place for [a circus school] in the world.”
While it’s only natural that a discussion about the viability of a circus college would invite questions — maybe even a little doubt — from some, many of the state’s theater performers are optimistic about the project, and how it will affect the Maine theater community moving forward.
One of those is Buckfield resident Fritz Grobe, a former actor and clown with the Birdhouse Factory, a modern circus founded in New England in 2004. Grobe believes that future Circus Conservatory students will benefit from the specialized curriculum at the Celebration Barn and vice versa.
“To provide this incredible pool of young talent with an accredited training ground in the US is really fantastic,” he says. “So far the only real option had been in Canada and in Europe.”
In 1989, Grobe left Yale University, where he was pursuing a degree in mathematics, to study juggling at the Celebration Barn. Subsequently, in addition to performing in award-winning, internationally touring circus acts, he also founded Eepybird Studios, the viral video marketing group that began with dramatized Diet Coke and Mentos experiments in 2006.
Yet despite finding professional success, Grobe still lives and works in theater in the small town of Buckfield, in part because he is inspired by the surroundings. “One of the things that makes Maine great as a place to create theater is that it encourages the more rural Maine sensibilities. It gets people creating work that isn’t just out to shock or be edgy, and lends itself to real substance. People take the time here to make work of real value.”
Amanda Huotari, former student and executive director of the Celebration Barn, would agree. “In my town of Buckfield there are more jugglers per capita than anywhere else in the world,” she says. “The possibilities for collaboration are endless.”
The conservatory expects to welcome its first class in the fall of 2015, but hopes to be open for classes before then. It will occupy a 30,000-square-foot brick building within the 28-acre development.
No educational pursuit is simple in this economic climate, but Grobe and Huotari are optimistic about possibilities for Maine and future students both, noting that conservatory will entice students to Maine who previously had no other options for serious circus study in the states.
“In the 1970s there was a real boom of amazing performers, and that had a long-lasting impact,” says Grobe of the modern renaissance of circus arts. “All you have to do is look at the number of Cirque du Soleil-type shows and variety shows in Europe. We’re starting to see that reach the US more and more. It’s the right thing at the right time.”