All aboard the Flotsam! Ragtag circus floats on a Mississippi River adventure

Five performers and a small band perform on a boat
The Flotsam River Circus performs their first of three shows in the Twin Cities near the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis on Friday. The troupe has 30 performances planned on river towns between Minneapolis and St. Louis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Hundreds of people sat and stood along the sandy shore of Bohemian Flats Park in Minneapolis Friday puzzling out what would happen on the rough wooden raft in front of them.

But once the crazily-clad Flotsam River Circus performers emerged from the audience and climbed aboard — the murmurs hushed.

The group of ragtag musicians, comedians and actors have been hard at work making their handmade, self-sustaining spectacle possible for weeks now. Over the course of about a month, they'll wind their watery way down to St. Louis, Mo., stopping at towns along the way.

A crowd watches a circus perform on a river from a sandy beach
Several hundred enthusiastic spectators line a beach at the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis to watch the Flotsam River Circus perform their first of three Twin Cities shows on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

They bring to life a post-apocalyptic world maimed by climate change, leading to the takeover of invasive mutant fish. These musical menaces present an array of wacky challenges to a small group of humans trying to survive on the river. The story is told with acrobatics, miming, illusions and more. Puppeteer Kalan Sherrard's upcycled designs give the whole thing a punk aesthetic.

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“The puppets are mostly sort of garbled, horrifying monstrosities who may or may not bear some allegorical load,” Sherrard said.

But despite the sometimes disturbing imagery, the show is made to bring joy to both the performers and audience. Jason Webley, who headed the project, said he knew from their 2019 debut in Oregon that the annual river trips were preparing the group to take on the mighty Mississippi.

People watch a man theatrically hold a ship's wheel on a boat
Matthew “Poki” McCorkle performs during the first of the Flotsam River Circus’ three shows in the Twin Cities near the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I kind of grew up as a kid obsessed with reading the Mark Twain books over and over again,” he said.

Webley expects the endeavor to cost about $100,000. He uses his own money and audience donations to keep the raft — which four crew members sleep on each night — afloat. Others sleep and are transported within a decked-out school bus.

It's certainly not a glamorous life. But Webley has no trouble convincing artists from as far away as Mexico to join in on the adventure. You can catch performer Ferdusol as a chef struggling to maintain control over his flopping fish.

A person dances with a large stuffed fish puppet
Flotsam River Circus performer Ferdusol dances with a whimsical swordfish during a show at the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

And Miriam Oommen was invited in as this year's fiddler after the past performer dropped out just two weeks before the raft set off.

Following the first performance, she has no regrets.

“I love being on the stage,” she said. “You can see everybody has their moment where everyone's eyes are on the one person and they do some crazy thing. It's terrifying, but also super adrenalizing.”

A person twirls five hula hoops
Flotsam River Circus performer Tanye Gagne deftly twirls five hula hoops during the first three Twin Cities shows near the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

During the show, little kids waded in the water in front of the raft and people with bicycles sat on beach blankets. St. Paul resident Sam Ecker, 26, was entranced.

“It got kind of emotional!” he exclaimed after the show. “The chef seduced a giant fish, and it was beautiful.”

While the hula hooping and aerial gymnastics delighted, Ecker and many others seemed most enchanted by the cast members themselves.

“I thought it was an amazing production put on by these endearing, creative weirdos,” Ecker said.

A person blows a whistle and waves a brass instrument
Artist, musician and self-described troubadour Jason Webley welcomes spectators to the Flotsam River Circus’ first performance at the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Despite the show's novelty to many who attended in Minneapolis, this is not the first river circus to float through town. Forty years ago, St. Paul artist Nicole Mary Milligan says she participated in a troupe known as the Circle of Water Circus.

Similarly to Flotsam, they used their performers' talent to raise awareness of potential impacts of climate change on the Mississippi. Milligan noted the differences in communicating this message in 1983 versus 2023, as well as how much has stayed the same.

“We wanted people to understand that the earth was in jeopardy, the water was in jeopardy,” Milligan said. “I don't know if they listen now to that.”

A crowd cheers
Several hundred enthusiastic spectators line a beach at the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis to watch the Flotsam River Circus perform their first of three Twin Cities shows on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Webley doesn't envision the Flotsam shows inspiring viewers to take activist roles. But he does hope they recognize the passion the performers invest into it.

“To me, the message is, like, you can do really different things in this life,” he said. “You can build a raft out of garbage and float down the river with your friends and do shows for people.”

And Milligan is rooting for them.

“Somebody needs to come into town as the magical stranger and remind people, there is hope. There is joy. There is kindness. And it's inside of you,” she said.

The Flotsam River Circus performs in Lake City, Minn., Wednesday at 6 p.m.

A person theatrically passes a ship's wheel to another
Tanye Gagne passes Ferdusol a ship’s steering wheel during the Flotsam River Circus performance at the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News