- January 10, 2018
It’s an uncomfortably muggy September afternoon, but Silas Bichler can’t stop smiling. He’s sitting in a metal folding chair near the massive garage doors of the Circus Arts Conservatory as his mother tells the story of his role in Sailor Circus. Occasionally, he chimes in to correct her in a classic agitated-teenager tone. At multiple points, he takes a quick break from the conversation to greet passersby and ask — with the kind of genuine, warm interest typically reserved for close relationships — how they’re doing.
Bichler is a performer who enjoys making people happy. Now 18, he’s been a part of Sailor Circus for the past six years, and he’s grown from playing a small role in pre-show clowning acts to performing in full-length gags and juggling routines. What’s extraordinary about his growth is not only his development as a performer, however. It’s his growth as a member of the circus living with cerebral palsy.
When Bichler started at Sailor Circus in September 2010, he came to practice in a wheelchair. He was still recovering from a hip reconstruction surgery the year before and could only walk short distances. Circus Arts Manager Courtney Wyatt says that in those early days, she remembers Bichler as a quiet 12-year-old who only spoke to his parents. He had the communication skills to converse, but he had yet to develop the confidence she sees in the talkative teenager he is today.
In 2011, Wyatt watched Bichler blossom. He started coming to practice more often. He took an interest in juggling. In 2012, he arrived without a wheelchair. It wasn’t long before he started taking regular laps around the arena with a coach or a fellow performer to get himself moving and socializing.
His mother, Tonia Bichler, notes that if it weren’t for the circus, her son might not have gained the independence that allows him to do everything from walk on his own to be a part of a two-hour show.
“He does a lot of things that I never thought he would do,” she says. “He goes out there, and he actually does a clown routine and he remembers what he’s supposed to do.”
Brothers in arts
Silas’ interest in the circus started after watching his older brother, Josiah Bichler, perform in Sailor Circus shows. Josiah did unicycle, high wire and juggling — activities his mother says were perfect for a teenager with ligament issues who had a hard time with running sports.
Josiah found his place in Sailor Circus, a place where his mother says he no longer seemed shy and soon formed close friendships unlike any he had outside of the circus. The story is very similar for Silas.
When Silas first started, his mother says that the other students weren’t sure how to react. He was different, and many of them were young and had never met anyone with differing abilities.
But all it took was one little girl who cared. Soon after the other students saw Aunna Twigg befriend him, Tonia says all the performers embraced Silas.
“It was the circus who accepted Silas and worked with him, even with his disabilities,” says his father, Marcus Bichler.
Performances are a little different for Silas because of his disability, but Wyatt says because his skill sets are ever-growing, the coaching staff at Circus Arts gets the opportunity to find creative ways to incorporate Silas into various acts.
At the beginning of every routine, his dad helps get Silas in costume and in position on the floor. At the end of every performance, he waits for him on the side. It’s up to Silas, however, to keep track of the routine in his head.
Before Josiah graduated, he was always Silas’ designated helper. Josiah was by his brother’s side during every performance, and both of their parents agree that having his older brother there allowed Silas to gain the confidence he needed to continue performing without Josiah these past two years. Now, fellow performer Jeanni Castro helps Silas during every parade, clown class and pre-show clown act.
Although he has many helpers who are always looking out for him, Tonia says Silas memorizes where he needs to be, what he needs to do and the point at which his act begins during each show. She says it’s a testament to his excellent memory — and work ethic. Although he reads at a first-grade level, he knows every song at church, because he listens to them on his iPod until he knows the words by heart.
A Contagious smile
Wyatt says Silas isn’t the only one who’s grown since he started with Sailor Circus. She’s also seen a change in the coaches and performers, whose lives he enriches with every interaction.
“It’s always one of my favorite moments to see how they interact with Silas onstage,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful thing. They’re incredibly gentle and incredibly protective, and they’re also sincere with their relationships that they’ve built with him.”
Wyatt says kids are hard on themselves, and just like the other performers, Silas needs that support system to remind him that it’s OK not to be perfect the first time he tries something.
“For most of us, it’s 90% work and 10% talent,” she says. “With Silas, every step that he takes, every routine that he learns, it’s 100% work, and he really pushes himself.”
The common theme that arises out of conversations about Silas is that he brings a unique energy to both shows and practices alike. He genuinely enjoys both rehearsals and performances, and it shows in that unforgettable smile.
Wyatt’s favorite routine that Silas has done was a clown gag in which each performer was a different superhero trying to help a little girl fix her broken unicycle. Each clown tried and failed to fix it, but at the end of the gag was Silas dressed as a unicycle repair man who saved the day.
“He’s always in a good mood ... His enthusiasm is
— Pam Hamilton, Silas Bichler’s juggling coach
“The writing was brilliant, putting him in that position, because he is kind of a real-life superhero,” says Wyatt. “He’s a special person. Beyond the fact that he shows up every day, he brings 100% performance energy, and he really is superhuman. He always has a good attitude.”