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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

Ever since our Senior Director of Artistic Programming, Mary Rose Lloyd, first saw Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams in 2017, we eagerly anticipated sharing this vibrantly talented troupe with our audiences in New York City. Just weeks before opening at the New Vic, several Circus Abyssinia company members were inexplicably denied visas by the U.S. Embassy to travel from Addis Ababa and perform in the United States. Circus Abyssinia and The New Victory Theater would like to thank the international circus community for helping us to find artists to perform alongside the original cast on the New Victory stage in record time.

This beautiful "new" production came together so quickly that bios of the cast and creative team were not available for audiences for some of the early performances. Read about the extraordinary artists of Circus Abyssinia—both old and new—below!
 

Introducing the New Company Members of Circus Abyssinia

SUMMER LACY (CHAIN AERIALIST)
Where are you from? I was born and raised in New York.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? With all the tall buildings in New York, I spent a lot of time looking up in awe. I discovered aerial arts in college, it gave me people to literally look up to. I was hooked, and began training, performing and eventually teaching. It's become a passion and a mission that I absolutely love.
Where do you dream about performing? I have been fortunate enough to perform all over the
world. I'd love to perform in a feature film.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? All artistic expression is a shared experience, but none more than live performance. Performers share emotions with an audience, sometimes without using words at all. It's a truly magical thing to experience the world through a creator's eyes. Live performances have cracked me up, moved me to tears, made me think or sometimes just kept me entertained. What's not to love?

KIDANE MITKU (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? I grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I came to work as an artist in America five years ago with my brother Mesganaw.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? The sheer fun of it! I was always the kid who loved showing off. My friends and I used to race to a spot near the market where we'd be guaranteed an audience, and we'd flip and tumble on the rocks on the great hill there. I never thought I’d be doing what I love for a living!
Where do you dream about performing? I've always dreamed of performing on Broadway.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Love of the courage to bare our souls and think and feel deeply

MESGANAW MITKU (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but I came to America five years ago, with my older brother, Kidane, to work as a circus artist.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? My brother—his passion for acrobatics was contagious and I grew trying to learn his moves. Then I just fell in love with circus for its energy and thrills.
Where do you dream about performing? It's going to be very, very hard to beat New York!
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Life and beauty

ABREHAM MOLA (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? I'm from Ethiopia, from a village called Haya Hulet.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I didn't think this was going to be my career when I started, as performing for a living isn't really an option in Ethiopia. Circus is more of a social thing, a way to spend time together, impress and outdo each other, or achieve things we couldn't do on our own. I loved it for that.
Where do you dream about performing? I've always dreamed of performing in the beautiful theaters of Paris.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Love for the stories that make us who we are or make us think about who we could be

SUSAN VOYTICKY (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? I'm from Brooklyn, New York.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? While studying dance and theater in Paris, I found myself amazed by the circus shows there. The artists expressed themselves in ways I had never really seen, and it inspired me to become a person who could do the same for others.
Where do you dream about performing? Broadway
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It means that theater is a space of magical transformation that everyone is a part of!
 

Meet the Original Company Members of Circus Abyssinia

MEHARI "BIBI" TESFAMARIAM (JUGGLER)
BINYAM "BICHU" TESFAMARIAM (JUGGLER)

Where are you both from? Bichu: We're from Ethiopia and grew up in a town called Jimma in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee!). We moved to England when I was 13 and Bibi was 12 years old and now live in London.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? Bibi: Our French teacher at school introduced us to juggling, and we were immediately hooked on the fun and the challenge of it. We practiced in the streets and for our friends and neighbors. We even carved our own juggling clubs out of wood. Circus wasn't really a thing in Ethiopia back then, so we enjoyed being different and showing people something they hadn't seen before. It's still our favorite thing to do!
Where do you dream about performing? Bichu: Since I was a kid I've dreamed of performing in New York at the holidays! I grew up watching movies like Home Alone 2 and Miracle on 34th Street, so I always longed to visit such a magnificent city during the most magical time of the year.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Bibi: For me, #LoveOfTheater is the love of live artistic creation, and the thrill of never knowing what's going to happen. It's a challenging, intimate art form, and as a performer, there's nothing more exhilarating, rewarding or addictive than the connection you share with an audience.

SISAY ABEBE (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I knew I wanted to learn circus when I saw a troupe of acrobats holding a backflip competition near my house—flipping over and over, along the full length of a field. They seemed superhuman.
Where do you dream about performing? I've always wanted to perform in New York!
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It's the joy of moving people and connecting with them. It means having the courage to look at ourselves and explore what makes us tick.

YABSERA ALABECHEW (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I was really into gymnastics when I was little, and I loved circus as soon as I accompanied my friend to one of the classes at the Circus Wingate school. I fell in love with the thrill of performing stunts and acrobatics before a crowd—nothing can beat it.
Where do you dream about performing? Everywhere! I want to travel the world with Circus Abyssinia.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Love of imagination, love of truth, love of other people.

