Class clown

Wonderbolt Circus going strong after more than 30 years

Daniel MacEachern
Published on September 25, 2013

What would become Wonderbolt Circus (197-199 Water St., St. John’s) was formed more than three decades ago by Beni Malone, Cathy Ferri and Carol Wherry. Malone’s mother used to wonder when he’d get a real job, but the owner knew long ago this was what he wanted to do.

Thirty-two years later, Malone says the highlight over the history of the company has been working with his daughter.

The company is currently building a relationship with a Finnish company to help take the company international, and is preparing for its next major event, the Bolt Out of the Blue circus, four shows in the middle of October at the Holy Heart Theatre.

And there are always more audiences to reach, he says.

“A lot more people know about us now, but we’re still breaking ground with people. It’s really fun to go to an arena in a small, rural town and pull off a show like that, because they look at the arena differently from then on. It’s not just a hockey arena (anymore). ‘It’s also the place where we saw that fabulous show with the great lights and people coming down from the ceiling.’ So it’s really nice to almost change the sense of a community, in a small, little way.”

Who opened Wonderbolt Circus and when?

Wonderbolt Circus started in 1981. We had a little clown company before that called Clownburst, and then we did a tour of the south coast, everywhere in Newfoundland you could get to by boat, took a little boat tour.

So we did Paradise Sound, South Coast, Twillingate, Fogo. We got some money from Canada Council, an explorations grant, so we created a circus called The Wonderbolt Circus Show, and it became Wonderbolt.

So tell me about Wonderbolt Circus, then and what it does.

We do a whole bunch of things, you can imagine — existing 30 years, we’ve gone through a long trajectory of stuff.

We started off doing clown shows, a very small little circus shows. We had a number of those shows, and that’s helped sustain the company, because big casts eat up a lot of money.

But as we progressed onward, we did do larger shows. For a long time, we commissioned playwrights and did a lot of adult comedies, that’s part of what we did. But always with a movement emphasis, or commedia dell’arte emphasis. Masks, clowning, physical theatre was kind of our forte.

We’ve also developed workshops that we can do, school curriculum-based physical arts workshops that we do in conjuction with the phys ed programs in schools. They’ve been very successful, so education is a big part of our mandate, and entertainment.

We’ve worked in Labrador extensively, and rural Newfoundland extensively, and for the past 12, 15 years, we’ve been working with the Innu in Labrador and workshops there. Eventually we started doing a festival in partnership with the Innu, helping the Innu co-ordinate, it’s called the Kamataukatshiut Festival. This’ll be our ninth year doing it, actually, the ninth annual festival. When you think about it, nine years of any festival is a big success. Two years is usually a success for any festival. (laughs) So it’s been great. And we bring in aboriginal artists and physical artists to work on that show.

I wanted to ask where the talent comes from for the shows, because it’s not like College of the North Atlantic has a contortionist program or anything.

We use as much local talent as we can, and we’ve brought people up through the ranks and we’ve trained people like Jamie Brace, who’s working with me, and James Burke.

A variety of people have come up through Wonderbolt.

Allison Collins performs with us, and she’s from Newfoundland originally, but now lives in Vancouver, so we love bringing her back to work on the show. This year we’re using people like Greg Bruce, who’s a breakdancer and a fabulous saxophone player, and his band Ouroboros are going to be our band. They’re great.

And Kelly-Ann Evans is going to be performing in the show this year. We look for people who either are circus artists or you’d use in a circus, like musicians and performers that will blend in.

We bring in a lot of people from away. A lot of the away talent comes through connections that my daughter has made, Anahareo Doelle. She went to Ecole Nationale de Cirque in Montreal, and so as soon as she graduated — which was about 10 years ago now — her network of friends, we bring in people and they’re very highly well-trained professionals.

A lot of them work with circuses in Europe, Cirque du Soleil, cabarets in Europe.

They made a whole other level of professionalism and skill to the mix.

How many shows do you put on a year?

Oh my gosh, good question. We probably average 60 shows a year, I suppose. Not all circus shows. Many might be our clown shows, Christmas shows, special occasions, special events.

We have other shows like Wunderground, which is a clown show based on geology that we do in schools and then the big circus show too, which we tour and do every year.

With circus shows, you bring in so many people that you’ve got to do it at a certain time when you bring everyone together for it.

You can’t just call up and say, “I’d like to have a circus for my event in May.” You can do that, but it’s pretty expensive, because we’ve got to bring everyone in for that.

We do special events, but the circus itself, when we’re booking it, it’s usually when we have everyone here. But we also do conventions and special events.

So it’s a big mix. You’ve gotta be flexible, you’ve gotta be able to do everything.

How many people work for Wonderbolt?

We have three steady employees, and in the middle of October we’ll probably have 30 employees, based upon the events.

Where does the name come from?

It kinda came from Clownburst, which was the clown company. But we were becoming more than a clown company, and so it didn’t seem exactly the right name for what we were getting into, and I guess somehow that meteorological beginning turned into Wonderbolt.

I remember when I went to clown college in Florida, we used to see movies as part of the curriculum, and one was The Marx Brothers At The Circus, and the circus they did was somebody’s “Wonder Circus.” And that always stuck with me. So I think one night when I was half-asleep and half-awake, I was thinking, “Clownburst, Wonder Circus … Wonderbolt. Wonderbolt! Yeah!”

You went to clown college?

I did. I went to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College in ’79.

I had actually been in a Newfoundland travelling theatre company and other companies from 1974. I’d learned how to juggle on one of the tours, and I did some clowning before that,  so when I went to Florida with my wife and very young daughter, picking oranges and stuff, in the winter, partly because circuses back then — and probably still do — big circuses winter in Florida.

And they did auditions there for the clown college that they had established, to keep clowning alive for their circus. So I auditioned in ’78, got accepted, went back down in ’79. I was going to work for Ringling, but it was just too much trouble with the visas and job permits, so I came back here and started work right away. I’d been in theatre anyway, so I just picked up from when I’d left off. There was really no circus or clown company here, so I filled that niche.

So Wonderbolt is about the physical artistry of the circus, it’s not an animal act kind of circus Was that a conscious decision from the beginning?

Yeah, it was. I was drawn to that all along, and that’s when that new circus was coming about, the Cirque du Soleil kind of style.

I actually met the Cirque du Soleil guys when they were working in a gym in Montreal in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. We were talking about it. They were training some people and had some ideas, and I thought yeah, this one-ring circus with just skills and stuff. We have animals in the show, but we’re the animals. We had a lion act for years, but I was the lion. (laughs)

From the business side of things, you’ve been doing this for 30 years now. How long are you going to keep it going?

Well, my mom kept saying, “How long are you going to keep at this? You should become a lawyer or something. When you’re in your late 30s, you’re not going to be doing this anymore.”

Now I’m in my late 50s, so I just think I’m going to keep going and see if I can go into the final frontier of clowning. Plus we have people like Jamie coming up behind me, my daughter who can run the company too now at this point.

So I don’t see retirement in my future. (laughs) Clowns don’t retire, apparently.

Twitter: @TelegramDaniel