Fall Arts Extra

Wanderlust Ringmaster Speaks Volumes

Bohemian svengali Noah Mickens talks about the circus, art, and Scrooge McDuck

By Anne Adams October 2, 2010

Culturephile note: Whilst gathering data for our Fall Arts Preview Anne Adams found that she had tons of material leftover from her interviews. Frankly, this stuff was too good to waste, so we decided to give our local arts spokesfolk a chance to tell us more about themselves in a series of Fall Arts extras called Speaks Volumes. _

Noah Mickens is excited—after all, he’s just bought a new issue of Batman and Robin 13. "It’s got a complex, and kind of brilliant, story arc, I’d say. If you think about it, there’s no other contemporary story form which matches comics for sheer volume. I mean, every month 5 Batman comics come out, and that’s been going on for SIXTY YEARS. So you get these insane stories that are so much longer, so much more involved, connected, and integral, than any other form of modern fiction. Not a novel, not a television series—nothing sticks with the same characters for that long, or develops a story that far. It gives the authors freedom to just go crazy."

Mickens, emcee of Wanderlust Circus and longtime local cirque-vaudeville impresario, arranged to meet me at Guapo Comics and Coffee on 63rd and Foster, an appropriately far-out haunt for the blueish-violet-haired character, who seems to have taken a few style cues from The Joker. Never mind that Mickens’ life is also the stuff comicbooks are made of.

He’s just returned, he explains, from Oregon Country Fair, where he hosted 12 shows in 3 days. His blue hair is showing brown roots, and he looks a little tuckered around the eyes, but the way he talks casually over coffee is strikingly similar to his stage banter, favoring long, carefully-composed sentences, sprinkled with colloquialisms like "fellow," and turns of phrase like, "mind you." I get the impression that there’s no turning off this persona; the circus performer has long-since melded with the man. I’ve prepared a set of questions, but as Mickens begins, it’s clear that I’m going to get the whole story—and then some—in a fluid stream of eloquent narration. The "s" on my laptop has recently become lazy so I struggle just to "transcribe" the many interesting things that Mickens has to say. This is what I manage to catch:

Well, first of all, I should clarify that I’m one of the two producers of Wanderlust. My partner Nick The Creature is an equal participant in the whole process, and we have a lot of the same duties. But if you had to generalize, I’m kind of the Theatrical Director, where Nick’s kind of more on the technical side. Also, I’m the Ringmaster.

I’ve been doing circuses in portland for 9 years. The first circus I did here was called Cicuri Curajul; the second was Societas Insomnia; the third was a traveling freak show called The 999 Eyes of Endless Dream. The fourth circus was called Batty’s Hippodrome, and now I do Wanderlust Circus. At the time I was doing Batty’s, I was creative director of Someday Lounge. I met Nick there at a Batty’s Hippodrome show. Nick The Creature had been running a circus in California called Circo Romani, and he got in touch with me on Tribe—remember Tribe? It was kind of pre-Facebook, post-Friendster. Anyway, he wrote to me saying he ran this circus, and that he was gonna come to Portland and try something out. Now, when it comes to circus in Portland, I am the guy to come to—so I was getting a lot of inquiries like that from various people. I took note of it, but i didn’t realize what a big deal it was going to become until later.

So Nick The Creature is a very stylish guy, and he showed up to one of my shows all decked out, in these beautiful clothes, and introduced himself to me while we were setting up. And he said, "Can i help with anything?" and I actually wanted to test him a little bit, so I said, "Yeah; you can put those folding chairs out." Then I went backstage to do other things, to prepare for the show, and when I came back out, Nick the Creature had laid out the chairs so beautifully. Perfect rows, a nice aisle down the middle—and he was waiting for more work.

I have complex feelings about this: about wanting to be a big deal, versus wanting to just get things done. A lot of people just want to do the fun stuff, want the attention. I need to work with people who are practical, who will do whatever tasks it takes to put on a show, whether the tasks are glamorous or not. So when I saw that—well, I thought maybe we have somebody we can work with here.

Nick and I are both the kind of people who, when we wake up in the morning, the first thing we do is, we’re on the computer. Before coffee, breakfast, anything, I turn on the computer to see if anything crucial is developing. Pretty much the whole rest of our day is an endless triage of new developments coming in, and having to deal with the things that are already on our calendar. And then there are the actual shows that happen in the evening. So it’s the constant paper chase, as we call it.

