Autumn of 42: Cirque’s Ring Pay Tribute

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 11, 2018
Ring thing: Granada Theatre hosts Cirque Mechanics on Saturday, October 14 (photo by Maike Schulz)

Man and his machines form the basic elements of Cirque Mechanics, the modern company founded 14 years ago by former BMX bike champion Chris Lashua, who began by creating an innovative aerial apparatus. In his and his team’s vision, circus certainly has acrobatics and clowning around, but also is rooted in realism achieved by the use of machines, which a rawness to their performances.

Cirque Mechanics made its Santa Barbara debut with its bicycle themed “Pedal Punk” at Campbell Hall back in 2015 and now ups the ante at Granada Theatre this Saturday, October 14, with “42FT: A Menagerie of Mechanical Marvels”. The show offers its modern take on the traditional one-ring circus with such wonders as a galloping metal horse, a rotating tent frame for strongmen, and lots of peeks behind the scenes.

The title comes from the standard size of a circus ring – the diameter at which a horse in full gallop can keep a rider on its back – but Cirque’s version is just 26 feet, so it can fit on theatrical stages. But the way Lashua described it in a recent interview, the extra 16 feet are more than made up for back the backstage view. 

Q. Let’s start with the beginning: why did a BMX guy want to run away and join a circus and then form one?

A. My background was with The X Games and all that for years. I thought the circus was only lions, tigers, and bears, Russian acrobats, and Ringling Brothers. But then l got invited to go to Japan with Cirque du Soleil, which was an eye-opening experience. It blew my mind. While i was with them, I started building these mechanical contraptions, which were basically bicycles with parts. I took things apart and put them back together, with platforms and turntables and other things. With some of my friends who are artists, I started to play around with them and came up with a concept that had its own look and feel. The idea was to actually show the relationship between machines and the acrobats, as opposed to the big cirque companies where they hide it all, put it all behind winches and hydraulics and make somebody magically fly. We wanted the audience to see how the lifting is done, how the device works. Having it become part of the show is the aesthetic. It’s one of our hallmarks.

Why pull back the curtain? I’ve been watching Penn & Teller’s Fool Us and YouTube videos that show how a trick was done, and sometimes I wish I didn’t have any idea.

There can be magic in believing in the magic. But I think it’s even more magical to see how things work. I like to open up the clock and examine the gears. To me, that adds a layer to the performance you don’t get when you’re obscuring it. But it is a choice – we choose to show it off because, to me, it’s beautiful and cool.

Your last show, Pedal Punk, certainly made sense given your background. It might seem curious that you are among the more forward-thinking cirque companies and the theme for the new show is the oldest, most classic form of circus. Why?

There are so many reasons. It started with a corporate event I had done for Zappos with a throwback theme a few years ago. Then Ringling Brothers closed. There was a lot of talk about the death of the American circus. Also, this year is the 250th anniversary of when the one-ring circus began in England. By focusing on the early-1900s genre, it was an era that worked well with the kinds of contraptions we build – man-powered analog devices. The idea of paying tribute made a lot of sense. We’d already set shows in a factory, a mining town, and the steampunk era. But to do a story about a circus, in our own environment, it’s a little odd. But we had already built some cool devices that were perfect for this vintage world.

So, you had the machines first?

Our process generally works that way. It’s been sort of backward for typical theater, because it usually starts with the contraptions. Some of the ones we’ve built for corporate events haven’t even ended up in a theater show yet. For Pedal Punk, I’d already built the Gantry bike for a big street festival. It was great because it was self-contained and easy to transport regardless of where we were bringing it. For this project, we’d already built a big revolving ladder act, just to explore the possibilities, not even focusing on the fact that it was a contraption that actually was used in circuses 100 years ago but had fallen out of favor. So, it was natural.

I understand the main set features a revolving ring.

Yeah, we liked having a structure that was independent of the building, so we decided to build the circus ring in a way that allowed us to create an environment that would support our tech needs but also give us a lot of information and opportunities. We can turn it around to see the back lot, which has always been such a big part of the intrigue and allure of the circus. There are all these vintage pictures of people in the back, clowns putting on makeup, or other acts playing on the ropes or doing handstands, doing their laundry or playing backgammon, or just hanging out in the grass, smoking a cigarette. Using the carousel where the main entranceway is a curtain, we can have the artists be in a back lot, then walk through the curtain, turn it around, and now they’re in the ring. And then, we can spin it back and show them returning to the back lot. It’s a Noises Off kind of thing. It’s different and playful and pays tribute to the circus ring, which is the heart of what the show is about. 

How does the story fit in?