ETSEGENET ASHENAFI (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? Being passionate about gymnastics as a child sparked my desire to become an acrobat. Creating acts and choreographing routines with my best friends made me feel like I never want to do anything else.
Where do you dream about performing? The Roundhouse in London. I saw a cabaret show there when we were touring in England and the space is so unique and beautiful.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It's imagination come to life.

BETELHEM DEJENE (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I took up circus on impulse. My best friends and fellow castmates, Helen, Sam and Etsegenet, inspired my love of circus. They're my sisters and performing with them makes me feel happy and free.
Where do you dream about performing? The Monte Carlo Circus Festival is one of the biggest in the world—I dream of performing there and meeting circus artists from all over the globe.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? The thrill of opening yourself up to something new, of sharing in stories and experiences that aren't your own.

BEFEKADU ESMAEL (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? For as long as I can remember I've loved to perform. When I was a boy I used to perform acrobatics and street circus with my friends for passers-by in the city, and there's still nothing I love more than wowing a crowd.
Where do you dream about performing? I dream of touring America with Circus Abyssinia.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Love of living art and living stories. Love of the unique experience you share only with your fellow audience and cast members, where many different minds and imaginations work together.

SEMERET GETACHEW (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? I'm from a city called Dire Dawa in the far east of Ethiopia.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I grew up learning circus skills with my best friends (now my castmates). They inspire me every day. Having them with me makes me feel I can go anywhere and do anything.
Where do you dream about performing? Ethiopia! There's no real circus tradition back home, and it's disapproved of by older generations for women to perform circus. It would be amazing to have the opportunity to share my work with my family.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? I think #LoveOfTheater brings together people who love to laugh, gasp and see things anew. And anyone who's ever dared to dream.

DANIEL GEZAHEGN (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I used to work as a wayala (a taxi driver's helper) in Ethiopia's capital, and performance and humor are a huge part of how wayala compete with each other in the busy city—the best way to attract passengers is to entertain them. I learned the joy of connecting with people through physical comedy and dance, and as soon as a circus school opened up near my home I joined up to train without a second thought.
Where do you dream about performing? I dream about performing all over the world and learning about other cultures while sharing my own.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It means love of risk and connection and the power of make-believe—the conjuring of worlds and relationships out of thin air.

ZENEBECH KASSA (HULA-HOOP ARTIST)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but I now live in America and have been working in Las Vegas as a circus artist for three years now.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? When I was 10, I went to see my friend perform at a circus competition in Addis Ababa. I saw a girl hula-hooping there and something about that act called out to me. I started working every chance I could on taming those hoops.
Where do you dream about performing? There's no particular place I dream about. It's all about the audience, and wonderful audiences are everywhere. I was terrified the first time I performed, but the love and support of the audience made me realize I wanted to do this forever.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It means gaining new perspectives on life and allowing your imagination to run.

ALEMAYEHU MULUGETA (ACROBAT & LITTLE BICHU)
Where are you from? Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? My friends who loved circus inspired me to try it for myself. The rush of performing acrobatics, particularly when you're part of a group of people moving as one, made me realize that circus is what I most want to do. I still can't stop smiling when I'm on stage.
Where do you dream about performing? I dream of touring Africa and inspiring other people to join the circus.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? Waking up and dreaming at the same time

EZERA NIGUSSE (ACROBAT & LITTLE BIBI)
Where are you from? A village called Gulele in Ethiopia
What inspired you to become a circus performer? Across from my school there is a circus school called Circus Wingate. When I was little I used to stop there to watch the acrobats on my way home. The amazing stunts they performed made me want to join them, and when I was eight years old I persuaded my parents to let me.
Where do you dream about performing? Broadway!
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It means having fun, not being afraid to step into someone else's shoes and learn something new.

HELEN SHIMELES (ACROBAT)
Where are you from? Ethiopia. I live in Asco, a village near the capital city.
What inspired you to become a circus performer? I loved gymnastics when I was small, and through that I discovered circus. I used to watch videos of famous contortionists performing in Europe and just fell in love with the grace and creativity of the art form.
Where do you dream about performing? I dream about performing for my family and friends back in Ethiopia. It's still quite controversial for women to perform, so we've been biding our time. Slowly but surely, things are changing. I can't wait to share Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams with our loved ones back home.
What does #LoveOfTheater mean to you? It means not being afraid to leave your comfort zone
and imagine how things could be different.
 