After I met Nick, I ended up having some creative differences with Someday Lounge and parted ways, after which point we had no base of operations. Then my friend Mike got Rotture, and opened Branx—you know Branx? I LOVE that room. At that time there were two circuses that Nick and I were running. Mine was called Batty’s Hippodrome, and Nick’s was called Wanderlust, although it was really almost the same show. I think that even though we knew we wanted to work together, in part we weren’t sure that we were going to continue, so we each wanted to have our own show so that if necessary, we could run off and do it without the other. I kind of convinced Mike to open up the big room, and we housed the Hippodrome Circus Arts Center there. We did a couple shows, and they went really well, but it quickly collapsed under its own weight. Once the Hippodrome Arts Center collapsed, we definitely thought it would be best to change the name of the whole operation to Wanderlust, because we didn’t want to associate the circus, which was moving forward, with the Hippodrome space, which was no longer active.

Of course, now we’re at The Bossanova Ballroom, which has definitely become our home-away-from-home these days. Of course, we travel around to other cities and do whatever other people pay us to do there, as long as it’s basically circusy in nature.

Sometimes we get gigs that are people that we don’t really know, who have a vision of having a circus at an event, and we just sort of are slotted in and just do a really simple revue. We were commissioned, for instance, to do Everett, Washington’s Fourth Of July parade, gigs like that. They just want to hire a circus, and they’re not quite sure what they’re going to get. But we’re still creating our own work and presenting it to people. And no matter what the performance or the venue is, it’s all part of the life of being a performer. Besides, there’s a lot to be learned when you’re performing to audiences that you’ve got to win over—what works, what doesn’t work, for a certain crowd.

Mind you, I’ve been onstage since I was quite young, doing workshop-type plays, as well as child roles in adult plays—I was always in community theater, singing. That goes back, like, farther than I remember. I don’t have any concrete memory of those performances, because I have a terrible memory, because of some of the stuff that I did after that.

I was homeless when I was 14 years old—actually, my whole family was homeless. Mostly we were living in hotels—weekly rate, shady, bad hotels. Well, now you’d call them crack motels; back then maybe you’d call them roach motels. It was around that time that I made the acquaintance of an older homeless guy named Robert, and he taught me how to juggle. So I learned how to juggle in those circumstances, and through that, I was able to do some street performing and make some money for us. I began to meet other people who were into that sort of thing, and I started to think of myself as a circus performer and meet other circus performers.

When I was in high school, I was into politics, and started publicly speaking on an activist level, as a teenager. I kind of got my bravado in shape through that. I also joined a few punk bands, and pop bands. One of my bands, Poor Old Timer, played some well-attended shows at LA night clubs—-we were achieving a certain kind of low-grade celebrity. It was kind of a good band, I mean, I don’t know, It was sort of cool. Blues-inflected punk music, of a sort—like Pussy Galore.

After that, I grew up, had kids, quit drugs (or at least most of them) and moved to Portland with all my friends. I started doing experimental music at the Jasmine Tree Tiki Lounge. I had a scrap-metal improv band, got into bhutto, started emceeing a larger show, Moe! Chestra! at a spot called the Liminal Space. That’s where one fellow saw me, a guy named Tony Saint Claire. If there’s anyone responsible for beginning my career in Portland, it’s Tony Saint Claire. I met him at Third Floor Improv Comedy. At that time, they had Lorin Hoskins, who’s now Captain Bog and Salty, also the current emcee at Sinferno Cabaret was there at the time.

Tony had hustled his way into producing a big show at the Crystal Ballroom, Cicuri Kurajul, which they were trying to bill as the "Teatro Zinzanni of Portland." You know Teatro Zinzanni? It’s a high-end cabaret circus dinner theater in San Francisco, the bay area. It’s super-good! They’re really talented people, boundary-pushing, and they have a fantastic amount of money to spend on the show. They’re funded by One Reel, which is funded by Paul Allen. He’s pretty much the smarter one of the Microsoft duo, who basically cashed out during the technology boom. But he’s cool in that way, because he has SO much money, but rather than becoming Scrooge McDuck—converting it into gold dubloons and swimming in it all day—he funds a bunch of good projects. So, yeah. Paul Allen funds Teatro Zinzanni, and the reason you can’t have "the Teatro Zinzanni of Portland," is because no one would sink the money into it. We don’t have enough tourism. There’s just not a big enough market for it. The best one can do is position oneself to eventually become the Teatro Zinzanni of Portland.

