Ever thought about running off to join the circus? Unpack your bags. This weekend you don't even need to leave the county to join Make*A*Circus.
The San Francisco-based Make*A*Circus troupe, which closes its 1996 summer season with a free performance Sunday at Cherry Park in Lake Forest, encourages audience participation in a big way. This year's show, "Little Nemo in Slumberland," is a combination of live music, circus and theater arts based on Winsor McCay's turn-of-the-century comic strip.
In the 50-minute opening act, audiences watch professional circus artists use trapeze work, clowning, acrobatics, juggling and other skills to tell the tale of a boy who must overcome a clever rival and his own fears to become the playmate of an enchanted princess. But when it's time for intermission, viewers get to stretch more than their legs.
Grouped by age, youngsters (and willing adults) are enrolled in half-hour workshops in which cast members teach them tumbling, stilt walking, clowning and juggling. Thus equipped, they join the pros in playing everything from frozen chickens to sand sculptures in "Little Nemo's" final act.
Although the Make*A*Circus company includes veterans of regional theaters, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the New Pickle Circus (the Pickles and this troupe share a San Francisco rehearsal space and even some performers), founding member Dan Mankin stresses that the real stars are the kids.
"The big thing here is giving kids the tools to perform," said Mankin, who remembers how, in the early years, he and other members gathered audiences by parading through neighborhood streets. Back then, a few hundred children might take part; today, it's not unusual for 1,500 youngsters to show up.
"Our real message is 'You can do it,' " continued Mankin. "It takes practice and hard work . . . but it sends the message that with cooperation and commitment, you can accomplish incredible things."
It's an idea that Mankin has helped spread since 1974, when he encountered Peter Frankham, an Englishman who had been staging community circuses for children in London's poorest neighborhoods. The two met in San Francisco, where Mankin was performing in a mime troupe.
"This madman got it into his head that San Francisco would be a ripe place for an idea like this," recalled Mankin, adding with a laugh: "He was preaching the circus gospel . . . and we were ready apostles." Bill Irwin of "Fool Moon" fame was also an early member.
Make*A*Circus is a family affair for Mankin. His sister, Joan, and his teenage niece, Emma, are in this year's cast, and his two young daughters performed with him for a season in the early '90s. Today, he juggles the books; as managing director he searches for sponsorships and other income to keep the company afloat.
"Nothing seems to go on without corporate sponsors," he observed, adding with a dry laugh, "I'd hate to see the clowns with 'Adidas' on their chests, but that seems to be the coming wave."
"Little Nemo" was written by the circus' artistic director, Peggy Ford. In her 15 years with the company, Ford has acted as playwright, show director and administrator of the Make*A*Circus clown therapy program for disabled children and adults. She has also helped develop the troupe's school tours and its teen apprentice program, which offers circus skills workshops and apprenticeships for at-risk youths.
Make*A*Circus service projects and school shows are limited to the San Francisco area. Their tours take them to Southern California only a few times each summer (they were in Anaheim last month), but their program has had a lasting effect on at least one local group. According to Fern Street Circus co-founder John Highkin, Make*A*Circus was the model for his 6-year-old San Diego company, which leads after-school youth programs and stages a summer show with the students and professional artists (they're at Balboa Park through Sunday).
"They really live up to their mission, which is to build a sense of well-being and community through the performing arts," Highkin said. "There's a real generosity of spirit there."
* What: Make*A*Circus.
* When: 4 p.m. Sunday.
* Where: Cherry Park, 22651 Cherry Ave., Lake Forest.
* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at El Toro Road; go east. Turn right onto Jeronimo, then right onto Cherry.
* Wherewithal: Free.
* Where to call: (714) 768-0981.