Get to Know the Creative Team

MEHARI "BIBI" TESFAMARIAM (PRODUCER)
Since moving from Ethiopia to England at just 14, Bibi has juggled with Bichu in thousands of shows. Both brothers have also worked hard to support other Ethiopian artists. Since 2010, they've sponsored Circus Wingate, a circus school in Ethiopia, and provided many similar schools, such as Bita Brothers Circus, with equipment and support. At these schools, Bibi and Bichu discovered many incredible acrobats who started out like they did, honing their skills with no expectation of pay on city streets. In 2017, the brothers established their own company and teamed up with these artists to create Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams.

BINYAM "BICHU" TESFAMARIAM (DIRECTOR)
Bichu moved to England with his brother at just 13 years old, and the pair have since juggled all over the country and much of the world. As Bichu's circus dreams came true, they also began to change. He was thinking more and more about acrobats just like him and Bibi back in Ethiopia, and it fuelled his desire to create a bonafide Ethiopian circus. Bichu's experience as a director and choreographer enabled him to fuse Ethiopia's astonishing musical and artistic heritage with traditional and contemporary circus arts to create Circus Abyssinia.

CAL MCCRYSTAL (WRITER)
Dubbed "Britain's funniest director," Cal McCrystal's prolific comedic direction career includes Broadway hits One Man, Two Guvnors and School of Rock, the clowning routines in Cirque du Soleil's Varekai and Zumanity, and his acclaimed revival of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe (2018). Cal is artistic director of Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre. He's also directed several productions for England's Giffords Circus, where he worked closely with Bibi and Bichu, inspiring them to create Circus Abyssinia. Cal not only wrote the dialogue for Circus Abyssinia, he has also been a mentor to the cast. The show is deeply indebted to his comedic vision.

KATE SMYTH (CHOREOGRAPHER)
Kate Smyth has decades of choreographic experience on and off the stage. A hugely successful international dancer, she's performed at four Royal Variety Performances in London, held the role of can-can soloist for the world-famous Bal du Moulin Rouge in Paris and performed at Frank Sinatra's 80th birthday celebration in LA. In recent years, she's choreographed productions for Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, Circus Roncalli in Germany and Giffords Circus in England, where she worked alongside Bibi and Bichu from 2012-16. She worked closely with Bichu to develop the choreography of Circus Abyssinia prior to its debut in 2017.

MARK WHATMOUGH (LIGHTING DESIGNER)
Mark is a technical producer and award-winning lighting designer based in the U.K. He has worked all over the country, programming and operating the lighting for prestigious award shows, concerts, theaters and top variety venues. Mark joined forces with Circus Abyssinia for the first time at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017, where he worked closely with Bichu to realize the director's vision of a non physical set of colors, lights and shades. He has continued to develop Circus Abyssinia's lighting for the show's runs at Underbelly Festival in London, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018.

GABY COOKE (STAGE MANAGER)
With a background in theater and academia, Gaby's connection with circus is a recent development in her career. She met Bibi and Bichu while tutoring the youngest members of the Abyssinia Troupe at Giffords Circus. Gaby fell in love with their story and their vision of an Ethiopian Circus, so she started working with the brothers to produce Circus Abyssinia in England. Her passion for all things theater soon extended to an indomitable love of circus, and she now works on the production aspects of Circus Abyssinia.

ELSHADAY SHIMELS (TOUR MANAGER)
Elshaday is Bibi and Bichu's younger brother and still lives in Ethiopia. Unlike his older brothers, he prefers to take an offstage role in the creation of circus. He is now the cast's tour manager, organizing the logistics of travel, taking care of the cast and the show's technical needs. With a background in computer programming and a talent for graphic design, Elshaday also plays a part in the creation of the company's artwork and digital publicity. He started touring with Circus Abyssinia in February 2018 at Adelaide Fringe.

MIKE DUFF (TECHNICAL SUPERVISOR)
Born and raised in Sarasota, Florida, Mike has performed in circus for the last 24 years as a member of the Wallenda family. He is a Guinness World Record holder for performing an eight-person pyramid, 4-tiers high, 30 feet off the ground, without any safety devices. He has performed all around the world and has been the head of rigging and head coach for one of the largest youth performing arts circus schools in the world. Moving from performing on the high wire, he has fit many roles. Production manager, lighting designer, sound designer and technical director. He has filtered into the events business and now runs Silver Wire Productions, an event production company based out of New Jersey and New York. Mike is very excited about being a part of Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams.
Posted by Beth Henderson

These piece was contributed by the New 42nd Street Fall Apprentice Lauren Extrom.

Traveling all the way over from the United Kingdom, New International Encounter (NIE), the team behind Beauty and the Beast, brings with them a wide array of theatrical and musical talent. The show is a devised piece of theater that reframes older versions of the fairytale with new elements such as live music (performed by the talented company), as well as a change from a story about a damsel in distress to one of female empowerment.
 

During the first production in 2017, Michael Judge, the Associate Director of NIE, asked the cast and creative team a few questions about the development of the ferociously funny retelling. Keep reading for a deeper look into the creation of Beauty and the Beast

Michael Judge: You started with an idea of the classic fairytale, but everything else—the songs, words and actions—the company invented. How did you go about that process?

