Why I'm running away to join the circus (really)
I was 6 years old when my father told me we were leaving the Big Apple Circus.
For the past 15 years, my father had been what's known as a variety performer — a combination of comedy and circus skills that run the gamut from whip-cracking to clowning. The years before I was born, he was part of a troupe called "Rogue, Oaf and Fool" that performed at renaissance festivals around the country.
From 1987 to 1994, he was the Big Apple Circus' clown, announcer and even back-up ringmaster, performing acts like "The Horse Wash" and "The Knife Thrower."
Until that point, my life had been spent mostly on the circus lot, playing with the other circus kids, with only temporary stops at our permanent residence in New Jersey.
As my mother, Linda Van Blerkom, told The New York Times, "[Jack] doesn't know other people don't live this way."
So, suffice to say, I was not pleased about leaving the circus to join the real world on a more full-time basis. I'm told that I told my father, "I'm gonna get a new dad!"
The early years after leaving the circus were tough. The circus, by its nature, is one that has a looser structure. There are hard rules, especially for safety — but for me, sitting in a classroom all day felt more like a prison.
But along the way, I found areas that piqued my interest. I took the skills I had learned from being onstage and applied them to broadcasting. Suddenly, the flexibility and adaptability I'd learned in the circus as a child became assets I could use as an adult. And so when WBUR in Boston offered me a part-time job out of college, I jumped at the chance.
And along the way, I found I really enjoyed the work. I became WBUR's go-to breaking news reporter. The same improvisational skills that had served me onstage helped me stay calm in stressful situations — whether it was the aftermath of a tornado just outside Boston, or the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.
And when that ease on air led to me becoming WBUR's midday anchor — reading national newscasts on Here & Now every day — I started cutting down my performance schedule with the intention of making radio my full-time job.
Performing was what I truly wanted
But then COVID happened. Suddenly, for the first time in my adult life, I went a year without doing any shows. And it became clear to me that performing was what I truly wanted.
For me, the circus has always been an intrinsic part of my identity. Simply put, it's who I am. And onstage has always been where I've felt the most free. Some people get nervous before they go onstage, but by assuming the character of Jacques ze Whipper and drawing on a stupid mustache, all my social anxiety disappears. To paraphrase one of my closest former coworkers, who knew me for years before seeing me onstage — it puts me in my element.
It's a funny thing about circus performance. It transcends age, socioeconomic status, even language. It's the type of performance where you can go anywhere in the world and entertain anyone — help anyone forget their troubles for 5, 10, even 30 minutes.
And most importantly, for me, it means coming home — to my home away from home. And away from home is the key word. I'll do more touring this year than I have since our final year with the Big Apple Circus. I'll perform hundreds of shows across multiple states and every time zone in the U.S. (check out the full show schedule.)
And along the way, I'll try to keep making people laugh — whether it's onstage, 30 minutes at a time, or on TikTok 30 seconds at a time.
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