2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life

Nearly 20 spinning hula hoops engulfed Ben Franklin—the circus performer, not the Founding Father—during a Wednesday afternoon warm-up session in Santa Maria’s Severson Theatre. His partner, Joshua Dean, stood at the opposite side of the arena with one hoop of his own, but its diameter was much larger than the others, even taller than Dean himself. One ring to rule them all. 

2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE: The Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s (PCPA) production of The Little Mermaid opens on Thursday, Nov. 7, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Marian Theatre, located at Allan Hancock College, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria. Tickets to the show range from $38 to $50. Call (805) 922-8313 or visit pcpa.org for more info.

This circus apparatus is known as a Cyr wheel, named after its developer Daniel Cyr, who first used the metallic ring during a Cirque Éloize performance in 1997. During one part of the day’s workout, Dean grasped the rim of the wheel before stepping inside of it, staying within the hoop as it began spinning across the floor. 

“It’s like the opening of a Superman movie,” Franklin remarked, comparing a separate instance—Dean standing on the floor as the Cyr wheel rotated around him—to the trial of General Zod and his two cronies at the start of Superman (1978). The Kryptonian trio await sentencing within the confines of two revolving rings before their banishment to the Phantom Zone. Franklin’s reference to the film isn’t the last nod to superhero lore of the day.

“I was always obsessed with the comic book characters that were also circus performers, like Robin and Nightcrawler,” said Dean, who co-founded 2 Ring Circus—a theatrical circus company based in New York City—with Franklin in 2011. The duo specializes in integrating elaborate circus acts, including trapeze and fabric demonstrations, into stage musicals, operas, and plays. 

click to enlarge 2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
DYNAMIC DUO : Ben Franklin (top) and Joshua Dean (bottom) co-founded 2 Ring Circus, a New York City-based theatrical circus company, in 2011. Disney’s The Little Mermaid marks the pair’s first collaboration with PCPA.

click to enlarge 2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
LORD OF THE RINGS : Nearly 20 spinning hula hoops engulfed actor and circus artist Ben Franklin during a warm-up session in Santa Maria’s Severson Theatre.

Their latest creative endeavor? Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s (PCPA) production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which premieres Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Marian Theatre. Along with arranging the show’s circus elements, Dean and Franklin also perform as several characters.

“You have a very Batman and Robin entrance in this show,” Franklin said to his partner. 

“Yeah, I’m 30 feet in the air, I drop this rope and I just slide down into it on stage,” Dean explained. 

“And that’s the very first circus moment you see in the show,” Franklin added before describing the musical’s opening number, “Fathoms Below,” in which the sailors aboard Prince Eric’s ship sing about merpeople and their mythical ruler, King Triton. It’s during this sequence that one particular sailor (Dean) makes his grand first impression on the audience. 

“It always takes you a minute to get comfy with it,” Dean said of the stunt. “I’m just going to be sitting on that ledge, holding the rope; getting used to it before I have to stand out. There’s nothing below me and I just hold on and have to step off and be lowered.”

But after taking a moment or two to get situated, it isn’t hard for Dean to look past the fact that there isn’t a safety net.

“I trust my strength, and I train,” Dean said. “I train almost every day to keep my skills up.”

The aerialist performs most of the show’s major circus stunts and plays various ensemble roles throughout the show, including the aforementioned sailor, a swan during “Kiss the Girl,” and a seahorse during “Under the Sea”—which he considers the most physically challenging sequence.

“I’m pulling out the most difficult skills for that one,” Dean said.

While Dean’s characters headline the circus-oriented sequences, many of Franklin’s duties are backstage, handling setup for each progressive stunt as needed, with little air time in between. 

“This show moves,” Franklin said. “You jump on that train and it does not stop, which is really exciting and fun.”

Still, Franklin does perform as several ensemble characters during the show, lending his acting and singing chops to the production. Bound to steal the spotlight during “Les Poissons,” Franklin will take on the role of Chef Louis, the scenery-chewing cook who tries to capture Sebastian the crab and turn him into dinner. 

“Then I’ll stuff you with bread/It won’t hurt—you’ll be dead/And you’ll surely be lucky you are/Cuz it’s gonna be hot in my big copper pot/Toodle-loo, mon poisson, au revoir!”

“It’s just a blast,” Franklin said. “And you get to play to the back of the house. They’re letting me go.”

Before ever aspiring to work in circus arts, Franklin’s primary focus was musical theater, the subject he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in from Virginia’s Shenandoah Conservatory. Despite fond memories of the circus in his youth, it was never something Franklin dreamed of running away to. 

