My mission is to just keep spreading joy. It is as simple as that, I want to spread joy. I think the world is starving for it . . . the world, and especially, a lot of kids.
Out of all the extraordinary skills Troy Wunderle can perform, juggling might be his greatest feat—in the figurative sense. The artistic director for Circus Smirkus juggles more in life than most humans ever could. And he makes it look easy.
In addition to his work with Circus Smirkus, and his early career as a performer and director of clowning for Ringling Brothers, Troy has run his popular residencies at schools across the country through Wunderle’s Big Top Adventures for over 20 years. We had the pleasure of seeing Circus Smirkus perform for Highlight, and then days later, watched Troy work his magic during a two-week residency at our local school.
Troy was willing to slow his roll for a few moments to answer some of our questions about life in the circus, and we’re so thankful he did. Because on top of his clowning antics like stilt walking, unicycle riding, and getting 600 kids to form a human pyramid in under a minute (yes, that really happened), Troy has some great stories to tell and an outlook on life befitting of his last name.
What was your childhood like growing up in Vermont, and how did it lead to a life in the circus?
My family and I lived in a log cabin without a TV and my parents encouraged my siblings and I to pursue everything that intrigued us. Mom and Dad’s original vision was to live off the grid. They both grew up in Long Island and were absolutely passionate about getting out as fast as they could. They purchased property from my father’s uncle who lived in Vermont. My mother, all she heard was there was a property next to a farm and she said, “Sure”. They bought it sight unseen. It is a magical property—waterfalls and beaver dams, and on either side of it, two dairy farms.
I watched my parents trying new things all the time and failing all the time, so I never had a stigma about failure. I got that drive to say, “I’m going to try anything that intrigues me.”
There was one major rule in our home: no balls in the house. My dad was a sixth-grade teacher. One of his students had asked him if he knew how to juggle. He said no, and as it turned out, he went to the library on the way home to pick up a book on juggling. I came home one day to my dad throwing balls in the living room. And I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but if that is now legal, sign me up.” This was the first turning point in my career. I learned as a fourth-grader how to juggle, and then it’s been kind of this wild run from there.
From that point on, my grandparents bought me devil sticks, and diablos, and rola bolas. My Dad made me peg stilts and my parents purchased me a unicycle. Nothing came with instructions or video, there wasn’t YouTube . . .
You didn’t have a Troy Wunderle to teach you?
No, not at all. I was always just fascinated by these challenges and was self-taught on all of them. Then as a graduating senior, I was a musician, I was an athlete, I was an artist, and I was confused because I wanted to do all of it. I didn’t know anyone that did everything, I knew everyone that did something. I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be happy in life because I had too many things that inspired me and no clear direction.
That’s kind of a great problem to have.
It was a fantastic problem to have. But it’s tough because when you become 18 everyone says, “What are you going to do?” . . . “I don’t know, I want to pursue life,” was really my answer. I ended up getting accepted into a number of colleges including the Rhode Island School of Design but ultimately chose to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, Maryland.
I took college incredibly seriously and was taking more courses than I was legally able to and just not getting credit for them. I knew that I only had four years to absorb as much as I could. One of the courses was a mask and headdress class. There’s no reason I should have gone to that class, but when else are you going to have an opportunity to study mask and headdress design? In that class, they brought in a Ringling Brothers program as an example of wildly creative and beautiful headdresses. I’m flipping through this thing and all of a sudden I see this ad about clown college. I was like, “What in the world is that?” It was a really pivotal moment.
At that point, I had been hired by the Baltimore Museum of Art to do installations for them. I was hanging an Andy Warhol exhibit and silk screening interior signage for the entire building. At the same time, I was taking a figurative sculpture course—I was so passionate about it. The teacher got excited about my enthusiasm and potential and asked me to become a student teacher with him for the summer. Now, I flip open this program and see this thing about clown college and I’m like, “Oh my goodness. I’m getting a degree in graphic design. I’m getting an offer to be a sculptor. I’m getting an offer to work for a museum, and now I have this passion for performance that’s just burning inside of me.”
At that same time, the college calls me and says, “We have a gentleman that’s looking for design work.” So I called him up and he said, “Yep, you sound like a good match. When can you do work?” I really wanted to be researching what this clown college thing was and figure out how to prepare for an audition. So I said, “Well, I’d like to start a month from now.”
After some hemming and hawing, the man finally said, “No, why can’t you start now?” I said, “Well . . . I’m applying to clown college.” I thought, oh man, this is not going to go well. There was this very understandable pause, and then he said, “That’s weird.” And I said, “Well it’s not really weird, people do this for a living.” And he says, “No, that’s really weird. I know someone that went there.” And I went, “You’re kidding. Who?” And he said, “Me.”
So I immediately jumped on my bike and rode down to meet him. I walked into his house and knew that I was in the right place when I saw unicycles hanging from his ceiling. He gave me a list of books that would be important to read before my audition and made a few suggestions on how I might consider filling out my application. It was a significant application. I sent it in. Ringling came to Baltimore to audition for clowns. I did the audition. It was magical.
