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MIT Engineers Run Away To The Circus

On the front lot at a Circus Smirkus show in Waltham (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

BOSTON — This weekend a blue and white big top is going up in Revere. Audiences who have paid to see Circus Smirkus will Ooh and Ahh at dozens of aspiring aerialists, clowns and jugglers. But behind the scenes a small posse of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers will be making sure everything works. So why did they decide to run away with the circus for the summer?

When you go to the circus you expect certain things. Music. Bright lights. Maybe smoke machines. Bleachers. Definitely popcorn. But the kernels would not be bursting with the same vigor if 24-year-old Andrew Marecki hadn’t jerry-rigged the old machine by, as he put it, “purposefully shorting out part of the circuit.”

Andy is a mechanical engineer and the back lot manager for Smirkus. He just finished his sixth year at MIT, where he earned his master’s degree and spent hours in the Media Lab researching robotics. But now?

“My responsibilities include making sure that everything is always running on site, including the generator, which supplies all of our own electricity so we don’t rely on the grid,” he said.

Marecki Jerry-rigged the machine to keep the kernels popping this summer. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Andy is psyched to show me the 75-kilowatt John Deere engine inside the generator housing. It powers the entire Circus Smirkus microcosm. Not just the ambitious show under the tent (spotlights, live band, fans, etc.) but also the trailers, food truck (known as the “Pie Cart” in the biz) and everything that keeps the 70 performers and staff comfortable. It’s like a 24/7 summer camp on wheels.

“We have an entire gray water system that manages all our waste water,” Andy said proudly. He manages the plumbing, too. “And keeping everything always flowing is very important.”

Hazel Briner helps keep things flowing on the back lot. She also studied engineering at MIT and is on the Smirkus tent crew.

“For me nothing beats making this organization fly, making shows day after day that bring people joy,” she said.

Hazel and Andy are actually a couple. And Hazel’s brother Otto is on the tent crew, too. As we sat in the dining area, he rode up on his bike, shirtless, with a moppy head of hair. Next month Otto will be a sophomore at MIT, and suspects he’ll also major in engineering. Together Otto, Andy and Hazel are like an engineering trifecta.

An Engineering Trifecta

While their unusual summer jobs have amused their professors at MIT, Otto said some peers have given him grief for “running away to the circus.” He recalled one guy who made a comment.

Otto Briner, 19, Hazel Briner, 22, and Andy Marecki, 24, with the hose reel they designed to make raising the big top more efficient. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“And I looked at him kind of funny and said, ‘You don’t really get it, do you?’ No, I love engineering!” Otto said. “And that’s why I’m going to do this; it’s because I want to engineer. I don’t want to sit in a chair with a pencil and sketch things out.”

Then Hazel chimed in, ”You know, I’ve had silly little exercises at MIT where they make you sit and play with Legos and do repetitive tasks to see how fast you can put together these Lego structures.”

“This is that,” Otto added with a laugh, then Hazel continued, “this is our manufacturing class, this is everything.”

It’s Otto’s first summer with Smirkus, but Hazel is a veteran. As a teenager she performed under the big top as an aerialist, but “aged-out” of the program — as they call it — after graduating high school.

Spoken like a true engineer and scientist, Hazel said working in the tent crew is “anti-entropy.”

“We can set up a quarter of a tent of bleachers in about 45 minutes,” she said. “Sometimes faster.”

Then Andy added a qualifying detail: “That section of bleachers can hold about 200 people.”

He seems to know the dimensions and weight of every piece of equipment on the back lot. He’s compelled to make the entire operation run as efficiently as possible. And that’s critical. Smirkus is on the road constantly, putting on 70 shows in 15 New England towns.

Marecki shows off the Smirkus gray water system. He’s working on perfecting an alarm system that will prevent overflows. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

During a matinee Andy and Hazel take me on a tour of their world in the field behind the big top. They’re like two little kids excited to share their new toys — things they’ve been fixing, inventing and re-purposing.

The trouble-shooting couple really wants to show me a contraption that makes the arduous task of raising the big top faster. The crew relies on an air compressor to pound dozens of long, metal stakes into the ground. But for years winding the compressor’s hose has been like wrestling a 200-foot-long snake.

“Last year we devised a hose reel made out of leftover scrap wood, some old car bearings and actually an old cradle that used to be used in performances,” Hazel said.

It sits on a flatbed truck. Andy cranks the mechanism.

“You can see it’s half of a bike with our own custom sprocket and chain ring,” he said.

Breaking The Tent Down For ‘The Jump’

And at the end of a run the crew breaks down the 800-person tent as quickly as possible, which of course is no small task because it’s composed of “15,000 pounds of vinyl,” Andy said. “It’s a nice looking load, everything gets packed in that trailer, the entire tent. It’s a sight to see this thing go up and down.”

Otto admired the system, calling it “a beautiful little kit.”

Marecki on the Circus Smirkus big top in Revere. (Courtesy Harry Powers)

Marecki on the Circus Smirkus big top in Revere. (Courtesy Harry Powers)

“I guess the point of my job is that it’s supposed to be always, I guess, invisible,” Andy continued. “When everything is correct, no one notices, and I guess that’s a good thing.”

But circus operations director Judy Gaeth definitely notices.

“Everything Andy and Hazel put their hands on comes out looking like it came out of a factory instead of out of a little workshop in the middle of nowhere,” she said with a laugh.

Gaeth believes the MIT engineers have made a difference to the overall functioning of Smirkus, especially with their attitudes.

“It’s like things break and they’re jumping for joy,” she said. “It’s great.”

But for Otto, Andy and Hazel fixing things that contribute to making magic is part of the draw. No matter how many times they’ve raised the tent, they said stepping inside is like entering another world — show after show.

“And you can see it as soon as you go into the show,” Hazel described, “and there could be 10 people in the tent or 10,000 — and there’s still that sense of energy that people are having a great time.”

Circus Smirkus will be in Revere Sunday, Aug. 12, and Monday, Aug. 13. Shows are at 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at the Beachmont School, located at 150 Everard St. in Revere.

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