Zany Umbrella Circus brings Paris to Pittsburgh this July

Even though the inspiration was a book, it’s not text-based at all.  We’re using the structure of the Mirette story, but not the words. –Ben Sota

Zany Umbrella Circus

KST spoke with Ben Sota, the founder of Zany Umbrella Circus, about the development of “Mirette’s Circus,” their latest performance piece that shares the story of a young girl in Paris who finds the courage to perform as a tightrope walker.

KST: What inspired you to create this performance? 

BS: I had been living in Italy for 2 years, when I was encouraged to create a new work by Summer Stage in New York City.  I decided to begin a collaboration between European and American artists.  Because of my connections with different performance groups here and abroad, I was kind of a good bridge to make it happen.  I began by considering the questions, “What are the performing arts in Europe?  What are the performing arts in the US?”  It’s really a great challenge to see if artwork inspired by Italy and Berlin can reach Pittsburgh.

KST: How long have you been working on this piece? 

BS: We’ve been working on it for about one year.  I was performing in Umbria and discovered the book, “Mirette on the High Wire.”  A teacher I knew showed it to me because it reminded her of my performances.  Then I went to a garage sale in Amman, Jordan and stumbled upon the same book.  So then I decided to write to the author, and I became friends with her.  She really encouraged me to use her book to create a theater piece, a circus piece, inspired by the book.  The author is from Massachusetts and in her seventies.  We’re scheduled to perform at MassMOCA in August and she’ll see “Mirette’s Circus” then.

KST: Are you using any music, props, set pieces, or special lighting and if so, how will it enhance this work? 

BS: We have two highly-trained circus performers, Erin Carey (Bristol, England) and Rachel Schiffer (Vermont, US).  I trained in California for circus, physical theater, and acting.  Franz Mestre, from Germany, is our musician.  Claudia Schnürer is living in Italy right now, and I developed the partnership with Oko Sokolo through her.

All of our sound will be live, unless we decide to play some of it on a Victrola.  We’ll be using the soundscapes of air moving in and out of an accordion, our instruments, our voices, and our breath.  Our costumes will hang on clotheslines on the side of stage, and we’re drawing inspiration from La Commedia Dell’Arte and other mask work from Italy.

KST: Are you working with any other artists/collaborators, and if so, what is their role in this work? 

BS: Oko Sokolo, a two-member group from Europe, is our main collaborator, and Franz’s group is called Pivot Theater.  When the idea came for Zany Umbrella Circus to collaborate with a European country, I decided to work with Oko Sokolo.   We met while I was performing; Claudia was a teacher at my school, and I’ve known all of them for two years.

KST: How does this piece vary from others you’ve worked on? 

BS: Well, it’s not a play, but it’s also not a circus.  It’s going to be an ensemble piece; five people will appear on stage and won’t leave for an hour, which is not normal for a circus.  Even though the inspiration was a book, it’s not text-based at all.  We’re using the structure of the Mirette story, but not the words.  We explore what the descriptions of characters will look like on stage—what does “hyper” look like?

KST: What are the top artists in your playlist? 

  • The Books
  • Balkan Beat Box
  • Yann Tiersen
  • Teddy Afro, an Ethiopian artist.  I fell in love with his music when I was living there.
  • Devilish Merry, my mother’s band in Pittsburgh.
  • Nausika, musicians and friends from Italy.

Zany Umbrella Circus will perform “Mirette’s Circus” July 7 & 8 at 11AM & 7PM and July 9 at 10:30AM. 

TICKETS | $15 Adults | $10 Children

Check out excerpts from “Mirette’s Circus” on June 24th during WYEP’s Summer Bash.

“Mirette’s Circus” is commissioned by SummerStage Kids (NYC) with generous residency support from the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

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