Circuses have been part of the cultural vernacular—and childhood—for hundreds of years. This unique form of entertainment is an ancient form of theater that dates to fifth century B.C. Greece and became popular in England in the 1700s.
Circuses are awe-inspiring, charming with a dash of strange. They give us ringmasters, acrobats, tightropes, daredevils and unicycles. There’s nothing quite as quirky.
While live-animal circuses are in decline due to animal cruelty practices, other circus forms are flourishing. According to CircusNow.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving the circus arts, “Fifty years ago, the circus was on the verge of extinction. …Advancements in technology, especially radio and television, had left the art in ruins. Circus families…were struggling to survive…. In the 1960s and 1970s, the situation changed. The era’s spirit led theater-makers to reconsider popular forms, including puppetry, mime, commedia dell’arte and the circus.”
One example of this resurgence is “Circus!” at the Puppet Co. Playhouse in Glen Echo Park — a circus built with wood, strings and Christopher Piper, one of the country’s most skilled and established puppeteers.
CultureSpotMC spoke to Piper about how death-defying acts, clowns and an assortment of stunts and tricks translate into puppetry and his extensive on-the-job training.
The Family Business
“Circus!” is a longtime tradition, born out of a show Piper’s father, Leonard Piper, developed for the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in the late 1950s. “It was later broadened into a three-ring circus that toured in Hawaii with the E.K. Fernandez Shows (a well-known family-owned operation dating back to 1903) and was a staple of the 50th state fair,” Piper said.
Leonard and Patricia Piper were professional actors and puppeteers from the time they met. Patricia played the lead in a play Leonard directed on his Air Force base and the surrounding community. “After Len left the Air Force,” Piper said, his parents performed with their puppets in the New York and New Jersey area.
When Leonard accepted the position of director of the University of Wisconsin’s puppet theater program, the couple packed up their four boys, the puppets and moved west. Later, the family moved even further west so that Leonard and Patricia could be lead puppeteers for an adult puppet show at the Seattle World’s Fair. “The show was a smash hit,” Piper said, “and was taken to Hollywood and then Las Vegas.” When the show went to Broadway, the duo declined, opting instead for a family move to Hawaii.
The Puppeteer’s Life
In Hawaii, the entire family performed on weekends at fairs and carnivals throughout the islands. Piper’s parents also performed in schools on weekdays. “Later,” Piper recalled, “when I was in college, I would perform my parents’ shows in schools in the morning and take classes afternoons and evenings.”
The Piper family timeline coincides with CircusNow.org’s observation that, prior to the 1970s, “most professional circus performers came from families; their skills passed down from generation to generation, because of the itinerant lifestyle.”
“I got to see most of the country as my parents moved from job to job,” Piper said. “Wisconsin had its lush summers on the lake and cold winters when the lakes froze and we’d ice skate. In Seattle, we’d sit in the cherry tree outside our house and gorge ourselves on the ripe fruit. In California, we’d go to the beach every day and visit the amusement park on the pier on weekends.”
“I have lived in or traveled through every state except Alaska,” he continued. “By the time we got to Hawaii, I was ready to stay in a school for more than a year, and to make friends that I wouldn’t have to leave when we moved on.”
Dream-building in D.C.
Eventually, Piper left Hawaii for Washington, D.C. to create a theater dedicated to puppetry. He partnered with Allan Stevens and began doing shows at Glen Echo Park in 1983. Six years later, the two, along with Piper’s wife MayField, founded the Puppet Co. Playhouse.
Piper pulled the puppets that remained from his parents’ collection out of storage in 1997. He drove them from Florida to Glen Echo in a truck. “The years had taken their toll,” said Piper, “and major restoration was performed by the company, using original drawings and costume patterns.” Piper restored the puppets, while his wife and Stevens worked on costume restoration.
Today, 10 of Piper’s parents’ puppets appear in Puppet Co. shows. This represents one sixth of those used in the original productions.
As for taking the show on the road, Piper said, “I did a lot of touring when I performed at schools in Hawaii and saw how hard my parents had to work when they toured a show. I decided to found a theater so I could avoid moving equipment around from venue to venue. The permanent space the Playhouse provides enables us to create an immersive environment that invites kids to get lost in the story.
“We hardly tour anymore because the shows are now so dependent on computers, lighting and special effects.” The shows themselves have become too large to fit in a moving van, he added.
Piper said that “Circus!” audience members probably will be most surprised by “the emotional connection they will build with the puppets. Each puppet has a personality and its own story, and audiences invariably get wrapped up in the fantasy of it all.”
Since its inception, Piper said his puppet theater was intended as a celebration of the circus. “Later, when animal rights started becoming more prominent, I inquired of some activist friends if depicting animals in our acts was upsetting to them. ‘Of course not,’ they said. ‘They’re puppets!’”
The Puppet Co. Playhouse presents “Circus!” through Aug. 27 in Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. The 35-minute shows start at 10 and 11:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday and 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, $12, call 301-634-5380 or visit http://thepuppetco.org.