Anyway, Tony was putting together this Crystal Ballroom circus gig, and he asked me to be the Ringmaster. And basically the cast of Third Floor was going to be the circus. So what he had was a show about the circus, that didn’t have any real circus people in it. The circus community at that time was more integrated into a darker, more gothic element—more closely related to fire dancers, hook suspension, sex performance art stuff at Dante’s, also acrobatics. The genre was basically "industrial-Burningman-porno-circus." These days, circus doesn’t overlap with that scene quite so much. But I knew a lot of those people, ’cause I was doing all this performance art stuff at the time. Man, I did some shows that had some crazy stuff back in those days! But I got tired of making it so difficult for the audience. I started to want to bring them in, in a more welcoming way.

So I brought in these people I knew. The AWOL dance collective; the "fire ninja," Pandora, a great sword-swollower; a really great band of, like, gypsy musicians. We just about sold out the Crystal Ballroom. The whole floor was pretty full. I had every reason to think that we would just continue doing this show at the Crystal Ballroom and that would be the thing for me. What I was NOT doing, was I wasn’t on the production side, in the back room, at the meetings, helping make the deal. I’ve never made that mistake again. I had Reed Mclintock, a great contortionist, lined up for the next Crystal show, and then Tony was suddenly like, "it’s not happening, it all fell through." So, not to go through the story of every other circus i did—-but basically, when the Crystal thing didn’t work out, I didn’t want to stop doing circuses. So I started up 999 Eyes of Endless Dream, by getting together this group of deformed people, and starting to tour.

Nick The Creature is, as I’ve said, my equal partner in Wanderlust. Some of the stuff Nick handles, other stuff I do. It involves lots of phone calls, we have lots of meetings at wild afterparties. People will be running around, there’ll be loud music, and we’ll sit down on the porch and start to go over business stuff, getting our ducks in a row. People get on our case for that—for conducting our business during off-hours, when everyone’s supposed to be having fun.

We wrote the entire spring 2010 show over the course of the month, and now we’ve just done this monthly series of shows in April, May June, and July that all have the same characters, a continuous plot—sort of their own world, like the Chronicles Of Narnia or something. Tiare Tashnik [Mickens’ Girlfriend, who bellydances as Nagasita] produces Salon L’orient, which I emcee once monthly. Since April, I’ve emceed the two monthlies. Then of course there are also shows out of town.

There’s a show we’re doing in Oakland, called Sand By The Ton. There’s this industrial space called American Steel, it’s 4 city blocks where people build giant sculptures and machines—artistic machines. There’s a fellow we’ve connected with called Dan Dos Mann—he’s kind of a well-known Burningman-type character. Anyway, we’re going to be performing a circus on his statues. They’re like these 60ft tall metal statues that shoot fire out of their eyes and hands. And we’ll have aerial rigs and stages installed on the statues. That’s going to be amazing. So exciting. We did a smaller version of that already at an event called the Electric Daisy Carnival—we did a show on statues for that one. Oh—I just got done directing an opera called Queen Of Knives, with Vagabond Opera. Any given month is like this: it’s pretty much those two anchor shows in Portland, and beyond that it’s sort of this very chaotic runaround from place to place, doing the circus and other things.

The circus phenomenon is absolutely growing. There’s a greater culture at work—you could call it by many names—but I like to call it the Bohemian culture. You gotta call it something, right? There were a few established long-term Bohemian families in the late 1960’s, and at that time, they were calling what we do "The New Vaudeville." Regionally, the representatives of that movement would be the Flying Karamozov Brothers. If you go to the Oregon Country Fair, Stage Left is run by the Karamozov family; they’ve got people as old as my grandparents, down to people who are younger than my kids. And they’re completely welcoming to all different genres. Jasper Patterson, the son of Howard Patterson, one of original Karamozov Brothers, is carving out new territory in what people think of as a traditional art form. He’s producing almost post-modern takes on traditional vaudeville.

Some of the other main facets of that scene here in town, are of course Wanderlust, March Fourth, Vagabond Opera, 3Leg Torso, "Gypsy Caravan"http://www.gypsycaravan.us/, Stolen Sweets, JPO [Juan Prophet Organization, Wanderlust’s house band] as well as a swing-dancing culture, and Trashcan Joe like the same 25 people recombined into all these groups, so it’s very easy to look at it as an extended group. We tour together, book shows together, and it’s like a distinct movement.

But if you take a step back, you realize every city’s got that movement, and then, you realize that these troupes all travel, and they know each other. So then it starts to look bigger. You can see how it expands. It’s really like a family. A lot is happening in San Francisco, a lot in Williamsburg, but Portland, out of proportion for the size of this place, has a huge influence on the Bohemian scene worldwide, and I think everyone agrees on that. Portland is sort of the center of this in a lot of ways. I came here to get away from all this, to be here with my family and live a quiet life. And it sure didn’t work out that way.

