Send in the clowns

Publication Date: Friday Aug 6, 1999

Send in the clowns

The audience takes center stage during the annual Make*A*Circus performances on the Peninsula

by Marcella Bernhard

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, San Francisco's Make*A*Circus has chosen to tell a story that will hit home with many of the younger members of the audience.

"When Zucchinis Fly" chronicles the life of a typical modern-day family that spends too much time sitting in front of the television. Things get more exciting for the Zucchini family when the kids hatch a plan to put on their own circus and the entire family is transformed into clowns, jugglers and acrobats.

Those who attend any of the three Peninsula performances, which start Saturday in East Palo Alto, may find themselves experiencing something very similar to the Zucchinis. Kids who begin the show watching from the stands can find themselves on stage with the clowns and jugglers before the performance is over.

Forty-five minutes into "When Zucchinis Fly," the show stops abruptly, and all the children in the audience can join a quick workshop where they learn clowning skills, juggling, stilt-walking, and acrobatics. Then the kids, whether toddlers, teenagers or in between, take center stage for the rest of the show. Kids under 5 get into the action as "baby bulls," confronting a matador in one of the show's key scenes.

The element of child participation has made Make*A*Circus different from the other troupes for the past 25 years. But teaching kids to clown around is more than just fun, Make*A*Circus performers say. It's also part of the circus' mission to show kids they can be creative and make their own entertainment, instead of being passive observers.

"It's about the joy of creativity and performing," said Dan Mankin, who produced "When Zucchinis Fly." "We want to get kids participating, not just watching. The message is for kids to seize the day."

Like the Zucchini family, kids at Make*A*Circus shows discover they can be the stars.

"They come to watch the circus, and find out they are the circus," Mankin said.

The show is a family-run affair, directed by Mankin's sister Joan. She is a veteran Make*A*Circus performer who is widely known in the circus world as "Queenie Moon," a clown she performed in the Pickle Family Circus.

"When Zucchinis Fly" includes six professional circus performers, including a rope walker, jugglers, clowns and a trapeze artist, as well as two students from the Make*A*Circus Teen Apprentice Program. Make*A*Circus composer Johannes Mager wrote the original music to accompany the show and leads the circus's five-piece band.

Make*A*Circus has been a Bay Area institution since 1974, when founder Peter Frankham brought the former Circus With A Purpose from London to San Francisco. Liberal San Franciscans took to the idea of putting on one's own circus, and the troupe flourished and was eventually renamed Make*A*Circus.

The company tours every summer with an original show, which always has a moral message. Past performances have addressed topics that include second-hand smoke, diversity, gangs, literacy and other issues that affect kids.

Make*A*Circus has performed in East Palo Alto since 1995 and will appear this year as part of the city's annual Children's Day event.

Alimah Ahmed of the East Palo Alto Community Services Department expects the event to draw 400.

"The kids have a ball, because they get to participate," said Ahmed.

What: San Francisco's Make*A*Circus presents its new summer show, "When Zucchinis Fly."

When: Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in East Palo Alto; Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. in Redwood City; and Aug. 14 at 1 p.m. in Menlo Park.

Where: The East Palo Alto performance is at Jack Farrell Park, at Fordham and Michigan streets; the Redwood City performance is at Red Morton Community Park, Roosevelt Avenue off El Camino Real; and the Menlo Park performance is at Burgess Park, at Alma Street and Mielke Drive.

How much: Performances are free. Get there early to save seats.

Information: For the East Palo Alto performance, call (650) 853-3140; for the Redwood City performance, call (650) 780-7311; and for the Menlo Park performance, call (650) 858-3478. 

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