BENNINGTON -- Extreme pogo-stick jumping, breakdancing, magic, puppets and even readings from Chaucer -- Vermont Vaudeville always has room for something new and different in its unpredictable live act.
"We're all about laughter and humor," said founding troupe member Maya McCoy. "It's just so much fun."
Formed in 2009, Vermont Vaudeville has been running shows each spring and fall at its home theater, the Hardwick Town House in the Northeast Kingdom town of Hardwick, Vt.
When they first started, McCoy said, they were playing for audiences of 150 friends and acquaintances. Recently, their hometown runs have expanded to two nights and a matinee performance, attracting roughly 800 eager audience members.
Now, after staying mostly in place for five years, Vermont Vaudeville will set out on a five-week tour of the state, performing in theaters from Brattleboro to Burlington.
Touring has always been one of their ambitions as a group, a desire partially motivated by their home theater in Hardwick, which they describe as an old theater with a balcony that needs a ton of work.
"That's the exciting thing: There are so many old spaces like this around the state" said McCoy. "One of our goals, once we have a following, is to bring people to these old spaces. For right now, we're using established theaters because people will go there, but one of our goals is to go to the smaller communities."
For now, Vermont Vaudeville is happy to be performing in newer venues, like the FlynnSpace in Burlington and Oldcastle's newly-renovated theater in Bennington.
"This is our first year hosting concerts," said Eric Peterson, Oldcastle's producing artistic director, "and we really tried to find a variety of genres. We've never had vaudeville in Bennington before."
Each performance of the tour brings in a guest performer alongside Vermont Vaudeville's core group for extra variety and spontaneity. At the Oldcastle show, the guest will be Brattleboro-based contortionist Melis-sa Knowles, who has just returned from performing with Circa, a circus company in Australia
"All four of the core members of Vermont Vaudeville have traveled all over the world," said McCoy. "A lot of the guest performers are people we've met traveling. And, especially on this tour, we tried to get a lot of Vermont performers."
"It's so fun to bring in guest performers because anything goes, and we're never quite sure what we're going to get" she continued. "We recently had a guy who did a toilet paper slackline. He unrolls four industrial rolls of toilet paper around two volunteers from the audience, and then he twists the toilet paper so that it becomes strong enough that he can walk on it. We get wild things like that."
Considering their backgrounds in various circus and puppet groups, the players of Vermont Vaudeville are no strangers to "wild things like that." After performing with the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus, husband-and-wife performing team Maya and Brent McCoy met fellow performers Rose Friedman and Justin Lander through the Bread and Puppet Theater, coming together to create Vermont Vaudeville.
With the support of some older Vermont performers, like Circus Smirkus' founding director, Rob Mirman, actor Woody Keppel and acrobat Tom Murphy, the group has built Vermont Vaudeville into a lively presence in the state's performing arts scene.
While their namesake performance style peaked in popularity between the late 1800s and early 1900s, Vermont Vaudeville combines the old-fashioned elements of vaudeville performance with touches of contemporary entertainment.
"We have a band that plays the old-timey numbers," McCoy said, "but we also have modern circus acts and recorded music sometimes."
The vaudeville formula also allows performers to break the rules of other theatrical styles, giving it a free-flowing, off-the-cuff energy.
"There can be improvisation in the show, as opposed to a straight play, where you're learning lines and doing the same thing every night. There's some of that, but there's a lot more to play with in vaudeville," McCoy said.
Staying true to their name, Vermont Vaudeville reflects the traditions of both its performance style and its home state. Although the tour curls around the outer corners of the state, the performers plan on returning to their home in between each performance, partially because Friedman and Lander live as homesteaders, McCoy said, "so they have cows and pigs and animals to get back to."
Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or by email at email@example.com.
If you go ..
What: Vermont Vaudeville
Where: Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main St. in Bennington
When: Saturday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m.