Feature Article Vol. VIII, No. 5

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Has Been Defying All Odds

for Twenty Five Years

Keith and Stephanie in classic form

At this point in its nearly twenty-five year history the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus has produced more than a dozen off and off-off Broadway shows and custom designed and created shows for a variety of special audiences, both family oriented and adult shows.

It all began with a series of what at first seemed personal disasters which eventually turned out to be serendipitous encounters.

In 1993 Stephanie Monseu, a life-long resident of Flushing Queens, NY, was pursuing a degree in jewelry design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  She was in her final year, and as usual was roller blading to school when she was hit by a car.  Her injuries were severe enough to force her to drop out of school, and needing to make a living, she began waiting on tables, which is how and where she met Keith Nelson who was working in the kitchen of the same restaurant as the one where she began as a waitress.

Keith, who was born in Holden, MA and raised in North Carolina, had just graduated from Hampshire College, which he explains was the kind of school where one could design one’s own major. His was the aptly named Public Spectacle.  The final hurdle to graduating was the writing of a senior thesis.  His was on anarchist theory and street theater.  His college roommate was David Hunt, who went on to found Circus Bello.   It was he who taught Keith his first circus skill: juggling.  They began developing passing routines and got the idea of hitting the road as street performers after graduating, Keith’s first revelatioin to the notion that one could make a living from this kind of work.

By the time Keith and Stephanie met in 1994, Keith had already acquired a few sideshow skills, most notable among them was fire eating which he acquired by trading a bottle of whiskey for lessons. It was also the first skill he taught Stephanie in the alley behind the restaurant where they were both working.  That led to their forming a performing partnership called Fire Play whose work consisted mainly of setting things on fire.  They first performed this pyrotechnic fantasy, essentially a fire eating act, at a weekly cabaret in Brooklyn, which featured a different theme each week, a format that came to define what would eventually become the Bindlestiff’s  variety shows from then on through ‘95-’96.

The couple’s travels eventually took them to the Burning Man Festival in the desert where they came across a circus tent someone was burning, perhaps the genesis of Keith’s obsession with performing in a tent. They joined up with Chicken John of Circus Ridiculous.  It was while touring with Chicken that Keith says they learned everything about what not to do on tour. “It was nothing but pure passion driving us from town to town, trying to get enough gas to get down the road.”  It was also then that they started bringing circus arts into non-traditional venues.  Every night they did a different show, even as they were still trying to figure out how to make it work.

As the duo traveled they inevitably met people with similar interests from whom they began expanding their circus and sideshow skills.

Keith and Stephanie on the midway with Ward Hall’s sideshow. Photo by Paul Gutheil

The following year, 1995, their partnership took on an even more permanent nature when they formed the Bindelstiff Family Cirkus. Although their work was leaning more and more into the realm of circus the unconventional spelling was a signal that theirs was not to be an ordinary circus.  They found the word “bindlestiff” while flipping through a dictionary.  It was a reference to a vagabond, a hobo character with his worldly possessions tied in a bundle at the end of a stick.   The word also gave birth to Keith’s clown character based on the famous Emmett Kelly, recalling one of Keith’s earliest memories.

Keith’s first introduction into the world of circus came when his parents took him to a mud show that visited his hometown. He was immediately drawn to a sideshow attraction, and he happily paid 25 cents to see a shaved dog ballyhooed as the elephant dog. When he was about ten his parents gave him an Emmett Kelly ventriloquist doll, and he set about learning that skill.  In his teens he followed the conventional path of boyhood and joined the Boy Scouts.  But even here his taste for the exotic found expression in his being named chief of ceremonies, those ceremonies, of course, for Keith, consisted of spectacular fire shows.

In attempting to analyze how their partnership has survived for nearly twenty-five years Stephanie says, “We are very different people emotionally, and creatively. We balance each other.  We both allow each other creative freedom.”   Neither has said no to the other.  For them everything seemed possible so there was nothing to fight over.  Since they built the Bindlestiffs by hand from scratch together, they never felt pitted against each other.  Their’s was a true friendship and a committed one.  Although there is no paper documenting that commitment Stephanie says they are in “a committed life partnership; we own property together and are committed to each other emotionally.

“We try to work out any power struggles in a way that we can make them into an act. We’ve worked out a lot of stuff on stage in public by role play and gender play.  What we did was really early performance art.”

Keith adds to that assessment by saying , “we trust each other and silently do what the other doesn’t. Our strengths fall into different areas and besides that we love each other.  Trying to keep an art form alive against all common sense takes up all their energy.”

In those early years Stephanie recalls how they kept coming across people within the circus community and following them and learning skills from them, building a community of like-minded, and wildly talented people.  Despite his already extensive repertoire Keith keeps looking to add new skills, which he seems to do at least once a month.  He says that he has a half dozen acts that he can throw together from his bag of tricks, many of which he has learned from old-timers.  “Most of the people who know the skills I do are in their 90s.”  These are people he likes to hang out with while they are still around and able to pass on their esoteric skills.