Out of thousands that applied to clown college that year, they accepted 33 of us. So the odds of someone who had no background in this, the odds of me making it that far were so ridiculously slim, but I did. I got accepted.
I go down to Baraboo Wisconsin, to the Circus World Museum, where they were going to have their clown college. This is where Ringling Brothers winter-quartered their shows back in the day. Beautiful museum. There was a live show that would happen multiple times a day. There were elephants that would bathe in the river. There were calliopes that would play. There was a movie theater that showed authentic video footage from early Ringling years. I mean, it blew my mind.
On day one of clown college, they open the big doors and all of the students walked in. There were two directors that year. The first one comes right over to me, shakes my hand and says, “You’re Troy Wunderle? And I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “How do I not know you?” And I said, “You have no reason to know me. I was in art college.” And he goes, “You’re from Vermont?” And I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Well, I happen to be from Vermont. My name is Rob Mermin, I’m the founder of Circus Smirkus.”
I said, “Wait a minute! I want to live in Vermont, but I didn’t think it was possible as a circus performer.” He said, “Well, I’ve got an opportunity for you. You’re good enough. I know you’re going to get a contract with Ringling. But the minute you leave, I’ve got an opening for you.” So when I finished up with Ringling, I came back, took two days off and started a contract with Smirkus, and that was 24 years ago.
Wow. What an incredible sequence of events.
What I tell a lot of my students is, life doesn’t just fall in your lap. You do have to notice that there are opportunities there and that doors are opening. You have to be brave enough to step through and take them. Thanks to my childhood and my parents giving me those tools, I was able to notice that, hey, you can push the norm and step outside of your comfort zone and figure out what the next great adventure is, and be brave enough to know that an adventure is something that’s possible. Even if it doesn’t come with the obvious this is how much you’ll make, this is how you’ll pay your bills—all that standard stuff that average parents are hoping their children to find.
My parents’ big wish was that, regardless of what any of the four of us did, we just did it to the best of our ability. When that is the expectation, it takes a lot of pressure off of you as a kid. Because you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to follow my passion and I’m going to do it well.” It’s been really wonderful to be able to make a career of that.
How have you managed to have a career that requires so much travel while living in rural Vermont?
It’s been a fascinating challenge. My wife, Sara, who got a grad degree from UVM in physical therapy, originally was offered to work up in Northern New Hampshire. We moved our whole world up there. That job fell through for her, and we realized, whoa, we got to make a living. We were young, I was just back from Ringling, she was just out of college and started substitute teaching. At that point, I asked her, “Are you having fun? And she said, “Well, it’s not my passion.” And I said, “Well if it’s not your passion, why don’t you come out on the road with me?” So Smirkus hired her and together we toured and performed.
Then, when our first daughter was one year old, she and my wife were sitting there watching the opening show. It was a cowboy-themed show, and I planned to put a bandana and cowgirl hat on a little girl from the audience before helping her spin a lasso in the spotlight. I was going to step away and that was it—just a tender moment.
There was one little girl at the front of the ring, but she declined my invitation. Right when I was thinking, “Oh no, I’m in trouble.” My little one-year-old just crawled over the ring curb, walked into the ring and held my hand. Half the audience is crying, because they know the story, and the other half is crying because they think it’s a superhuman toddler. I put the bandana on, it drops below her waist. I put the hat on, it covers her head. I give her the little lasso, and she just stands there lassoing.
It was like from that point on she never looked back. Then, of course, my younger daughter came up seeing her sister do (Smirkus), so why would she be afraid of doing it? That made it a family affair, and because it was a family affair, I could commit 100% of my focus to it.
Sara and I are high-school sweethearts. Our parents live about 15 miles away from each other. Knowing that I was going to have a career that would have me on the road a fair amount we ultimately purchased a home near our parents. All four grandparents have been passionate about helping my wife and kids out when I am on the road. Their support of our lifestyle remains a true gift to this very day.
What’s your role with Circus Smirkus?
I’m their artistic director and I oversee all aspects of their tour: selecting the troop, hiring the creative team, coming up with the show, the theme, the script. I do have a creative director that works with me basically going, “Okay, what’s Troy’s wacky ideas and how do we then put that into a show?” We write the script together. We cast the show together. We hire all the coaches and creative team members which include composers, band members, costume designers, choreographers, prop designers . . .
I also do a lot of the logistical stuff when we get out on the road. I’m the back lot layout manager—I love mathematical puzzles. It’s my job when we get to a site, to look in a plot of land and go, “Okay, I know I have X number of vehicles to fit here, X number of trailers to park here. The flow of the lot has to look like this. These trucks come in first and they have to be accessed first. These trucks leave first, they have to exit first.” I drive every rig in and physically set every lot, which is not a common job for an artistic director, but I love that side of it as well.
