A Nerd Circus Called Acrobatica Infiniti
Interview by Jill Kusa!
What is the most exciting stunt your show has ever performed?
We have a lot of unexpected and exciting moments, as well as some big planned stunts! One instance was a fire show at Atomic Lollipop where we had a very large crowd standing and sitting very close to the performers. There were Harry Potter fire-wands being whipped about, fire fingers, fire poi, and fire breathing 10-15 plumes out over the crowd. It was very up close and personal, for a fire show!
Another memorable moment was when our performer Dizzy Lizzy was doing her Tank Girl hoops act and brought a member of the crowd up on stage. That particular fan was dressed as an Ewok, and a cute girl ewok at that. Lizzy does a gag where she pretends to receive a kiss on the cheek and instead turns her head to give the person a full on smooch! Normally Lizzy picks someone she knows in the audience, but not this time… we like to think the adorable ewok girl walked away smiling….
We have some big acrobatic stunts in the shows too, one that involves batman and robin, where robin (played by Mr. Spring) flips from Batman’s (played by Tulga) shoulders to a hand-to-hand handstand! Another is our Harley & Joker Knife Throwing act, where Harley (Tosha Kindley) whips knives at Joker (Bryan Talaga), while he flips and jumps to avoid them. On one instance he caught the knife between his legs mid-flip!
This wasn’t a stunt, but we had an exciting Celebrity moment where we had a chance to meet and talk to Elijah Wood. This lead to mandatory picture taking and suggesting Elijah climb on one of our aerialists’ (Julie Marshall) shoulders. His comment on the action was “Ah, I’m wearing really skinny jeans”…. Yes. Yes, he was.
What was the greatest challenge in melding two worlds?
The creation of a physical act from a fictional world can be quite the challenge. Most of the time, when writers form their characters, they don’t need to take into account what is really physically possible, because that is what makes fiction so much fun. My task is to meld the fictional craziness of a world without limits, with the real world, in a way that is entertaining, believable, and in-character. Most of the challenges I face as a director and creator are the costumes that definitely would not stay on that person’s body in real life. A good example is the Aeon Flux costume! Holy moley….
I also have to think about how to convey a character by using a realistic (though highly specialized) set of skills, and sometimes those skills are not exactly the same ones that you would expect them to do. So, we use our imaginations to give a different “story” to a character. We don’t want to re-tell any tales, but we do want to reference the fandom behind the characters, and give it a new twist. I tell my performers to imagine what their person would be doing behind the scenes. What is the untold story, or what do we least expect from this person? Why would a Jedi be juggling? Why would sailor moon hula hoop? What kind of prop would Joffrey use? (Answer to the last question: He slowly descends an acrobatic pole, to the tune of “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight” – and yes, we really did that).
We have come up with some really fun mish-mash’s that celebrate the character’s core, but gives them a new task or skill that fits with their essence. One example is our Deadpool act where the technical base is acrobatics and hand balancing: both skills you would expect from the merc with a mouth. What makes it truly Deadpool is the playing to the crowd, the dance moves between techniques, and the total randomness as he appears in between other acts. In a particular interval at Gencon, we had Deadpool strap on a Slave Leia bikini over the suit and just strut out onstage next to the MC (who was also dressed as a Slave Leia). The music cut to a classic burlesque theme and he broke out into a classic strip of the bikini, over his suit. The crowd went crazy.
What advice would you give to an aspiring performer?
I asked this question of my whole team, to see what everybody thought. The general thoughts were these: Stay true to your artistic vision, and don’t be afraid to dream BIG. Try not to compare yourself to others and their work, but do challenge yourself to be where you want to be. Tell yourself “I can do this” when faced with a project, but don’t shy away from failure. You will fail at something (and probably many things) inevitably, but it will make your work stronger in the long haul. Work hard, don’t give up, and remember to have fun while doing so. After all, we do this because we LOVE it. It’s extremely difficult to be a professional artist, and the tangible rewards are few – it takes a certain kind of crazy and internal drive to stick with it for years.
My favorite and most inspiring speech for artist comes from Neil Gaiman. It is his keynote speech from 2012 at The University of the Arts. He talks about fear of failure, fear of success, what drives us to do what we do, and to above all make good art. Make mistakes, make many of them. If you know what you want to do, go and do that thing. Use the ups and downs around you to fuel what you do. Make good art, and make your art.
“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.” – Neil Gaiman
Are there any new fandoms you would like to integrate into the show?
The geek and nerd fandoms cover such a broad scope of possibilities (movies, television, games, literature), we still have so much we can do. I definitely have more ideas than I can count, currently. I keep a running tab of all the team’s ideas in a book, and we pull from that when we want to make something new.
We are always trying to find new ways to put a character onstage. There are some in the works planned already, like a “Flashdance” Flash, Shirleen (from Archer) aerial chains to “Danger Zone”, and a Parasol-juggling Kaylee (Serenity). It is nice to be able to tap into not only the comic book universes, but also sci-fi, modern cartoons, Anime, and Horror. It can be pretty challenging to get a movie or TV character right, so we take some time when creating those acts. I am currently trying to find a way to integrate some of the more recent online comics and anime’s. Homestuck is on the list! And of course the super heroes and villains are the most fun to create, because they can be so playful and mischievous. And who can say no to a spangly unitard?
