Armitage Shanks

Photo: Ciro
Photo: Ciro

Part Tom Waits, part P.T. Barnum, evoking music hall and Carnevale, with cabaret dreams and charlatan schemes, his curriculum vitae includes ringmaster, vocalist, percussionist, songwriter, director, maskmaker, fire-eater, instructor, and innovator.  Introducing the Carny Preacher himself, Armitage Shanks!

Interview: Femme Vivre LaRouge

First off, we would like to know, how was Armitage created?

In 1998, when my romantic partner (at the time) and myself co-founded Circus Contraption, I was in need of a name and character that would befit the role of Ringmaster.  We both were searching for the right monikers and had the occasion to do a bit of travel in Europe. As it turns out, she found her circus name on a billboard in the Metro station in Paris. And I found mine amongst the many thrones and vestibules that inhabit the finer establishments of the United Kingdom.

ArmitageShanksPointsHigherResWhat influenced your character choices and led you to your current career?

As to character choices, I was influenced by a nostalgic image of Circus, Carnival, and Cabaret, Carnival Barkers, and their ilk.  Tom Waits has certainly been an influence on a particular way of blending music with theatrics.  Shaping the persona of Armitage Shanks, I ingested those and other elements as a starting place and then added my own…proclivities. Some of those are a fascination with words and wordplay, a desire to engage others in intelligent repartee, including the audience directly and   imbuing my performance with sense of physicality, sensuality, and a louche presence. And the idea that this is all illusory, and so fair game for play, satire, and comment.

I have always tried to remain open to what a character “needs” to be, and the idea that if you are receptive, a character will emerge if you listen, coax, and get out of the way, as opposed to you turning the screws.  Armitage Shanks filled the form that I sketched for him.  He picked me as much as I picked him.

It was a confluence of artistic intention and evolution, necessity, intuition, milieu, timing, and fate.  If a fortuneteller would have told me 20 years ago that I would go on to start a seminal, underground neo-circus, and that it would lead to traveling around the world as an itinerant ringmaster, compere, and cabaret singer, I would’ve thought they were smoking crack (but thanks for the great story!).  I truly had no idea I would end up doing this.

It makes perfect sense now, however. I had come up through playing music all my life, acting since a young age, stunt work, and all manner of odd, interesting, and banal jobs. But none of it quite fit. But circus, cabaret, burlesque, and variety arts just made sense.  That combination of music, acting, original creation, radical departure, and physical, corporeal engagement. Once I connected to what that was, it was truly “To the manner born.”

WebArmitageAssassinsWe’re all excited to see The Burlesque Assassins (burlesqueassassins.com)!  “Set in the 1950s, this tale of cold war espionage and intrigue follows superspies Johnny Valentine, Koko La Douce, Bombshell Belle and new recruit, Bourbon Sue, as they seduce their way within killing distance of a trio of villainy bent on global domination.”  Please tell us about your character, Johnny Valentine, and what it was like to film the movie!  (Surrounded by burlesque beauties and toting a cigar in every frame, it seems a bit like your real life, but perhaps with a bit more dynamite?)

“The Burlesque Assassins” was truly an amazing experience and one of the most intense things I’ve ever accomplished in my career. It started, for me, when my dear friend, Coco Framboise, recommended to the director and writer of the film, Jon Joffe, that he attend the Amsterdam burlesque Festival as I, amongst others, would be there to perform and may prove a fecund opportunity to explore casting choices for the movie.   I met Jon and he asked if I would read for the part of Johnny Valentine. As we were preparing for the evening’s performance I only had a few minutes in which to glance at the script and give it a go. I brought my dinner into the audition room and with Jon sitting across the room reading the other characters and recording the proceedings, we set about the thing.  Sometime later when I returned to the States, Jon contacted me and offered me the role.

Johnny Valentine was a cigar chomping, adventurous world-traveling rogue, a man of accomplishment, a romantic, and a lover of women.  A dashing, daring hero with a “devil may care” attitude.  A modern action hero, equally comfortable in a tuxedo, jumping out of an airplane, or foiling evildoers, incognito, in a cocktail dress and size 13 stiletto heels!

Becoming Johnny Valentine was an incredible challenge and yet familiar enough to accentuate and embellish my own characteristics.  If Armitage Shanks is me at “11”, Johnny Valentine is Armitage Shanks at “11.”

We had an amazing cast and crew of great talents and now good friends, who all worked their asses off far beyond the call of duty to make this film happen. If you’ve never worked on a movie before, it’s a very intense experience. It’s a little bit like boot camp…but in this case, with really beautiful women!   My co-stars, Kiki Kaboom, Koko La Douce, and Roxi D’Lite were so talented and a delight to be around and work with.   All four of us in one house together for a month! With a pool table and a hot tub.  Calgary will never be the same.  Ask Kiki about the frozen underwear.

I can’t wait to see “The Burlesque Assassins” in theaters and I hope it takes the world by storm because I’m already preparing for the sequel!

Photo: Allen Lee
Photo: Allen Lee

You co-founded and toured with the one-ring circus, Circus Contraption (www.circuscontraption.com), serving as Ringmaster.  Please tell us about the conception of Circus Contraption and about what you’ve experienced in your performance career as the avant–garde in the ‘New Circus movement.’

