“Let the Wild Rumpus Start!”

My life is never dull. I'm the co-director of the Wild Rumpus Circus in Mazomanie, Wisconsin. The name 'wild rumpus' was inspired by Maurice Sendak's great book, Where The Wild Things Are.

Photos by Hedi Lamarr Rudd

Marcia Miquelon | Mazomanie, WI

In the book, Max says, ‘Let the wild rumpus start,’ and we thought rumpus was such a fun word, we’ve had so much fun with it over the years.  This is our 22nd year, and we’ve taught literally thousands of kids to walk on stilts, juggle and mime.

Collaboration and improvisation are themes in my life that have always been very important to me. As a kid, my family did lots of camping and hiking, and traveling around the United States in a big station wagon. My first full-time job after college was as a ski instructor first in the mountains of Virginia, later I was an instructor in the Rockies in Utah. Experiential learning has always really appealed to me. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I knew that movement and first-hand discovery brought me a lot of joy and fascination. 

I arrived in Wisconsin almost 30 years ago. After meandering all around, biking across the country twice, and volunteering in Africa, I moved to Madison for a job. I found a place to live in called The Big Pink, which was this beautifully built pink stucco farmhouse.  Every member of the household was a trapeze artist. They were all involved in an aerial dance collective called Cycropia.

I have a dance background, I was a ballet kid and in college, I discovered contemporary dance and improv, so this totally appealed to me. I quickly joined Cycropia Aerial Dance, and the next thing I knew, I was increasing my acrobatics and physical strength and learning to walk on stilts. While I had a part-time job at the UW that paid my bills, I found I really loved teaching and dancing and I craved more. Instead of just a hobby, I wanted to make it my full-time job.

One day, I took a bike ride north of Madison and I ended up at the Merrimac Ferry. I’m waiting to cross the ferry, and here comes the circus train across the river. Circus World Museum in Baraboo would pack up all its wagons, load them on the train, and travel to Milwaukee for the Great Circus Parade.  So, I’m watching these beautifully hand-carved and painted, antique circus wagons coming across the bridge. And I had no idea about Wisconsin’s circus history at the time, but here was this magical sight. This was really a wonder-filled moment for me. I remember thinking, ‘This is a place I could live. There is a lot to explore here and there is a lot of unexpected beauty.’ This was an important realization because I was looking for a place to settle but wasn’t sure I’d found it yet, until this moment.

Watching the circus train, I didn’t know that I would eventually bring the Wild Rumpus Circus to Mazomanie. I got married and moved to a tiny little cabin along the Wisconsin River where sandhill cranes and eagles were my new neighbors. And as I commuted back and forth to Madison for work and to dance with Cycropia, I noticed that a little storefront here in Mazo had a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window. It was built in 1888, with high ceilings and original wood floors, and it had a warm and bright feel to it. The rent was cheap, the ceilings were riggable, and the time and place seemed right, so I opened the Mazo Movement Arts Center in January 2002.  Four doors down from the storefront was a historic plaque on the front wall of a business that claimed it was where the Ringling Brothers first performed publicly. Another random but important circus connection.

At the time, there was really no other circus or aerial being taught in the area, so it was pretty easy to get people to drive out here and take a class and explore this new thing with me. Then in the spring of 2002, one friend who is a stilt walker, another who’s a clown and juggler, and I decided to collaborate (there’s that word again), and two months later we offered our first week of circus camp.

Teaching someone to stilt walk is hard to explain. It's something that looks impossible, right? When you start out on stilts, it feels so weird on your legs, it feels impossible. The kids hang on to me for dear life. They are stiff and a little bit panicky. But then, after a few hours, they find their balance and realize it feels just like walking.

When I opened Mazo Movement Arts Center, I originally leased the space for aerial practice and teaching, I didn’t do it specifically to start a circus program. It was intended as a home for all kinds of dance and movement. I hosted classes and workshops in Middle Eastern dance, African dance, ballet, modern, jazz, tap, tai chi, yoga, creative movement, and improvisation. The circus was one of many pieces of the Center, but it turned out to be the most popular, unique, and enduring one. 

I started offering Wild Rumpus Circus Camps in 2002. Kids have the chance to explore trapeze, acrobatics, clowning, juggling, tight-wire walking, physical theater, circus history, pantomime, art, and stilt walking.  I get a lot out of seeing kids gain confidence, learn and grow from overcoming their fear and trying a new skill.  When you start out doing something that feels so strange and then discover your body actually knows how to do it, it’s really empowering.  For kids, this is especially true and their joy is transparent. We offer the circus equipment, the tools, and a safe learning environment and let kids go and explore.  With stilt walking, kids love the simplicity of just being taller than their teachers and parents. They very rarely hurt themselves.   

I like working with people of all ages – giving people the opportunity to experience something new. Unlike children, adults can be set in their tracks. But when someone goes upside down for the first time since they were a kid in an aerial fabric hammock, it feels kinda fun and they giggle. Learning these skills might feel impossible until they develop a little more strength and become more familiar with the new ways of moving. The other part of the process is re-learning how to play.  It can feel freeing because, in our adult lives, we don’t give ourselves a lot of time for play, which is what hanging upside down and walking on stilts allows for. I’m fascinated with creating a safe, non-judgmental, joyful environment where that kind of play can happen. I love to be a part of that.

I know that the key to the success and longevity of the Wild Rumpus Circus is our willingness to improvise and our deep connections. I don’t know if we’d still be here if it weren’t for the parent that said, ‘You know, you really need to start offering a bus, and I’ll tell you what, I will look into it for you.’ So a parent found our bus company, which helped with our enrollment – brought us back from declining numbers. Or the kids saying, ‘Hey, we want this, so will you look into it for us?’ A combination of that and just my crazy notion that we get to make up our careers as we go along. But I wouldn’t have gone in some of the directions if it hadn’t been for   strong voices in our community saying, ‘How about this?’ Or ‘What about this opportunity?’ And I think life’s like that. At least a rich life feels like that. 

Circus is a populist art form. It’s very accessible. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve built this circus community in Mazo. I think its success can be attributed to the fact that I landed in a place with a connection to circus history that was open to our kind of business. In the early years, with very short notice, the volunteer fire department would turn up and escort all the kids in a parade around the block on the last day of camp.

A local resident of Mazo told me that we’re an anchor in the downtown. And that was surprising to me because we’re such a weird anchor. It’s not like we have regular business hours. We pop up downtown every now and then with a posse of kids on stilts and then it’s busy in the summer for several months. I was really touched because we are not a typical small-town business, right? Over the years, we have definitely had some amazing long-term relationships with local families, who when they first heard of us said, ‘Wow, there’s a circus right here! I’m going to get my kid involved in it. 

As co-director of the Wild Rumpus Circus, I get to tap into a lot of other people’s joy. I get to live my passion. At our camps, there is so much happiness and activity bubbling around us at all times, it’s hard to feel sad or bored. For me, it makes for an interesting life – it is never dull.

Marcia’s story was produced by Rebecca Lemar. You can learn more about the Wild Rumpus Circus & Mazo Movement Arts Center here.

Photo 1: performance with Cycropia, photo by Mick McKiernan; Photo 2: performance with Jacob Mills, photo by Mick McKiernan; Photo 3: performance with Elly Craig; Photo 4: teaching in South Africa, photo by Lauren Justice; Photo 5: performance in Cweli, Eastern Cape, South Africa  

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