What was the inspiration behind acrobatica infiniti?
Circus is something that has progressed from a side-show and big-top attraction into a thing that is viewed as art in its own right. Cirque du Soleil and other companies have made great strides to showcase these skills in unique ways, and people see “The Circus” much differently these days. It’s a great time for innovation and creation.
So there are all these characters with amazing abilities trapped in pages and images, and I think we all grew up bringing those images to life with our imaginations. But circus performers are (using a phrase we throw around often) “real people with unreal abilities.” They can become these characters in a way that holds true to everyone’s imagination without special effects or wires. This is something that gets me excited and gives fans a way to see it with their own eyes. At the same time, it makes them aware of what circus performers are capable of.
If you were to sneak a peek at my mental master plan, it would show this crazy flow diagram that has new fans coming to appreciate and know the circus more. Which, in turn, gives circus artists new opportunities to showcase their skills and help foster their own careers. We really are about growing the artistic industry, and creating completely new venues and audiences for a very old art form. Everyone wins! And there may or may not be some evil laughing while petting a cat involved.
Is there an additional challenge to performing in cosplay? Are there certain cosplays that lend to better performances?
This is where a quote from Edna Mode would be so appropriate (NO CAPES!). The bigger problems arise in ways you don’t ever expect. Mostly safety and precision are the things that are hindered the most. For instance, gloves make it incredibly hard to do hand balancing because you can’t get a firm grip. Masks can limit your range of vision so keeping track of 5 or 6 balls in the air becomes a Herculean task. Certain characters tend to wear outfits that are more… sparse. And with some of those movements, you have to take special precautions to prevent spontaneous acts of wardrobe failure.
But the biggest caution is safety. The stunts we are doing are dangerous enough without adding the hazards of getting wrapped up in a cape, or being impaled by a sharp prop. When I design or create a new costume, I make sure to take stock of any accessories that might traditionally be made of metal, plastic, or other hardened materials. We can’t use anything like that for practicality reasons, so everything has to have a solution. Mostly it’s some squishy foam, shaped and/or painted to look like a utility belt, a bobble, or a piece of armor. I tend to stay away from overly-armored characters for mobility reasons anyhow.
Surprisingly, the most challenging apparatus to create a costume for is the pole. The performers need their skin uncovered in certain places, and covered in others. The skimpy costumes in comics tend to be held together with nothing but wishes and dreams, and can be hard to translate to a physical reality. So this can be very limiting when casting a character on the pole. Our biggest success story was to turn a Princess Peach costume into something that was pole-worthy. And forget about body-paint… it comes right off!
How do you find an audience? Does your fandom orientation give you a wider audience than a traditional acrobatics show or does it offer a more niche market?
What we do offers an immediate hook. Circus fans want to see how these acts and skills are adjusted and built around characters. The multitude of fans see their favorite characters mentioned and wonder what we can do with them in a circus setting. There is a natural curiosity of “what will it look like?” that ties the two together. Both of them are niche markets though I would say that the fandoms are ever-growing and we’re living in a golden age for geeks and devoted fan followings. Our biggest advantage is we are performing in arenas and settings that a normal circus would never think to attend. Cirque du Soleil is not going to be coming to your local comic convention but we had crowds at C2E2 that broke the local fire code!
How do you recruit such a wide array of talents?
Blackmail. Cookies. We haven’t needed to initiate the brain washing and cloning vats just yet. I think the biggest draw for performers is the chance to create an act that is uniquely specialized. Everyone has their own favorite characters they want to bring to life and they get to play with new ideas in a very forgiving fictional world. So much is possible.
The circus world is also not as big as you might think. As working professionals, most of us know each other, have friends in other cities and countries, and are tapped into a wider community of industry artists. Many people on the team have come to me, offering their help in the technical side, or on stage as performers. Most of the time the performing artists have already worked with one another in some other capacity, and that is really necessary in order to make sure that we get along as colleagues behind the scenes. A group dynamic is more important than you might think, so in order to hire somebody, I need to see how they operate as a person, not just a performer.
Congratulations on receiving an Artist Program Grant from the City of Chicago. What was the process like?
So. Much. Paperwork. And math. And an understandable explanation to go along with the math. We actually nicknamed it “Grant Mountain”, as we were writing up the proposal. When they ask “why should we give you this grant?” we can’t respond with “Because we’re amazing and want to do things to make people laugh, smile, and cheer.” You have to break down what the essentials are for creating a show and the costs associated with it. It’s a great lesson in accounting and planning that pays dividends down the road when you plan future shows. We were so fortunate to have a small but strong team working on that application!
When and where can we see you next?
In the coming months we have a resident show at Uptown Underground in Chicago, running the third Friday of each month at 8pm, Oct 16, Nov 20, and Dec 18th. We are also performing at Valor Con on October 17th, so look out for us there! We’d like to travel to more out-of-state cons, so if there is a local convention near you that you support, please do write in to them to request our presence! This past year we went as far as Toronto, and we’d like to go further. We are always adding more plans to the list, so please do check up on us on facebook, twitter, and on our own website!
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