Following a spring and summer marked by staff layoffs and other belt-tightening in the wake of the first COVID-19 lockdown, Circus Juventas was planning a triumphant return to the big top with its first-ever Christmas show on the first two weekends of December. Then came Governor Tim Walz’s November 18 declaration of a second lockdown through mid-December.
A Hygge Holiday is now scheduled for three evening performances and two weekend matinees on January 28-31 under the big top at 1270 Montreal Ave. Tickets will go on sale in mid-December.
The plan is to require all circus-goers to wear facemasks, enter the arena at staggered times and watch the show from socially distanced seats. Following state guidelines, the big top will be limited to a maximum of 250 people, or a quarter of its capacity. Performers will maintain a minimum 12-foot distance from the audience. They will wear facemasks at all times when off-stage. When on stage, they will have a choice not to be masked if they are at least six feet from all other performers.
A Hygge Holiday is Circus Juventas’ first show since the summer of 2019. It tells the story of a group of young people heading up north on a ski trip. Their car breaks down in the woods where they find themselves with no shelter or phone and only the strength of their friendship to rely on.
“The story is about them coming together,” said assistant artistic director Rachel Butler-Norris. “We also just want to show everyone that we’re still here and we’re still performing and putting on a show.”
Butler-Norris is the daughter of Dan and Betty Butler, the couple who founded the youth circus and school 25 years ago. Betty Butler “has crafted a show with a very simple story line that’s uplifting and a happy family holiday event,” Dan Butler said. Instead of the usual epic three-plus-hour production, the performance has been cut to 70 minutes with no intermission and no concessions.
Like most arts organizations, Circus Juventas has taken a significant financial and artistic hit during the pandemic. Every five years, Circus Juventas has held an anniversary celebration that draws as many as 10,000 people. Planning for this year’s 25th anniversary celebration ended with the outbreak of COVID-19, Butler said. Instead of the big celebration, the company presented an online performance and fundraiser that raised $212,000. “It was just like the most unbelievable, heartfelt, heart-warming thing that our community could do to help us keep going,” Butler said.
Last March Butler had to lay off 70 employees and cancel the spring show, which would have involved as many as 800 entertainers, three different sets and 12 performances. Circus Juventas also canceled its summer camps as well as its summer show, which regularly sold as many as 22,000 tickets. The losses amounted to half the theater’s revenue, Butler said. A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan provided some financial stability, but the circus still had to cut salaries.
Without the benefit of in-person classes and hands-on instruction, the circus’ teachers developed nearly 40 online classes augmented by occasional demonstrations in front of students’ homes, Butler said. Butler-Norris taught her classes via Zoom by talking students through tricks, performing exercises with them, showing videos and miming movements. “It’s really, really different,” she said. “It forced all of us to be super-creative about how we teach.”
Three board members and five staff members came up with a preparedness plan that allowed Circus Juventas to reopen in July with 180 advanced students. Fall enrollment jumped to 580 students—far short of the usual 1,000 students at the start of the school year. Classes were scaled back from 60 to 45 minutes to give staff time to clean the equipment before the next class commenced.
Teachers and students have all been wearing face masks and staying at least six feet apart. One student and one staff member contracted COVID, but neither of them caught it from attending a circus class, Butler said.
This fall’s part-time schedule has circus coaches working fewer hours and making only half their usual salaries, Butler said. Five staff members were permanently let go.
Butler hopes a COVID vaccine will allow Circus Juventas to regroup and open more fully next spring or summer. “We’re hopeful that at some point next year things will be back to quasi-normal,” he said.
Tickets for A Hygge Holiday are $40, or $30 for children age 10 and under. For more information or reservations, visit circusjuventas.org or call 651-699-8229.
— Frank Jossi
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