Floating circus navigating Mississippi River plans free shows in Canton, Quincy and Hannibal this weekend

Flotsam River Circus

The Flotsam River Circus will perform Friday in Mississippi River Park in Canton, Mo., Saturday at Clat Adams Park in Quincy and Sunday in Hannibal during the Big River Steampunk Festival. Each show is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. | Photo courtesy of Delene and Co.

QUINCY — A troupe of musicians, circus performers and puppeteers floating along the Mississippi River will be stopping in three cities to give free performances this weekend.

The Flotsam River Circus will perform Friday in Mississippi River Park in Canton, Mo., Saturday at Clat Adams Park in Quincy and Sunday in Hannibal during the Big River Steampunk Festival. Each show is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Jason Webley, a troubadour from Everett, Wash., organizes the tour. He and seven other performers were in Rock Island on Saturday, Aug. 26, then made stops this week in Davenport, Iowa, and Burlington, Iowa. The troupe, which left Minneapolis on Aug. 4, will perform Wednesday night in Fort Madison, Iowa, and Thursday night in Keokuk, Iowa. The tour will end with three days of performances in St. Louis on Sept. 8-10.

Webley, who lives on a houseboat just outside of Seattle on the Snohomish River, organized a tour of Oregon’s’ Willamette River in 2019, waterways around Seattle in 2021 and the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay in 2022. He said a group of New York artists who floated down the Mississippi about 15 years ago was the inspiration for this year’s trip.

“I helped build the motors for some of those boats, so this kind of idea has been in the back of my head for a while,” Webley said. “As a little boy, the mythology of Huck Finn was a big, big deal. I think 8-year-old me would be really excited to see what I’m up to right now.”

He said he studied theater and spent two decades touring as a singer-songwriter. 

“The idea of traveling every day and doing a show every night was the basic thrust of my life for a long time,” Webley said. “This idea is a combination of all those things. The idea of building a raft, having the river dictate the tour route and performing every night, there’s something about it that just really feels natural.”

Webley said the troupe calls itself a circus — suitable for all ages — because the show contains traditional circus elements. 

“There’s some aerial stuff, and it has people clowning, bits of magic and other circus tricks. But it’s not at all a conventional circus,” he said. “There certainly are no trained animals. It’s kind of a weird, slightly surreal show. Occasionally, people are saying, ‘Wait a minute. What am I watching?’ But it’s been really fun. When we were in Davenport, there were little kids and people in their late 80s in the audience. Talking to people afterward, it really felt like everybody understood and appreciated the show.”

The troupe travels on a 32-foot pontoon raft that Webley built out of salvaged material. 

“I made it to look like it comes from a storybook or another time,” he said. “Everything about it is designed primarily to be a stage for our show. Secondarily, it needs to be a boat and navigable, and a distant third is comfort. We didn’t really design it to be a comfortable place to hang out and camp out. That being said, it serves all those functions.”

Three people typically sleep on the raft at night, while the rest of the crew sleeps on a bus that accompanies the crew on land. 

“We do manage to squeeze in showers on occasion and other such things,” Webley said with a laugh.

He said the scorching temperatures in the Midwest last week didn’t seem to bother the group.

“It was hot, but we like living on the river,” he said. “It’s actually cooler on the river, and there was a pretty strong breeze. it felt about 10 degrees colder.”

Also along for the trip is Maddie Semakovich, who watches Otis, the 10-month-old son of performers Matthew “Poki” McCorkle and Sadye Osterloh. Other troupe members are Sari Breznau, Ferdusol, Tanya Gagne, Miriam Oommen and Kalan Sherrard.

The troupe relies on donations, collected after each performance, to fund the project. Webley says they can take cash or donations through Venmo.

He said audience members should not bring donations of food, however.

“We were given a lot of food in the Quad Cities,” Webley said. “I worry about getting too much food and not knowing what to do with it. So don’t bring food. If a local restaurant wants to arrange in advance to make us a meal, that’s lovely. I appreciate all the people who have given us food, but please don’t show up with big boxes of food.”

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