On Stage: Midnight Circus's high-wire act | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: Midnight Circus's high-wire act 

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The last time I saw Julie Greenberg and Jeff Jenkins, two and a half years ago, they were on the verge of opening their ragtag theater company, the Midnight Circus, in a little storefront theater in Uptown. In true off-off-Loop style, Greenberg and Jenkins, who were engaged, had taken on all the responsibilities--costumes, publicity, business management--as well as writing, directing, and starring. With less than three weeks until the opening, they looked pretty strung out.

But they talked a mile a minute, like a pair of ten-cup-a-day coffee addicts at the peak of their caffeine rush: interrupting each other midsentence, spitting out their words rat-a-tat-tat like dueling typewriters, telling anyone who asked everything they'd gone through--the excitement of creating a show that combined spectacular circus acts with the structure of a play, trying to get the thing produced (the endless pitch sessions, the inevitable rejections), the period of despondency when it became obvious no one would give them money, and the big decision to borrow money from friends and family to put it on themselves.

These days Greenberg and Jenkins, now married, seem much more relaxed. Their show turned out to be one of the big non-Equity hits of 1997, selling out its initial run at National Pastime before moving on to a nine-month run at the much larger Ivanhoe. Even more impressive, they just signed a deal with the Big Apple Circus, licensing the idea for their show to the much larger and better funded Manhattan-based circus company.

"The Big Apple Circus came to Chicago while we were running at the Ivanhoe," Greenberg begins.

"And Barry Lubin [who used to appear in the Big Apple] is a friend of mine," Jenkins cuts in, "and he introduced us to [Big Apple Circus founder and ringmaster] Paul Binder. We handed him our humble press kit."

"Cut and pasted together," Greenberg says, laughing. "And we said, 'Maybe you'd like to come see our show?'"

Jenkins picks that up: "He says in his thick Brooklyn accent, 'Why should I come to your show? I have a show of my own I'm trying to sell!'"

Greenberg and Jenkins heard nothing more for about three weeks. Then one night 20 minutes before show time, Binder called. The Bulls were in the playoffs for what would turn out to be their fifth championship, and both shows were having trouble filling seats. The Big Apple had had to cancel their performance that night.

"I'm coming to see your show," Binder told Jenkins.

Afterward Binder told the pair that their show reminded him of the Big Apple back in the early days, when it was just a handful of hippie street performers. Then, Greenberg recalls, Binder added, "We'll work together in the future. I don't know how, but we will."

Four months later, after flying back to Chicago to see the show again, Binder invited Greenberg and Jenkins to join his company. The two were flattered but weren't sure they wanted to fold the Midnight Circus. They were about to turn him down when they got another call. The Big Apple was restructuring and was no longer maintaining a full-time company of clowns. The offer was withdrawn.

"They came back four months later with another proposition," Greenberg says.

"'This is what we want to do,'" Jenkins interrupts, doing his best Binder imitation. "'We want to buy the Midnight Circus, lock, stock, and barrel.'"

"'You'll be put on our creative team,'" Greenberg continues, "'and you'll re-create your roles. We'll do a national tour and we'll put everything behind it--in a Big Apple way.'"

Binder's plan was to use their show to adapt his one-ring circus to the theater. "The tent and the traditional circus thing is very nice," Jenkins says. "But it's much easier to find a theater to perform in than an easy-to-get-to place where they can set up the tent and everything for a show."

"I think they realized it was time to expand," Greenberg adds.

"They flew us out to New York," Jenkins remembers, "to their corporate offices in Lincoln Center. We saw the show three times. It was very flattering and impressive."

"But we weren't ready to give up the Midnight Circus," Greenberg says. "So their business manager and our business manager came up with this licensing idea."

"The agreement is that they have the rights to the show for a period of three years," explains Jenkins. He and Greenberg will work as creative consultants, helping Big Apple tailor the material. "The show they will be finally doing will look nothing like the show we did. They are rewriting the material like crazy to fit the acts they have on hand."

"That way we can work with them without losing our identity," Greenberg says.

The show, tentatively entitled Oops! The Big Apple Circus on Stage, is slated to open in New York later this year.

In the meantime, Greenberg and Jenkins have written a new show, All the World's a Stage, about the complications that ensue in a small circus when William Shakespeare is accidentally conjured up in the middle of a magic act gone wrong. It opens Wednesday at 8 at Theater on the Lake, Fullerton and Lake Shore Drive. The show will run through June 27. Tickets are $10; call 312-742-7994. The Big Apple Circus is now at Arlington International Racecourse through June 27; for more information, see the Performance Critic's Choice in Section Two.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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