Stephanie Monseu

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus co-founder, artistic director and performer
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Maike Schulz

Music Credit: Excerpt from “Silver (The Duct Tape Horse),” and “107” composed by Peter Bufano and performed by Cirkestra. Used courtesy of Peter Bufano.

Stephanie Monseu: The circus tradition of a tent and a ring brings us together in a way that most theater doesn’t. We enter this space that becomes another place where impossible things can happen. And I’m not saying other art forms don’t do that, but I think the circus really does that in a special way.

Jo Reed: That’s Stephanie Monseu. She’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Since 1995 the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus has been bringing its unique blend of circus, vaudeville, burlesque, and performance art to audiences around the world. Founded by Monseu and her partner Keith Nelson, Bindlestiff recalls the circuses of Europe a few centuries ago when performers applied their craft in town squares or threw up tents in the countryside and amazed folks with their blend of dexterity, daring and farce. Only Bindlestiff has added a definite streak of East Village grunge to the mix, creating a contemporary circus with a twist. Composed of anywhere between two and 16 performers, Bindlestiff has been called “joyful anarchy,” and this seems fitting for a troupe that offers such a range of skill and artistry peppered with provocation. Monseu herself serves as mistress of ceremonies, as well as juggling, performing aerial acts and swallowing fire. She also cracks a mean whip!

I met Stephanie Monseu at the convening on Circus Arts the National Endowment for the Arts held in early summer and was eager to speak with her about Bindlestiff, and all things circus- beginning with her definition of circus.

Stephanie Monseu: It’s America’s most popular illegitimate art form. <laughs> Circus exists outside the realm of what we consider to be high art. It isn’t opera, it isn’t ballet, and yet people who perform and produce and create circuses are dedicated artists. They’re consummate professionals. They are at the level of world-class athletes. They conceive of and design and perfect their own acts, their own material. They produce it; they polish it, they costume themselves. They work with musicians, they work with choreographers, and yet it remains this very accessible, very inviting form that appeals to anyone of all ages, and you don’t have to have a degree to appreciate it.

Jo Reed: It’s so interesting because it seems to run such a gamut between doing these amazing feats of grace on a high wire or the kind of dexterity you need when juggling to the pratfalls that clowns can do.

Stephanie Monseu: Well, I think that circus artists, and I’m gonna include clowns. Clowns are in my estimation one of the most highly skilled artists in circus.

Jo Reed: Oh, yeah, I just meant it’s another expression of the human body.

Stephanie Monseu: Right. You know, circus artists not only represent the ideals of human perfection, but we also hold a mirror up and reflect the entire culture, the entire society in which it exists. So those fears, the aspirations, the bumbling interactions between people, I mean I think the clowns really can take the credit for really letting people laugh at themselves. But the acrobats, the artistes, the wire walkers, the contortionists, the ringmistress, the ringmaster, those characters, those artists let people see their highest self and project their own dreams onto another human that’s achieving that. It makes it kind of reachable, in a way.

Jo Reed: Yeah, as you see somebody literally flying through the air and it’s a live performance. No CGI.

Stephanie Monseu: No CGI.

Jo Reed: You co-founded Bindlestiff with Keith Nelson. Describe the circus for me?

Stephanie Monseu: The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is a group of friends who came together in the early 1990s drawn by a common appreciation for the art and spectacle of circus, and also a common background in non-traditional performance. There was a really interesting performing arts scene in the East Village in the eighties and nineties, and a lot of the early Bindlestiffs came right out of that scene.

Jo Reed: And how did you get interested in circus arts?

Stephanie Monseu: Keith and I met each other in 1993, I believe, late 1993. I had been a student at FIT. I was a jeweler. I had my own line of jewelry, and I was working as a freelance metalsmith. I had been hit by a car so I was kind of on hiatus from making jewelry, and I discovered that he was a fire eater and a juggler, which he learned when he was in college, and everything sort of came to a head. It seemed like a really fun way to talk about issues, to poke fun at culture, to press buttons, to pull back the curtain on some taboos, and to have a really great time with a bunch of great friends.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first time you did fire eating?

