By M. English for Digital First Media
PLYMOUTH — Through the ages, circuses have ranged from the chariot races of ancient Greece and Rome to the former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shows and today’s Cirque du Soleil.
Fourth-graders at Plymouth Meeting Friends School began contributing their unique spin to the circus tradition 15 years ago, thanks to teacher and near lifelong circus fan Will Starr.
Fresh from publishing a circus-themed math book, Starr decided to share his enthusiasm for all things big top with his young charges. That decision included teaching the mostly 9- and 10-year-olds to juggle, unicycle, walk tightropes and master any number of other circus arts … all of which led to the establishment of PMFS’s annual Fourth-Grade Circus.
Plymouth Meeting Friends School teacher Will Starr works with some of the 12 fourth-graders who will star in the 2019 Fourth-Grade Circus.
The production’s theme changes yearly, and 2019’s will transform the school’s contemporary Steinbright Building to glamorous mid-20th century Hollywood when it opens to the public March 15 and 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7.
Don’t look for clowns or animals under this big top, either. The action unfolds within the structure of a storyline, and this year’s 1940s Hollywood theme — dubbed “Steppin’ Out” — was inspired by a PMFS music class that introduced the local kids to the music of English singer-songwriter Joe Jackson.
“I try to do something that ts the class each year, so when I heard Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ playing in [their] music class, I thought why not take that song and adapt it to our [theme], basically, a couple going out on the town having a good time,” Starr explains. “And let’s set it in Hollywood in the 1940s … a time period a lot of kids, including these kids, don’t know much about.”
To enhance the experience, Starr tweaked his American history curriculum to make the 1940s the focus of his fall syllabus, and this year’s circus shaped up as a movie rehearsal on the backlot at MGM that — as planned — will climax in a fancy “Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire-type dancing scene.”
Think “Singing in the Rain,” Starr adds. “Full out, total lights, cameras, action.”
Or, as PMFS’s website promises: “Expect a grand finale of epic proportions.”
Members of Starr’s local troupe begin honing their talents at the start of each fall semester and get together for practice with increasing frequency as opening night approaches. Unicyclers also meet for Sunday afternoon sessions … as do the parent volunteers who sew costumes and construct props like the “impressive” wooden staircase designed for “Steppin’ Out.”
“Yeah … it’s denitely kind of crazy, but it’s a nice way to get the kids, parents and teachers all working together toward a common goal, which I think is really important,” Starr says. “Talk about crazy … on one of the Sundays right before the circus, we have our annual game of unicycle tag in the gym. And, yes, it’s crazy — a couple of the kids are on 6-foot-tall unicycles — but it’s a lot of fun.”
He gets no argument from this year’s performers. Unicyclers or not, they all juggle several roles, sing and dance with apparent ease. Not surprisingly, they’ve taken to some of those roles more avidly than others.
“My favorite part is the part where I get to say. ‘Where’s my coffee?’” figures Jonas Couzin-Frankel, who plays the “director” calling the shots at the fictional MGM rehearsal.
Classmate Oscar Gasga? He’s hoping to wow audiences with his plate-balancing skills, while Sasha Newman’s favorite act is “cigar boxes,” and Drew Aldinger is partial to “the little bike.”
Kalila Abboud-Rosen and Suri Greene are looking forward to shimmying down the vertical drops in the show’s shiny “silks” (which Kylee Saraga describes as “kind of like big scarves hanging from the sky that you use your arms and your legs to climb on”).
Elise Drury will doubtless impress with her prowess on a bar called “the pipe.”
“Which is similar to the tight wire but with a thin bar of metal,” notes fellow pipe-walker Bella Evan.
Not to mention “hard” to do, says Andrew Lindsley, who finds unicycling “easy.”
Charlie Berk, like most of his classmates, feels “nervous but still good” about the upcoming show. He and pal Jeff Gould will share the spotlight in one routine — a bit that requires some, uh, “horsing around.” Jeff is “very excited” about the circus in general but calls this act his favorite “because it’s funny.”
Although the Fourth-Grade Circus is denfitely his baby, Starr “can’t say enough” about the assistance he’s received from fellow staffers — for example, teaching colleagues Christy Devlin and David Mettler, comedy pros who take to the stage when they’re not in the classroom, and Head of School David Kern, who, it’s rumored, will be making a guest appearance as the iconic MGM lion.
Starr gives a special shoutout to professional aerialist Jackie Zalewski, who has worked with the local fourth-graders all year.
“She’s been absolutely wonderful,” he says.
Wonderful, too, Starr emphasizes, the life lessons his students learn as they polish their skills and build self-confidence before each year’s performances.
“The students are in charge of organizing much of the production … calculating ticket prices and figuring out how many seats will fit in the gym,” he says. “With adult help, they also learn to support each other in an environment that could otherwise be dangerous. The kids spot each other, perform safety checks on circus equipment and care for each other emotionally.”