“I remember the first time the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus came to my hometown and set up in a field. I loved it,” Franklin said. “But I never thought it would be part of my life. It just wasn’t part of the plan; I was on a different path.” 

Franklin’s path eventually intersected with Dean’s, whose background was in modern dance and musical theater, in the early 2000s. The couple met as mutual collaborators on a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats in Ohio in 2003. 

"We actually started making shows together right away,” said Franklin, who co-organized a benefit production of The Rocky Horror Show with Dean during the fall of that year. Proceeds of the show supported Broadway Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds for AIDS-related causes across the country.

“We started dating in that show and have stayed together ever since,” Dean said. 

Over the next eight years, the couple continued producing shows together, many of which incorporated circus arts. In 2009, Dean and Franklin were two of the five co-founders behind Suspended Cirque, New York City’s first aerial acrobatics theater troupe.

 “We focused more on circus works as the forefront,” said Dean, who envisioned blending the circus side of things with musical theater for the couple’s next venture, 2 Ring Circus, which they co-created with collaborators Lani Corson and Kenneth Ziegler two years later. 

click to enlarge 2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
LAND LOVER : Guest artist Katie Emerson portrays Princess Ariel, who dreams of leaving her ocean kingdom to live in the world above.

Between then and now, 2 Ring Circus has been a part of various theatrical productions at several venues across the country, including Los Angeles Opera, Arkansas Rep, Syracuse Stage, Fulton Theatre, and Cape Fear Regional Theatre. This season’s The Little Mermaid marks the duo’s first collaboration with PCPA.  

After arriving in Santa Maria at the beginning of October, Dean and Franklin quickly became fans of the Central Coast wine scene.

“In New York, we don’t drink a lot of California wines,” Dean said. “We went wine tasting, and it’s great. That’s what I’m learning about that I did not know.”

The couple was partially familiar with the area’s reputation based on the 2004 film Sideways, however. 

“They ruined the merlot crop forever,” Franklin said, referring to Paul Giamatti’s famous jab (“If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f--king merlot!”). The line estimatedly cost merlot farmers more than $400 million in lost revenue in the decade after Sideways’ release, according to a 2014 study by Vineyard Financial Associates.

“Yeah, they’re so mean in that movie,” Dean said. “I try to watch more positive things. Like Little Mermaid.”  

Finding fluidity

Although this year’s Little Mermaid iteration is 2 Ring Circus’ first PCPA production, it isn’t the duo’s first foray under the sea. The company provided circus elements to two previous productions—the first at Arkansas Rep in 2015 and the second at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in 2017—making this Dean and Franklin’s third show overall. 

click to enlarge 2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
THE HORSEMAN COMETH : Joshua Dean performs as several ensemble characters throughout Disney’s The Little Mermaid, including a trapeze-flying seahorse.

Both former productions were directed by Melissa Rain Anderson, who joins the pair once again for this go-around. Although currently based in New York, the director and actor has worked with PCPA on and off over the years, starring in eight productions and directing one since 1992, only three years after The Little Mermaid film was released.

“The underwater sequences were so vivid,” Anderson told the Sun, recalling her memory of seeing the film for the first time in 1989. “The shipwreck was so powerful. And of course the Ursula animation is so robust and unforgettable.”

Before directing her first mermaid outing in 2015, Anderson had never seen a production of the stage adaptation, which premiered on Broadway in 2007.

“I actually didn’t see it before I directed it,” Anderson said. “I did some research and watched a few clips online. But I knew we were going to tell the story in a very different way.” 

In preparation for Anderson’s 2015 production, Dean and Franklin took a similar stance and had only seen short clips of the show featured on the Tony Awards before diving in.

“I’ve never seen another live production, which I kind of love,” Dean said. “I love when you create that way because then you know that you’re not repeating another stage version of it.”

During the first meetings between 2 Ring Circus and Anderson, key members of the crew would get together to throw ideas around, Dean explained.

One of the top priorities early in the creative process was making sure each circus element integration came from a storytelling basis, Franklin added.

“That’s the focus, making the circus integral to the storytelling of the show, achieving the magic, and also keeping the story going,” Franklin said.

As the team gradually created their version of the show, more and more circus elements were added, Anderson said.

“There are a lot of moving pieces, and it feels like movie magic on stage when we get it right,” she said. “I remember during previews at Arkansas Rep, a child exclaiming, ‘How did they do that?!’ That’s what it’s all about.”

As the show has evolved into its third iteration, some circus acts have been cut while new ones get added in. The gadgets and gizmos undergo slight adjustments between each show as well, depending on specific whozits and whatzits.

