Before visiting San Diego’s Zirk Ubu, the last time I’d gone to the circus, I’d walked out with 50 pounds of elephant dung in a cardboard box on my shoulder. I had read that elephant dung was good for gardens, I was a beginning gardener, and I had elephant-dung connections: a former student of mine was a clown in a major traditional circus. Her parents had just spent well over a hundred grand to send her to a fine liberal arts college, and she wanted to continue her education by going to clown college!
I like to think it was my letter of recommendation that got her in. All clowns need a specialty gag. Hers was contortionism: she emerged from a box about the size of a three-slice toaster. She got herself in trouble almost immediately with the circus authorities because she complained that a particular animal trainer (one of the headliners) was cruel to his animals. Clowns are low on the totem pole in the traditional circus. She was a vegan, clown, and animal-rights activist. She worked for the circus for several years and married the boss clown. They have a few kids now, and both still do clowning work. Every year she sends me a Christmas card with the whole family dressed up in full clown attire.
The circus and circus life as I’d known it — mostly from movies and books — had never engaged my imagination and didn’t impress my daughter much either. When she was three, we took her to the big top. My former student and several of her clown pals even came up into the audience before the show to give my daughter special attention. Yawn. The elefunks? Ho-hum. When we asked her afterwards what were her favorite parts, she said, “The goldfish.” Meaning the little goldfish crackers we had brought along as a snack.
Zirk Ubu, one of San Diego’s alternative circus troupes, includes no elephants, but its members perform several traditional circus-associated acts — juggling, stilt walking, blockhead work (i.e., pounding a spike into one’s nostril with a hammer), aerialism, clowning, puppetry — and a whole lot of new nuttiness, new ideas about what circus can be and what role it can play in our culture.
Let me introduce the troupe to you briefly, by both their real and their stage names.
Justine (she said she’d prefer I not use her last name, although it is on Zirk Ubu’s webpage), 21, is the youngest member of the troupe, is in several scenes, runs the concessions (popcorn and cotton candy), and is a self-described “expert on goggles.” Her stage name was Xylitol Sweetbread (she later changed it to Arlinka Galore). I looked up “xylitol”: it’s a naturally occurring sugar, used as a sucrose substitute for diabetics. And as we all know, sweetbread is the edible thymus or pancreas of an animal. She’s the stage assistant of Murrugun the Mystic, another troupe member whom I’ll introduce soon. They are in a romantic relationship. They share the rent by busking: street performing. Her regular day job: she makes and remanufactures clothing.
The costuming, in general, particularly among the female members of the troupe, is eyeball-rattling: Dadaist sexy, 18th-century French court influenced, colors lashed with colors, Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke influenced, Cubist at a slant — not your usual circus tights and bangles. Madame Mandible told me they all make their own costumes, “even the men.”
Nancy Caciola, Dame Bedlam, is a professor of medieval studies at UCSD. She’s a conceptual artist who creates acts and characters based on, among other things, early madhouses (bedlam) and medieval anatomical drawings. She’s been partners for 27 years — most of them married — with another troupe member, Richard Cohen. Together, they’re responsible for my joining the circus, for about 15 seconds.
Jim Call/Sheik Maracas is the oldest member of the troupe at 61. The music, very important for this show, is his department. He was in a San Diego punk band in the late ’70s and early ’80s called the Penetrators. He specializes in what he calls “noise music,” which sounded about 75 percent music and 25 percent noise. It, and the way he mixed other music with it, struck me as just right for Zirk Ubu. Sheik Maracas limits his costume to a fez. He spends most of the night in the sound booth. His day (night) job: DJ at a strip club.
Richard Cohen/the Red Sultan is also a professor at UCSD — of religious studies, primarily Buddhism and Hinduism. “A Jewish kid from Long Island,” he grew up about five minutes from his wife, Dame Bedlam, although they didn’t meet each other until they were freshmen at Wesleyan University. They’re in their mid-40s. He specializes in concept and development and being a “mystery buffoon.” A combination of talents that one doesn’t, but should, see more often! The Red Sultan creates characters like a magic house that falls in love with a chicken.
Allorah Creevay, aka Miss Tickle, is a stage and TV actor, comedienne, and a seasoned improv performer. She calls herself a “dinner bell for a feast of the absurd.” Day job: psychic, often channeling a 16th-century Native American chief named Great White Eagle. Lakota. He speaks in English, “but with an accent.” She also does a little “dog whispering.” I asked her what she liked about being in Zirk Ubu. She said, “Our art bumps up against their insides.” I’m sure she meant the insides of the audience, but the troupe members bounce off the insides of each other, sometimes butt heads, but mostly work with a kind of fluidity, even liquidity: individually, they’re individuals. Together, they’re a river!
Megan Fontaine/Miss Mango, dancer, aerialist, acrobat, stilter, costume designer. Day job: busker/circus artist.
Derrick Gilday/Dango, juggler, stilt balancer, acrobat, catcher and lifter of Mango. Day job: circus artist/busker; with Mango, as Mango and Dango. In a deep relationship with each other, on- and offstage.
Iain Gunn, aka Asbestos the Clown: puppetry, peace officer, 38 years old. If anyone is anything close to being a leader of this organized anarchist posse, it’s Iain, if only because of his expertise in a wide range of circus arts. A master puppeteer, he earns his living that way, mostly working with children. He’s involved with Bridget Rountree whom, alphabetically, we’ll meet soon.