In addition to running Smirkus and Big Top Adventures, I also spent six years as the director of clowning for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus before they closed.
I’ve seen you at work performing with Smirkus and with Big Top Adventures—it’s mind-blowing how much energy and skill goes into what you do, not to mention wrangling all those schoolchildren and teaching them circus skills. How do you keep your cool?
I think there are two things. One, what I tell people I do is I organize chaos. Whenever you get hundreds of kids together, there’s going to be organic chaos that happens. Being able to put an order to that is something I’m super passionate about. Being able to put an order to that in a fun comedic way, is my chosen style. What inspires me, as silly as it sounds, even though I do it every week, is to see how many different bizarre ways I can get kids to be surprised or giggle. Because when someone’s giggling, it’s feeding my soul. When someone’s entertained, it’s feeding my soul. When someone accomplishes something they didn’t believe they could do, it’s feeding my soul.
I don’t sleep much, I don’t eat much, I don’t drink coffee, I don’t do drugs, it is a natural high of being able to see the impact your enthusiasm and spirit is having on a community. During the school year when I’m doing Big Top Adventures, every seven days I get to see a community transformed by the shenanigans that I present, and that is a blast. Watching the community celebrate their youth . . . I don’t think it’ll ever get old.
At Smirkus, it’s the next level. These are kids that are saying, “I am committed to circus. I train in it year-round, and I want to be a circus professional.” I get to work around kids that understand circus is not a job. Circus is a lifestyle. I get to inspire the next generation of circus kids.
Many people do this because they want to get the glory, and my approach is, no. Let’s be humble about our talents. Let’s be passionate and proud of our product, but understand that this is a gift. This is a gift, and it’s a gift that we get to share every single day with a new community.
When our kids graduate from Smirkus and go out into the real world, we’re not just sending out technicians, we’re sending out well rounded human beings. You’ll notice I haven’t said too much about the skillset. The skillset happens to be the medium by which I teach what I’m really passionate about: How to be a decent human being and how to infect the world with joy and humor and passion.
Can you expand on why you wanted to come back to live in Vermont? What do you think is unique about the community here?
There is very little about Vermont that I’m not passionate about. I speak very highly about this state. I think it’s fascinating how many artisans live here. In every little garage and every back shed, in most basements, there’s something fun and unique and amazing going on. Whether it be for a full-time career or for a passion—that part fascinates me.
I think there are a lot of people in Vermont that know how to work. I am passionate about people that are passionate about work. You can’t get anywhere in life if you’re not willing to put the time and the grit in. I am surrounded often by people that are not afraid to get down and dirty, and at the same time, think artistically, outside the box.
You ask why Vermont? Here’s a perfect example, I don’t think Smirkus could exist in many other places, but rural Vermont. Because when we get (to Greensboro), we have 18 days to create magic, and there are zero distractions. Besides maybe the bear that’s walking past you. But I mean, you’re not distracted by anything. We don’t have TVs, we don’t have much access to internet. You are there and you are studying the craft of circus. So that’s amazing.
I do Smirkus for the passion, the love, the art, and my wish that these types of things continue to exist in the state of Vermont. What it does for Vermont, what I believe it does for the people that come from around the world to take part in this program, what it does for the communities that we touch, is so valuable. That’s the payment I get.
What were some of the challenges of 2019 with Circus Smirkus?
Oh, there were tons of them. I mean, the obvious one, weather kicks our butt.
Personalities. People have to come and live together. We bring 30 kids out, from around the world with every different background you could possibly imagine. Beliefs systems, and everything like that. We come to Greensboro, we build a show in three weeks. It’s really hard. I mean we have over a hundred people working this close to each other at least 15 hours a day, every single day, and dealing with weather and everything else. So that’s the hard challenge.
We are a nonprofit, artistic venture in a very small state. It’s impossible to keep our doors open every year. Time and money is what we’re always up against. We put an infinite amount of time, creative thought, and finances into creating a product, that goes out for seven weeks—seven weeks! We spend an entire year to build a product that goes out for seven weeks. It’s a terrible business model, but it’s the only way it can work. We are at the mercy of our performer’s availability.
What’s your resolution for 2020?
My wish remains the same. My wish is to be able to create a high art in a way that people perceive it to be easy. Which is kind of an interesting thing. If someone knows how much work I’m putting into a residency, it takes some of the magic away. If someone knows how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into putting Smirkus together, it’s a little less magical. I want people to come and go, “that is breathtaking.”
My mission is to just keep spreading joy. It is as simple as that, I want to spread joy. I think the world is starving for it. I think the world, and especially, a lot of kids. Even in this beloved state of Vermont, a lot of kids are living tough lives. They deserve a haven, where they can be cherished and celebrated. In my opinion, when talking about school kids or when talking about Smirkus kids, I think a lot of us underestimate what they’re capable of doing. I believe that people are capable of doing so much more than they believe possible.