10.23 The Circus Riot

Even though I am very much an adult, I still want to run away and join the circus. A few years ago, I went far into researching the history of the circus for a screenplay I was writing. The screenplay is still here, waiting to be made. A 200-plus page story that brought an old-style circus into modern times. Maybe I’ll dig it up?

The circus brings out the outsider in me. In the history books I read, circus performers were very much outcasts, people who couldn’t fit into society’s notion of normalcy. When they joined the circus, not only could they be themselves, but found a family that actively encouraged them to embrace what made them special.

Artist: Joseph Becker.

Artist: Joseph Becker.

I mention this because as soon as I saw the advertisement for the Toronto Circus Riot, I immediately bought tickets. The show is a theatre/circus hybrid telling the story of an actual 1855 riot that happened in Toronto. It seems a trio of clowns had the night off and decided to visit a local brothel. The local volunteer firefighting brigade, the Hooks and Ladders, did not take kindly to the visiting clowns. A fight ensued, and by all accounts the clowns came out the winners.

The next day, the Hooks and Ladders enlisted their friends from the Orange Lodge and gathered outside the tent at S. B. Howes’ Star Troupe Menagerie and Circus. This would have been the south-east corner of Front and Berkeley. The crowd stormed the circus with axes and set fire to the tent. The police did little but watch, and of the 17 people charged in the riot, none except one was convicted.

As my friend and I entered the tent, performers operating animal puppets vied for our attention. Don’t worry all your animal lovers, no live animals here, except humans. After getting seated, the ringmaster came out, introducing the acts: jugglers, a strongman, balancing act, and clowns. The performers were all incredible.

When it was all over, the clowns remained on stage and came up with a plan to visit a brothel. They encouraged us to join them and we exited the tent, and walked around the corner to another venue. Inside they served us beer (from a local brewery) and we watched the scene unfold between the clowns and the Hooks and Ladders.

After a pretty alcohol and sex-filled night with the clowns, the Hooks and Ladders called us outside to the ‘town square’. They had axes and got us all wired up, essentially turning us into an angry mob. We walked back to the tent and circled the circus performers. All hell broke loose and the Chief of Police stood and watched - he was one of the Hooks and Ladders. After the violence, we filed back into the tent for a trial where we were the jury. I won’t tell you how we voted.

At the end of the show, I stood outside the tent with my friend. I greatly admire performers of this variety. They have to be actors, be incredibly physically fit, have a seamless relationship with their body and with other performers, and do it all with a smile on their face. And they’re funny, the jokes aren’t cheesy, they’re legitimate.

Watching as the performers hung around, amusing the kids with the animal puppets, I walked back and peeked behind the curtain. The clowns were hanging with each other, and the rest of the performers came from backstage, having changed out of their costumes.

I walked back to my friend and said, “I’m not leaving with you. I’m going to join the circus.” He thought I was joking until he looked at my face.

“What’re you going to do?” He asked.

“I dunno, maybe something with fire.”

We said our goodbyes and walked into the tent, leaving my old life behind me.

The Toronto Circus Riot runs for one more weekend, June 12 - 15. Tickets: https://www.lookuptheatre.com.

Paul Dore