York student tours with circus and earns credit through Internet


Above: Internet page for Cirque du Soleil’s show, Alegría

While people joke about “running away with the circus,” some people actually do it – and complete a university degree in the process.

At one time you would have had to choose between work or school; today, York’s Internet courses allow you to do both. That’s what Jeff Churchill is doing. As assistant head of wardrobe for Cirque du Soleil’s show Alegría, Churchill is now touring North America while earning the final credits towards his undergraduate degree at York University.

In 1998, Churchill was one course shy of a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre. That was the last of his York schooling until this year, when he enrolled in Professor Shelley Hornstein’s Introduction to Visual Culture course, in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Like all circuses, Cirque du Soleil is constantly on the move. Crossing the continent, Alegría was in San Francisco until Dec. 21, then moved to the east coast to perform in Miami from Jan. 9 to Feb. 8. Next stop is St. Petersburg, Florida, from Feb. 19 to March 7. After that, the show will visit Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia and then stay in Toronto from Aug. 19 to Sept. 12.

Online courses are a natural fit for this peripatetic lifestyle. They allow people to study at a time, place and rate that best suits them, providing the flexibility that working professionals, such as Churchill, need. Although a circuitous route to the completion of a degree, this flexibility has allowed Churchill to simultaneously lay the groundwork for an unusual and fulfilling career.

“Internet offerings provide opportunities rarely appreciated by the naysayers of technology-delivered courses,” said Hornstein. “At the moment, we tend to create a sharp divide between classroom and online delivery. Yet, students interested in continuing their education don’t have to stop studying in order to make a living.

“In my experience,” Hornstein added, “being distanced from each other as students, and from the works we discuss, creates a greater desire to learn.”

Finishing a degree while working for the internationally renowned circus is no mean feat, as Cirque du Soleil does much more than put up a tent and parade animals around. Instead, it’s a dramatic mix of theatre, music, acrobatics and street entertainment.

Featuring an international cast of 56 performers and musicians, Alegría has a baroque and operatic style with flamboyant costumes. Churchill, who draws his work experience from the Stratford Festival as well as the Canadian Opera Company, is in charge of the costumes for the production, together with two colleagues.

“The three of us maintain the integrity of the costumes for the production,” explained Churchill. “This includes constant maintenance, repairs and alterations, as well as introducing new pieces into the show, and assisting the artists before and during the performance. The ‘umbrella’ of wardrobe includes make-up, hair, wigs, millinery and shoes.”

Shoemaking is Churchill’s area of specialization. With so many artists involved in Alegría, there’s no shortage of feet and shoes that require his craft. He has also made shoes for the Toronto productions of The Lion King and Mamma Mia! While at the Stratford Festival, he crafted shoes freelance for film, theatre, opera and fashion. Famous feet he has dressed include those of Christopher Plummer, Kevin Pollack, Paul Soles, Sheila McCarthy, Peter Hutt and Peter Donaldson.

Right: Jeff Churchill, lying down on the job

Churchill isn’t the only “Yorkie” to join the circus, but he is the first to do it concurrently with his studies. Interestingly, his older brother David Churchill, who graduated from York with a BFA in theatre in 1993, is the technical director for the new Cirque show, Zumanity, now playing in Las Vegas.

And in joining this particular “big top”, the Churchills follow in the trail-blazing footsteps of York dance alumna Debra Brown (BFA ’78), who joined Cirque du Soleil’s ranks in 1987, and has made headlines as their principal choreographer ever since.

So, the next time the circus comes to town, and you’re thinking of running away with it, go for it!

Mary-Lou Schagena, publicist in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, sent this article to YFile.