Tyringham performer/filmmaker chronicles life in a family circus in "Circus Kid" at BIFF

TYRINGHAM — For Lorenzo Pisoni, his family's home in Tyringham has always been a welcome escape. As a child, when he was traveling around the world with his parents and sister as a part of The Pickle Family Circus, he seldom had an opportunity to visit the house. And now, as an actor living in New York City, he visits more frequently but still not enough for his liking.

"It's hard to say, `Yes, I will have this amount of time off,' because when the phone rings, you got to go to work," Pisoni said in a telephone interview.

This lack of freedom is nothing new for Pisoni, 40, who examines his family's devotion to performance — and its encroachment on his youth — in "Circus Kid," a documentary that will be shown on Saturday morning at the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield and Saturday afternoon at Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington in the juried competition of the 12th annual Berkshire International Film Festival.

"It's a gem of a film," said Kelley Vickery, the festival's director.

The film chronicles the rise and fall of The Pickle Family Circus, which Pisoni's parents, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, founded in 1974, but Pisoni wastes no time emphasizing the constant cost of this endeavor: his youth's free will. During the film's second minute, the director succinctly summarizes this predicament.

"Most kids dream about running away from home to join the circus, but for me, the circus was my home. I had to join," Pisoni says. The final words arrive as Pisoni lifts a gorilla mask from his head and smiles, revealing the great contradiction about his upbringing: though he was given little choice in the matter, he still loved the circus, enough to tolerate his father's intense coaching for years and to continue performing in circuses until his early 20s.

"Circus is an amazing drug," said Pisoni, who began participating as a two-year-old when he would reenact previous scenes during intermissions. He would later perform clown and juggling acts, but he especially enjoyed acrobatics. The technical nature of his circus work both helped and hindered his acting career initially. "I was kind of really concerned with finding my light and punctuation, and these things maybe aren't so great, so it took me a while to kind of shed a lot of that stuff. But on the other hand, every time I'm in a fight scene, I'm like, `I got this,'" he said.

The film, however, primarily focuses on what happens when you overdose on circus, as Pisoni's father, Larry, appeared to do. While his dedication to details helped The Pickle Family Circus receive acclaim, the patriarch eventually burned out and left the circus. Pisoni had been his father's stage partner for the previous five years, beginning at age 6.

"They were completely devoted to each other, and then Larry left the circus, and [Lorenzo] was kind of estranged from his father," Snider said. Pisoni himself quit the circus shortly thereafter.

"I left when I was 13 because I thought I should go to a real high school and kind of experience what other kids had been experiencing," said Pisoni. He attended Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, the location of the family's primary residence, before studying film theory at Vassar College.

Since retiring from circuses, Pisoni has landed in feature films such as "The Adjustment Bureau" and television shows such as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." But it was his solo performance in a play called "Humor Abuse" that led him into the world of documentary filmmaking. The story explored the realities of being raised in a circus-obsessed family with a driven father. After hundreds of performances throughout the U.S. over four years, Pisoni was set to act in "Humor Abuse" one last time--at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles--when actress and friend Jennifer Westfeldt suggested that he have somebody film his final show. Upon learning about Larry's complicated personality, Westfeldt also believed Pisoni should make a documentary about it.

While filmed scenes from the play are woven throughout the film, one-on-one interviews with family members and other former circus performers predominate. Coupled with debuting as a director, the emotional nature of these interviews took a toll on Pisoni.

"Had I known how tough it was going to be, I probably wouldn't have done it because there's a lot of introspection that has to happen for a first-person documentary to be, have any success at all, and I'm not too comfortable with that sort of thing," he said.

Still, the documentary has been a success in more ways than one. For starters, Pisoni has reconnected with his father.

"[`Humor Abuse'] certainly started to rip the Band-Aid off of some issues I have with the way I grew up and with my dad and what every son probably has an issue with their father about, and then the film was kind of the final tug on that Band-Aid and also the healing of it, healing of whatever wound there is," he said.

Then there's the film's acceptance at multiple film festivals. Pisoni is particularly happy to be attending the Berkshire festival.

"I'm really excited to go watch some movies and have my hair blown back a bit," he said.


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