90.1 FM San Luis Obispo | 91.7 FM Paso Robles | 91.1 FM Cayucos | 95.1 FM Lompoc | 90.9 FM Avila
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

BiG SuRCuS will return to Henry Miller Memorial Library for two nights of “archetype cabaret”

Jessica Cooper (left) and Rosalia Webster (right) run BiG SuRCuS, a show that often involves dancing with fire.
Jessica Cooper (left) and Rosalia Webster (right) run BiG SuRCuS, a show that often involves dancing with fire.

The Henry Miller Memorial Library has drawn artists, thinkers and explorers to the Central Coast since its founding over 40 years ago. Tucked away in the trees of Big Sur, the space has a long history of being one of Monterey County’s main venues for arts, music and more.

This weekend on July 30, the library will hold this year's first performance of BiG SuRCuS — an immersive cabaret performance whose creators say reflects the creativity and wildness of Big Sur.

In a video on the BiG SuRCuS Instagram page, artistic director and "principal starlet" Jessica Cooper twirls fiery baton on a purple-lit stage.

“Henry Miller is really special to us, because we do perform [in] other places — obviously, we do private engagements, but Henry Miller is kind of where we tell our story," Cooper said.

Rosalia Webster (left) and Jessica Cooper (right) pose in their circus attire.
Rosalia Webster (left) and Jessica Cooper (right) pose in their circus attire.

Cooper said she and her collaborator, BiG SuRCuS owner and creator Rosalia Webster, use poems like those from Webster's book "Tales from the Moon" to begin the idea and story for a BiG SuRCuS show. They both then work together on to create a visual story, often with fire involved.

"Some of it isn't completely literal," Cooper said. "But we tell our story, and that’s where it all kind of begins, the magic kind of fires up.”

Onstage, that magic is made up of acts like fire dancing and spoken-word poetry, but also other forms of expression like belly-dancing and burlesque. Cooper said the show’s eclectic nature reflects how the library and Big Sur itself are rooted in both the wilderness and the arts.

“You're always gonna meet somebody interesting, lots of artists or just interesting types of people come through there," Cooper said. "And then you're gonna get the types of people who" haven't left the mountain in three months, you know? So it's kind of the mix of an interesting and wild and lonely place, and definitely it's informed our work and who we are.”

In another of Big SuRCuS’s videos, Rosalia Webster recites one of the poems from “Tales from the Moon” with the Pacific Ocean behind her.

Webster said growing up in the area, its ruggedness inspired her art in a way that continues into this year’s circus show.

“For me, growing up on a ridge, and having to wipe that dust off your shoes before you go into Carmel, I wanted to embody glamor. And I found this way to just really feel that grace and beauty," Webster said.

In this screenshot from an Instagram video, Rosalia Webster reads poems from her book "Tales from the Moon."
In this screenshot from an Instagram video, Rosalia Webster reads poems from her book "Tales from the Moon."

That beauty, Webster said, comes from not just the show, but also the setting at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

“The acoustics of the trees, and the theater there, it's amazing. Even if you're in under the redwoods sitting at cabaret tables on the lawn, there's still this old world beauty, and I just love that," she said.

Others love it, too. Webster said BiG SuRCuS has been around long enough now that they have a dedicated “fan club" of locals and visitors who feel like it’s part of the artistic fabric of the area now.

“People are seeking out that circle, and the people keep coming back," Webster said. "When you can do that, it's like you created something bigger, and it's taken all of these years and now we're seeing this is natural and something powerful."

"This is more than just us getting on stage and putting on a costume for you, you know, we're a lifestyle and a movement," she said.

One important part of any circus fan club, Webster and Cooper said, are the "carnies" who help

"They're our carnies," Webster said. "Most of them have been with us for, like, three to seven years, and we don't really switch up too much because we're a family.”

Webster said the carnies represent the kind of people who make up the heart and soul of a circus. Like herself as a child, when she would shake off the Big Sur dust and dirt, and try embodying elegance.

Fire is an important of any BiG SuRCuS performance.
Fire is an important of any BiG SuRCuS performance.

“The circus is made up of the outcasts, and the ragtags, and the people that feel like they have nowhere to belong," Webster said. "Suddenly, they find the big top and they're like, 'Oh my gosh, a dirty girl can be glamorous.'"

But Webster says it’s also been hard to keep this show up with everything that’s happened in Big Sur and the world over the past few years — like wildfires, other natural disasters and COVID. Sitting on the couch together, she and Cooper agreed it’s been hard to even keep track of.

"There's lost years, [from] some fires and a bridge closure. So there's a couple years where we didn't do it. In 2020 we had a small show because we had limited numbers, but we have done it almost every year," Cooper said.

This year’s Big SuRCuS theme is “archetype cabaret,” referring to classic concepts like “hero” or “villain.” Cooper said exploring archetypes like these is creatively fulfilling for her and Webster, and the fact they can do it onstage at the Henry Miller Library makes that even better.

“We're a woman-owned and produced show, and we definitely put our heart and soul into it. It's a lot of work. It's all we know to do — we don't even know why we're doing it, we just do it.”

This year’s Big SuRCuS shows are happening this Saturday, July 30 and next month on August 27 at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. The videos in this story are on Instagram @big_surcus.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
Related Content