The circus is in town! As some of you know, I used to work with a bunch of clowns; literally, I was the co-host of “Bozo the Clown” for three years on TV57 here in Philly, so I know my way around a big top. Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing the amazing show put on by the UniverSoul Circus. I have to say, I haven’t smiled as wide, laughed as much or been entertained like that in a long time. The show is nonstop, energetic, family-friendly and fun. UniverSoul has a roster of talented performers from all over the world woven into a seamless show that doesn’t let up for hours. I haven’t seen this much bang for the buck in a while. Step right up and get your tickets now, folks!
I was lucky enough to have a chance to meet one of the people behind the scenes putting it all together: talent coordinator and costumer TJ Bunch.
PGN: What’s your earliest circus memory?
TJB: I went with my mother once when I was about 9. I remember I bought a little clown mask and wig because I loved making balloon animals and I thought I could put on a show at my cousin’s birthday.
PGN: Were you interested in performing at a young age?
TJB: No, I always wanted to be an artist. Animals and art were my passions. When I got into high school, I got into the technical side of theater — building stages and stuff — and then special-effects makeup, etc.
PGN: How did you get into doing wardrobe?
TJB: I loved Halloween and always had ideas for costumes but could never find what I wanted, so I started making my own and it grew from there.
PGN: Where did you grow up?
TJB: Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., about 40 miles east of L.A. at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
PGN: Tell me a little about growing up there.
TJB: Homelife, I grew up very, very Christian. We prayed in the morning, we prayed after school. I went to a Christian daycare where my mom worked, then we’d go for a Bible fellowship at our church, where my mom worked as well, and we’d have Bible studies for kids. As for the landscape in Cucamonga, it was near the desert. It was usually very hot, but it was always clean. Nothing seemed to ever happen there. We were surrounded by orange and grapefruit groves and grapes; we were known for our wines. And there were always tons of animals around, from the rattlesnakes in the desert to coyotes. I remember one time we were swimming in the pool and our mom told us to quickly get in the house. Unbeknownst to us, there was a giant mountain lion in the backyard.
PGN: Aside from school, how would you fill a day as a kid?
TJB: My siblings and I had a great relationship. We’d play all day outside climbing trees and making forts and stuff.
PGN: Higher learning?
TJB: I went to college for one semester and all my teachers told me, “Get out in the work field, you know what you’re doing. You can make a career already, don’t waste your time or money here.” I was lucky that I had a great high-school teacher, Mr. Shorts, who was phenomenal. If you wanted to learn something, he’d take the time to teach you. The other teachers would let me skip class; they knew I was responsible so they’d let me turn in my homework and then go to the theater. I’d spend the whole day there learning all aspects of the craft. It was so much fun.
PGN: What was a favorite production?
TJB: “Little Shop of Horrors.” At the church, we had a puppeteering program that I studied with for years. So with my experience puppeteering, I got the role of the plant. It was great. I made my own costume and got to sing and act too.
PGN: Dang, son! What don’t you do?
TJB: [Laughs] I just love anything to do with entertaining. I’m also in a movie that just got released, “Bunnyman 3.” It’s a B-rated horror film.
PGN: What’s your main focus, costuming?
TJB: Actually, it’s whatever makes people happy. That’s kind of my goal in life; no matter how big or small a task is, I like seeing people smile. I’d say my heart is with special-needs children. In college, I worked at a grocery store and then got a job working for an elementary school as a teacher’s aide working with special-ed kids.
PGN: How did you end up with your first circus gig?
TJB: My friend, Christopher Solomon, was a clown with Ringling and invited me to see the show when they were in town. I’d just gone through a really bad breakup and wasn’t happy with my life so I asked if they were hiring. After the show, I got a VIP tour and met a woman named Rebecca Williams. She was really nice and we talked for about a half-hour until the laundry lady, Miss Claudia Porter, passed us and Rebecca introduced us saying, “This is our new men’s wardrobe guy.” I was like, “Whaaat?” She said, “Oh yeah, you passed your interview. Do you want the job?” That was on Wednesday and they wanted to give me a month to prepare, but I told them I was ready to start Friday, two days later. I packed my bags and left to join the circus!
PGN: Wow! What was surprising about circus life?
TJB: It was surprising how open and accepting everyone was. You could look however you wanted, be whoever you wanted and no one ever judged you. There’s a feeling of freedom. Even back in the day, gay people in the circus were allowed to be openly gay long before it was accepted in the general pop.
PGN: And the day-to-day life?
TJB: At the first circus, I lived on a train in a 4-by-8 boxcar with a fridge and a microwave. They were called coffins because they were about the same size! I remember reading “Harry Potter” books and I would force myself to wait until the train was moving to read them. There was something so romantic about reading about the kids taking the train to Hogwarts while in my sleeping car. Now that I work for UniverSoul, it’s lovely; they’re so nice to me. We have Marathon trailers with a queen-size bed and a shower. They’re great to work for.
PGN: I would think a circus would be a place where many different cultures all come together. Tell me about some of those experiences.
TJB: The real cool thing about culture and circus, especially here, is how harmonious it is. My friend, Joe Gary, was one of the first KCT (King Charles Troupe) members — they play basketball on unicycles — and he told me I had to come see this show. I went and was blown away. It was so exciting. I was like a little kid again; I was getting up and dancing and cheering the whole time. I immediately said, “I want to work here. I have to work here.” You won’t find the cultural things like the limbo fire dancing and the island celebration at any other circus.
PGN: What about personal exchanges?
TJB: The Mongolians would always invite me over for birthdays and stuff because they taught me how to speak Mongolian, enough to say a few phrases. People will share food and snacks from their countries and teach you about where they’re from. Here, some of the Caribbean folks are trying to teach me some dance steps, which is fun.