Alex Byrne (Director): At first, we had a few days where we just met to develop some musical ideas. Then, we started to tell each other the story of Beauty and the Beast as we remembered it. We wrote down major plot points on big pieces of paper, and then tried to connect them in a simple way.

There are a lot of different stories to work from, but we chose to start with the fairytale fairytale. One night, we watched both the Disney movie and the Jean Cocteau black and white French movie together. I was very interested in the French setting of that movie, and realized that I wanted our version to take place in France too. It isn't really in the Disney version, but it is in some of the others—they come from Paris where it's posh and expensive, and they move into a poor, broken down cottage in the countryside. That's an interesting dichotomy—from luxury to ruin—especially because the story centers about what's on the outside of things versus what's on the inside.

Then, we asked each other, "What's the Beast's story? Where does the Beast come from? What did the Beast do to be cursed?"

Sara Lessore (Isabella): In terms of the process, Alex would give us a scene and we would just improvise it. When we liked something, we later incorporated it into the script. 

MJ: So, there was a lot of brainstorming, and then you cut out the rubbish bits and kept the good bits. 

AB: Exactly. We knew we wanted the Beast to invite Isabella to dinner, and I wanted it to be terrible. He has to get it all wrong, and for it to be quite beastly, despite his best attempts. Martin really went for it—sometimes in quite a scary way. It's nice when you go to the theater and see different things that don't normally happen. I think that's why this dinner party scene is so entertaining.
 
SL: There's a process about just saying, "Yes," isn't there? Our ensemble just has this thing about saying, "Yes," and accepting everything. So, if Alex asks us to do something, we just say, "Yes" and go with it. We put ourselves out there.

MJ: Elliot, can I ask you, as musical director, about how you created that music?
 
Elliot Davis (Anastasia and Musical Director): I consulted with Alex a lot, and when he said he wanted it to be set in France—immediately, I knew I wanted an accordian. You can say to an audience, "We are in France," but if you have music that sounds French, it transports them. As for the songs themselves, they emerged organically. 

Usually, we come up with about two, three or four bits of music to see what we can work with and what we can't. One day, Alex and I had some spare time, so we made the first song—the one about the Beast's story. It just came out of messing around with different pieces of music we already had.

We'd walk in the room with enough music to give everyone pieces to play. So, there were loads of arrangements that we didn't end up using. Just messing around is great for a brainstorm, plus getting together and playing music really helps a new cast bond. 

Everyone brought ideas, so when we got closer to the production, Alex and I would have to start saying, "Okay, stop doing that and start doing this." We began to find out what works. It's an ensemble piece, you bring everything to the table, and then you slowly start taking bits away.
 
MJ: Do you have any advice as to how to stay motivated during the creative process, even when it gets hard and you have doubts or worries? 
 

Martin Bonger (Beast): In making a show like this, you have to have fun. There were times when we were struggling, and then Alex would say, "Come on, we need to have a laugh." Or, we'd all come together and say, "We need to have fun—we have to be able to play together." Playing together is how you discover and create new things.
 
I think that something Alex is great at—is getting us to try new things. While we were creating this show, sometimes we would start discussing ways in which an idea might or might not work. Alex always said, "Oh no, no, let's just try it and see what clicks." Sometimes, what we tried, ended up being totally different. So, my advice would be to just try things out, because that's a really great way of finding out what material works. It's okay to be wrong–if you only try to get things right, you're stopping yourself before you can really start. 
 
Michael: It seems like you really look after each other as an ensemble. Alex, what initially inspired you to adapt Beauty and the Beast for the stage?
 
AB: The most important thing for an artist, is to work in good faith. In a way, you say, "I go to work, and I try to make something," and then you try to make it as best as you can and for the right reasons.

Beautiful and excellent bits of culture are essential for a full life—it confirms our humanity. With art, we can see that the questions we have about the world are shared—they're common. Art can celebrate difference and allow us to walk in someone else's shoes. Being a part of the theater audience experience can be really nourishing for children, and for adults. 

So, the reason why we made this show—and the reason that I first proposed it to our team—is because I wanted to make something beautiful and excellent. That was the only reason, and I had to let go of any other sort of motive that drove me, other than that. 
 
Lauren Extrom
Lauren Extrom is the Fall 2018 Communications Apprentice at the New Victory Theater. She is a second-year graduate student in the Performing Arts Administration program at NYU Steinhardt. In addition to her work as an arts administrator and aspiring arts educator, she is an active vocalist and musician in the New York City area.  She sings in the NYU Jazz Choir, and tours with VOICES 21C, a Boston-based non-profit chamber choir.  In her spare time, she practices yoga and improv dance.
Posted by Beth Henderson
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