Stephanie Monseu: I do. I’ll never forget it. It transformed my life. I pestered Keith for a long time. We were both working as waiters in an all-night restaurant, and at some point, there was a lull between the late night dinner crowd and the 4:00 a.m. bars just gorging, drunk, hungry people, so probably around three o’clock in the morning we went out into the back alley behind the restaurant. There was some snow softly falling. We stood by the dumpster. He dipped the torches. I remember the scrape of the lighter as he clicked and the torch just jumped to life with what seemed to be a huge flame and the smell of the flammable fluid, and he said, “All right, it’s time.” And I remember how terrified I was. It was kind of this… the time stopped. I had been really dreaming about learning how to do this, and I’d been working with fire as a jeweler and lots of capacities, but this was really different. This was very intimate, and I know how powerful fire is. It’s an elemental force. I had tremendous respect for it, so I was really scared. But I put the torch in my mouth, I closed my mouth around it, and that was it. Literally it just sort of lit something inside of me, and from that day onward we made plans to go to Mardi Gras and street perform. We went to L.A. We went to San Francisco. We performed in bars and nightclubs there, and we never went back to that waitressing job. That night really ignited the flame of what is Bindlestiff today.

Jo Reed: That’s so interesting, and how did you not burn your mouth?

Stephanie Monseu: <laughs> Well, there’s technique involved. <laughs> You don’t just, you know, stick something into your mouth without understanding the chemical properties of the fuel that you’re using, the environmental conditions, the technique of how to do it safely. There’s a lot to it, and every fire eater does sustain some serious burn at some point in their career because, again, it’s very dangerous and it’s an element that must be respected. But if you work with it respectfully and with some preparation, you can do it safely.

Jo Reed: That’s also true I’m assuming with sword swallowing, which both you and Keith actually do.

Stephanie Monseu: I am not a sword swallower but Keith is, and he’s one of… I think there are between 70 and maybe 100 at the most in the world who actually do it. There are very close ties between all of them. They stay in touch. There are gatherings. It’s a tradition that’s passed down from person to person. You don’t learn it online. There aren’t books. There’s no how-to. Again, it’s a technique. It involves years of training and teaching your body to ignore basic physiological responses like the gag reflex.

Jo Reed: Okay, we talked about fire eating. You’ve done walking on glass; you’ve done juggling, you’ve done high wire. How did you get the training for all this?

Stephanie Monseu: I think what’s interesting about circus, whether you come from a traditional circus family or whether you come to it by other channels, which is what many contemporary circus folks would probably say, is that human contact is the primary driver. You share with other people this interest and this passion. If you’re born into the family, you’re gonna learn from your relatives who are gonna train you safely and thoroughly and carefully and give you as much of the background as they can to make sure that you carry forward a tradition with pride and with dignity. And the same is true with other folks who come to it later. We have to work a little bit harder to find teachers and mentors, but they’re out there. And I could probably speak for other folks in my generation who came from outside the circus world that we each sought out and found willing teachers who saw that we were serious, that we had respect for traditions, and that we had ideas about how to carry it forward. You know, Keith and I certainly didn’t bring traditional circus into nightclubs, you know. We put a big spin on things and added lots of twists, and maybe that didn’t appeal to some more traditional folks, but 25 years later I think people see how serious we are about the traditions and about the history of circus. Today there are circus schools, and it’s much easier if you’re an acrobat or a clown to find highly professional, world- class teachers to train you. The important thing is that circus survives as a performance tradition. And so that all of these talented young people graduating from circus schools can actually work in real circuses and get the experiences of pounding stakes into the ground, rolling into a city, setting all the equipment up, doing the show, tearing it all down, moving on to the next place. They can get the experience of having to do their act in less than perfect conditions. All the flexibility and adaptivity that any live performer has to embody is something that also comes with learning this craft.

Jo Reed: If somebody is going to the Bindlestiff family circus. What can they expect to see?

Stephanie Monseu: How can I encapsulate? The show will be directly pretty much in their face. We start with a pre-show so performers will be moving through the audience, interacting with audience members. There will be a live band that will be providing live musical accompaniment, and those musicians are really partners with the artists on the stage, and it’s something that you can really feel and see. The artists themselves are enjoying what they do. They’re consummate artists. Their skill is breathtaking. So there will be moments of surprise. There will be thrills, maybe shock. I mean if sword swallowing is something that I can use as an example, that can be quite shocking to see live for the first time. There’ll be moments of lyrical beauty. There’ll be moments of nose wrinkling disgust. <laughter>

Lots of humor, lots of laughter. And I think what I’ve heard people say is that they enjoy watching the connection that Bindlestiff artists have with each other, because after 23 years, Keith and I have had the honor of working with probably over 400 different artists from all over the world, and that’s not just a one-time only thing. These folks, anytime they pass through New York City they’ll look us up. They’ll say hello. We try to keep in touch with them. There are core members who work with us over and over, and it’s because of those relationships that the unique character of Bindlestiff has taken shape. There’s an irreverence, there’s a sense of fun, and there’s certainly a sense of closeness and trust between the performers that I think is a very tangible part of the experience.

