How I Ran Away and Joined the Circus at Age 49

October 29, 2014

by Laurel R. Jones

First things first: I’m a dwarf. 4’0” tall, feisty as all heck, and with a pretty decent brain. When I was a child, growing up in the ‘60’s, no one had ever heard of political correctness. The civil rights movement for African Americans was in full swing, and people were just beginning to think about equal rights for women above and beyond the right to vote. People in wheelchairs did not ride the bus. People with mental illness were still subject to lobotomies, and were housed in state facilities.

Although freak shows in the traditional sense were on the decline, and a number of laws restricting them had been passed, there were still a number of tactless people who suggested, upon seeing me on the street, that I should go join a circus. Their manner (drunk, condescending or otherwise quite disrespectful) led me to think that this would be the last thing in the world that I would ever dream of doing.

My Mom, who was very much into positive thinking and new-age philosophy, brought me up to believe in myself, taught me to read at three years of age, encouraged the development of my critical thinking skills, and made me virtually immune to peer pressure. On the downside, she would periodically go into a terrifying state of anger and depression, where she would threaten to either commit suicide or abandon me to my fate, from as far back as I can remember (3 years old, or so). That was terrifically scary, and I suffered mild PTSD into adulthood for that. Fortunately, the presence in my life of my grandmother and older sister ameliorated those effects somewhat. I believe Mom may have had a dual personality disorder, or was at least severely bipolar. She certainly left me with a mixed legacy of intellectual competence, a philosophical outlook, strong critical thinking skills, and some substantial anxieties.

Thanks to the plus side, especially the resilience to peer pressure issues, I survived grammar school bullies, did not get involved in drugs or other teenage troubles in high school, joined the gifted programs starting in middle school, started college, dropped out to rescue a then-boyfriend, now-ex-husband, from a guru cult, lived in the Canadian wilderness for awhile in a tent, had a kid, got divorced and gave the kid up for adoption after determining that motherhood was definitely not my thing.

I decided to go back to school after a series of boring jobs, during which time my main recreations were karate lessons and a Friday night boardgamer’s club. I sailed through a tech school degree in Electronics and a bachelor’s in Physics, slogged through two Masters in Materials Science and Electrical Engineering with a Biomedical Optics specialty, then ended up working in the lab of my academic advisor in that second program, first at Providence St. Vincent, then at OHSU, for nearly ten years.

During my years at school and research labs, I was the typical science geek. I had very little social life, spent extra hours at the lab, and got into a couple of workplace politics battles, largely due to the fact that I and my equally geeky colleagues in technical fields had far fewer social than intellectual skills, and the managers who tried to deal with these issues were not substantially better in this regard. On the plus side, I learned quite a lot. During my undergraduate years, I took up fencing and learned how to swim, using phys ed classes as a break from the intense physics and engineering coursework. While working in the labs after my educational stint was done, I would often go to movies. I saw “V for Vendetta” when it came out in theaters, and that had a major transformative impact on me in that it enabled me to overcome a lot of childhood-related fears, including fear of abandonment among others, as well as enabling me to become extremely self-sufficient. I ceased to feel a need for any kind of romantic relationships, for instance. Any vestige of neediness, as well as fears of the unknown, were just suddenly gone. This all happened in a mind-blowing epiphanic experience about the 5th or 6th time I saw the film, which I kept going back to. I still get new insights from that film which I’ve now seen 122 times.

Then the economic crisis hit and I got laid off due to lack of funding in 2009.

I got on unemployment, and when that ran out, cashed out my 401(k) to keep going. I got introduced to Solovox shortly after the layoff, and then went to see the White Album Christmas show that year because he was playing in it. That was my first encounter with the Wanderlust Circus.

Because I am of short stature, I tend to try to sit at or near the front where my view is not obstructed by taller people in front of me. I’ve been told by a large number of people that they like to have me in the audience at their shows because I show great enthusiasm and appreciation for the performances.

I was really enjoying the show, not having been to a circus for a few decades, and I thought to myself: “I really want this circus to succeed! It’s great!” Little did I know that I would soon be on a career path to helping this circus myself.

In any case, Noah Mickens, aka William Batty, evidently noticed that I was really enjoying the show. I showed up again for Wanderlust’s Valentine’s day show, Cirque L’Amour still in the front row, and during the intermission, Jay Lieber, a harlequin performer, came up and told me that Noah wanted to talk to me about the possibility of being in an upcoming show. Apparently he needed a dwarf, and liked my enthusiastic audience participation.

I was intrigued by the idea, and certainly not at all insulted, (unlike when drunks suggested I join the circus when I was a kid) so I approached Noah after the show and we talked. He asked me what I could do. Since I’d taken fencing for several years, and being a huge fan of Alexandre Dumas’ works, especially The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, I mentioned fencing to Noah. His eyes got wide, and a big grin spread over his face. “How would you like to be a pirate?” he asked. I told him that sounded like a lot of fun, and I would love to be a pirate.

