The Circus According to Cecil is a new documentary which follows ringmaster and clown Cecil MacKinnon as she directs a performance with Circus Flora and the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra. Through Cecil’s experienced eyes, much is revealed about the roots of American circus, the collaborative process, and the extended family of Circus Flora.
Since 1986, Cecil MacKinnon has performed with and created shows for Circus Flora, an intimate, one-ring circus based in St. Louis Missouri. More than a decade earlier, she had joined the Pickle Family Jugglers, a comedy juggling act that expanded into the seminal “new circus” troupe, the Pickle Family Circus. Beginning in 1980, MacKinnon was simultaneously honing her theatrical skills as a member of Shakespeare & Company, based in Lenox, Massachusetts. Her extensive work with New York theater companies, including Shaliko Company, Working Theater, American Place Theater, Theater for a New City and P.S. 122 – as well as her experience as a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts – helped her create a circus/theater hybrid that combines story-telling with circus.
In 1994, MacKinnon received the first Citizens’ Exchange Council grant to travel to Eastern Europe to research circus in transition. In 2002, she was commissioned by the Virginia Festival to conceive and direct a production of Romeo and Juliet, combining Shakespeare’s text and Prokofiev’s score, performed by a full cast of actors and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Joann Falletta. Since 2010, she has directed three shows combining the circus and the St. Louis Symphony at the historic Powell Hall in St. Louis.
Though other circus documentaries have included MacKinnon and Circus Flora, this is the first to focus on her overlooked contributions as a conceptualizer and director. Throughout her career, she has managed to avoid the limelight, thanks to her gift for keeping the focus on other performers, on history, and on human nuance rather than show-stopping virtuosity. As the core character in this documentary, she reveals her wide experience of contemporary and classic circus and of theater, as well as her commitment to art that’s accessible to all. A natural feminist, she guides us through her creative process with understated intelligence and compassion, touching on her debt to vaudeville and “legit” theater, the history of women in circus, and the challenge of raising a family in the business. The film also includes a poignant foreshadowing of things to come: in May 2014, long-time producer David Balding died, MacKinnon’s son Jack Marsh has since stepped up as producer.
Marta Renzi, choreographer and filmmaker, has been a friend, admirer and occasional collaborator with Cecil MacKinnon for decades. In her circus persona, MacKinnon appeared as narrator and juggler in a dance called Italian American Serenade, created by Renzi and presented at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1993. In 2002 Renzi served as choreographer for the MacKinnon production of Romeo and Juliet and Man of Mode directed by MacKinnon at NYU.
Enjoy a 30-minute version edited especially for Circus Now.
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