In a city filled with arts, there are always new acts passing through the city. If you’re looking for something different to do this week, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are bringing their show Circus XTREME to NOLA. While I’m sure Ringling or Barnum & Bailey will immediately conjure up images for some folks, Circus XTREME is a show unlike anything they've done before. It’ll be filled with previously unseen acts, such as BMX trick riders and contortionists. I was fortunate enough to interview one of the clowns from the circus, Dean Kelly, whose work has allowed him to refine himself as a performer while also being an advocate for the LGBT community.
Where Y’at: So, could you give us your background and how you got started in clowning?
Kelly: I went to my very first circus when I was four. It was Ringling Bros. in my hometown in Kansas City, and I saw the clowns there and I was just enamored by them. There are these grown adults just entertaining the entire audience so I thought that was really cool, and I said, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” My parents were like, “Oh, that’s so cute, he’ll grow out of it.” But I never did. So growing up I got magic tricks, I took a couple of clowning classes when I was a kid, and I would go to the circus every year and I also had two agents that sent me out on different clowning gigs from birthday parties all the way to corporate events.
Where Y’at: How did you get started at Circus XTREME?
Kelly: Ringling Bros. used to have a clown college. It was a 10-week program that you could go to and learn how to be a clown. Now, clown college is a little different. It’s more on-the-job training than anything. When I auditioned, it was in November of 2002 and they used to put out a weekly newsletter and it came out every Monday. Well, I opened it one morning and it said “Open call for clowns” and I was like, “What?!” So I got all the information and I flew out to Anaheim and I auditioned and they offered me a contract right on the spot. So I joined, I toured for four years and I left the company for three years. And I missed touring so much, I called the company back and they said, “Sure, come on back!”
Where Y’at: How has Circus XTREME changed you as a performer?
Kelly: Circus XTREME is a brand new show this year and the clowns-- we pushed ourselves to do as much as we can. And with this particular show we’re doing acrobatics on trampolines, we’re repelling from the rigging, we’re running all over the place. We’re through the entire show. With this particular show I definitely have to learn a couple extra skills in order to do it.
Where Y’at: What are some of your favorite skills to perform?
Kelly: I like walking on a ball, I like juggling, riding a unicycle, riding a miniature bicycle…I do all kinds of stuff! They call me the “Swiss Army Knife of Clowns.”
Where Y’at: I saw that tagline. I thought it was brilliant! But, which one was the hardest skill to pick up?
Kelly: Each one varies on its own. One of the hardest skills I’ve learned was unicycle riding. It took me quite a long time to learn how to unicycle.
Where Y’at: So, tell me in what ways do you get to engage with the LGBT community while working at the Circus?
Kelly: So we tour and we do a lot of interviews-- for instance, this one-- and we do interviews with gay publications, from local publications all the way to national. My very first year on the road we were in OUT Magazine and that really put us out there. The performing arts are LGBT people, but it puts more humanity and puts a face to what we do, because we’re out there in several touring shows and a lot of us don’t get to tell our story.
Where Y’at: There’s been a push for solidarity in our community after the Pulse shooting, especially. Do you have any thoughts on that you’d like to share?
Kelly: It’s a terrible thing. I used to live in Orlando, I lived there for three years and I loved it. They had a really tough week but it’s amazing to see the solidarity and the unity that not only the community in Orlando has shown, but the entire country. What happened was not good in any stretch of the imagination and it’s unfortunate that there are people out there who applauded what happened.
Where Y’at: It was really heartbreaking to watch that happen. How far do you think LGBT rights have progressed in your lifetime?
Kelly: Oh, gosh, so much! It used to be illegal. People would get thrown in jail. So, I mean, where we are today…it’s progressed a lot. But, we've still got a lot to go. And it starts in our own community.
Where Y’at: Is there anything else you want people to know about Circus XTREME?
Kelly: Circus XTREME, it is actually a really good show. It’s one of the few things you can go to as a person or a family and just have a good time. Because there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world and it’s not all good. But we’re really good having you come to our show. You can meet the performers and you forget about your troubles for three hours. It’s a really cool experience that’s not very common anymore.
Where Y’at: What other acts can attendees expect besides clowning?
Kelly: We have 16 tigers in a cage all at once. We have a BMX display where we have BMX riders doing front flips and back flips, and all this over ramps. We have trampoline acts where they’re jumping on trampolines over 30 feet in the air. You name it, you got it.
Where Y’at: What would you say is your favorite act?
Kelly: One of my favorites-- they’re called the Mongolian Marvels. They’re from Mongolia. They do an incredible act where they make a human pyramid and it weighs over 1000 pounds and it’s made of about eight different people. And it’s people and weights!