Keith and Stephanie at their annual event in Niblo’s Garden in Greenwood Cemetery

In all their years of traveling Stephanie estimates that they have made thousands of connections, particularly since 2000.  “Sometimes people find us and sometimes it’s vice versa.”   The open mic sessions which the company stages once a month in Manhattan have proven to be a valuable source of introductions to new people.

But of all the tricks in Keith and Stephanie’s repertoire none is more impressive than their ability to stay solvent and thriving financially for all those twenty-five years. Unlike other non-profits, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is not solely reliant on gifts; they are mainly living off earned income. Individually and as a duo they have performed in every conceiveable venue, from corporate gigs to cruise ships to night clubs.  All of their personal earnings from these gigs was channeled into the Bindlestiffs.  As Stephanie explains,  the non-profit  is “a third partner in anything we do as artists. That has floated the company over its entire existence.  We are like a small mom and pop enterprise.”  Credit their constant work ethic on both their parts, doing whatever was necessary, taking “every kind of gig you can imagine.”  Only recently has the non-profit begun to pay them a salary.  They have recently hired a development director to pursue more funding beyond the corporate clients that have provided stable income over the long haul.

Stephanie helps wherever needed.

Keith in director mode

In 2005 the couple bought a home in upstate New York in the community of Hudson. It is a three minute walk to the local Amtrack station and a two hour train ride into the city.  Fifteen years ago suffering from the stresses of loft life, they started looking for a space outside of their Brooklyn studio. Managing their work in the city had become too difficult.  So they drew concentric  circles from their then current location  and visited dozens of little towns looking for something suitable that they could afford.  It wasn’t until they got 120 miles from New York that anything like that became possible.  It has proven to be a highly fortuitous move.

What they found when they first arrived in Hudson was a community with limited access to the arts. There was a need, but also a desire and available event funding.  In terms of making art, however, it was certainly more challenging, especially in terms of not living next door to the circus community.  But in Hudson they now have lots of space which had become the most serious concern in the city.  Now they don’t have to be so worried about the clock ticking and rental costs rising with each tick.

Most importantly the move has changed the scope of their program offerings.  They have developed an after school program in circus arts.  They teach in two community centers with enormous gymnasiums that can accommodate aerial rigging.  They have also formed a partnership with a former opera house in Hudson with three residencies.  This past spring they also connected with the local community college, where, as Stephanie says, “Our need for space was coincident to theirs.”

All told, the move has allowed the Bindlestiffs to become an integral part of a community in Columbia County, New York. Here they are making a larger impact than they have ever managed before because everyone knows what they do. A local firm, the Drop Forge and Tool Co. has helped create affordable housing and creation space for artists, making it possible to accommodate visiting artists comfortably.

Despite the success of the move, it has been difficult for Keith to completely cut his ties with New York. He still maintains his loft in Brooklyn, so his time is spent about 50/50 between Hudson and Brooklyn.

Bindlestiffs other impressive feat is audience building. How they have  done that over the years is best explained by Stephanie: “We have a team who work hard at using all the new digital outlets available out there.  We make an effort to see that circus is accessible.  The goal is to have 60 percent of the audience at each event  new and formerly unknown.

One of their own annual programs, the Unicycle Fest, is a significant attention getter, particularly for people who have not been aware of their existence before attending this city-wide event. But in reality everything they do helps build an audience base.

Another of the recently developed programs has been the First of May competition. “So much of what we do is nurturing and helping our generation, always put the artist first even above finances.  The competition defines out company.  That plus the  Cavalcade of Youth and Open Stage are ways in which the Bindlestiffs have been able “to create something new and beautiful.  We’re now in position,” Keith says, “to help younger folks on their projects,”  with three to four awards given each year ranging from $750 to $1000 for innovative circus styled shows.

Even with all their apparent success both Keith and Stephanie have a few unfulfilled ambitions. Stephanie was recently able to take one off her bucket list when she was asked to perform as the ringmaster under a tent for the most recent Big Apple Circus production.  Her personal ambition currently is to see Bindlestiff  Family Cirkus  evolve from a mom pop operation into something that has a legacy outside of Keith and Stephanie.  That will entail growing the board of directors and finding ways to survive the next 25 years of restricted government funding.  Developing patronage is therefore an important step to make.  That ambition may seem outside of Stephanie’s area  of expertise, but, she explains, “although I have always been an artist there is also some DNA of an executive  in me as well.”

As for Keith who is 49 years old, “I want to own a Speigel tent and tour it.  That is not necessarily Stephanie’s  ambition but I feel our intimacy fits that tent perfectly.  From all the people we have run across over the years I know we could create a pretty good tent crew to make it work.”  And in the meantime, he says, “I’d like to create an artistic cycle act.”