Jo Reed: Well, Bindlestiff and other contemporary circuses as well… it’s not performed necessarily in a tent. It can be in a cabaret, it can be in a nightclub. You have to adapt, I would imagine, the show you put on depending on the venue.

Stephanie Monseu: Right. A tent is a purpose-built environment specifically designed to contain and support the specific technical and logistical needs of circus acts. Lots of nightclubs these days host circuses, event spaces, old churches, schools, theaters with rigging that isn’t designed specifically for the support of human weight, old warehouses, loft buildings, parks, city streets. You know, there are hundreds of different types of spaces in which circus now emerges and makes itself present because artists are popping up everywhere and also collaborating with artists across mediums to bring circus into new areas and new dimensions, so adaptability is definitely key. What’s also cool in the age of technology is that you can work with great engineers and designers, rigging specialists at the click of a button. You can facetime with somebody if you’re having a technical question. You can speak with somebody in another country to design a piece of rigging or a new apparatus that you’ve been dreaming about, and this can occur in digital space and then become a material product at some point. So as the world gets smaller our art form I think gets enhanced. We can do more, we can work with more people, and we can bring it to more people.

Jo Reed: Well, circus in some ways has been reclaiming its more traditional European roots for the past 30 years. And Big Apple and certainly Bindlestiff has been part of that making circus on a more human scale.

Stephanie Monseu: I like the grand, huge spectacle of circus. I think there’s something very powerful in that sensory overload that reminds us how small we are, but I’m also a huge fan of the intimate experience of performing circus in a cabaret where the trapeze artist literally stretches her leg to nearly brush the shoulder of somebody seated at a table. That kind of intimacy and visceral, up close interaction between the audience and performer is really exciting for everyone involved. <laughs> And I’m just glad to be part of this movement, I mean this phenomenon because you know I’ve had lots of those experiences and I’ve gotten to see the looks on people’s faces when they experience that for the first time.

Jo Reed: It can be transformative. And I think that also speaks to why circus is being accepted more and more not just as an entertainment, but also as an art form. And I think that’s what the NEA wanted to address when it held the Circus Arts convening here earlier this summer.

Stephanie Monseu: The convening in Washington was truly incredible because you know, circus in the United States has many facets. There are people who research in academia for the ways that circus techniques can be applied in therapeutic settings, in educational settings. There are folks who are researching the history and documenting every shred of ephemera and lore and twist of our past. There are folks who are dreaming about the future who are working from a theatrical or a dramaturgical background to make circus a live in theater. There are musicians; there are writers, there are people studying technology and physiognomy so that we can do more and more fantastically. There are artists; there are producers, funders. So across the board, we work really hard in our own little worlds and don’t often get the chance to come together, so that was a really great opportunity to sit down and hear from and speak with colleagues from across the spectrum of circus. What I think is challenging, though, is to try to imagine that there’s one voice or one body that can speak for all of us and represent us in terms of approaching let’s say the NEA or foundations for funding. Not all circuses are going to be nonprofit, some are. Not all circuses want to seek that form of support. Some want to stay in the more traditional route of selling tickets and merchandise for support. And I think that a diverse group of voices can speak best for itself or themselves.

Jo Reed: Agreed. I can’t believe I haven’t asked you think until now... Where did the name Bindlestiff come from?

Stephanie Monseu: I was leafing through a thesaurus specifically looking for inspiration, and this word jumped out at me, bindlestiff. It refers to the bundle in a staff of a traveler. In the years between the Civil War and the Depression, there were huge economic tides changing in the United States. There were lots of people out of work during what we call reconstruction after the Civil War. Large numbers of newly freed African-Americans were moving from south to north and from north to west. Lots of people were searching for work, and the railroads were emerging as a way to travel quickly and directly, so people were jumping on trains to move into areas where they could work, so there was this big migration of workers. They were leaving graffiti under bridges and on buildings and rail yards for each other so that they could share information about fair labor practices, about where to find a meal, about what towns to stay out of, things like that. The history appealed to us, and the name appealed to us, and we saw a future of travel for ourselves, and we liked the idea of this community of outsiders helping each other, and it’s kind of a romantic notion.

Jo Reed: I think it’s a very romantic notion. My friend’s grandmother actually came from a family of hobos…

Stephanie Monseu: Oh, wow.

