Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Fluid Movement: Behind the Glitter

An Interview with Flea Circus Impresario: Adam Gertsacov
by Keri Burneston
NOTE: This interview first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Fluid Movement, an email newsletter of Fluid Movement, a Baltimore-based performance art group that juxtaposes complex subject matter with delightful and unexpected mediums.

It is reprinted by permission.

Q: So, Mr. Gertsacov...I first heard of your famous "Acme Flea Circus" at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I didn't even know what to think. I didn't know if the show was some post modern take on fleas...or if it was a hoax...or if you really did have TRAINED fleas.
I have to say that the show was truly a delight! Can you explain this miniscule wonderment to people that may not know what a flea circus is? And please explain a little bit about the history of these traveling shows.
A: The Acme Miniature Circus is a genuine Victorian style flea circus that features two trained fleas (Midge and Madge) who perform spectacular circus. During the course of the show the fleas pull chariots in a chariot race, dance on a tight-wire, dive through hoops, and at the end of the show, defy death in a flame-filled finale (which is hopefully not a flea flambé!)
As for the history of the flea circus, the first flea circus that I've heard about was in 1829, when Professor Bertolotto, an Italian gentleman, displayed his Industrious Fleas in a show in London. It was the rage of the nobility, and even the Queen came to see the show. Bertolotto featured in his show a recreation of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, which you can imagine was quite popular in England! Flea circuses as an entertainment were popular during Victorian times, but then in the early 1920's/30's suffered a decline, and went out of style. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it was the rise of vaudeville and film. People could see a lot more interesting things than a miniscule show.
Perhaps the most famous flea circus of the twentieth century was Professor Heckler's, who had his show at Hubert's Dime Museum on Times Square for over 30 years. In 1957, Heckler left Times Square because he said that the nudie shows were giving his fleas a bad name. In 2002, I brought the flea circus back to Times Square for an extended run at the Bindlestiff Palace of Variety, less than two blocks from where Hubert's stood. I felt that since they cleaned up Times Square, it was only right to bring the fleas back! A lot of people who had been to Hubert's in the 40's and 50's came to see my show, and would reminisce about Heckler and the old Times Square.
Q: So, how exactly did you become a carrier of the flea circus torch? How, when, where and why did you become inspired to create your show?
A: My show is not the only flea circus. There are 5 or so other flea circuses around the world. There are also some magicians who do flea circuses as part of their magic act, but it involves, you know, magic. And it's usually just a tiny portion of their show.
How I got started doing the flea circus is a slightly long story. I first performed a flea circus as part of a circus I was involved with as a clown. The show was the Pan-Twilight Circus. We did this great show based on the story of Pandora, and at the beginning of the circus, the entire circus came out of a small box, and then Pandora spent the rest of the show trying to put the circus back in the box. We had a 16 foot long puppet elephant (I performed as the elephant's back-end! Pandora tried to train the elephant, And says "Sit, Penelope, Sit!" And I shove out some brown softballs from the elephants rear end. She says: "I said Sit!!!" Probably the biggest laugh in the show.)
Anyway, they asked me to do a clown animal trainer act, based on the idea of boxes. I came up with one, but it was too short. They said, what else do you have? And I had just seen Chaplin's Limelight where he does a Mime/Clown Flea Circus. So, I said I could do a flea circus! That show was an imaginary flea circus. The band (17 pieces!) played the sound of the fleas, and everything was pantomimed. After the show, I took a master class with Avner Eisenberg and he said "Get rid of the clown stuff. Get yourself some fleas. You are so big, they are so little. You love the fleas. That is your show."
So I started thinking about that, and talked to a friend of mine [Dennis Hlynsky, a professor at RISD]. After some discussion, I applied for a grant, got the grant, and had Dennis build the tiny sets and props. I then bought some fleas from an entomological supply company, and started observing them, to see what I could get them to do. It took me about 2 years on and off to figure out how to make a show from the fleas. I started touring the show in 1996. And now here I am!
Q: So, you went from being a circus clown into flea performance- really big scale to miniscule...I know that most of the success of your Flea Circus comes not from the stars, Midge and Madge, but from your persona- that's sort of part ring master, part you keep this character through your other puppet shows as well?
A: I do a variety of shows, and I would say that for each show I create different characters. And each of those characters is kind of an expanded version of myself. It's not exactly me, but it's still me. There was a Canadian clown teacher Richard Pochinko who had a very specific idea of clown training. As part of your training you would create 6 masks-- one for each direction (North, South, East, West, Up, and Down). You would create two characters for each mask, one based on innocence and one on experience. At the end of his class you had 12 extreme and archetypal characters (at least archetypal for you!) Pochinko's idea is that your clown is at the center of these 12 extreme characters that you've created, and can pop out to any of the extremes without going directly through the center.
I've never done that particular work but I like to think about that when I'm creating characters for my shows. Each of my characters is me, but at the same time it's an expanded version of myself. The flea circus guy is clearly me, and at the same time, I'm not quite as ringmastery/sales oriented in my real life.
I do a series of small scale puppet shows (for example I do the Barbie Oedipus, in which I perform Oedipus Rex in 12 minutes using Barbie dolls as actors. As a matter of record, I must state that this show is NOT ENDORSED by the Mattel Corporation in any way).
When I work as a clown in fairs and festivals and even circuses, I often don't speak at all. (I know that seems difficult to believe!) My character there is kind of a big baby innocent rube who has visions of grandeur that get foiled by his own desires and appetites. When I was the Clown Laureate of Greenbelt, Maryland, I had to speak, so I had to find another dimension to that character.
In my next project I will be portraying a very specific character-- I'm doing a historic interpretation of P.T.Barnum. Of course he'll probably be more like me than the actual Barnum (how could he not? That's the material he will be based on!) but he's still going to not be me. So all of my work has the seeds of clowning in it.
Q: So, you have also done a show called "Vegetable Macbeth." Using food as puppets is actually a concept that is near and dear to my heart. Fluid Movement's first ever production was a 10 minute adaptation of a 4 act opera called "Carmen- The Hot Dog Opera". All of the performers were actually elaborately dressed tofu hot dogs. Preparing the cast of 12 for the show was nearly a 2 hour endeavor, whereby I cut out their little round singing mouths, oiled them so they didn't crack, taped them carefully onto sticks and had to put in eyeballs, earrings and head wear. I'm curious as to what types of vegetables you use for your show and what is involved in bringing them to life.
A: Carmen- Hot dog Opera! I love it!
The Vegetable Macbeth is part of my show The Puppet Tragedies and is a relatively new show for me: It's a found object show (although the objects are actually bought in the supermarket) I manipulate all of the vegetables and give them voices. Casting was a lot of fun. Duncan is a large tomato, and his soldiers are all mini tomatoes, Lady Macbeth is a large artichoke turned upside down, and the Scotsman is a large potato. The witches are one very wilted celery stalk. At the end of the show, I end up juicing the cast members and drinking them.
Q: Food puppets seem to have an inherent sense of tragedy. I guess cause in their more traditional life, they are meant to be cut up and consumed. But it does do something to the psyche to see the ìcharactersî you start to sympathize with treated this way. If you had to name your all-time, hands-down, absolutely favorite show you've ever done...what would it be?
A: Wow, that's a great question. The flea circus is the one I've done the most, and as a result I'm best at it, and I love doing it, but I don't know if it's my favorite.

