I’m writing a series of posts on some pop culture milestones from my own life. This installment: my life with the circus…
The first question everyone asks is about animals. Does our circus have any? No, we don’t. Well, they don’t. It not really my circus anymore. I live in Los Angeles now, but El Circo Cheapo Cabaret is still going strong in Chicago, and without any animals. No elephants. No tigers. Think Cirque Du Soliel plus roller derby. Think gals with tattoos and serious biceps and maybe pink hair. Tightrope walkers. Hairhangers (you know, someone who hangs from the ceiling by their hair?) A hula hoop specialist. There’s this one guy who juggles chainsaws with a scorpion in his pants. That was my circus. It’s a good thing, too, that we had no animals. I wouldn’t be able to deal with that. I’m not really into the idea of animals in a circus. I love the idea of circus people, though. Circus people can balance, glide, hang and they can adapt to changes on the fly. Their hands might slip with sweat, or their feet might falter, but rarely will they fall. And if they fall, they’ll just get up again. Circus people are tough as shit and brave as hell. Circus people are up for anything, and somehow, circus people chose me. I was their ringmaster.
The second question people ask: “What exactly does a ringmaster do?” Some ringmasters are in charge of sporting a twirly mustache. Some are tasked with being a jerk to Reese Witherspoon (that’s a super funny Water for Elephants reference!). As I have only the slight facial hair of an Italian woman and I am rarely a jerk to Reese Witherspoon, my job didn’t involve either of these elements. Instead, I was there to keep the audience engaged and entertained between acts. I’d open the show with a song and dance - literally, with a choreographed song and dance.
During the show, I’d play games with the audience and tell jokes or stories. Above me, circus performers would climb up a rope to swap out a trapeze for a lyra (a giant hoop) and then tighten the rigging (the ropes that hold shit up). These changes - setting up the frame to support a tightrope or wheeling out a giant, um, wheel - were not behind a curtain, or in a separate space. I had to be captivating enough that the audience wouldn’t pay any attention to the chick or dude dangling 30 feet above me tying some fabric onto the ceiling.
It was my job to stand there under a spotlight, in a top hat and some sort of festive jacket, and draw focus away from these set changes. It’s the hardest hosting gig I’ve ever had, but I was good at it. I love chatting with an audience and nothing made me happier than checking in with the circus audience between acts. Yes, I’d tell stories and jokes and play games during the show, but the best part was turning to the audience and asking, “Did you just see that? What that performer did? That was just a human person hanging by her hair up there. A brave and tough human person.”
We trained in a warehouse building in West Town, a sort of factory/meat packing type district in Chicago. We put on two shows every first Saturday in that space and we’d always sell out. Turns out people love the idea of a circus in the middle of an abandoned factory. It’s very hip, very off the beaten path. Our crowds would be artsy folks with various mohawks and mullets but then also business types and young children and ladies who lunch. People were allowed to bring booze to the show and they absolutely did. I did too, actually. After all, I wasn’t hanging from anything. I’d drink whiskey with the audience and marvel at my friends and the crazy skills they had. And the outfits! These gals would be just flinging themselves around in the air with massive hair extensions in or wearing giant false eyelashes and an elaborate sequined skin-tight body suits or some sort of punk rock sailor outfit.
After a few years of working on the show in Chicago, my circus boss, Shayna, had an idea for a seven city national tour - 7 acrobats and me, the ringmaster, in a 14 passenger van for 5 weeks. Shayna and the other acrobats toured a bunch - they’re all professional circus performers and between doing our monthly shows in Chicago, they were hired out for other gigs. They’d stilt walk in China or fly around on some silks (you know, those long sheets of fabric?) at a String Cheese Incident concert or perform in a Michael Jackson themed Cirque Du Soliel show in Vegas. But our first tour together meant we could try to land some contracts as a group - we’d tour the country, then try to get further work based on this tour at theaters, big tops, convention centers, or wherever anyone needed a circus.
We started in Denver where we slept in the same space we did shows - a tiny store front circus studio. There was no shower, just a large kind of washing basin in the main common space. So this is where I should tell you that circus gals are really comfortable with their bodies. And they should be. It’s pretty much six packs, shoulder muscles and small, perky boobs across the (wash)board. And scars. Tons of scars. It turns out that climbing a rope barefoot or gracefully dangling from a hoop by your knees doesn’t feel awesome. It’s painful. The rope cuts into your skin. The hoop leaves a mark. Circus folks have to do serious strength training and cardio, and must constantly keep up their flexibility. Off-stage, they are athletes; onstage, they are performers. They have to do the equivalent of 200 chin ups in a row, and still their make-up has to be perfect, even if they are bleeding. Actually, especially if they are bleeding.
