One Big Wacky Family
Based in Hudson, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus offers an edgy array of sword-swallowers, aerialists, and other circus and sideshow performers
In many ways, Hudson resident Stephanie Monseu faces the same challenges that most business people do. There are long hours spent returning phone calls, wading through e-mail, or traveling around the Northeast (and sometimes beyond). Part saleswoman and marketing manager, part creative impresario, Monseu is a typical entrepreneur — except for one thing: She also eats fire for a living.
Monseu and her partner, Keith Nelson, are the brains behind the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a nonprofit performing arts organization that produces variety shows featuring a wide — and unusual — range of circus, sideshow, and vaudeville acts. When she’s not taking care of her behind-the-scenes duties, Monseu (aka Ringmistress Philomena) is onstage, introducing jugglers, clowns, trapeze artists, sword-swallowers, and other circus arts performers — and sometimes downing a flaming torch (a stunt that has caused her to suffer second- and third-degree burns) or riding a motorcycle across a high-wire.
Monseu and Nelson formed Bindlestiff (the word refers to a hobo-like traveler “with socially conscious connotations”) in 1995. Before that, they worked as a fire-eating duo in Manhattan for about a year. “We performed mostly around the Lower East Side,” says Monseu. “There was a lot of experimental theater and art going on; there was just this cauldron of ideas from other artists.” After a trip to Nevada’s avant-garde arts event known as Burning Man, the couple became “inspired by how attainable it was” to start their own traveling circus-arts shows. They began organizing nationwide tours, booking various circus and sideshow acts from both the U.S. and many foreign countries. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve worked with about 400 artists,” says Monseu. “And almost everybody is still on the roster.” By 2001, the company started limiting their travel to east of the Mississippi River; today, they tour regionally (through what Monseu playfully describes as “the Empire State Vaudeville Circuit — New York City, Hudson, Schenectady.”)
Clowning around: Bindlestiff co-founder Stephanie Monseu heats up her act with feats like this one
This month, Bindlestiff brings its cabaret show to Hudson’s Club Helsinki; later this summer, the troupe makes its annual appearances at Bard’s SummerScape festival. Monseu warns that attendees at these shows shouldn’t expect a typical circus experience. “We perform in small venues, so the artists are really up in your face. You can see the beads of sweat on the contortionist’s face, because he’s just six — not 400 — feet away. There will be moments when you’re shocked, and moments where you go, ‘Huh?’ These are boundary-pushing performances; you get an immediate visceral sensation from this out-of-the-ordinary situation.”
The Cirkus features cowboys, clowns, and other crazies ready to shock and amaze
Although the perilous nature of her chosen occupation would make most other businesspeople opt for early retirement, Monseu takes the inherent danger in stride. Her job, she says, has many similarities with those of other small business owners: “Entrepreneurs are willing to take great risks — which is really not all that different from riding a motorcycle across a wire.
“There are endless possibilities with this job. I can polish my skills in sales and PR, and also do something that’s demanding, both creatively and physically. I can make something happen, and come out on top. I love that adrenaline.”
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Cabaret performs on June 30 at 9 p.m. at Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia St., Hudson. $20, with $5 discount for clowns in make-up. For more information, visit www.bindlestiff.org.