Behind the Doc Lens

Season 1: Blog 7– “Circus Dreams” Q&A Interview with Director Signe Taylor by Lauren Brody

Trailer of “Circus Dreams”

The film Circus Dreams follows the audition process, rehearsals and nightly summer performances of Circus Smirkus, a traveling youth circus based in rural Vermont. While the circus is mainly known for clowns, aerial acts, juggling and colorful characters, the film takes us behind the scenes to watch these passionate and talented kids pursue their dreams.

Q1: Why did you choose to make a film about the Circus Smirkus?
A1: I went to see Circus Smirkus for the first time in Boston when my daughter was three years old. I went because her babysitter’s best friend’s niece was in the troupe. I didn’t know about Circus Smirkus- we were just going as an activity. I was blown away when I saw the kids because there was so much joy in the ring as well as enthusiasm and skill.

At that time, I was working part time as a high school teacher for video production and freelancing doing guest spots on Zoom, which was a children’s show on PBS. I thought this would be a great spot for Zoom so I went backstage at intermission and after the show and I talked to the kids and the director. Unfortunately, my contact at Zoom said they did it the year before. I didn’t forget about the idea.

A couple of years down the road, we moved to Vermont and I kept seeing Smirkus performances. It was clear in my mind that this would make a good feature film. I approached the Circus Smirkus producers about my idea for a documentary in March 2006. At that point, they had run out of money and weren’t sure if they would be able to tour that summer. Normally, they hold the auditions in January but because of their financial status, they were holding them later on, actually the following week! It worked out well because then I was able to film the audition process, which is a great way to introduce the circus and the characters. It was like the stars had aligned.

Q2: How did you decide to begin with Joy the Clown and use her as the main narrator throughout the film?
A2: I actually cut an earlier version of the film that didn’t have a narrator at all. When I realized that this cut didn’t have the emotional resonance with the audience that I was seeking, I decided to use Joy as the narrator. This was about 3 years after we filmed the tour. At that point, it was clear that Joy was really pursuing clowning as her profession, like she dreamed of on tour. Once I decided to try her as a narrator, it was so clear what needed to be done. I re-cut the film from Joy’s perspective. Joy was on tour with Ringling Brothers at the time and whenever she was performing nearby, I would drive to her and we would do hours of interviewing. I probably did 50 hours of interviews in order to get the sound bites that we use as a narration. So it was definitely a different way of approaching narration. For instance, I never wrote any “lines” for Joy to say. Instead I would interview her at length about certain aspects of the circus and then cull the “narration” from that.

Q3: How much footage did you shoot for this film? As you continued shooting did the storyline change?
A3: I completely overshot- ending with about 400 hours. I was shooting a backup camera and I also had a wonderful Director of Photography (DP), Erin Hudson, who was shooting. We were shooting all of the time because I hadn’t decided which kids I was focusing on. The story evolved in front of my eyes and I was nervous of excluding anyone– which meant that this film was really made in the editing room. I felt an emotional responsibility to the kids we were filming and really felt that every story mattered.

Q4: When Jacob Tischler is accepted into the circus, there is a “Parent Cam” that captures his reaction. How did you get that footage and integrate it into the film?
A4: I knew which kids were accepted because I filmed the audition decision process and I knew the producers made the acceptance phone calls on a Thursday afternoon. I contacted the parents of kids who were getting in and told them I didn’t know if their child was getting in but asked them if they could capture their kid’s reaction on a camcorder, especially the first year parents. The parents rose to the challenge. I was filming Troy Wunderle, the show director, making the phone calls and the parents were filming their children receiving the call. After Jacob received the phone call, his mother continued filming his reaction for the rest of the day. It was so cool to see him so excited even though we couldn’t use that footage.

Q5: I was impressed by the maturity of the children. Can you discuss what it was like to follow these kids?
A5: It was inspiring and exhausting. At the end of the day, DP Erin Hudson and I were spent. Those kids were training hard and we were tired because we were documenting all of the kids push themselves. I wasn’t out there contorting myself or pushing my limits, but for some reason, it was exhausting to watch them work so hard and be so determined. Then there is the whole tour process—you move every three days, which I found a little difficult. But it was also inspiring because the circus speaks to these kids and they want to do it more than anything else in the world and they don’t care how hard they have to work in order to achieve the next level of circus performance. I can understand that because that’s how I feel about documentary film — it’s what I want to do more than anything else.

Q6: How did you choose which kids to focus on?
A6: I always wanted to focus on Thula Martin, a contortion aerialist, because at age 12 she was the youngest trouper and had come from Hawaii, which was the farthest place, and had just sustained a severe injury — so she had a lot of challenges to overcome. In a very authentic way, she had to find her own strengths. Maddy and Joy, the female clowns, were a no brainer. One of my inspirations for making Circus Dreams is that I wanted to focus on girls who were confronting social stereotypes and succeeding because there really aren’t that many films that offer positive role models for teenage girls. I was really happy there were girls clowns on that tour, because even today, they are a rarity in the circus world. I could have focused on girl aerialists, but with the stress on grace and beauty, they aren’t confronting stereotypes in the same way that girls clowns do.

We also wanted to turn the best acts in the troupe into main characters like the Diablo Brothers, Jacob and Nate Stein-Sharpe, the brother juggling act, and we focused on the girls in the lyra aerial act because they were so beautiful and unique. Jacob Tichler was an interesting one because we weren’t following him in any kind of major way until halfway through the tour. Then one day, I noticed he was changing before my eyes. He was just developing this star stage presence in the ring. We started focusing more on him and then in the editing room, he became one of the main characters.

Q7: Your film demonstrated a normalcy in a community known for eccentricity. Did you set out to defy this stereotype?
A7: No– the only thing I wanted when I set out to make the film was to celebrate unique kids working hard in a collaborative artistic environment. These kids in Circus Dreams are very athletic kids but they’re not competing against another team, they’re working together to create a performance. Also, there are a lot of kids in high school that don’t have a place to fit in. I saw it as a high school teacher and I would encourage these students as best I could, knowing that they would hit their stride in college. But when you’re in high school and you’re a little bit awkward, a little bit odd, a little bit different, someone who isn’t playing football, who doesn’t fit into regular high school categories, it’s tough, really tough so I wanted a film that would celebrate the kids who are a little different. Also there are so many films that celebrate competitive athletics such as films about team sports like baseball and basketball but there are only a few that celebrate kids working together to create art.

Q8: What advice do you have for other documentary filmmakers?
A8: What I said to myself when I was editing Circus Dreams was keep a shooting journal because when you’re shooting you have all of these ideas that you think are so brilliant. I didn’t write them down because I thought I would never forget them but I did by the next day. Just keep a journal for even 5-10 minutes a day so it’s easier to find footage and act on those in-the-moment ideas that are gems in the editing room. In the editing room, I was kicking myself that I didn’t have a shooting journal, especially since I made an observational documentary.

For more information on producer Signe Taylor and her work, visit: and

© 2013 Behind the Doc Lens. (Lauren Brody, Blogger & Isabel Garcia, Producer).

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