More Than Clowning Around

Rob Mermin, the founder of Circus Smirkus in Greensboro and Essex Junction, set out to find a way to help children join the circus without leaving home.

Rob Mermin left home to join the circus, then he created one

by Julia Lynam

"Aperson with vision and the ability to enact that vision; a person with a wide range of skills; a versatile person with the chutzpah to believe that, whatever it is, they can do it better or do it in their own style."

This, offered by Rob Mermin, the founder of Circus Smirkus, seems to be a pretty good definition of an entrepreneur. It's also his description of a circus clown, which is how Mermin started out when he ran away from home as a teenager.

The clown, Mermin explains, in European circus tradition, plays two roles: as a storehouse of circus lore the keeper of traditional values and as a mirror of current practice, lampooning the glittering artists of the circus.

"It takes a certain personality to go into clowning, and many clowns go on to become owners, perhaps because they have to be so versatile," says Mermin. "Tightwire, trapeze, juggling are all single disciplines that a person turns into an act and works on for perhaps 40 years, but clowns need to know a little bit of everything. A clown who is going to parody a circus act first needs to know how to do that act. A clown has to have a thorough understanding of the history and traditions of circus."

It was the clown or entrepreneurial urge that prompted Mermin, after 10 years touring the highways and byways of Europe as Clown Robin, to return to Vermont determined to set up a children's circus. He founded Circus Smirkus, an unlikely and burgeoning success story emerging from Greensboro in a hidden corner of the Northeast Kingdom to delight communities throughout New England.

Circus Smirkus employs 15 people year-round and 100 in the four-month summer season. Ed LeClair was hired one year ago as executive director.

Since its launch in 1987, Circus Smirkus has grown to become America's premier traveling youth circus. As well as touring New England with its Big Top Summer Tour, Smirkus offers summer camps, school residency programs and a new, year-round Academy of Circus Arts, just opened in Essex Junction.

The growth continues: Smirkus, a nonprofit, is working with a $2.5 million annual budget this year, up from $1.3 million two years ago. "We expect to reach the $5 million mark within the next five years," says Ed LeClair, the executive director, adding that 90 percent of revenue comes from earnings and only 10 percent through fund raising. "We run ourselves quite well," he says, "We had to when our fund-raising base was in the tiny town of Greensboro. More recently, with the website and an expansion of the tour, 70 percent of the money raised comes from outside Vermont. The website is very effective: it's brought in random calls from Texas and support from the circus communities in big U.S. cities.

"The circus community nationally is beginning to recognize us and we've had preliminary indications that major circuses will support our endowment when we launch a capital campaign," says LeClair.

That might happen within the next year, as Smirkus plans a permanent building for its newly launched Academy of Circus Arts. Temporarily housed in a barn at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, the academy is the kingpin of the circus's plans for expansion.

Coaches Zina Augoustova (above) and her husband, Valodia Augoustova (below), work with students at the Academy of Circus Arts in Essex Junction."

It will provide more jobs in the future as well as supplying year-round employment for our coaches," Le Clair explains, "but the core strategy of the Academy is to allow us to grow our own talent. We have people joining us internationally, but we're really focused on being able to develop Vermont talent, too. There's an amazing demand for the tour outside of New England, so we're considering expanding further. That really depends on the ability of the academy to give us the number and quality of performers we need for two tours."

A permanent Chittenden County location for the academy is essential, he says: "The soul of Circus Smirkus will always be in Greensboro we enjoy the cachet of being the little circus in the woods but to be viable we really need Chittenden County."

Smirkus employs 15 people year-round and 100 during the four-month summer season when the big-top tour and the Smirkus summer camp in Craftsbury are in full swing.

Phyllis Lecky is director of the newly opened Academy of Circus Arts at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, designed to reach Chittenden County residents wishing to learn circus skills.

As a business, however, a circus struggles in the United States; in Europe it's more highly regarded, says Mermin. "European circuses are mostly private businesses, operating in a recognized tradition and visiting many communities annually."

