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Peter Woodbury School students are preparing circus routines as part of the school’s artist-in-residence program. The students have been working with circus performer Troy Wunderle. (Dan Moberger Photo))

Big top is artist in residence at Peter Woodbury School

Students at the Peter Woodbury School have been working with devil sticks and diablos since Nov. 8. No, they aren't learning about witchcraft - at least not in the gymnasium - but rather the craft behind a big-top show.

Troy Wunderle, founder of Wunderle's Big Top Adventures, is in the middle of an eight-day residency at the school, teaching students the art of circus performance. Students from the school's six fourth-grade classes have been busy learning how to put together a show.

Wunderle, who is also an artistic director at Circus Smirkus and director of clowning for The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, kicked-off his time at Peter Woodbury with a one-man show.

'The whole residency started with a full-school assembly where I performed my one-man show for the entire school just to get a lot of energy and excitement toward the program,' Wunderle said. 'My goal is always to make an entire school just buzz for a day.'

He spun a plate atop a 25-foot-high pole, balanced 10-foot ladder on his chin, juggled seven balls and pretended to have trouble riding a giant unicycle - captivating the children and rousing their interest for the coming days where they would get to try similar, yet slightly less ambitious stunts.

Each day, while rehearsing for their coming show, students dive into buckets full of various circus props. They get to try as many as they want, but have to narrow their specialty by show time.

Will Pagliarulo and Reagan Rick both plan to walk on stilts in the show. Pagliarulo said he chose stilts because he has a pair of stilts at home, and is excited to show his parents what he learns from Wunderle.

'I already have my own stilts and I have prior experience,' he said. 'I can jump, turn around and go from one to another.'

Both have also been to the circus before. Rick was inspired by a trick, which stirred her excitement for the kinds of things they are doing in class.

'When I went to the circus once, I saw this really cool magic trick,' she said. 'They cut a man in half.'

Wunderle said the students at Peter Woodbury often have experience with the circus, which makes it easier to spark enthusiasm.

'Here in Bedford, so many people do get the opportunity to go out and see a variety of different circuses - Wringling comes right to the major arenas right here - and that's not always the case,' Wunderle said. 'I go to a lot of schools and they've had no exposure to circus.'

This is the second time Wunderle has come to the school. His sister-in-law, Chelsea Correia, is a teacher at Peter Woodbury, and got the two parties connected for the first time four years ago.

Wunderle has been in the circus business for 22 years. He grew up in Vermont and went to college in Baltimore where, during his senior year, he found a passion that encompassed his endless curiosity.

'What cursed me was I wanted to do everything in life,' said Wunderle. 'Ringling Bros. blew into town and was auditioning clowns for their clown college, and that just boggled my mind that there was such a thing.'

Wunderle made the cut for Clown College, where he spent time honing his originally self-taught skills. By the end of the program, he was one of eight hired by Ringling Bros.

Since then, he's toured through the United States and Mexico, spending time with Ringling Bros. and Circus Smirkus. He created Wunderle's Big Top Adventures back in 2006.

The students have been practicing plate spinning, juggling, lassos, balancing acts and many more skills. If you don't know what devil sticks, diablos, moon hoppers and psycho cycles are, you can see them all done at the school's show on Nov. 20.

'The audiences that come will watch an hour long, very fast and fluid interactive show where the kids are rotating through each and every aspect of it totally on their own,' Wunderle said. 'That's what surprises audiences more than anything else is that they're capable of doing skills that they weren't even exposed to prior to the eight days and in a fluid and fast and fun way.'

Besides the various skills they practice, Wunderle said an important aspect of his teaching is explaining to the students that the stunts are not easy.

He preaches patience and a never-give-up attitude to the kids, traits he says are necessary in all parts of life.

'One of the things that I've discovered over my 22-year career in circus is that you don't succeed on any level without failing a lot at first,' Wunderle said. 'We talk a lot about being able to alleviate the frustration by not expecting yourself to be proficient and perfect in the beginning, but taking the time to relax, accept your failures, learn from those failures and then move through them to success.'

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