A few months later, in July, Wanderlust Circus performed The Battle For the Bridge show for the Portland Bridge Festival, and I was up there with my Spanish sword (nearly as tall as I am), playing Pirate Captain Ankeny in my first serious role on stage since grammar school productions. Noah, Xander Almeida and I did a 3 way (choreographed) sword fight using real swords. I was the scruffy pirate, Xander was the elegant pirate, and Noah was a town big-shot. Our pirate crews were burning the bridge that Portland kept trying to build, since we the pirates wanted to control the river traffic and ferry service ourselves.

At about the same time, I heard from Sid Simpatico, a March Fourth Marching Band stiltwalker, that the Simon Max Hill casting studio wanted people for this new Portlandia show. I contacted Simon, who was intrigued by my being a dwarf, and came to audition for a role. While I didn’t get the role I auditioned for, he did invite me on as an extra. I also mentioned this extras opportunity to Noah, who I believe may have also found out about this independently, but in any case, both of us ended up on the (in)famous “Dream of the ‘90’s” procession in Portlandia. People are still recognizing me on the street for that episode.

After this, I had definitely caught the acting bug. Since Noah didn’t have any more acting roles for me at that point, I told him that I was also experienced in administrative/clerical work, fairly computer savvy, and did Wanderlust Circus need an admin. assistant? Thus began my administrative career with the Circus.

At this point, my world broadened considerably. I had a far richer social life than I ever had before, even in high school. I was connected to what Noah referred to as the “Bohemian Underground” of Portland. I attended shows. I took some belly dance lessons with Nagasita, which helped me with some lower back issues. I occasionally participated in shows on stage. My Facebook network expanded from 50 to over 500. I met new people. I learned new social skills, and, after several online political debates with my new friends, my views on politics and economics expanded and changed substantially. I sharpened my already strong critical thinking skills.

A few months later, I had the opportunity to get involved with a performance that Noah’s brother, Sam Mickens, was putting on in Brooklyn, NY. Noah and I went back east in November of that year, and had some interesting roles in Sam’s production Kayfabe: Game of Death. Other than getting seriously lost the first day I was there, and getting rescued by Noah and Sam, Brooklyn was fun.

Eventually the money ran out, and I spent a period of time being homeless. Thanks to my experience with the “V for Vendetta” film, however, I was not afraid. I said to the universe: “Ok, my future is in your hands. Take care of me, take me where you will from here.” Believe in a god or not, as you will, but the forces of the universe heard me and took care of me. Thanks to my enlarged network of friends, I never spent a night on the streets. I spent nine months with Leapin’ Louie and his family on a work-exchange instead of rent basis, then couch surfed for another year with a number of friends for periods ranging from a couple of days to a few months until I got into a homeless shelter. During this time, I got involved in a Dungeons and Dragons game with Scott Maxwell, one of the regular Wanderlust Circus acrobats, and his eldest son, Jed, along with others. I continued involvement in this off and on until a recent job acquisition made it impossible to continue. Now I am living in low-income housing in a stable situation with a chance to reboot.

I have since enjoyed working with the Wanderlust Circus in a variety of capacities from acting to online promotions to street handbilling. I was an evil town council member in the latest episode of the Bogville show, a collaboration between Noah and Nagasita (Tiare Tashnick). I’ve also picked up additional acting gigs elsewhere, notably my involvement as an insane asylum patient with Marat/Sade, produced by Sarah Owen. This has probably been the most exciting time in my life. I have learned so much, overcome a lot of psychological difficulties and anxieties due to an increasing confidence and feeling of belonging with the Portland entertainment community as a whole, and Wanderlust Circus in particular. For the first time in my life, I feel really connected and involved, rather than as an outsider looking in. It has truly been a transformative experience.

At this point, I intend to continue pursuing acting with Wanderlust and other Portland area entertainments, develop an entrepreneurial enterprise as an online promoter/marketer for local performers, and keep my hand in on the technical side as well. Currently, in addition to my work with Wanderlust Circus, I am also a support interviewer with Consumer Opinion Services, a reputable market research firm, and am learning about 3-D printers together with the associated drafting/3-D modeling software at the lab where I once worked as a researcher at OHSU. I am exploring how my technical skills and experience in entertainment promotions and marketing can work together to create a career for myself that satisfies both sides of my skill sets. I am eager and interested to see where life takes me next.

Special thanks to Noah Mickens, Sam Mickens, Solovox, Jay Lieber, Tiare Tashnick, and all the fantastic people of the Wanderlust Circus for introducing me to this brave new world of Portland’s Bohemian Underground, as well as Steve Jacques at OHSU for bringing me back to the lab to learn about 3-D printing technology.

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