Jo Reed: … and grew up riding the trains. Where were you born and raised?

Stephanie Monseu: I was born in Flushing, New York and was raised in Queens, and when I was in middle school my family bought a crazy Catskills Resort, and we moved upstate. And I graduated from a small school in upstate New York. Then I went back to New York City to go to FIT, and I’ve pretty much been in New York ever since then.

Jo Reed: Were you the kind of kid who performed a lot? Were you in drama classes and was that a part of who you were?

Stephanie Monseu: Definitely. I was also an athlete, and I also loved art and making things and drawing and just creating things with my hands, so for me, the circus really brings all of those things together in the most satisfying way. I also love working with youth and teaching, and when we bought a home in Columbia County, Hudson, New York, in 2005, I moved into a community with no connections at all. I wanted to get to know my community. So I figured, I know how to do circus, so maybe I can teach at this youth center. And that’s turned into a really amazing situation. I feel very much a part of the community. I feel like it was a really great way to avoid being a gentrifier because I didn’t just move in and parachute down in there with something. I offered what I know how to do, and people accepted and wanted it and got excited about it. I partner with a lot of other arts organizations and human service organizations to make sure that it’s accessible and free for kids. So that’s another aspect that I didn’t foresee in the past. I never thought I would be a teacher, but I love it.

Jo Reed: I’m sure the kids love it, too.

Stephanie Monseu: They seem to have a good time. In fact, we just performed in a festival this past weekend, and I had some teenagers walking on stilts in a parade, and I had a group of about 13 middle school age kids tumbling and walking on tight wires and juggling and performing on a trapeze and making a big, beautiful pyramid altogether. And ultimately whether or not they run away with the circus, I hope that they take away from that experience the fact that they were able to build something cool by working with a group of other people. That they were able to push themselves to try things that seemed really difficult, and that they were able to perform this all for their own community in a show that they created themselves. Hopefully, that empowers some of them.

Jo Reed: You said in an interview that circus was about building community, and I know you just gave an example with the work you’re doing with the kids. Did you mean that in a more generalized way as well, that there’s something inherently community building in circus?

Stephanie Monseu: I do. I think first and foremost, if I can get a little philosophical…

Jo Reed: Go right ahead.

Stephanie Monseu: The circus tradition of a tent and a ring brings us together in a way that most theater doesn’t. We enter this space that becomes another place where impossible things can happen. And we’re seated around a ring, and so we can look directly across that ring and see other people just like us. When we see the performers in the ring, we see what we could hope for, which is to achieve great things, fearlessness, acts of incredible skill. So in a sense, it sort of reinforces this idea that we need each other, that we are capable of great things, and we’re experiencing something together with other people that brings us to a state of awe and of appreciation, of joy, and that’s something that’s really special. I think theater does that, I think music does that, I think great art does that, but there’s something about the circus that makes it accessible for all ages, all levels of prior experience you know, across cultures, and I feel very strongly about it because I’m involved in it. But, I’m not saying other art forms don’t do that, but I think the circus really does that in a special way.

Jo Reed: I have a friend who’s Chinese American and his grandfather, who had emigrated from China, didn’t speak English at all. And, they would go to the circus together because it was something that they could share. Especially the clowns and the acrobats.

Stephanie Monseu: Oh, wow. You know, across time and through many, many cultures there’s a trickster character or a clown, a sacred fool who holds up a mirror to the society so that we can really see ourselves for our silliness and our kind of ego-motivated behavior and we can laugh at ourselves. And that I think brings us to a place where we can heal, and I think humor does that. And the clown allows him or herself to become vulnerable so that we can be empowered, so the clown performs a really important role in culture. American society or American culture is globally so young. We don’t have thousands of years of tradition. We’re not rooted in some common experience of culture, language, religion, spiritual belief, philosophy, so this is a way to bring people together and to find that common thread of joy, appreciation of beauty, a feeling of awe, and laughter.

Jo Reed: Okay, and I think that’s a great place to leave it. Stephanie, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Stephanie Monseu: Thank you. I appreciate that, Jo. Be well.

Jo Reed: That was Stephanie Monseu—Co-Founder, Creative Director and Performing Artist in Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. You can find out more about it at Bindlestiff. org. We heard music from “Silver (The Duct Tape Horse),” and “107” both were written by circus composer Peter Bufano and performed by Cirkestra, it’s from the cd “107.”

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts; I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Circus arts by way of the East Village performance scene.