Starting circus at the age of nine with the Pickle Family Circus, Abigail Munn is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Circus Bella. Recently, Abigail performed several shows at Moisture Festival in Seattle, and coached Giulia, one of the children in La Famiglia Gentile (who were in the spring Artist in Residency at SANCA). I had a chance to chat with Abigail during one of her breaks, and learn a little about her life in the circus.
SANCA: How did you get involved in circus?
Munn: I started when I was nine with the Pickle Family Circus and really I just kept going, studying dance in college [at UC Santa Barbara], I always knew I wanted to come back to circus. I also had a cabaret act and toured with a friend of mine. I always knew I wanted to be a trapeze artist. I remember seeing Wendy [Parkman] on the trapeze, and knowing that I wanted to do that, people also said that I looked like her. Then in high school, I went to the Urban School in San Francisco which also had a circus program.
SANCA: What was it like studying dance in college?
Munn: In college I had the opportunity to do choreography and directing, I always loved putting moving bodies on stage. I still do that at Bella.
SANCA: How did you start your own circus organization?
Munn: It takes a lot of grit and chutzpah! I toured with Zoppe Circus and really wanted to bring a small circus performing company feel back to the Bay Area. My friend David Hunt and I got a gig at a winery and was able to use that bit of money as the seed money to get [Circus Bella] started.
SANCA: You were recently in Seattle for Moisture Festival; do you usually stay in the U.S. or perform internationally?
Munn: I feel a commitment to stay in the United States. A lot of people decide to perform in Europe. For me, I feel the importance of creating art in the United States. We need it desperately. Circus is universal. You can be any age and speak any language but the magic of doing a trick in the ring is something we can all understand. Especially for our circus, the shows are free. It creates this opportunity for neighbors to sit next together at a show, they might not know each other but then they’re laughing together. Circus brings people together.
Also, we just have a really robust company, and it’s expensive to try to pack everyone up for a touring show. There’s so many places to perform in the Bay Area so with the economics of touring, it doesn’t seem viable to do without making it a much smaller show. But we have been able to ravel a little bit. Last summer we went to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to perform on the National Mall for a week and a half, representing the Bay Area which was very exciting. We also once got to perform in Japan, but the Bay Area is where we’re based.
SANCA: What advice do you have for people who want to get involved in circus or who have been doing circus but haven’t started performing?
Munn: Stick with your heart and don’t try to copy anyone else. What’s wonderful about circus is the individuality of the acts. My best advice? Make an act! It can change over time, but make an act and live with it over time. It can take years to make a really good act, so be in it for the long hall! Make sure it has a beginning, middle, big trick, and end. Make an act!
I see so many youth programs that give them so much time to roll around and experiment but who don’t get out there with a complete act. It’s ok if you’re uncomfortable with performing at first. Especially when I was starting out, performing was uncomfortable. It takes time; you have to have a lot of stage time.
SANCA: What do you think you’ve learned from your years of developing your acts and getting more stage time?
Munn: You have to take your time. It’s all about timing and the power of stillness. The power of stillness is really something you have to learn. And then, knowing the timing and how to work with an audience and play with them; you’re not alone up there! But still focus, when you’re doing that drop, everything has to disappear and you have to focus.
SANCA: Speaking of drops, you have a pretty impressive knee stand to ankle-hang drop (see video above). Care to share how you got that trick down?
Munn: Learning that skill [from Elena Panova], I started with a belt, and definitely fell a few times. But you learn your points slowly before working up to a faster drop. I squeeze my butt, twist my hips, and flex my feet!
Thank you, Abigail! We can’t wait to see you the next time you’re in town!
If you find yourself in the Bay Area, check out Circus Bella’s calendar so you can catch a show!