PGN: With so many different countries represented, how does everyone communicate?
TJB: You always have translators at the circus, but if they’re not available you try the Google translator on your phone and, if that doesn’t work, good old mime and body language are pretty effective in a pinch.
PGN: What’s different and what’s the same as civilian life?
TJB: Oh boy, the difference is huge. If I go to a mall on my day off, it’s the weirdest thing for me. You’re used to being with the same people every day, six to seven days a week. Even though we have thousands of people coming in the tent, you’re still committed to your small group that you work and talk with every day and it starts to feel like they’re the only people in existence. So on the rare occasion that I go to a restaurant and sit down with other people, it’s a weird feeling.
PGN: [Laughs] I have to say, when I pulled up to interview someone from the UniverSoul circus, I was surprised to see a white guy.
TJB: A lot of people say that, but we are the “universal” circus. Our standpoint is that anyone and everyone can be in the circus. And that comes from our founder Mr. Walker; he goes around the world and sees acts from China and Ethiopia, Africa, Europe and has a knack for picking the most amazing and wonderful acts from all corners of the globe.
PGN: But there is also a little more soul than you find in other circuses.
TJB: Of course! Absolutely! He wanted to make a circus that had soul and R&B and he did! It’s one of the things that makes us so amazing.
PGN: So did you have to learn to dance?
TJB: No! On rare occasions I’ll do the SoulTrain line but I’m a horrible dancer, which always makes it funny for our audience.
PGN: What are your duties?
TJB: I was originally hired to design and make some of the costumes. But now I’m the assistant PR and talent manager so my primary job is to help the talent with promotions, radio interviews, TV spots, etc. At the shows I help handle VIPs, celebrities or sometimes politicians and make sure they have a good time. And I’m also on hand for the talent if they have problems in any area.
PGN: You’re the fixer. I may call you Olivia Pope from now on.
TJB: Oh, everyone at the circus does a little bit of everything. My boss, Irma, makes sure we do whatever it takes to give people a good experience. If we have to jump in and usher, we will. Help someone change costumes, whatever. We all have each other’s backs.
PGN: I loved the fact that the performers interacted so much with the audience. I’d see the acrobats walk over and shake hands with kids during the show or the contortionists wink at someone while doing their act. It was beautiful.
TJB: Oh yes, it always moves my heart when there’s a little kid reaching out and a performer will go out and say hi or give a hug. It’s a blessing to see and be a part of. A lot of places forbid the performers from doing that; we encourage it. Mr. and Mrs. Walker are the most humble, down-to-earth people you’ve ever met. When I was in New York, someone said, “We’re giving away one of the shows.” I didn’t know what that meant but I learned that they do shows where they invite kids and families from shelters and provide food, give the kids toys and do a free performance. Our show is practically sold out each night so to give away an entire show is pretty inspiring. I can’t fathom having the ability to do something like that. It’s wonderful.
PGN: What’s the most dangerous act? I have to admit I screamed like a 12-year-old boy when the motorcycles came out.
TJB: They’re incredible. They make it look so effortless, when it’s really not. So many of the acts do, even the limbo dancers; for them to go as low as they do with fire is actually quite dangerous.
PGN: Hottest and coldest moments?
TJB: One summer it was about 113 degrees outside and our air conditioner went out. Fortunately, the people in the grocery store across the street allowed us to put lawn chairs in the freezer aisle. The coldest was probably the time the circus train froze to the tracks. They had to put us in hotels.
PGN: What’s a tradition from the past you’d like to bring back?
TJB: Family dinners, with no technology at the table. It’s such a nice tradition. At the circus we try to do a communal barbecue once a week with all the people who live on the lot.
PGN: I read you have a connection to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
TJB: Yes, when I turned 18 I went to my first gay bar and met Chandela from season two, I think. She asked if I would be her assistant for a few weeks. It was fun and I got to meet a lot of drag queens. Last year, another friend took me to the season premiere and I got to meet everyone!
PGN: When did you come out?
TJB: I was 15 when I told my parents. I was deathly afraid, but they’d been asking me and I kept saying that I wasn’t. I was always very weird and eccentric so I just claimed that that was it. But I finally got the courage to admit it and I waited until they were headed to bed on a weeknight. I figured we had to get up the next day for work and school so they wouldn’t be able to keep me up all night asking questions. Sadly, my mother just cried and my father was upset, so it was a heartbreaking moment. But I like to be an honest person and it was a relief to have it in the open.
PGN: And they eventually got over it?
TJB: No, still not to this day. I left the house when I was 16 and we were not in a very healthy relationship for a long time. They sent me to Christian therapy, which was basically conversion therapy. I went through a year of hearing that I was a horrible human being and meetings with “counselors.” There was one guy — he wasn’t even a pastor, he was a drummer at my mom’s church — who tried to talk to me. He knew nothing about it, like the pastor who tried to tell me that homosexuality didn’t exist in the animal world. At that point, I was done listening to him because, even at 15, I was intelligent enough to know that there were 600-plus species of animals who have homosexual relationships, including my favorite, penguins. Or the guy who they had meet me at the mall to tell me that he used to be gay but was straight now. It was very traumatizing and it’s still very hard for me.
PGN: How so?
TJB: Holding hands in public, kissing someone … [Pauses] You were just taught for so long that what you felt was bad that it’s hard to move on, even when you know better.
PGN: What do you like to do outside of the tent?
TJB: I like to practice my clowning. I’m into sewing, knitting and crocheting.
PGN: Do you want to get into clowning?
TJB: Yes, it encompasses everything I want to do. There’s so much sadness in the world right now. To be able to make people forget for a few hours, to make them smile or laugh, is something magical. It’s what I strive to do.
For more information, visit http://www.universoulcircus.com.