Some of the most influential names on this scene are, of course, Gogol Bordello, and then locally Chervona. Every town’s got its own local crazy gypsy punk band. But a huge influence on that has been Gogol Bordello, without a doubt. They’re kind of the quintessential supergroup on that scene. The oldest guy in Gogol Bordello is like 70 years old, it’s awesome. Here’s this band that the kids are crazy about, and it has this old man with big mutton chops—so, the Bohemian scene is multi-generation. Which is great, because a lot of us have got families.

Young people are just now finding it, and some of the acts that can be credited for that are The Dresden Dolls, Gogol Bordello definitely, and Rasputina. Of course, what every arts movement needs is a bunch of young people to buy things. When I was a teenager juggling on the streets, the majority of teenagers were boring. Now, I know little, little kids who know how to juggle, how to play instruments. I’m very excited to see what they do with themselves. They’re so open-minded, so creative, very smart, very savvy.

Vaudeville is a medium that’s very amenable to evolution and change, because the rules are pretty flexible. It can basically encompass any act that can hold people’s attention, and that’s one of the only rules. In that way, while it has a history, it’s different from other "traditional" art forms.

What I mean is, say you decided to start a dixieland jazz band. What it means to play dixieland jazz is never gonna change. The minute it did, it wouldn’t be dixieland jazz anymore. It’s a nostalgic form. You can also find really old forms of theater being maintained and practiced today. "Comedia del arte" is an Italian renaissance clowning form, and it’s one of the oldest forms. There’s still a villa in Italy where you can go to learn it, where Italian clowns went in the 1400’s to learn this art. And a friend of mine went there recently. And the art is practiced in exactly the same way it always was, and the training is maintained, to preserve the traditions of the form. Cabaret and vaudeville, meanwhile, are not strictly nostalgic forms, because they’re very open forms. They originated at a time when there was so much performance being done, in so many theaters, and so much money was being made, but like a quarter at a time. Before there was vaudeville, there were traveling performance troupes, going from city to city, back to the time of Shakespeare—and those forms are the oldest forms of theater known to scholarship, so they can feel pretty classical or traditional. At the same time, people do drastic, disturbing performances now, like hanging themselves from hooks, lighting themselves on fire. It’s this ongoing, inclusive openness of vaudeville that keeps it welcoming to new ideas.

What it’s not open to is this, like, thing that happened that’s called modernism. Modernism is a funny thing. The self-identified characteristic of modernism, is that it’s about "the now," about turning away from the old things and talking only about the new thing. Modernism is an idea that happened a hundred years ago, so it’s really not modern anymore. Hence, post-modernism evolved. But that’s from the 50’ and 60’s, so it’s also become outdated. Anyway, modernism says, "let’s try to ignore everything that’s been done before, and everything that is known to work, and let’s try to invent something new." But that’s where you get a lot of performance art that’s, like, someone cutting their own hair in an empty room. But Vaudeville, like I said, will welcome any performance that people will PAY TO SEE. You can’t get the public to shill out two bits to watch a person cut his hair.

Modernism doesn’t work for me. It’s saying "no" to too much, shutting it out in favor of—-what? I Love Lucy? This cheesy sh-t, Miami Vice. It’s its own aesthetic, the iconography of modernism, rockband, it’s a rock and roll band…modernism is like, uninteresting to me. Modernism is like, saying no to the past, and even the future. It’s like, "what is now, right now? It’s crass. It’s arrogant. It doesn’t include enough. It’s boring, and it’s self-deceiving. And despite its quest to create this new-now-present-day thing, it keeps doing the same sh-t over and over again. There’s an infinite scape of things you can draw from, but you shut it all out for the illusion of originality. You create a big zero environment, and then you try to fill it—but only with "new" things.

On the other hand, you have a performer like Leapin’ Louie Lichtenstein. He’s kind of a cowboy vaudeville act, and his performance is, in a lot of ways the simplest thing. He’s like 50, and he’s travelled all over the whole world. He’s amazing. And his act is this refined, straightforward act. He’s always into working on new stuff, but if you’re just like, "hey get up and do your act," it’s a simple narrative, simple story, and yet it’s so good, so deep, so true, and his character is so strong throughout the whole thing.

So many people I’ve met like that through the circus. Their ideas have been combined and refined with millions of other ideas. It’s vastly more interesting than someone who desires to divorce their work from context. Modernism is being alone. Bohemianism cuts through that modern isolation. It’s everything that came before the beginning of modernism, and then take out the chunk of modernism, from the beginning of WWII to like 2000. Television never happened, it’s just always been schmaltzy old Vaudeville.

