Noticing any patterns here? Six of the eight people I’ve introduced to you so far are in relationships with others in Zirk Ubu, and there’s another couple to come. It’s a normal thing: we often meet those we love at work — because we spend a great deal of time there. Or it could be that people who share special and, in this case, rather odd and rarefied proclivities tend to find each other. Or could it be a riddle inside a peanut underneath a slice of cheese?
Mary-Margaret Mitchell/Madame Mandible is engaged to a chef who is not a member of Zirk Ubu. She studied painting at the University of Illinois and now works in internal design, specializing in custom murals for children’s bedrooms and commercial spaces. She’s a performance/concept artist, does props and sets, and “wears everything from a tutu to a tool belt.”
Scott Nelson/Murrugun the Mystic: sideshow, sword-swallowing, fire-eating, and fire-breathing, etc. Fire-eating and fire-breathing are two different arts, and here’s one tip re both: like peeing, don’t do it into the wind. Murrugun, as mentioned, is affiliated romantically with Xylitol Sweetbread.
Bridget Rountree/Mademoiselle Mechanique is a dancer and aerialist. She specializes in turning “thoughts into form,” which I think nicely sums up what Zirk Ubu essentially does: turns strange and original thoughts into strange and original forms. From the abstract to the concrete, the concrete being inexhaustible and holding great possibilities of discovery. That’s just about every artist’s responsibility. She said something about Zirk Ubu’s “organized chaos,” a good oxymoron. (My all-time favorite oxymoron? “My heart, that velvet wrecking ball” — the poet Bill Knott.) Mademoiselle Mechanique’s day job: she’s a puppeteer and keeps the books for her and Asbestos the Clown’s production company, Animal Cracker Conspiracy.
Tom Wall/Psych is an aerialist. He’s a psychologist by day, specializing and certified in family and couples’ counseling, which, he jokingly told me, comes in handy working in a troupe of 12 that includes 4 couples. He also said he’s the only member of the troupe who isn’t currently in a relationship.
On a cloudy mid-September day I went to my first Zirk Ubu rehearsal/meeting. It was at Asbestos, Mademoiselle Mechanique, and Psych’s house in University Heights. I had a déjà vu moment when I first entered: it reminded me of a hippie pad in the late ’60s, early ’70s, sans the smell of cannabis. Also, no sitar music. The place was a bit disheveled but clean. These people had things other than Better Homes and Gardens on their minds.
The backyard is their main rehearsal space because this is where the prop shed (actually a canvas garage) is and, more importantly, a rig: two metal poles firmly anchored in the ground and attached by a crossbar. This for aerial work and from which they hang their silks (pairs of long, narrow pieces of fabric they climb and perform on) and a large hoop, also hung from silks. They practice their aerial work here, but not today. Mademoiselle Mechanique was feeling a little congested and said she didn’t think hanging upside down would be a good idea. They also have a small stage on the lawn. A small garden, flourishing — Mademoiselle Mechanique’s got the green thumb.
Murrugun was standing on an anthill, complaining about the ants crawling on him. This from a guy who at one time ate maggots (out of a Chinese take-out carton) as part of his act! He couldn’t move: this was his “spot.” Some of the others mocked him but threw a tarp over the anthill.
The first thing I noticed in the prop shed was a pair of old classic clown shoes. They’d been painted red but were so worn the original black beneath showed through in patches. They felt soft and looked comfy, despite their exaggerated size. These shoes were made for clowning!
This wouldn’t pass for an ordinary rehearsal — there was no director (though it turned out that Mademoiselle Mechanique was directing the next show). They practiced their opening scene, in which they turned themselves (the whole troupe) into a shifting human sculpture. In the show they’d wear full-body white painter’s suits and white masks. Now, only a few of them wore masks. They had an informal meeting, brainstorming, talking business matters, ideas for the upcoming show. Nothing seemed to be decided on. It seemed chaotic, but I learned this was really about confidence — by showtime they always pulled it together. And they didn’t give a damn about being perfect. Mango told me later, referring to her and Dango’s busker gigs, “If we mess up, we can pretend it was on purpose.” They don’t mess up much, and when they do, nobody dies.
Alternative circuses are not brand-new, of course. Zirk Ubu is an offshoot of another San Diego troupe called Technomania, led by Bruce Cartier, an acknowledged innovator in the field. Each member of Zirk Ubu credited him or praised him in one way or another.
The day I returned to my home in Atlanta, I read an article in the New York Times about alt circus going on in New York, often in warehouses in Brooklyn. Most alt circuses include aerial (though not often traditional trapeze) acts and need a place with high ceilings from which to anchor and hang their silks.
Some other groups around the country are Mystic Family Circus, Yard Dogs Road Show, New Pickle Circus, Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.
There’s something tribal about circus. Hundreds of years ago the wandering gypsies of Europe probably did the first circuslike performances. Not until the late 18th Century did an Englishman named Philip Astley combine equestrian drills with acrobatics and thus start the first traditional circus. Zirk Ubu does not have horses. A fan of Circus Contraption, a Seattle-based group, put it this way: “Circus is about play — the rediscovery and affirmation of play, much more than it is about skill. Cirque du Soleil is about skill, to a level where it almost doesn’t seem human. But when Circus Contraption performs, you can almost see yourself up there.” I didn’t believe that. When I read it.