It’s our thing to do a story, not just perform, and this one is about the circus. So, it’s just a guy who wants to be in the circus. It’s not a very deep or original construct, but with being nonverbal you have to keep it simple and let the magic come from the execution. Moving back and forth allows us to escape the nonstop energy of the performance part to show the story, change things up. It’s just a construct, and we hope people connect with the character, but it’s okay if they don’t. People are expecting us to show them things in a way that haven’t seen before. So, for example, we have a bounce juggling act that happens on the back of a mechanical horse, because we had to pay tribute to the most classical central element of the one-ring circus, which started with equestrian acts. We want to evoke that era, create the intimacy that Ringling Brothers, for all their spectacle, came up short on. Young people nowadays have seen everything, so spectacle is hard to pull off, but intimacy still gets people – and that’s our strong suit.

Purr-fect Performance

While the only animal on stage with Cirque Mechanics is a metal horse, the creatures are decidedly real in Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre. And while Cirque upped the ante by moving from Campbell to the Granada, Popovich is drastically scaling down, relocating from the venues that hosted several previous shows – the Marjorie Luke and the Lobero – to the 140-seat Center Stage. Which means more up-close-and-personal time with the pets, a furry cast of animals that do surprisingly agile feats such as jumping through hoops and walking on a wire. Notably, the house cats, dogs, parrots, geese, and mice were all rescued from shelters across the country and trained to perform on stage. Meow! Show time is 7 pm on Wednesday, October 17. 

Holmes Front 

If one of the benefits of live theater is an opportunity for escapism, you can’t get much more deeply immersive distraction than a play by Ken Ludwig. The playwright known for such period-piece farces as Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo takes an even deeper dive with The Game’s Afoot, a drawing-room mystery drama that’s really much more of a comedy thriller. The whodunit is set on Christmas Eve 1936 when, following an attempt on his life, the huge Broadway star William Gillette – a real-life actor who wrote the Sherlock Holmes play that he starred in for years making him inordinately wealthy – invites his current fellow cast members to his home, an extraordinary stone castle he built on a promontory above the Connecticut River. The guests include a longtime friend and his wife, a newlywed couple, and a theater critic who has written scathing words about all of them, plus his mother. When one of them turns up dead, the festivities turn fallow as Gillette assumes the persona of his beloved Holmes and tries to track down the killer before there’s another victim and the inspector arrives.

“I loved the book immediately when I read it,” said Katie Laris, who is directing SBCC Theater Group’s production that runs October 10-27 in the Garvin Theatre on campus. “It’s really funny. There’s tons of theatrical stuff in it. And the style changes from moment to moment, with classical elements, an almost horror vibe, and thriller-suspense. And it has those kinds of characters from shows set in the 1930s without any of the dubious character flaws from plays that were actually written then.”

The story alone is enough to take audiences on a journey, she said. “It’s just extremely well-plotted, full of red herrings and twisty turns, playing on familiar archetypes of the mystery genre – the eccentric inspector, a remote town that’s cut off from the rest of civilization, weird and wacky characters – plus the His Girl Friday-style snappy repartee. There’s a ton going for it. It’s smart and funny.”

The veteran cast of company players makes the work even more worthwhile, Laris said. Brian Harwell plays Gillette, while Nancy Nufer portrays the critic, headlining a roster that also includes Leslie Gangl Howe, Sean Jackson, Jenna Scanlon, Leslie Ann Story, Benjamin Offringa, and Madison Duree.

Will theater-goers be as entertained as those early last century, well before cell phones, films, TV, Netflix, and Facebook, when – as Laris recounted – audiences would cheer for performances by Gillette and others for hours? Hard to say. But at least they’ll get to spend a couple of hours following a chateau caper back when “it was a simpler, happier time,” Laris said. People can escape a “life outside that’s pretty harsh right now. It makes it easy to forget what’s going on in the world and their own challenges, and spend some time in a world that’s really different.”

IMPROVology Takes a Dive 

The next episode of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s IMPROVology show features two experts on aquatic critters sharing stories of their adventures before watching that material become fodder for comedy skits created on-the-spot by members of L.A.’s Impro Theatre Company. Stephanie Arne, host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, will recount what she learned while being a spotter of whale sharks – the world’s largest fish – off the Australia coast, while Channel Islands Marine Wildlife Institute’s Animal Care coordinator Jennifer Levine dishes on the efforts to rescue and care for harbor seals and sea lions stranded on Central Coast beaches. Then Dean Noble, the zoo’s marketing director and himself a former improv pro, tasks the five visiting actors with turning the tales into Who’s Line Is It Anyway-style comedy skits. Laugh while you learn at the 7 pm show on Friday, October 12. 