I am a highly astute negotiator, because of my many years working corporate jobs. Listen, I dropped out of high school at 15. By no accounts should i have been able to get a bunch of corporate jobs. But by the time I was 19, I turned responsible, stopped doing drugs (so much), and got with this girl I was super in love with, and started to have a family. So I started working retail, then changed over to the back office, inventory, managerial stuff. From there, I moved into travel/expense/accounting type work, then to archival stuff, general ledger keeping, bookkeeping/accounting stuff…then I got a market research job—I was a research analyst at Symantec—then I went into creative media development. But when the software crash happened, I lost that job and had nothing again. But all that was basically, literally, to feed my family. I was a single dad for many years, and my entire time in the corporate world kind of amounts to a giant hustle—kind of Robin Hood–style. I basically did the minimum of what I had to do, and took the maximum amount of resources possible for my purposes. Like, I was on the copier all the time. I can’t tell you how many posters and show fliers I made for my noise shows.

I was always the flamboyant one at the company. I was an account exec at a huge entertainment marketing firm, but I would wear blue eyeshadow with my blue suit...I’d show up in the lobby and they’d be like, "That’s the guy!" But then I’d have all my ducks in a row, my perfect Powerpoint presentation…I was good at marketing. I made them a lot of money. I quit that racket mid-stride, actually, to go on tour with 999 Eyes of Endless Dream, a traveling freak show. I basically walked out of marketing, onto a school bus with a dozen deformed people, traveling city to city, trying to scrape up a living. But that led to this. Ever since then, I’ve been doing circus-related stuff full time.

Big corporate business is always trying to absorb things into their great mono-culture, but the many attempts to absorb and regurgitate aspects of Bohemian culture, haven’t gone that well and they haven’t made much money. Directors like Tim Burton have been, for a long time, just kind of watching the culture—which is fair enough, we get a lot of inspiration from him. His films are a good example, though, of Bohemian culture being mainstream-marketed: Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, are clearly attempts to take this aesthetic and movie-ize it. But then here in Portland we have LAIKA, and just had Coraline—and I’m a fan of that, and a lot of their people, have collaborated with our stuff too. David Candelaria, for example—great costumer, amazing puppeteer. He has this wonderful huge robot puppet that connects to his feet and hands—have you seen that thing? Anyway, there’s a creative dialogue there, between people working on that stuff, and us. So I want companies like LAIKA in portland.

But as far as I can tell, no one’s falling for that Britney Spears/Fallout Boy/Panic At The Disco versions of what we do. As far as I know, all those tanked. As a trend, it’s not going to last, because it’s fake, and nobody wants what’s fake. So much of the appeal is that you’re living by the skin of your teeth. Your clothes aren’t made to look like they’re patched together—they’re actually patched together. Well, that’s pretty hard to fake. Hey, I believed in punk when I was a kid, and punk was important. It broke down a lot of barriers. And punk’s all about being poor, and being desperate, and being angry, and the whole initial goal of punk rock was to destroy the music industry. But then it started to seem appealing, and the music industry tried to absorb it, tried to ingest it. The music industry swallowed this bitter pill that was punk rock, and poisoned itself—and in the end, punk destroyed the music industry, just like it planned. Well, I think circus is following in that same vein. Being so appealing, it destroys "entertainment" as we know it.

Cabaret is a musical about the Weimar Republic. In Germany—are you familiar? Well,
this movement that arose from weird freaky poor artistic people around the time of the First World War, the arts were very much like what you’re seeing now. If you look at the photographs of the freaky arty Bohemian people then—they look like us. Their whole movement, at the time, was very radical—but in these very acceptable attractive forms. we’re not doing anything that’s bad or wrong, we’re just singing songs and dancing and stuff. But we’re sort of holding out a hand to people to invite them into this way of life that I think is just a happier, more productive way. Otherwise, what? You go to college and get a job and a bunch of credit cards, and it’s just that all the time: you by yourself in the car, by yourself in front of the TV, you alone, looking at some size or other of rectangular glass screen, forever. That world is a nightmare. It’s like, The Matrix or whatever. Mindless.

I want to show people a way out of that. i’m not a revolutionary in terms of wanting to plant bombs and kill each other. But I do want people to revolt against lonely modern mindlessness, to bring all their ideas and all their experiences together. And I want to create something that includes the real truth: that we’re all together. Hey, I know this is a grandiose way to frame the work I’m doing—but I believe in grandiose and unrealistic ideas!

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