Probably the most favorite show that I ever directed/conceived was a show called The One Sure Thing: A Cabaret on Death. It was my master's thesis in theatre and group communication. I took 5 people (mostly non-actors) and using automatic writing techniques, improvisational exercises, and some songs that one of the performers had written, and a friend of one of the performers who was a cellist, and in 3 1/2 weeks we created an amazing cabaret of songs, poems, sketches, epitaphs, and dreams about death.

One of the most amazing moments in that show was when the guy who played Rasputin (in a clown sketch, wearing a gigantic ridiculous floorlength beard) stood up and took off the beard and started talking about his grandfather, and how he could listen to an engine and hear it go click click clang and know how to fix it, and how the last time he saw his grandfather he flew in to Wisconsin, not drove, and his grandfather was dressed in his Sunday best, in the coffin, and he looked down at his grandfathers hands, rough callused, skillful farmer's hands and realized that he had a connection with his grandfather, because he was good with his hands too.
Getting ordinary people to do something extraordinary, to sit up and tell their stories, that was a real treat.
I've always wanted to do that show again, with a different ensemble, which would mean different stories and songs.... That way it would be the same show, but completely different too!
Q: That sounds a lot like how Fluid Movement works--although our work isn't usually so confessional, but we do get people to do things that are pretty surprising.
Unfortunately, our conversation in this form must come to an end. How can people track you down to see some of your clowning and fleas and juicing live?
A: People can find out more about my work at

I also have a couple of websites about specific projects: Flea Circus P.T. Barnum (a coloring book that I wrote!)
You can also join my mailing list by sending an email to:
My next set of shows is in Toronto:
January 23-26,2003 under the small top of the ARTWORD THEATRE
Suitable for ages 6 to senior