“A lot of the apparatuses have changed a little bit every time based on who we had doing it,” Dean said. “It depends on the individuals. We’ve had different cast members in every show.”

During his stay in Santa Maria, Dean has been teaching circus classes to PCPA students four times a week. The classes are not exclusive to members of the cast, as students outside of the production are enrolled as well. For those in the show though, the classes offer a “double dose” of learning acrobatics, ensuring the actors feel comfortable, safe, and secure in the air once showtime arrives. 

click to enlarge 2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
SALTWATER BAE : Resident artist Yusef Seevers takes on the role of Ariel’s undersea friend, Sebastian.

“We get to push them a little further. We don’t always have that opportunity [during productions],” Dean said. “And they’re really rising to the challenge.”

Aside from the new batch of ensemble performers, another aspect that makes the PCPA production unique when compared to 2 Ring’s previous efforts is the new set design, provided by PCPA’s scenic designer Jason Bolen.

“I felt it was vital that the physical environment enhanced the exciting aerial work on, or more appropriately, above the stage,” said Bolen, who’s worked with PCPA since 2015. 

In coincidental unison with Dean, Franklin, and Anderson, Bolen has never seen an alternate live production of the stage show. 

“In terms of the overall aesthetic, I wouldn’t want to rely on other solutions to the show. One of the many joys of my job is using creative problem solving to facilitate storytelling,” Bolen said. “We want the audience to have an experience that will be different than anything they can see anywhere elsewhere.”

What Dean and Franklin also found refreshing about bringing the show to PCPA was getting to perform on a thrust stage (which extends into the audience on three sides), rather than a traditional proscenium. 

“I really love this set; I think it’s going to work really well,” Franklin said. “We’ve done the show in proscenium stages before. Now we have this thrust with the audience around us. It’s almost like they’re underwater in a fishbowl with us.”

The starfish align 

For PCPA resident artists, the 2 Ring Circus experience is—for lack of a better Disney reference—“a whole new world.” Erik Stein, who took on the villainous role of Frollo in PCPA’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame last year, has switched sides to play Ariel’s father, King Triton.

“This kind of collaboration makes us all better,” said Stein, who is also the casting director and recruitment coordinator for PCPA. “Ben and Josh are superheroes. They’re literally teaching our students to fly. And Katie Emerson is perfection as Ariel. She is helping guide our students toward the standard that is necessary to have a career in this business.”

Fellow resident artist Yusef Seevers, who was last seen on the Marian Theatre’s stage as Algernon Moncrieff in PCPA’s The Importance of Being Earnest, plays the perfectly crabby Sebastian.

“It’s exciting to have our guest team of creators join forces with our company,” Seevers told the Sun. “[The circus components] have been the most different and exciting part of the process, truly taking the story to new levels.”

For Seevers, the production heightens the right elements without subtracting from the core traits that make the original story so special and a continuous fan favorite.

“I feel what allows the story to still be resonant with so many is its centering around love,” Seevers said. “Love is a piece of all of us—it may be love of Netflix or your favorite jammies, but it’s love nonetheless.”

click to enlarge 2 Ring Circus and other guest artists help bring PCPA's 'The Little Mermaid' to life
COME SAIL AWAY : Like his partner, Ben Franklin fills the shoes of various ensemble characters during the show, including one of the sailors aboard Prince Eric’s ship.

Speaking of love, Ariel herself, portrayed by guest artist Katie Emerson, has been in love with the original Little Mermaid film since she was 3 years old. The New York City-based actor and self-described Disney buff recalled fond memories of her mother bringing her along to visit her father at work.

“She would set me on the bank teller counter, and I’d sing ‘Part of Your World’ for suckers,” Emerson said, laughing. “I will never tire of singing that song.” 

More than a couple decades later, Emerson still finds herself singing the lyrics of the iconic song—only in front of a much larger audience. The performer played Ariel before for Anderson and 2 Ring during their Arkansas Rep production. But just like Dean and Franklin, this year’s show marks her first with PCPA. And these last few weeks have amounted to the most time she’s ever spent in California.

“I feel like every time I come into rehearsal, I always have to stop and just marvel at the sky. The moon seems bigger here!” said Emerson, who still hasn’t been to Disneyland yet. “It’s so beautiful here. I love the mountains in the distance. I always love a good mountain.”

Although Emerson has worked on this version of the stage show (or one quite similar) before, the familiar circus elements never fail to wow her.

“The things that 2 Ring Circus bring to this production just make it magical to the extreme,” Emerson said. “It feels like you’re in an underwater lair.” 

Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood can be reached at [email protected]. 

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