Tuna Turner Takes To The Skies

Spiegelworld speaks to Angela McIlroy-Wagar, performer at THE HOOK at Caesars Atlantic City.

When did you decide to pursue a career in circus and acrobatics?

Circus and acrobatics might seem a strange career choice for someone whose parents are academics! My dad is a university professor of Film Studies, and my mom is an English instructor. Luckily for me, both of them have a real affinity for theater, dance, and music. My fascination with circus started when I was four years old. My mom took me to a show performed by students from CirKids (now Circus West), a youth circus school in Vancouver, BC. I was mesmerized. Aerial aliens and contortionist aliens! During the show, I told my mom, “I want to do that!’  At first she thought it might be a fleeting interest, but I kept asking her to let me take circus classes. I started at CirKids when I was five. My childhood was jam packed with classes in circus arts, dance, theater, and acrobatics. By my teens, I was focusing on aerials and training 22 hours a week, spurred on by my dream of being accepted into the École Nationale de Cirque in Montreal (ENC) and becoming a professional circus artist. When I was 16, I was accepted into ENC.  I moved across the country to Montreal to attend ENC’s high school program. I continued into their college program and graduated with a diploma in circus arts (DEC) specializing in aerial hoop.

Tell us about your previous gigs and circus shows. What was your first job, and how did your career progress from there?

During our 2017 graduating show at the École Nationale de Cirque,  I was scouted by Circus Monti. It’s a contemporary circus company that tours across several cities in Switzerland. Working for Monti was incredibly special. It was a blend of  traditional circus spirit (big top circus tent, living in cute caravans) and high level contemporary circus with fantastic direction. After Monti, I worked within Canada and internationally with various companies, including Cirque Éloize, Strut & Fret, Les Sept Doigts de la Main, and Cirque du Soleil. Recently I was part of the original cast of “Drawn to Life,” a massive collaboration between Cirque du Soleil and Walt Disney in Orlando. There, I had the opportunity to learn new disciplines and explore clowning.  (And watch dozens of Disney animated films as homework!)  After “Drawn to Life,” I re-joined Strut and Fret in Australia for the creation of a new touring tent show in which I performed a sort of humorously absurd aerial straps act.  And then I decided to move to the USA for a second time to join Spiegelworld’s new production, “The Hook.”

What’s the most challenging trick you’ve had to perform?

The most challenging trick for me wasn’t the most technically difficult—it was the most excruciatingly painful!  I was performing in a five-person aerial act, and the final trick was a neck hang on aerial chains. The five of us had to perform it synchronously. Everyone has different sensitivities and pain tolerances for each type of trick—and apparently my neck doesn’t love hanging from steel chains!  Despite the pain, I eventually managed to pull off the trick. While hanging by the neck, I distracted myself from the agony by thinking, This, too, shall pass— just don’t pass out! Another memorable trick (not difficult but definitely cool) was jumping out of the grid and “falling down the rabbit hole” from a 60-foot ceiling as part of my Alice in Wonderland-themed aerial hoop act. To me, it was a thrill. I love heights.

What led you to join Spiegelworld for “The Hook”?

I’d always been a fan of Spiegelworld’s productions “Absinthe” and “Atomic Saloon.” I love their blend of stunning artistry, sex appeal, wild concepts, in-your-face humor, and a fabulous dash of weirdness. And the grand cherry on top is the incredibly high level and world class quality of the circus artists who perform in Spiegelworld shows!  I always thought I would be a good fit for a Spiegelworld show since I like to use a lot of the same themes. I tend to find myself playing around in the spaces between sexy, wacky, weird, and elegant.  When a dream contract in my hometown of Vancouver fell through due to the company’s bankruptcy, I was heartbroken. But then a friend recommended me to Spiegelworld for its new show, “The Hook.” It was a shining serendipitous opportunity, and some months later I found myself moving to Atlantic City! I’m so glad I did.

What has been the best part of working at “The Hook” and with Spiegelworld?

The best part is undoubtedly working with this amazing cast. The camaraderie we share is incredible—and so important for people in our profession. We travel around the world from contract to contract, so years can pass between short visits with good friends.  But on this contract I was overjoyed to be reunited with longtime friends like Danielle Saulnier and Kellin Quinn. That made joining “The Hook” even more special.  And the entire cast is so lovely, open-minded, and truly down to clown.  We make each other giggle onstage and offstage with silly jokes (and the occasional prank). That’s a big part of what keeps every day fresh.  I also love playing a role in a production that unifies so many disciplines (circus, standup comedy, magic, music, dance, and so on) and people from all over the globe in such an incredibly uplifting, fun production.  It’s wonderful to see the audience grinning ear-to-ear throughout the show. It makes me happy to know that we’ve brought lightness and humor into their day.

Do you have any advice for those entering or graduating from circus school?

This profession demands focus, physical endurance, repetition, and sacrifices along the way.  Apart from talent, the most important thing is passion. You must be truly, truly passionate about circus arts and performing in front of large groups of people. You need to genuinely honor, love, and even crave being on stage and emotionally connecting with an audience.  

Just as with all careers, there are pragmatic considerations. Ask yourself: What are your strengths, interests, and priorities? Can you handle doing the same thing hundreds of times in a row, ten times a week?  Do you want to tour or do you want to live in the same place?  Are you okay with being away from home, family, and friends for months or years at a time?  Could you tough out seasickness if you worked on a cruise ship?  I would figure out where your interests and strengths lie, and then focus on researching and connecting with companies that are a good match. 

But honestly, the essential thing is to love performing and to be dedicated to generously connecting with an audience with the goal of sharing with them something special—energy, passion, emotion, a story, a message, a moment of joy!