Members of Circus Bella onstage in 2019. Credit: James Watkins

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox.

The performers of Circus Bella have a message for Oaklanders: It’s time to laugh. The Bay Area circus troupe will launch its new show, “Humorous,” on Thursday, Aug. 26 at 5:30 p.m. in DeFremery Park in West Oakland. 

Circus Bella’s 11-member ensemble has been in rehearsals for the past several weeks at Trapeze Arts Circus Center on 9th Street, fine-tuning the all-new, 60-minute show led by the company’s co-founder and executive director, Abigail Munn. “We are beyond excited to get back in front of a live audience,” said Munn. 

Thursday kicks off a five-show run in the Bay Area—the company’s first performances since the pandemic shut down arts and entertainment venues, indoors and out, in March 2020. All of the performances, three in Oakland and two in San Francisco, will be held outside in local parks and as always with the troupe’s Circus in the Parks series—they’re free. 

At the start of the troupe’s first dress rehearsal this week, Munn had a gift for each of the performers—an at-home COVID test kit. The performers have been wearing masks at rehearsals and getting tested and isolating as needed if exposed to the virus. “We’ve been following the guidelines and keeping ourselves safe,” said Munn. Providing cast members with the tests, she said, is another way they can stay informed and on top of things.

Next on the rehearsal agenda was costumes. The troupe made a quick change as Munn distributed the outfits, created by her longtime friend and collaborator Autumn Adamme, owner of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry in San Francisco. The Circus Bella look is both electric and eclectic with a color palette ranging from bright yellow and orange to hot pink and purple and sparkly turquoise blue. Add to that feathers, tights, hats, and lace-up boots. “We make quite a scene,” observed Munn, as troupe members mugged for a photo. 

A young boy watches Circus Bella performers during one of their “Ring Out Loud!” shows in 2018. Credit: James Watkins

When asked how Circus Bella has managed through the pandemic, Munn replied, “We cocooned. There was a lot of circus performed virtually, but that didn’t really fit our mission or expertise.” Munn spent the time focused on the future, looking at how to make Circus Bella more efficient. “After running a not-for-profit for 12 years, it was time to take stock and think through how to make the circus sustainable going forward.” 

Munn, a self-described “doer of everything” at Circus Bella, has been the troupe’s trapeze artist for years. During the pandemic-induced break, she decided to step back from her act, so she could put even more energy into managing the organization, which is funded through grants, donations, and performance location fees. In the past, the Circus in the Park shows were held earlier in the summer, returning to the same park, the same week, from year to year. COVID put a wrench in that routine and Munn has had to stay flexible, but she has her eye set on a return to the original June through August schedule in 2022.

Circus Bella got its start with an outdoor performance at a Sonoma winery in 2008. As the circus enters its 12th season, members will perform on the same bright blue tarp with a circle of gold stars set inside a small curb that, from the beginning, has created their magical circus space. “We’re kind of a hybrid, a cross between a traditional and contemporary circus,” said Munn. 

What can circus-goers expect? A modern twist on the one-ring circus with artists like Carlo Gentile, a 30-year circus veteran, who has performed with Circus Bella for the past nine years and helps Munn with managing the production, too. In this show, Gentile will be juggling basketballs, a large vase, and more—with his feet. Dwoira Galilea will perform an aerial act, twisting, turning, and spinning on a hoop hoisted high above the ring. Jefferson Freire, a circus transplant from Brazil, will entertain with unicycle tricks, juggling, and some violin, and Garret Allen, a guest artist from San Diego, will perform acrobatic feats on top of a tall stack of teetering chairs. Add to that a contortionist, a strong man, and a handful of clowns, plus a six-member band led by Rob Reich, whose written an original score for the show that includes an accordion, a glockenspiel, saxophone, and tuba—and you’ve got Circus Bella.

Toward the end of their three-hour rehearsal, the entire cast got in place to practice one last act. Munn assigned each artist to a taped mark on the floor as they each grabbed three juggling pins from a large bin. Everyone in Circus Bella juggles. Munn set the music on the boombox and the pins got tossed to and fro and high in the air as the artists moved in and out, over and under, and around the ring with barely a pin dropping. With that, it was a wrap and Munn gave some last-minute directions to the cast. 

“We have a loyal following—people, family, kids—that come to the show year after year,” said Munn. They even get fan mail, she said, even though they perform outside and there are no tickets, so it’s hard to track. “And I’ve had kids recognize me in the grocery store as the lady from the circus,” she added with a laugh. 

With a dozen details left to manage before the first show, Munn stopped to reflect as the crew headed out the door. “What I love about the circus is its universality. Anyone, everyone, at any age, from any background, can enjoy the circus.”

Go to https://www.circusbella.org for complete details on the upcoming show dates, times, and locations.