This week we chatted (via email) with Rob Mermin, director, lecturer, author, clown, mime, magician, raconteur and the founder of Circus Smirkus.
Rob grew up outside of New Haven, Connecticut and in his youth was influenced by Blackfriars Summer Theater, a company run entirely by teenagers from all around southern Connecticut. Each season the group performed Shakespeare, drama, comedy and a musical. Rob’s first role was as a mime in one of the comedies, and he thought: “How cool is this—no lines to memorize”! He was elected President of Blackfriars during his senior year in high school—and he never forgot how hard teenagers work together when doing something they loved and for which they could take real creative responsibility. That experience was the inspiration for Circus Smirkus.
Rob currently lives in Montpelier, but Greensboro is the place he created his life’s work, made lifelong friends and feels at home. He still visits regularly looking for inspiration, and to keep dreaming.
HCA: Rob,how are you keeping yourself busy and focused during this time of isolation?
RM: In this period of isolation, I am trying to catch up on long-term writing projects. I have written a play about my experience helping my best friend utilize ACT 39, Vermont’s medical aid in dying law. I have also started to work on a memoir of my early circus adventures in the European circus world, and the influence of my teacher Marcel Marceau.
HCA: In 1969, you literally “ran off to join the circus” – what inspired you to do this? How many years were you there? And, was it as fun as it sounds?
RM: In 1969 I did run off to join the circus. I was intrigued by the lifestyle of itinerant circus artists. Since I knew they still had traditional one-ring tent circuses over the pond, I went and hitchhiked around England until I found my first job as a clown in a show touring around Wales.
I wouldn’t say it was FUN—it was the hardest work I’d ever done. The circus folks tested me with practical jokes and intimidations until I would either prove myself worthy or run away from the circus with tail between my legs. I guess I passed the rigors of circus life: I worked in traditional shows around Europe throughout the seventies, including 3 years in the prestigious circus building with Cirkus Benneweis in Copenhagen.
HCA: What brought you to Vermont and Greensboro specifically, as the home for Circus Smirkus?
For years I had the dream of creating my own tent show, combining the traditions of European circus with my early Blackfriar’s experience: the energy of youth with the lifestyle of circus.
I moved to Greensboro in 1984. I needed space to create the dream. Why Greensboro? I had befriended Sig Lonegren at the Dowser’s Convention in Danville. He mentioned a housesitting job in Greensboro, and while there I saw the deserted Richardson farmhouse for sale, which ultimately became the Smirkus headquarters. The first three years I showed silent films up in the horse barn, did shows in elementary schools with my dog Rufus, and trained local kids—including Pete Johnson (Pete’s Greens)—for the very first Circus Smirkus performance in 1987.
HCA: You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) in 2014, and started developing therapeutic protocols using mime and circus training. This sounds fascinating; how is the project going?
In 2014 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a neurological movement disorder, ironic for a mime. My neurologist thinks my training in circus and mime may be a beneficial factor in having it under control, 6 years after diagnosis. I have been teaching mime to others with PD and to groups of physical therapists. I have given talks and workshops around the country and at conventions about my Parkinson’s Pantomime Project.
For additional information on Rob’s Parkinson’s Pantomime Project click here.