‘Barnum’ brings aerial acrobatics to DSU

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Welcome boys, girls and students of all majors to Dixie State University’s circus musical “Barnum.”

The theater department at DSU premiered its second main-stage performance Thursday to tell a comical story about Phineas Taylor Barnum, famously known as P.T. Barnum.

Kathryn Syssoyeva, an assistant theater professor and “Barnum” director, said Barnum was the man who invented the circus as we know it today and contributed to the legitimizing of museums and the American theater.

Barnum’s road to success started with side shows of “freaks.” It was not always glamorous for him or the people who worked for him, Syssoyeva said. But the musical tells the fun part in the arch of his career.

“‘Barnum’ has a complex history that has its darker moments, but the show is a celebration,” Syssoyeva said.

The play starts with his side show of  Joice Heth “the oldest woman on earth,” then to General Tom Thumb, “the smallest man on earth,” to his museum, the beginnings of his traveling circus, his attempt in politics, and lastly to the partnership made with James Anthony Bailey that ultimately created “The Greatest Show on Earth.”   

Theater productions at DSU are typically planned a year in advance and start production six months before show time, said Michael Harding, an associate theater professor and head of the department of theater and dance. “Barnum” replaced “Pippin,” which was originally picked but didn’t follow through due to copyright complications, leaving just five months for production, Syssoyeva said.  

“We had to hit the ground running, and we did,” Syssoyeva said.

About 40 people collaborated to create the production, with the majority being students or graduates from DSU.  Twenty-four people were casted, and 80 percent of them were freshmen.

“We started as a small, small cast and grew into a large, extravagant circus,” said Travis Fryer, a freshman theater major from West Jordan. 

A handful of the cast were trained in two months on aerial acrobatics through Skype by two instructors from Maine and assistance by Syssoyeva. This process normally takes six months, Syssoyeva said.

Mindi Kirk, a senior theater major from West Jordan, said it was the most physically-demanding show she has ever done.

“I thought I was in pretty good shape when we started off, but this really kicked my butt,” Kirk said.

On top of the physical demands, the show was created with a lot of collaborative effort with improvisation by students for about four weeks. The training helped the performers before they went into blocking and could put together a final piece of the production, Syssoyeva said.

“The work that the students are doing is a highly unusual level of work (and) level technique they have mastered in an incredibly short amount of time,” Syssoyeva said.

Kirk said she would do it all again in a heartbeat.

“This has been an incredibly entertaining, stressful, dramatic ball of fun,” Kirk said. 

The theater program also put together a Barnum museum with the help of Andrew Barnum, a biology professor and, ironically, a distant relative of P.T. Barnum himself. The display includes a real two-headed cow and eight-legged pig, both from Washington, and the hoax of the Fiji mermaid. 

Syssoyeva said she hopes audience members experience joy when they come to the play.

“I hope [the audience] come[s] away with an excitement about what makes live theater different from film, from video, from what you can see on your iPhone, (and) what the pleasure of live performance is all about,” Syssoyeva said.

“Barnum” is rated PG and will be shown again in the Eccles Fine Arts Center Mainstage Theater Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $1 for students, staff and faculty with a DSU I.D. and are $10 for the general public. Tickets can be bought online, at the door, or by calling 652-7800.