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The Serious Business of Show:
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Ilise Goes to the Circus


Written by Ilise S. Carter

Not everyone is cut out to run away with the circus. An acute fear of clowns and a general lack of coordination dashes the sideshow ambitions of some early on, while others stop when they find out what the pay scale is like. Not the members of New York’s Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, though - simply nothing, but nothing, will deter them in their quest to bring the “circus arts” to new levels of skill and ever-expanding audiences.

Appearing at the Theater for the New City, their Cabaret Thursdays celebrate their ten years as a troupe with performances by every imaginable variety act from jugglers who can mambo to clowns who juggle papier mache rats. And while the end result for the audience is nothing but fun, the Cirkus’ founders Ringmistress Philomena and Mr. Pennygraff (born Stephanie Monseau and Keith Nelson, respectively) take their mission quite seriously. At the forefront of the vaudeville revival, the Bindlestiffs view their shows as both a venue for offbeat performers and an opportunity to advocate for their favorite causes.

Taking a moment after the show to sit down and talk about how the Bindlestiffs have evolved over the last ten years and why the circus arts are such a rich source of material for performers, Miss Philomena shares her excitement for their work:

“It’s a medium where you can explore a lot of ideas, relationships, and taboos,” explains Philomena.

She also adds that the nature of the circus medium is ideal, because of the “challenge for physical performers.” On that evening alone, featured performers included Rob Lok and the Fabulous Miss Una. Mr. Lok’s act mostly consists of walking out on stage and trying to sit down – a simple task made more complicated by the sheer enormity of the stilts he’s working with, producing the result of broad-faced physical comedy. By contrast, the Fabulous Miss Una, an aerialist, gracefully ascends a rope above the audience and performs ballet-like acrobatics.

Miss Philomena adds that as the circus arts become more popular, the artists have become more technically proficient, and what started out as a “gritty, late night thing” has evolved into a much more complicated venture. Moving on from the more sexually charged material of their earlier days, their current repertoire has grown to include a regular show on circus history, “From the Gutter to the Glitter,” the cabaret Thursdays, and even the family friendly “Cavalcade of Youth.”

“You don’t run out of things to explore,” she says.

When asked what the future holds for the Bindlestiffs, she doesn’t pause. Among other things, she’d love to them find a permanent home for their performances. In addition, she sees a lot of potential for using the circus arts to reach out to the inner city and at-risk kids. Given the wilder, “adults only” nature of some of their past performances, she muses for a moment on the irony that youth is the “new frontier” for them - but only for a moment, as she waives away any hesitation with a charming smile and a showman’s ease.

The show, after all, must go on.

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