Invited to speak to graduate MBA students at the University of Chicago in 2003, Mermin was dubious; "I'd never even taken a business class in my life," he says, "but Professor Harry Davies, who invited me after seeing a Smirkus performance, was working with the idea of "story as strategy" in business, and he assured me that I had a story to tell.

He saw my personal story of running away to the circus, performing in Europe for 10 years, then coming back to Vermont and setting up a traveling children's circus, as a major asset to Circus Smirkus. It's true. In the early years I refused to focus on my own story, but that was always what reporters wanted to write about, so I've made it part of the circus, and it helps us to get the publicity and exposure we need."

Talent scouts from major circuses now visit Smirkus regularly, and several Smirkus clowns and aerialists have gone on to work in circuses around the world.

Among these is Molly Saudek, 28, of Montpelier, a professional tightwire walker in Europe. Her mother, Karen, says, "Molly joined Circus Smirkus in their second season, 1988. She was supposed to be going on a music tour of Ireland, but it fell through, so we looked around for something that would be as much fun. We had no idea what she was getting into. The first year she was a contortionist, then a trapeze artist, then a tightwire walker.

"Circus Smirkus has brought so much to Vermont artistically. It measures up very well with what's going on in the world in terms of circus and I've seen a lot of circuses now, with my daughter working in them.

"Rob takes kids who hadn't realized they were going to be circus performers and challenges them to do things they never thought they could do. They come out at the end convinced they can do anything. They're equipped to take on the world!"

As well as inspiring young people, Circus Smirkus participates in the community by taking performances into nursing homes and hospitals locally and wherever they stop on tour, and by helping other nonprofits raise thousands of dollars. "A nonprofit group that wants to present Circus Smirkus in their community pays a fixed fee for the circus," explains Mermin. "They take 100 percent of the ticket price and are also able to seek local sponsors. We provide a sponsorship package to help them do this."

Circus Smirkus trains children in the circus arts. Since 1987, it has grown to become America's premier traveling youth circus. Talent scouts from major circuses visit Smirkus regularly, and several Smirkus clowns and aerialists have gone on to work in circuses around the world.

Smirkus may be flourishing today, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing, and Mermin recalls a disastrous false start. "Although my vision was to create a children's circus in Vermont, I thought that I'd have to first create an adult performing circus. In 1986 I tried to start the Green Mountain Circus with professional performers. That year the insurance industry took fright and, after I had all the bookings made, I couldn't get public liability insurance. I had to shut down and pay off the performers. I lost my shirt and I was deep in debt.

"Then [Vermont filmmaker] Jay Craven and I met over breakfast. He asked me, 'What was your vision?' It was to start a children's circus, so he said, 'Well, why not do that?' We worked out a budget on a napkin $60,000 for the first year and Jay said, 'We can do that!' So we did, and it worked.

"What I learned from that experience was not to compromise if you know what you want, just go for it!"

The rest, as they say, is history. In quiet Greensboro, Mermin established a circus summer camp that trained acrobats, trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns and dancers to go on tour with their own big-top circus. The camps have given thousands of children and teenagers a chance to stretch themselves and reach for their dreams. The Academy of Circus Arts brings that opportunity to people of all ages in Chittenden County, and the school residency program reaches children throughout the state.

In recent years, Mermin has been trying to redefine his role and steer Circus Smirkus from being a strongly founder-led organization into a more corporate model. "We started with finding an executive director six years ago, and we're now on our third," he said, grinning, "but I've been told that this is typical, so we're right on target!" LeClair has held the position for one year, having joined Smirkus in 2003 as development director after seven years as executive director of Burlington Taiko.

Mermin is becoming "a combination of administrative adviser, keeper of the integrity of image and style, and artistic director.

"Everyone had personal dreams, which I prefer to call goals, that give life direction," he says. "If you have a vision that is bigger than yourself, it can have a positive effect on the community. An entrepreneur is someone who has the capability to go after a vision and make it happen" just like a clown!

Originally published in February 2005 Business People-Vermont