Friendships formed at Circus Juventas endure across oceans
There’s no clownin’ around here. Circus Juventas in St. Paul teaches teens valuable performance skills and relationship building.
Back in fifth grade, Sam Krey joined the circus.
“I fell in love with the circus from that very moment,” Krey said.
Krey, who is now 19, loved the chance to perform in front of more than 900 people when shows sold out at Circus Juventas, a youth circus in St. Paul. Just knowing that a sold-out crowd came to see him leaves a warm feeling in Krey’s heart, he said.
The St. Paul circus school teaches youth ages 3-to-21 the gymnastic, juggling, trapeze and acting skills needed to make a large crowd stand up and cheer. Twice a year in the spring and summer, hundreds of students perform in the Circus’ giant dome in Highland Park in St. Paul. The rest of the year, students take classes and practice.
Like the famous Cirque du Soleil, Circus Juventas tells stories with acting and theater. Unlike the traditional three-ring circus, there are no tigers jumping through hoops or girls riding galloping horses. Instead, there are six-year-olds walking on giant globes and teenagers spinning like basketballs in the air, then being caught by partners on a swinging trapeze.
Circus Juventas also has a different theme every season. Last May’s shows highlighted famous movies like “Jaws,” “Grease” and the “Indiana Jones” franchise. August’s shows featured advanced students performing a Wild West theme.
Connor Houlihan, a long-time friend of Krey’s, introduced him to the circus nine years ago. They started by taking nonperforming classes that helped build their strength and balance. Another friend, Zeb Fricke, joined the circus later, when he was 17.
Krey said that being in the circus and in theater at his school helped improve his grades.
“They stayed the same at first, but after I enrolled in more classes (at the circus), they improved,” he said. “I think that being busy with the classes helped me.”
FRIENDS CHALLENGE, INSPIRE
By last summer, the three friends were performing the most challenging and dangerous acts —- walking on the high wire and performing on the Wheel of Death, which requires keeping your balance while walking inside two wire wheels at opposite ends of a long bar that spins in a big circle. They also were teaching classes to younger students.
“We all kind of inspire each other,” Krey said.
The guys loved to test their limits in training to help build more confidence and encourage each other to do his best. During training, they’d watch each other closely from backstage. Afterward, they’d high-five each other but also point out mistakes.
After every show, Krey, Fricke, Houlihan and the other performers celebrated with their closest friends and went out for an hour-long lunch at favorite spots like Mickey’s Diner or Famous Dave’s on 7th Ave. Then it was back to flipping, flying, riding, juggling, tossing, shouting and styling in glittery costumes.
Back to the smells of hot, salty pretzels and steaming, grilled hamburgers. Of sugary cotton candy and buttery popcorn. And finally, back to earth and waving to the audiences after the final act.
MOVING ON, STAYING CONNECTED
This fall, the long-time friends split up. Krey started college at DePaul University in Chicago, where he was one of only 30 students accepted into the theater program.
“Best I’ve felt in a long time,” he said.
Krey believes that his experience with Circus Juventas made the difference.
“Circus is what sparked my career in acting. It gave me my strength in physical acting because without the use of words … all you have to act on is your body.”
Fricke is working with a circus in Australia and Houlihan is attending a circus school in Canada, trying to polish his skills before auditioning for other big circus companies.
The friends stay in close touch.
“Facebook is a big one,” Houlihan said. “We are constantly posting things and sending each other messages about shows or acts we have seen and what we are up to in general. We call each other when we can, but Zeb is out of the country a lot. Also, Skype is nice because we can actually see our faces while talking.”
They also dream of the time when they’ll perform together again.
“I don’t know where or when, but I can tell you that we are all going to try and create the opportunity to perform together again,” Houlihan said.
“Before we all left, we got together and shared a moment together. We were finally all going to do what we have dreamed of from the time we met. I know that our friendship will stay strong until the day we die.”
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MAKING THE GRADE
Circus Juventas and other performing arts programs in the Twin Cities help students keep their grades up.
The St. Paul circus has a good-grades policy, which requires a C average to participate, because many students spend too little time on academic studies.
“This rule is to help children understand that it’s more than just performing, but school is an important factor as well as having fun,” said Dan Butler, founder and head of the circus.
Staff at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis agrees. “It’s one of our expectations for the children here,” said Sherry Ward, senior publicist for the theater. “The performers must have a passing grade to perform in the shows or else another person replaces them.”
Children’s Theatre also offers homework tutors for performers who need help with any subject in school.
“People get used to being busy and will learn how to handle things so that their performing life will be a lot more exciting,” said Tim Jennings, the theater’s managing director.
Jerome “JT” Scott was 18 when he joined Circus Juventas in 2011. He had been involved in gymnastics since age 5, which enabled him to get accepted in the advanced shows with their more rigorous rehearsal schedule.
Scott had to manage his grades while taking classes at the circus and he has succeeded.
”It was a lot harder, but I didn’t let it affect my grades,” he said. “I studied hard, even if I had to stay up till 1 or 2 a.m. to get school work done.”
GET A SCHOLARSHIP
Circus Juventas offers scholarships to families that can’t pay the full tuition for classes. Students may also work off the cost for participating in the classes by cleaning around the arena or helping move mats for classes.