Juggling Act

The Runaway Circus and the Loose Cabooses. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

The Runaway Circus and the Loose Cabooses. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

When Ingrid Johnson was a youngster, she and her family loved to put on “shows” for their own entertainment.

This Johnson family vaudeville often included dressing up her only brother as a girl so that they could form an all-girl quartet/dance group. One of her fondest childhood memories is “dancing to ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys and throwing my brother into the Christmas tree.”

Ingrid, who gave up brother tossing for more traditional kinds of juggling, is part of The Runaway Circus and the Loose Cabooses, a kind of informally connected group of Asheville jugglers, acrobats, dancers, trapeze artists, clowns and other charming showoffs who will be performing their annual community show — a fundraiser for five nonprofit organizations — the last two weekends in March at The Odyssey School on Zillicoa Street in Asheville.

Part of the group’s charm is its freewheeling approach to show business. This year’s event is directed by Walter Beals, a black-bearded behemoth of a man who hastens to assure an interviewer that he is not related to the actress Jennifer Beals of Flash Dance fame. And, to be sure, there is little resemblance between them. The director, according to fellow performer Nina Ruffini, is really more of an “adviser” than a boss. His job this year is to observe, note, and suggest changes and improvements. One senses that directing this group in a more traditional way would be something like herding a group of very friendly, very enthusiastic puppies.

Ruffini, a former high school cheerleader for the West Chester, Pennsylvania, Bishop Shannahan Eagles, was also a childhood show biz enthusiast who built puppets, choreographed dance routines and once filmed an amateur music video featuring “magical puppets” from Italy dancing to the tune, “I Want My MTV.” Trapeze artist Sadye Osterloh also dabbled in childhood music making, including a memorable ditty called “Please Don’t Bark” that starred her dog Rosie.

None of the performers receives a salary. And, any excess donations (they recommend a $10 donation per person per show, but never turn anyone away for a lesser offering) go directly to a charity or a nonprofit organization.

They practice several hours per week to hone their circus skills, and make their living at any of several “real” jobs. Among the assembled performers you will find a bookstore clerk, an art gallery manager, a courthouse worker, a noodle shop server, and even a farmer. But mostly, they are performers, seriously strung out on the rush they get from applause and laughter.

Bold Life caught up with the troop on a brisk winter evening as they practiced on the sloping backyard of the Montford Community Center. While the tumblers practiced “two-highs” (one performer standing on another’s shoulders and juggling in time with a similarly arranged pair opposite them), a room inside the center was filled with adults tossing juggling clubs back and forth as a middle-school-aged lad darted amongst them wearing his circus outfit. Despite the chaotic nature of the practice, the members of the troop seem very skilled in the circus arts, particularly juggling.

This year’s show — with a “game” theme — promises to be as frenetic as the practice sessions. Look for a children’s act of Duck, Duck, Goose complete with acrobatics, stilt walkers playing Go Fish, a madcap ping pong game gone seriously awry, a slapstick game of charades, hat juggling, hide and seek, trombone target practice, a trapeze act, a magic swimming pool, and even an appearance by Super Mario Brother’s evil brother “Wario.”

Primarily, the

is about fun…for the cast as well as for the audience. Spectators should prepare themselves for good-natured silliness, wild comedy, and a good-old-fashioned evening of Americana. It’s no accident that the annual show is performed in March. “It’s winter,” says Nina Ruffini from under her clownish black top hat. “It’s cold; people are kind of bummed out. So we figured we’d do something to cheer people up. We just want to put on a fine show.”

The cast welcomes anybody who would like to join and take part in the performance. “Everybody donates their time,” says Ruffini. “Basically, we just ask people if they want to come out and play.”

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