Volume 15, Issue 45  | June 6, 2023Subscribe

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Going BANANAS! in Bluebird Canyon

By Nancy Carpenter

One recent weekday afternoon, I caught up with Abigail Munn, co-founder along with David Hunt of Circus Bella, and took an immediate liking to her. She loves circuses. I love circuses. She loves acrobats defying gravity. I love acrobats defying gravity. She loves events featuring live music. I love events featuring live music. She loves the art of clowning around. I love the art of clowning around – well, not really clowning around. Maybe not clowns at all. But after talking with her, I got a whole new perspective of what clowns and circuses are all about.

Going Bananas Munn and Hunt

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Courtesy of Circus Bella

Founders Abigail Munn and David Hunt realizing their dream

The fact that Munn grew up quite literally in the backstage maze of the San Francisco Opera – her father was lighting director – was all she needed to kick-start her passion. Her talents as dancer, choreographer and aerialist gave her the ingredients to join a circus. But that would be too easy. Instead, why not turn her aspirations into a circus. Hold on: That doesn’t sound quite right.

Enter David Hunt. The two connected, conversed, compared visions and concluded, let’s not wait for the circus to come to town, the town being San Francisco. Let’s make one. Let’s name it, hmmm, Circus Bella! That was back in 2008.

What does a circus look like? More important, what was the look they wanted for Circus Bella? Way back, Ringling Brothers with its big animals and bigger tents, was the definition of circus. Now it’s Cirque du Soleil, a more intimate experience with live music and in-the-round performances. Less about the talents of animals (except for “Cavalia”), and more about very talented people achieving superhuman feats. I can attest to an addiction to Cirque du Soleil.

Munn and Hunt wanted their circus accessible and available (code for free) to everyone, staged in parks or other open spaces that are part of their communities. They wanted an immersive experience minus the brick and mortar of a Big Top. Not that they haven’t done that albeit on a smaller scale that doesn’t compromise the intimacy. Tents, after all, do take the worry out of weather issues. “Kaleidoscope” was first performed in the winter on Treasure Island before they packed their tent pole for Snowmass and Avon, both in Colorado. 

Circus Bella is also available for corporate occasions or private venues, customizing the event to fit their client’s vision.

But the open-air concept under the umbrella of Circus in the Parks is where they put most of their efforts. Circus Bella has delivered more than 160 performances attended by more than 80,000 people in 37 locations. In 2017, they were invited to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s 50th Anniversary event held in Washington D.C.’s National Mall. That production was called “Bay City Rhapsody.”

But not everyone can go to Washington. Nor does Circus Bella wait for communities to discover them. They are a nonprofit that reaches out, often to those that are underserved. They merge themed concepts with their own talented employees to bring the vision alive. For each production they go through three weeks of half-day rehearsals.

Going Bananas poster

Courtesy of Circus Bella

Two shows on Saturday, June 10 – at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Laguna Beach is not a stranger to Circus Bella. Last year we got to experience “Flip*Flop*Fly.” This year’s show is titled “BANANAS!” because, as Munn put it, “Sometimes it feels like the whole world is going a bit bananas.” We agreed, bananas are a funny fruit. Hard not to smile when you think of a banana. But before we start peeling that bunch…Sorry.

We settled into a discussion about various forms of entertainment that embrace a universal across-languages-and-borders appeal. Music is obvious, including opera. Anywhere in the world, weary from travel, you can stumble onto musicians and singers, formal or informal, indoors or out, sit back, connect with others and let yourself be taken to another universe.

Circus is the same, but also different. International roots run deep in a circus. Stilt-walking was first seen in Africa, foot jugglers in China and contortionists in Mongolia. They roamed about with their gifts of entertainment, gathering more talent. The art of circus is often a family affair, the traditions passed down from one generation to the next. But for those new to the trade, a circus can be a lifesaver that requires both discipline and dreams of achieving something different, something bigger than ourselves.

Going Bananas Jefferson

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Photo by John Little/Haphazard Imagination

Jefferson Freire juggling 

Juggling is as synonymous with the circus as clowns. Impossible to highlight all the performers, but we agreed, Circus Bella’s own Jefferson Freire stands out. Freire lived with his mother in one of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s tougher suburbs noted for its lack of opportunities underscored by crime, poverty and drugs. Rather than following any of those paths, Freire picked up clubs and started to juggle. Eventually he studied under Anderson Pereira de Silva, now considered one of South America’s best jugglers. Pereira de Silva would be proud of him.