Short Cuts

Center Stage Theater hosts a “Memorial, Life Celebration, Story Fest” for Sylvia Short, the veteran Santa Barbara actress who passed away last April at the age of 90. 

Short, who had roles in Newsies (1992), The Birdcage (1996), and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), and many TV shows and movies as well as countless productions at Center Stage and elsewhere in town, will be honored at 7 pm on Monday, October 15. Images from many of her performances – and life – will be shown while guests are encouraged to share any Short story they wish. “No tale is off limits,” reads the announcement. “Our girl didn’t feel compelled to play by any rules, and she would want to be remembered in her full-blown, unvarnished glory.” 

Classical Corner: Music Club Goes on the Pipe 

Santa Barbara Music Club kicks off the new season of its long-running free concert series at 3 pm on Saturday, October 13, with organist and composer Roger Nyquist in a solo recital on First United Methodist Church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Nyquist, who was on UCSB’s music faculty, will perform works by J.S. Bach, John Bull, Louis Claude Daquin, Nord Johnson, Camille Saint-Saëns, Paul Manz, Oliver Messiaen, Henri Mulet, Antonio Vivaldi, and John Weaver, as well as some of his own pieces. The organ stands at 52 ranks, totaling more than 2,500 pipes, plus three digital pedal stops. Visit for details and the upcoming schedule. 

Bolcom Debut 

UCSB professor of horn Steven Gross and American Double members violinist Philip Ficsor (former associate professor of music at Westmont College), and pianist Constantine Finehouse present the West Coast premiere of William Bolcom’s Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano – which they commissioned last year – at 3 pm Sunday, October 14, at Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West. Bolcom – who has won a National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award – wrote the piece in response to the current divisive times; the titles of the four movements (“Plodding, implacably controlled,” “Headlong, brutal,” “As if far away, misterioso,” and “Very controlled and resolute”) indicate the vastly different moods and colors of the piece. Also on the program are Václav Nelhýbel’s Scherzo Concertante, an excerpt from Jiří Havlík’s Concerto for Horn, and selections from Bolcom’s Second Suite for Solo Violin. Info at or (805) 893-2064. 

Playback for Pianist, Parker Performs

UCSB Campbell Hall hosts the return of South Korean piano marvel Seong-Jin Cho, whose local debut last year sold out Hahn Hall. Cho, who became an instant star after earning the coveted Gold Medal at the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, has been praised by The Washington Post for “A rare combination of technical bravura, artistic maturity, and freshness of insight.” He will perform Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, op.61, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at 7 pm on Tuesday, October 16.

The Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet, who has won numerous prizes and appeared in all the major halls since forming in 2002, inaugurate the Santa Barbara Museum of Art chamber series at 7:30 pm on Thursday, October 18. The program includes Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, Paul Wiancko’s Strange Beloved Land, and Beethoven’s Quarter in E-Flat major, Op. 74, “Harp.” Info at

Fiddle Frenzy 

Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers Festival has come a long way since it was founded about half a century ago by Peter Feldmann. The acoustic music impresario sold it decades ago, but still comes around for his favorite part that is still intact – the impromptu jam sessions that pop up all over the grounds at the Stow House and Rancho La Patera, just a few miles from the festival’s (nee convention) humble beginnings at UCSB.

There are myriad other opportunities for musicians, including day-long competitions in a wide variety of instruments and singing. And newbies can give things a whirl at the instrument petting zoo or even a workshop. But you don’t have to be able to play a lick to listen to all sorts of songs, whether at the jam sessions, from the competition arena, or over by the performance stage where a host of acts will play. Among them are Brad Leftwich & Linda Higginbotham, Frank Fairfield & Tom Marion, Skillet Licorice, Eric & Suzy Thompson, and many others. There’s even a free concert the night before the big fest. So, rosin up your bow – or prick up your ears – for the Sunday, October 14, festival. Details, ticket info, competition rules, and schedule online at 

NECTAR Marks a Sweet Milestone 

The healing power of the arts has come into focus over the past nine months as the community recovers from the twin tragedies of the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow. But almost a decade ago, dancer/choreographer Cybil Gilbertson already began plumbing the healing properties of connecting through creation when she created Nectar to help her deal with the suicide of a close relative. Gilbertson has danced out her pain and gratitude many times over the last 10 years, but the arts showcase has also spurred other local residents to embrace their vulnerability and face their fears via creating works surrounding a specific theme for the periodic events that have been staged at Yoga Soup since 2009. 

Nectar has since hosted more than 250 artists and put the spotlight on the work of almost 20 Santa Barbara County organizations associated with that evening’s theme. The big anniversary show takes place over Saturday and Sunday, October 13-14, when the activities include an art forum and special performances of longtime participants. Visit for details.


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