The decision to cancel the 2020 Gamma Phi Circus annual shows due to mass gathering restrictions caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was devastating for everyone involved.

“We were in the middle of a historic year for us,” said Gamma Phi Circus Artistic Director Ivan Stoinev. “We had 130 students, we had done many exhibitions, and we had done the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which was huge for us. We were preparing with full power, full energy, and then it hit us. It hit us pretty hard.”

A year later, Gamma Phi Circus is still unable to hold performances in front of crowds at Redbird Arena due to coronavirus restrictions. However, the circus has created a unique performance that will be recorded in Braden Auditorium and livestreamed to its fans across the world starting May 1.

“This show is a new perspective, a new idea, and I think people are really going to enjoy it,” Gamma Phi Circus President Sophie Remmert said. “I think it will bring a whole new level to our show in the future as well.”

Circus Director Marcus Alouan was originally preparing students for a live performance in April 2021, as is tradition. As the months went on, he and Stoinev saw the likelihood of that occurring shrink with each passing day. In November, organizers came up with the idea to have attendees buy a ticket for a virtual performance.

“This is history in the making. We are not looking at this as a concession; we are looking at this as an opportunity to reach a wider audience,” Alouan said. “We have many friends and fans of Gamma Phi who love us and would love to be here at show each year but cannot due to issues with travel. This year they get to.”

The 2021 performance is a reworked version of the 2020 show, which was planned to be a departure from what Gamma Phi Circus had presented even before the challenges created by COVID-19. This year’s theme, “The World of Music,” is the first performance Gamma Phi has created with a narrative arc. The story follows two characters as they discover a love of music through performance.

“We really wanted to set a goal for a story-driven show,” Gamma Phi Theme Committee Lead Christopher Stoinev said. “It’s going to be a lot different with a unique storyline that will guide the show through its acts, which is something new for Gamma Phi. And since it will be filmed like a movie, that will fit the theme even better.”

Gamma Phi Circus members were able to start preparing for the 2021 show in August under strict coronavirus physical-distancing guidelines. Members were not allowed to touch each other while preparing for the show, which makes certain kinds of circus tricks impossible. Gamma Phi adapted by modifying most partner acts, building contraptions that allow performers to work without a traditional spotter, and putting an emphasis on musical performance and dance.

Remmert, a senior who is studying to become a music teacher, didn’t want to leave Illinois State without performing the show she and so many others had been working months to prepare for. She decided to adjust her student-teaching schedule and move a class to spring 2021, extending her time on campus to finish what she started. Now she is one of the featured vocalists in the show.

“We’ve thought outside the box and been super unique with the way we have collaborated and put together our acts. I am super excited for it,” Remmert said.

The performers have also needed to adapt to the change of venue. Instead of playing to a live audience in Redbird Arena with a 360-degree view, they are playing onstage in Braden Auditorium to a camera crew. Gamma Phi had to put additional thought into the preparation and staging of tricks, especially the act transitions. As the date to film the performance approaches, Ivan Stoinev and Alouan are quick to credit students for their flexibility during difficult times to help make this production a reality.

“The students have just taken everything in stride, everything we’ve thrown at them. They’ve just been amazing through it all,” Alouan said.

Both urge the Redbird community to check out the results of Gamma Phi’s hard work later this spring.

“I am very happy with the show, it is looking great,” Ivan Stoinev said. “It is going to be a huge surprise for our audience.”

Tickets for the first ever virtual Gamma Phi Circus performance are on sale now!