Juggling saved Freire’s life. In the tradition of paying-it-forward, Munn insists his juggling is magical and has saved many other lives. As for his talent, she adds, “Gravity applies to all of us except Jefferson.”

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Going Bananas full cast

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Photo by Daisy Rose Coby

BANANAS! Full Cast 

Back to those darn clowns. Munn gave me a crash course in the art of clowning around. Clowns come in trios, each playing a specific role. By the numbers, once on stage, Clown #1 is in charge. Clown #2 tries hard to do Clown #1’s bidding, but misses every time. Soon its evident that Clown #3 is out-to-lunch. They’re like a three-legged table. If one leg is missing, the table tips over and is rendered useless, and that’s just not funny.

Michelle Matlock, official Clown Coach, recently facilitated a Clown Workshop at Little Boxes Theater in San Francisco. A little clown is somewhere in all of us, she points out. To paraphrase from their website, the workshop was an opportunity for participants to relish their own delight, express their greatest possible emotions, and celebrate their “debacles and triumphs.” Clowns connect with audiences because we all have the potential of being a little ridiculous and clowns give us permission to embrace our inner silly. This workshop was for ages 17 and up, the cost nominal, but that didn’t keep any one from attending. Circus Bella offered scholarships for those in need. They are hoping to facilitate future workshops. This is a good time to mention, fundraising and donations are critical to Circus Bella’s success in bringing a bit of circus to everyone.

If you’re a blogger, or like blogs, take time to explore the Circus Bella blogs. It’s an encyclopedia for all things circus, including history, fun facts, the making of a circus pinwheel, circus-themed movies, and more. I now know how to turn a common tarp into a blue circus ring replete with gold stars.

But I was particularly intrigued by “High Flying Spaghetti.” Like an infantry, a circus travels on its stomach. Food is always available, and lifting from the blog, “Our favorite local restaurants know us by name. During the months in the tent, we eagerly look forward to our between-the-show-BBQs. The summer is marked by donuts, cakes, sandwiches, burritos, popsicles and burgers and fresh coffee provided by Orlene. Bananas and Trader Joe’s peanut butter pretzels wait vigilantly on standby for emergency hunger situations.”

Spaghetti has become a tradition in itself, part of what equates to a closing-night cast party when someone realizes, there’s nothing better than a plate of spaghetti. Their record: 14 pounds of pasta at one sitting back in 2016. In times of stress, bring on more spaghetti. Be sure to check out Abigail’s Flying Spaghetti Sauce recipes, one vegetarian and one otherwise.

Going Bananas dinner

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Photo by Barry Schwartz

The Circus Supper Club   

Circus Bella is thankful for the generous donations they receive throughout the year. Following their food obsession, Circus Bella recently hosted “The Circus Supper Club” featuring a four-course plated dinner attended by donors and held at Munn’s home. The menu was amazing and included Bananas Foster, a shout-out to this season’s theme: “BANANAS! – A Bombastic, Ballyhoo and Celebration of Silliness.”

The 2023 season schedule includes shows and locations throughout California plus three performances in Reno, Nev. Here in Laguna Beach, the figurative tent will be pitched June 10 with performances at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The location is Bluebird Park, 772 Cress St. in Bluebird Canyon. The music is live and original, headed by Rob Reich on keyboard, accordion and “other noises,” and the Circus Bella All Star Band including Clare Armenante, Ian Carey, Kasey Knudsen, Michael Pinkham, and Jonathan Seiberlich. Benito Cortez and Corey Wright are doing a little subbing.

While we’re at it, let’s give a nod to the cast: Cole Bennington (Chair Stacking), Toni Cannon (Strongman), Jamie Coventry (Clown), Jefferson Freire (Juggling and Unicycle), Dworia Galilea (Aerial), Elise Hing (Contortion), Natasha Kaluza (Clown and Hula Hoops), Logan Kerr (Tightwire) and Calvin Kai Ku (Clown). Munn is our host.

The performances are free, although a $20 donation is suggested, and what you will experience is worth much more. Everything you need is provided, except something to sit on. Chairs and blankets will do. There will be popcorn. A circus isn’t a circus without popcorn.

But no spaghetti.

I think I saw my first circus when I was about 6 or 7, and many more since. They always delight, there is always something to amaze, the “How do they do that?” phenomenon to keep our minds busy for days. And of course, the laughs. On June 10, I will be looking for Clowns 1, 2 and 3 and expecting a good old-fashioned belly laugh. Hope to see you there.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO -

Lana Johnson, Editor -

Tom Johnson, Publisher -

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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