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Article Published September 11, 2019
When a Circus Reflects on Tragedy
Eric O’Connell, Staff Reporter

Jack Kavanagh recalls being on his family’s sailboat and gazing from where the boat was anchored to the Clinton Town Hall.

“I thought, ‘Hey, there’s a stage in there, maybe I should use it,’” Jack jokes.

What’s not a joke is that Jack will actually be using the space in Town Hall for a show on Friday, Sept. 20. On that date at 7:30 p.m. Jack will stage the Coated: Hartford 1944 Circus Fire Project, a 90-minute show that combines circus acrobatics, theater, dance, and original sound design to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire.

The show, created by Jack and performed by Open Circus, an art and entertainment company based out of Philadelphia, reflects on the events of July 6, 1944. During a performance of the world-famous Great Wallendas as part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a small fire broke out in the tent. The flames soon engulfed the entire tent due to the weatherproofing method, saturating canvas in wax dissolved in kerosene or gasoline. According to the New England Historical Society, more than 160 people lost their lives and 700 were injured.

Since it’s been 75 years since the tragedy happened, Jack says he started to get nervous about the possibility of future generations losing a record of what had happened in the past.

“It happened a lifetime ago and those stories start to get lost. Within the realm of contemporary circus, we don’t always pay the respects to classic circus it deserves,” says Jack.

Jack defines classic circus—what audience members would have been expecting to see on that fateful day in 1944—as what most people think of when they picture a circus: “Three rings and animals and a crazy over-saturation where everything is going on at once.” Jack describes contemporary circus as a growing movement that incorporates more storytelling, dance elements, and theatrics.

To bring his creation to life, Jack and his coworkers had to undertake several steps.

“It took a couple years of asking people if they thought it was a good idea and building up community support,” says Jack.

After receiving enough support from the circus community, Jack applied for grants to help fund the show.

“We found one grant we felt would support us the most,” says Jack.

That grant was provided by the Connecticut Office of the Arts, which gave the group $15,000. The group used crowd funding to match that amount.

Next, Jack says the cast members all moved to Philadelphia to begin working on the show.

“The show has been a collective experience,” Jack says, noting that the group all came together to work on the show.

Part of that work included full cast trips to the Hartford area to research the fire and to even meet with some of the survivors of the event.

During the show, there will be audio playback of survivors recounting their memories of the day. Jack calls the performance “a reflection” on the fire.

“The shows specifically reflect on the elements of grief, blame, and responsibility,” Jack says.

Jack says due to the proximity to Hartford, he’s excited to put the show on in Clinton, and says that he is also excited by the reviews he’s heard of the acoustics in the Town Hall. Tickets to the show cost $20 and can be purchased at the door or online at www.openringcircus.com.

Entering the Ring

For Jack, interest in arts and especially the circus has been nearly a lifelong affair.

“I was definitely a Cirque du Soleil nerd, I knew all the shows and had T-shirts and everything,” Jack recalls with a laugh.

Inspired by his new-found passion, Jack studied art and circus at a school in Montreal and at a fulltime circus school in Vermont.

“I loved the collision of athletics and art,” says Jack.

When Jack was ready to find schools to study circus, his options were fairly limited as at the time there were no schools in the area that had circus programs. However, that has changed.

“Since I was 12 and fell in love with circus there are now four or five different schools in Connecticut. That’s a lot different than when I was in school in the early 2000’s,” he says. “My favorite part is the puzzle that and most circus people like is taking all the pieces and making a coherent show. It’s a constant puzzle because you have to balance practical and artistic sides.”

In his spare time, Jack says he enjoys biking, hiking, and performing in circus acts himself. Jack says he misses his old hometown of Clinton.

“I miss being close to the water, and sailing,” Jack says.

Jack now makes his home in Philadelphia, where he enjoys the support of a larger arts and circus community.

Coated: Hartford 1944 Circus Fire Project comes to Andrews Memorial Town Hall, 54 East Main Street, Clinton, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 20. Tickets, $20, can be purchased at the door or at www.openringcircus.com.