No CGI needed
Real people doing unreal feats onstage with the traveling Wanderlust Circus
Offstage, Noah Mickens co-owns, co-directs and writes the shows for Portland, Ore.-based Wanderlust Circus. When he steps onstage, he becomes ringleader William Batty.
Batty, Mickens explained, is based on a historical figure, the owner of London’s first permanent circus theater in the mid-1800s. But Mickens’ fictional Batty made a mysterious deal that blessed and cursed him to eternal life, as long as he stays on the road, collecting acts from eras spanning human history to thrill and chill audiences for all eternity.
“Because of his long years on the road, he’s a little crazy and worn down,” Mickens continued. “But he’s still very much filled with the purpose of the circus revolution, [with] his belief and message and work. So he’s a wandering, immortal proselytizer of the new circus.”
Striking the supernatural parts, the latter part of the description fittingly describes Mickens himself. He was first exposed to the circus arts at age 14 while living as a homeless street performer in Los Angeles. An older man taught him to juggle and informed him that his ability—sans training—to place his own foot behind his head while standing on one leg qualified him as a natural front-bending contortionist. He incorporated both into his act.
As he got older, Mickens started doing experimental music and theater, which eventually led him back to the circus around the year 2000.
“At that time, circus was very much kind of a small art-scene—the circus renaissance of the present day wasn’t in full swing,” he said, alluding to the current—and rising—popularity of road shows and acts steeped in circus traditions. This renaissance is particularly prevalent in Portland, which is home to several circus troupes and acts like the MarchFourth Marching Band.
Since 2007, Mickens and the Barnum to his Bailey, Nick “The Creature” Harbar, have co-owned and directed Wanderlust, a collective featuring dozens of performers and “extended family.” Some of the acts on the current Wanderlust tour, which will be making its first-ever appearance in Chico, include a gang of floor acrobats, tribal-fusion belly dancer NagaSita, a hand-made pipe-organ-like instrument called the Pneumatophone, and antipodes (aka foot jugglers) Duo Rendez-vous.
Mickens noted this is Duo Rendez-vous’ first tour with Wanderlust, and Mickens explained they juggle both objects and people.
Like his character Batty, Mickens is also given to proselytizing about the wonderful and mysterious circus life. When asked about audience’s continuous curiosity with circus performances, he eloquently explained the ageless appeal.
“Part of why it’s always been popular is that when audiences see performers do these extraordinary things, they’re seeing their own potential to be extraordinary,” he said. “You’re looking at something that you’re capable of yourself, at a fellow human being who’s trained themselves to do something you can’t do, but that you’re ultimately capable of.”
It’s a message Mickens thinks is particularly appealing in modern times: “A lot of modern life can be broken down to just sitting in a chair looking at a glass screen. Whether it’s your computer at work, or laptop, or iPhone, or television, or even the windshield of your car … there’s always a separation, because it’s not happening in the time and space you’re occupying.
“But the circus is. It’s unfolding in your reality, in the room with you, and you can see people doing these extraordinary things without the benefit of special effects or computer animation or anything like that. You’re present for something wondrous and unique that is unfolding in the moment.
“It’s a countermovement to the tendency of life experiences to come through electronic and digital mediums.”