Liza Johnson: Circus School

Liza Johnson

Feb 03, 2009

In early January, NY-based filmmaker Liza Johnson and her D.P. Anne Etheridge traveled to Portsmouth, Ohio, to begin shooting Circus School (working title), a short film made in collaboration with a circus studio in Portsmouth. Participants in the studio act out scenes from everyday life and scenes from circus. Wexner Center's Art & Tech department provided access to their 16mm film camera and production equipment for the two-week-long shoot. Here's a quick look at the project as it starts to unfold.


Anne says that people in Portsmouth are more comfortable really being themselves, really being eccentric, than the people where she grew up in Mississippi. I don't know if that's true, but I can see why she said that. I'm pretty sure she said that when we were scouting, right before our shoot. Ronnie Richards had just taught us how to set a snare trap for a fox. When we pulled up he came out into the driveway and hustled us into his little trapping hut, where he was smoking a pipe and burning wood in a stove. Outside on the picnic table there was a frozen beaver body lying fully intact with its skins off and its four little teeth sticking out. Ronnie's outfit was what I would call classic regional style that is no longer common—plaid and overalls and a hat. He grows and traps almost all of his own food, and I got the sense that he would have been happy if we thought he was straight out of the 19th century. He gave us a trapping lesson because I had written a scene where a guy is trying to teach his kid how to trap, but I didn't really know what that was supposed to look like and I didn't want the guy in the movie to seem like an idiot. I asked Ronnie if he wanted to be in my movie on the following Sunday, but he said he had to go to church because he was planning on killing some cows and that always made him feel like he better go to church. And sometime shortly after that was when Anne said the thing about people being comfortable with their eccentricities.

A couple of years ago I spent a week in Scioto County researching a feature film script I'm planning to shoot later this year. I grew up in Portsmouth, but I haven't lived there since high school, and I thought I should get up to date. There's been an economic crisis going on there for my whole life, so the things that are suddenly worrying everyone else aren't really news there.

While I was there I met Pegi Wilkes, who invited me to come to a class at her circus school. She is a really impressive person, and even visually she stands out from the environment with her bright red hair and bright blue eyes. I went with her to her circus studio, and I was completely and utterly unprepared for the atmosphere in there. There were children and adults from all over the county, from all different school districts, dangling from trapezes, turning crazy flips, and doing Bob Fosse-style dancing. There were tiny little girls and large adult women who all had the same amount of physical confidence. I climbed up a rope next to a woman who has great-grandchildren.

I came back to town more than a year later, as soon as I finished writing the project that had brought me there in the first place. I told Pegi and her co-teacher Trisha Schmidt that I wanted to do a project with their circus school, and they were really up for it. Trisha and I were born in the same hospital, three days apart. At the time it was customary to stay in there for five days, so we're pretty sure we were actually in the nursery together. We didn't know each other growing up, though she went to West and I went to Portsmouth High. We went out for dinner for her birthday on the Chillicothe Street, the main business street of the town. While we were in there some drug people broke the passenger window on her car and stole her daughter's dance bag and a couple of other things out of the car, including Pegi's keys. We looked around and found most of the stuff abandoned in an alley.

On that trip I mostly just watched everybody. Matt can do amazing backflips by running up a wall. Taylor can hang by her toes from a door frame, like a vampire. People get to touch each other without it meaning anything, which of course it usually does when you're not at the circus. I went back one more time after that for planning, and then I came back with the film crew. 


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