When Mardi Gras renews in a couple of weeks, Mobile’s biggest street-life carnival will be prey to Mother Nature’s whims. There’s one place the show will go on despite the weather, thanks to a new event in a familiar building.
Say hello to “Cirque du Mardi Gras” at the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center (301 Conti St.) Feb. 1-14. In a place that’s seen paintings, installations, films and sculpture, performance will be in focus.
“We have an amazing contortionist who shoots a bow and arrow with her feet while doing a one-hand stand. We have a guy who juggles insane strange objects, can balance things on his nose and face. He can walk the edge of a sword,” organizer and ringmaster Kevin Venardos said. He adds comedians, acrobats, aerialists, fire breathers, even a band of musicians tagged the Lost Cause Minstrels, and says they’re all tied together “with a kind of storytelling element.”
Venardos certainly has the background for this project. Though one of the youngest ringmasters ever in the history of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, he started with more commonplace performance aspirations.
The New York native graduated from Ithaca College in 1998 with a degree in musical theater and hit the Big Apple with dreams of Broadway. Venardos toured with Theatreworks USA’s “Curious George” show as The Man in the Yellow Hat. He landed some extra work on daytime soaps such as “The Guiding Light” and did voiceover work to boot.
“Then I submitted for an open call for this crazy job and for some amazing reason they decided to give this kid the opportunity to be the ringmaster. It was just like that, and started an odyssey the likes of which you could never imagine if you took a lifetime dreaming it up,” Venardos said.
After five years, he sensed a need for more control over his long-term viability. He paired his musical theater background with his love of the circus and emerged with his own venture.
“You have to believe in something beyond the almighty dollar to get it going. Once it gets going it’s a great thing because people need happiness. They need inspiration. If you can do that and if you can keep it in the margins, there’s a huge country out there that wants it,” Venardos said.
In a time when the Big Top is bowing out, Venardos feels he’s looking ahead, not mourning times past.
“My friends in my network who have been following me through the years know we’re the future of American circus. Small is good and we can adapt with the digital world,” Venardos said.
A gig in Las Vegas opened doors for his troupe’s appearance at the Greater Gulf State Fair. They turned heads there and opened doors elsewhere.
“Last October, some local entrepreneurs and the folks at the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center saw what we were doing and said, ‘This is awesome. It’s like a Broadway show and a circus. Let’s do a Mardi Gras circus,’” Venardos said.
So through Valentine’s Day, the arts facility on the south side of Cathedral Square will be the showplace for “Cirque du Mardi Gras.” Performance times for the roughly 90-minute shows will be structured around parade schedules.
Venardos has done his background work. He appeared before the Mobile City Council, talked to local historians and visited the Carnival museum in constructing the story arc.
“Mobile has a unique Mardi Gras story, different than anyone else’s Mardi Gras story. So we have characters inspired by Joe Cain or the Merry Widows or any of the other characters in the pantheon of Mobile,” Venardos said. Jazz and other Mardi Gras music is to be implemented.
Other locals will be on display in an artists’ market the website describes as “a deluxe midway with carnival games, gourmet circus delicacies and more.” Venardos said early arrivals for the shows can meet performers and get a glimpse inside their performances.
There is a charitable element as well. Visitors to their website at venardoscircus.com will find a “Golden Tickets” link. It doesn’t involve a chocolate factory but a chance for patrons to buy tickets to be gifted to area youth.
“I’m going to match up every one of these Golden Tickets with a local kid who can’t afford one, and I’m going to bring busloads of kids to see the circus who couldn’t have afforded it before,” Venardos said.
Hopes are this will run the gamut, appeasing a variety of tastes.
“This will be the kind of thing where you can come in top hat and tails and have a nice cocktail, if you’re over 21, or just have cotton candy and popcorn,” Venardos said.