On a chilly Saturday night in a seemingly random San Diego backyard, a young man in a top hat pulls his coat more tightly around his chest, then sticks his hands out to warm them over a pit fire. A jumpy guy in a monkey suit hands him a plastic cup of beer, then gallops through the audience to join the band, which is taking a break to re-touch their pirate-themed make-up before the next number.
The backyard isn't quite so random; it's the small vacant lot behind the Center for Amusing Arts, the latest home for Dr. Techno and his Technomania Circus-a celebration of stilt walking, fire-twirling robots and black-light stripteases-that is, anything but your average circus fare.
“Does everyone know where the exits are?” shouts the quirky ringleader, dressed in a lab coat, as he surveys the ignition of a trash can “cannon” loaded with a fellow circus performer. “Good, I don't care, either. This isn't Cirque du Soleil, folks!”
The audience laughs and catcalls from the bleachers and huddles closer to the heat lamps. They also respond to commands, eagerly repeating their host's preferred cheer of “Boogie boogie boogie, Dr. Techno, Dr. Techno” and obeying cardboard signs saying “Clap and yell with wild abandon!” This crowd is a mixture of young punk types, middle-aged hippies, mothers with wandering toddlers and slightly intoxicated 30-somethings, and, strangely, everyone seems to know each other. Each time a new face appears in the crowd, there are hugs as friends shift to make room.
That sense of community-and the urge to stir it up a little-is exactly what keeps Bruce Cartier (Dr. Techno, to you) striving to turn what began eight years ago as a love for music with a “theatrical edge” into an ever-expanding musical/circus/variety show.
“I didn't really have a professional circus background,” says the Doctor, speaking on the phone from the Center for Amusing Arts a week after the show. There is laughter and shouting in the background as performers gather for a meeting to discuss the upcoming “adult”-themed show on Saturday, Feb. 18. “I started off in music, in a cover band, and I loved to perform. But... I needed to do something onstage other than play or dance around or what have you.”
So Cartier began to make as many performance-art connections as possible in the San Diego area-anyone who had a potentially useful talent was welcome to join the group, which began performing in converted offices or warehouses. “The whole thing had a Burning Man quality at the beginning. Lots of synchronized light sticks.... We had a little bit of [an] amateur nature.”
But the networking rapidly began paying off as Cartier teamed up with locals who could lend more professionalism to the group-people involved in modern dance, improv and circus arts. “We had our tentacles out in all directions,” says Cartier.
In 1999 he moved to Oakland, where his pal Willy Bologna (aka Glenn Allen) helped him form the “nucleus” of the circus. “Willy Bologna is the Vulgarian state clown,” explains the Doctor, not missing a beat. “He does virtuoso harp playing, kids' shows. He also puts quarters up his nose and twists them.”
Returning to San Diego in 2005, Cartier found new connections, including a professional mystic and sword-swallowing artist, trapeze artists, fire dancers and, thanks to a grant from the Synergy Art Foundation, just enough funding to carve out a semi-permanent home at the Center for Amusing Arts.
The group is working to become a registered nonprofit organization, but, for now, most of the performance budget comes directly from the pockets of the performers themselves, which begs the question: Why would any of them, especially Cartier, who also works as a registered nurse, continue to be so devoted to this team.
“It's something different that I'm committed to because”-the Doctor pauses for breath, a rare occurrence-“well, it seems I get bored easy. And I like to see individuals develop their comedic talent, in whatever form that is.... I think San Diego's looking for something a little different, and I think we can do it, provided we have a little musical accompaniment.”
Finding accompaniment doesn't seem to be a problem. For Technomania, the music makes the show-whether performed by the Carnival Barkers (the circus' original band), the Baloney Ponies (the group that scored the night's hit with a lively ode to the greatness of juice) or a more acrobatic-musical blend: the stilt-walker's number in which performers crawl through his stilts to a tune about having an entire circus “in his pants!” or Dr. Techno's show-off moment, playing electric guitar atop the rolla-bolla-essentially a wooden plank balanced on top of a ball.
Audience participation plays an integral role in the circus as well. In addition to clapping and yelling with wild abandon, crowd members-for instance, this reporter's extremely shy guest at the January show-should be ready to be dragged onstage by Peter the Clown to aid in a ridiculous routine at a moment's notice. Said guest reported having a blast.
What else should potential circus-goers know about attending this or any Technomania performance?
“It's a wide-open, anything-goes format, and we bring some [performers] along because we can see their extreme potential. Things aren't exactly Hollywood-polished, but we have some true gems; we have some true circus talent,” says Cartier, before switching to a more devilish tone.
“If you have any preconceptions about what a circus is, you may not want to come.”
Oh, and bring a jacket.
The February show will be “totally different from shows in the past,” including “more edgy acts, videos of poor taste, adult-type innuendos” and a puppet that will insult members of the audience “in a comedic way,” Cartier says. He notes that his parents, who normally have perfect attendance at his San Diego shows (Dad takes tickets, Mom sells popcorn) will most likely pass on this one. But don't worry, says Dr. Techno, the circus will be returning to its regularly scheduled light-hearted shows in April.
Technomania “Circus of the Insane” begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Center for Amusing Arts, 2438 Commercial St. in Logan Heights. Tickets are $15. Call 619-231-1950 or visit technomaniacircus.com.