In some ways, Circus Contraption was just a bunch of really talented people making things that appealed to us. That simple. We were driven by the ideas that we thought were fascinating.  That made us laugh.  That we responded to as moving. We didn’t set out to be ‘avant’ by any stretch of the imagination.  We were a group of smart, talented creators that happened to catch a bit of the public’s imagination, and at a time when only a handful of others in the United States were doing that kind of presentation. It is perhaps a bit hard to imagine, now that the circus/carnival aesthetic is so prevalent, that there was really no circus identity, aside from the Ringling/Cirque scale here.  Circus Contraption seemed to be part of a resurgence that has now really seeded and doesn’t seem to be abating.  It was twelve magical, glorious, at times maddening, years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Another of your projects is “Squirm Burpree- A Vaudevillian Melodrama,” which had a run Off-Broadway.  Won’t you share with us a little bit about your work with The Handsome Little Devils and your experience bringing vaudeville back to the New York theatre district?

Speaking of other groups who picked up on the “New Circus” Zeitgeist, we met The Handsome Little Devils at a festival in California about three or four years into our existence.   For obvious reasons, we became fast friends and a mutual admiration society.  We continued to cross paths and occasionally perform on the same stages throughout our travels.  When they decided to make the transition from more of a festival/outdoor show to a show that could stand up to the framework of theatrical staging, they asked if I would come in as a co-writer and show director. Fast forward 3 years of late nights, hard work, side-splitting collaboration, great friendship and hi-jinks, and “Off-Broadway, Here We Come!”  That and the fact that HLD is one of the most talented, imaginative troupes of lovely, twisted folks I know, who put in Herculean amounts of effort on even the smallest details.

New York is a great proving ground.  It will let you know right away what you are doing well and what is missing the mark.  And they know their Vaudeville.  2 days before our show opened, we did a Gala with Bill Irwin. It doesn’t get grander than that for our people.

All in all, I think that we put on a beautiful, strange, magical presentation of original circus/vaudeville spectacle that had touches of sheer genius and loving care.  And the Baron looks pretty damn good in frilly undies!

Photo: C Talbot
Photo: C Talbot

Your credits include a great deal of travel, to some very interesting international locales.  Every performer dreams that their art will take them all over the world; what got that ball rolling for you?  Any fond memories or raucous adventures that you’d care to share?

As those of us in Circus Contraption could sense we were approaching the end of the Midway, I realized that I might be able to take what it is I do to a wider audience. At that time, producers were asking me locally, as well as nationally and internationally, if I might host their festival or event. I did so, and in that way started to ‘spread the gospel’ of Armitage Shanks.  Over time other producers and events saw or heard what I was doing and it generated momentum from there.   It was a calculated risk, and at first, a bit of a business investment.  But I was willing to take that chance and it paid off.   I also realized that if I was going to make my living from creating and performing that I would need to diversify.   Which is why I also direct, consult, teach, and have an event production company, Dog & Pony Show Productions.   Making your living as an artist is a bit like having 20 part-time jobs.

Fond memories and raucous adventures, eh?  Generally, hundreds of fond memories of gracious people from all over the world who have treated me like one of their own. A few specific ones that come to mind- Playing the part of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi wearing a clown suit, and a jailer’s ball & chain, grasping a fistful of dollars while riding on top of a 4-story parade float with bas relief scenes of the Kama Sutra flanking its sides and in front, a 30 ft. articulated Ganesh, through 150,000 people during Carnevale in Italy.  Leading hundreds of people to become Pink Elephants.  Or ice skating under a snowy, moonlit night on the Leidseplein in Amsterdam.  So many memories…

As to raucous adventures… there may have been a few.

I’ve read that you are also an instructor for Arts Corps, “a non-profit organization that provides quality arts learning opportunities to youth, regardless of resources or income,” which sounds like a wonderful project.  What is it that you impart to these youngsters?

Through my work with Arts Corps, or summer camps I taught with Circus Contraption, or my present tenure as artistic and show director for the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) 2012 Gala, “Up, With A Twist,” the song remains the same.   I try to teach honesty, truthfulness, originality, and creative center as all being most fully realized by the exploration of the individual gifts of self.  That the most compelling thing you can bring to the stage is your own uniqueness.  The idea that says, “Why be a cheap copy of someone else, when you can be a great version of you?”  How to ramp that up to its utmost.  And to give permission to goof off in public.

What advice would you give to new comperes, for whom there is little training available except in the ring itself?

In keeping with the above, BE HONEST!  Don’t be a bullshitter or a crap knock-off of something you’re not.  Risk enough to let the audience experience who you are. You are their tripmaster and conduit to the experience, so you best establish a rapport.   And for those working in burlesque, don’t be a sexist douchebag.  The world doesn’t need another shmuck dressed in a suit talking about the “hot, sexy ladies” or “would you like to see some tits?”  If that is all you have to bring to the stage, stay off of it!   Call upon your better nature and bring some thoughtful rumination.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T… find out what it means to those performers that are you are sharing the stage with.  Ask them about their acts and what significance they bring to bear.  Inform yourself so you can weave a story from the seemingly disparate elements of the night.  The story is there, you just have to look for it.  And don’t forget the audience is the “5th Beatle.”  They are active participants in shaping the flow and energy of the night.  Allow them to inform what you do. Forget that and you forget the reason that you are there- to communicate.  And that is a dialogue.  And finally, be adaptable.  Push hands.  Let the night move you about and take you to unexpected places.  That’s where good stuff is hiding.  Embrace mistakes.  No accidents, only opportunities.

And get out and live some life.  Nothing informs your work like doing something else.

Soapbox Descended.  Whew.

Naturally, we’d love to hear all about how you landed yourself in an issue of Playboy France.  Pray, do tell…

All I can say, is that I don’t think they will ever get the pudding stains off of the Llama.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Armitage Shanks is also a singer of songs both dark and dreamy.  As Dan Savage said, he has “A voice like honey-coated gravel. He was a sinister and louche presence, who put some sex in the air.”  Have a listen at: http://www.myspace.com/theearmitageshanks

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