The gals would do my make-up, too, thank god. I’ve never been much for make-up because I can’t really do it and I always fuck it up if somebody else does. Bronzer makes me look like I fell in the dirt. Lipstick ends up on my forehead. But not when I was in the circus. When an acrobat does your make-up, that shit is strong and sweat proof and that shit stays. Mascara can’t drip in your eye or you might fall 30 ft and smash your little eyelashes. That was perfect for me.
Back to bodies, though. I have a comic’s body - I’m fit but rounder in the middle than say, oh, an acrobat. I’m never going to be an acrobat - I tried, right after we got back from that tour, to learn some circus skills. I can stilt walk and I can base a two high - which basically means I can stand really still while an acrobat climbs up my body and stands on my shoulders. That’s where my circus skills end. I never learned how to juggle, a really basic of circus skill, and it turns out my tolerance for pain is more emotional than physical WHICH IS WHY I LOVE STANDUP COMEDY.
The great thing is, though, that these gals are so comfortable with their bodies, it’s infectious. Multiple times on tour we’d end up at hot springs somewhere in the desert, and the gals would just immediately strip down and hop in. I’d never been the strip down and hop in type, but I’d also never been in the circus. I learned to adapt. On the road with the circus, adaptation meant everything from trying to be more chill about my body to spending a night on the tour staying with some of Emily’s - Emily was doing a silks act on the tour - friends. Emily had met these friends at Burning Man. The friends made tiny top hats FOR A LIVING and owned two hairless cats. The night we stayed with them, they were bathing crystals under the full moon to increase the crystal’s potency. When you are traveling with the circus, you come to expect this kind of situation. You’ve already learned that anything can happen, because, in fact, you are traveling with the circus. What else could be a surprise? Your cats don’t have hair? Why would they. You bathe crystals? Of course you do! Doesn’t seem strange to me in the least, I’d say. I’m adaptable, I’d say. Now please sell me a tiny top hat so that I don’t feel so exposed when I’m nude and in a hot spring!
We were traveling through Vegas and stayed at - naturally - Circus Circus. After hours spent annoying the crap out of one another in the close quarters of the van, the distraction of a casino was exactly what we needed. We went to a buffet and I watched the gals pick out the highest protein, lowest carb options. Afterward, we went to the pool and the gals started showing off their skills. First one was doing a handstand. Then they all were. Then two highs started to break out - they were balancing on each other’s shoulders, standing up in the pool. Two young dudes in Speedos dropped their towels, dove in, and swam out to the middle of the pool. The guys were Polish and on contract in Vegas. One dude climbed up on the other’s shoulders. My gals responded with more two highs of their own and soon it was a post-buffet competitive circus-off, right there at Circus Circus. The rest of the pool goers seemed pretty impressed by the stage show. “Entertainment even in the pool!” they said, “What a full-service place!”
And that’s what I experienced as a ringmaster, too - entertainment even in the pool. Entertainment, and a fuckin adventure! And a need to be open to that adventure. There is a moment that really ties it all together for me - all the shows we did before our tour, five weeks on the road with the circus, and all the shows we did after our tour - because we did end up landing a bunch of a contracts and we did travel together to other great places. There is a moment that ties together the adventure of it all and that moment is of us driving in Humboldt County. You know: Humboldt County? Where weed comes from?
So we’re in Northern California by that point. In Humboldt. By this time in the tour, the gals have twirled in the air and flipped and climbed across the US and I’ve told jokes beside or beneath them throughout. The gals are scabbed up and exhausted and I’m probably still wearing last night’s makeup because THAT SHIT STAYS. Our rickety 14 passenger van is overheating, so most of the gals have stripped down to their undies because it’s hot and their bodies are perfect. In fact, I’m stripped down too. We start seeing, as we’re driving, these hitchhiking kids.
You know, those certain type of kids that would hitchhike to be closer to weed? The kids that are in their mid-20’s and wearing every type of corduroy at once and carrying Army surplus backpacks? They’ve got homemade patches on their bags and they’ve probably on psychedelics and they’ve smoked whatever was around and hopped into cars with strangers and felt that they were truly free or truly cool or truly open? You know those kids? If I’d driven past those kids at any other time in my life, I would have thought them wild, brave, tough. I would have wondered what it’d be like to be that adaptable, that up for anything, that ready for adventure.
But at this moment that I pass them, at this time traveling through Humboldt, I’m in the circus van, surrounded by trapezes, sequins and semi-naked acrobats. We’re a month into our tour, we’re beloved in Chicago, we’ve entertained in Vegas, there are tiny top hats everywhere and we’re motoring on to another show. I feel great in my body and my make-up is on. I don’t have to wonder what it’d be like to be adaptable, or up for anything. At this moment in my life, I don’t need to hitchhike through Humboldt for adventure. I’m a ringmaster, the circus folk chose me and I’ve already got my ride.
All photos by myself or Zoe Sheppard. Copyright 2013.