“When I hear adults or little kids say, ‘Oh, I don’t like clowns.’ I think, ‘Oh, you haven’t really seen a real clown.’” said Jim Jackson with a kindly smile — and he would know. Jackson is perhaps the most beloved clown in the Pikes Peak region and co-founder of Millibo Art Theatre in Ivywild.
In advance of the opening of “The Incredible Circus Millibo,” running Saturday-Sunday and May 20-21 at Millibo Art Theatre, I sat down with Jackson to chat about clowning, Cirque du Soleil and the timeless magic of all-ages circus.
Jackson started clowning in college. He had been exploring mime and movement theater in Europe when he saw his first European wandering circus. “The clowns were very funny, which was a huge inspiration for me. In my definition, a clown as a performer has to be funny. But they also had such a beautiful staging of skilled acts, too! So I learned to juggle, and started learning acrobatics and walking a tightrope, largely self-taught,” he said fondly.
After college, he did what many of us only imagine — he joined the circus.
“I had a contract with a little circus which allowed me to do more shows and develop my skills, then I did several years with traditional circuses as a clown and juggler,” he said. Jackson eventually left the circus life to become a street performer and busker in the LeCoque clown style.
The character that Jackson developed, now named Art Guffaw, came out of circus and so has an emphasis on circus skills. Forty years later, his show still has some magic, juggling, a little bit of unicycle … “But not so much of the unicycle anymore.” Jackson said with a laugh. “That’s why the younger performers are so important, coming up in their skills.”
Millibo Art Theatre is the centerpiece of circus arts in our region and the only place where children and young adults can train in the variety of traditional skilled acts that first made Jackson love the circus. “Nobody does the variety of circus arts in town that we do,” Jackson said.
These younger performers are growing up in a generation that knows Cirque du Soleil far more than the Ringling Brothers, and I asked Jackson how that evolution is shaping his newest trainees.
“I think Cirque do Soleil has been good for circus arts. The traditional American circus was really dying as an entertainment form. Ringling Brothers was artistically a change for the worse, a big coliseum show with lights and flashy things, and that garish staging lost the essence of circus as an art — the physical prowess, the skills, the poetry. Cirque rediscovered that and inspired a lot of young people to take up the skills to a higher degree than they ever were before.
“Over my career, I’ve seen the skills increase. It’s incredible what the young people are learning! Cirque has given people a way to make it a career.”
Local students of circus arts are central to the cast of “The Incredible Circus Millibo,” which has been showcasing circus-artists-in-training alongside professionals for the last 14 years.
There are 16 students in this show, the most they have ever featured, alongside six professional performers.
“For the audiences, it’s wonderful because it’s really family friendly and for all ages, and they’ll see all ages on stage.” Jackson said. “You may see an 8-year-old juggling, a 9-year-old on stilts or an adult on silks. We don’t trot the children out as a novelty; they really carry a large part of the show.
“We tell people that this is a circus that they can feel very free bringing their 3-year-old or their grandparents to, and people are going to relate to it no matter what age they are. They aren’t going to be overwhelmed by it or assaulted in their senses. It’s very human scale. The comic and the human element is very important.”
That “comic and human element” weaves unmistakably throughout the offerings of Millibo Art Theatre, which range far beyond circus arts to include touring shows for young audiences, classic theater or original plays by local playwrights for adults, and improv nights.
But I recommend gathering your family and experiencing the timeless circus arts the way Jim Jackson presents them in “The Incredible Circus Millibo” this month. You never know — you just might fall in love with a certain clown the way thousands have for 40 years now … and counting.
Originally written by Angela Seals of the Cultural Office and published in the Cheyenne Edition in May 2017.