Can't keep a circus family down: Firefly Theatre prepares for first pandemic show

· The Pulse
By Fawnda Mithrush
in the Arts Roundup

Among the more uniquely themed pandemic performance offerings this week comes Firefly Theatre's Bread and Circus — an evening of bread-making and acrobatics, hosted by Firefly's founders, Annie Dugan and John Ullyatt. The name of the event is inspired by the ancient Roman tenet of appeasing unruly public with food and entertainment.

"When unrest was brewing, they would give people bread and circus, and we're sick of all these restrictions, so what do we do? We'll give people bread and circus," says Dugan with a smile.

The pair will be beaming in aerial and contortion artists from around the world to entertain home-bound audiences as they wait for their fougasse dough to rise. Orders have to be in by 3pm on April 29 to get the bread-making kits delivered in time.

As performing families go, Dugan and Ullyatt are among the city's most recognizable. Dugan is often hanging from the rafters at festivals, sports events, and conferences, and the annual theatre season is where Ullyatt shines — your correspondent still gets misty-eyed remembering his performance in Every Brilliant Thing, one of the last shows presented at the Citadel before COVID-19 hit.

"I had a year and a half of work lined up after that and it all disappeared," says Ullyatt, who was rehearsing with Edmonton Opera on Candide when restrictions started to ramp up. "Everything slammed shut. We went to get our makeup and everything from the dressing room and we never performed the show."

John Ullyatt and Annie Dugan, live from Lone Pine Distilling. (Supplied)

John Ullyatt and Annie Dugan, live from Lone Pine Distilling. (Supplied)

Dugan, Firefly's artistic director, was also staring down a calendar that was kicking up a good deal of stress.

"We had a spring schedule in 2020 that was so heart-attack inducing, we were at capacity," Dugan says, with dozens of major corporate galas booked, the annual Let There Be Height fundraiser with 85 aerialists on contract, and what was supposed to be Edmonton's inaugural circus arts festival set to debut in June 2020. "It was too much. But it's the nature of our work, we can't say no, we don't say no." 

As the improv adage goes, the duo took a "yes, let's" attitude to keeping busy during the pandemic. Dugan has spent a lot more time with her three extremely agile Australian Shepherds (Berri, Mochi, and Figgy Duff have their own Instagram). She also started a podcast about Canadian dog sports.

A home-brewing hobbyist, Ullyatt took up a job at Lone Pine Distilling, where he now wades in vats of corn mash (you can also catch his exploits on Instagram).

"What's great about the timing is that I made 30 gallons of beer at home and now I'm making 30,000," he laughs. "I just love it. The funniest part of it is that the filthier the job is, the more I like it."

His humour seems to be helping others get through the pandemic, too. Many were tickled to see him strolling their neighbourhood dressed as the Easter Bunny, entertaining families from their windows on the holiday.

As for the Bread and Circus event, the two look forward to getting back into show mode.

"I think the biggest thing people are missing is being in a room together and sharing an experience. Obviously we're not doing that with this, but we're coming as close as we can," Ulyatt says. "The theatre business is shut down. I'm just happy that I have a place to go every day. I have a job, and I'm having fun. And I have weekends! I haven't had a weekend for like, 30 years."