January Artist Spotlight: Circus Artist, Benjamin Domask

Hey Benjamin, thanks for taking the time out of your day to do this interview. You are the only artist on our roster that does your art form, Circus Arts. Can you tell us about it and how you got into it?

My background has many different facets; while I was growing up I played video games, loved movies, even played sports. Magic was one activity that kept my attention. I checked out as many books on magic as I could to learn as much as possible. My father noticed this and decided to teach me to juggle, “A magician should be able to do something magical with anything.”

As I set off to college the world seemed to keep telling me I needed to have a good career and with that in mind I started a degree in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology. I realized quickly that I could do it, but, I really did not want to and I adjusted my major to Psychology. Every well written book on magic had a chapter on Psychology so this seemed like a logical choice.

While in college I continued to grow my juggling skills, even going so far as to resurrect the long forgotten juggling club. Lucky for those who joined, the old club had left all the juggling props in a back storage area! We’d meet a few times a week and try to work out different juggling patterns, a fellow student joined one day who happened to be a world class juggler. After weeks of watching him I decided to ask him to teach me what he knew, “No.” The reply came quickly. I decided that I would work even harder to get to a level where he would want to teach me.

Nearing the end of my time in college I happened upon a campus improv troupe’s show who was holding auditions for next year’s group. I spent all summer studying improv by watching “Whose Line is it Anyway” and reading (notice a trend here?). I auditioned and got in! That same year two of the other improv members and myself auditioned for the Minnesota Renaissance festival…and got in. I waved goodbye to a prestigious career as a psychologist and dove headfirst into performing.

I learned quickly that I had NO idea what I was doing and began to devote my time and energy into researching, performing, practicing, and developing the skills I needed. The last few years have included countless workshops with master teachers, attending juggling festivals to teach, learn, and perform, teaching at two youth circus schools (Circus Juventas, St. Paul, MN and Circus Harmony, St. Louis, MO), developing solo and duo shows with Thom Wall and Joshua Palmer and collaborating with Vlad Messing. Of course, none of this would be managed without the help of my Manager, Afton Benson. (A large part of the reason I am who I am.)

What is your favorite thing about performing?

I still don’t know…there is a need to show people what we are capable of emotionally, physically, and mentally, that we all have the capacity to become what we want to become. Additionally: I get the chance to share love.

Did you have any big influences that made you interested in circus arts?

When I started performing I didn’t know a lot about the world of circus, but my job at a toy store led me to meet more performers and getting to work with Circus Juventas. Working with them gave me a look into the world of circus and the opportunity to connect with professional circus artists, which was really inspiring.

As I’ve grown in the world of circus I have found a few people I am heavily influenced by:

Thom Wall - He is an amazing juggler and performer. We met at a juggling convention. I saw him perform and was mesmerized. I wanted to be able to do the things he did! We have become very good friends and we’ve performed all around the states!

Jay Gilligan - Is a human, juggler, philosopher, teacher, and performer. He wrote the book, ‘5 Catches’ I read it cover to cover in one sitting and wrote questions about the book. At the end of the book it said to send him questions if we (the reader) had any… Did I have any?! Instead of sending him my questions, I answered my own questions and sent him those responses to get his thoughts. He (graciously) took the time to write a long reply and we started a conversation that completely changed the way I thought about performing, jugging, life… really everything!

Etienne Decroux - Is considered the father of modern mime. He wrote the book/autobiography called ‘Words on Mime.’ I’ve read this many times and talked with my Mime Masters (Decroux’s assistants) about the topics he wrote about.

There are many, many more artists who inspire me, too many to list!

When and where was your first performance? How did it go?

My first ‘professional’ performance was for a small dance studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Their recital was circus themed and they wanted some circus acts to help make the recital longer. I was asked if I could perform a little bit. They asked for 30 minutes. Thirty minutes… is a long time.

I worked for HOURS upon HOURS creating, learning, and piecing together everything I could. My father came and drove me to the event. I remember being deadly nervous. Shaking. Anxious. Ready to run away. It turned out wonderfully. A completely supportive audience.

What does teaching provide you with that performing doesn't?

Teaching and performing are necessary on the journey of learning our art forms. You discover new ideas and boundaries in the world of teaching that you cannot find in performing. Teaching new students requires adapting to many different learning styles. During that adaptation you have the opportunity to discover a new concept about your art.

What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about circus arts?

The clichés we have all learned about the circus are being rewritten. Clown. Juggler. Mime. They have their own stereotypes attributed to them. But…

At one point in history doctors wouldn’t wash their hands before helping deliver a baby.
At one point in history painters didn’t know about perspective.
At one point in history the internet didn’t exist.
Everything has a renaissance period. Circus is just coming into and developing its own.

Have you been working on any new projects lately? If so, what are they?

Yes! My friends Vlad Messing, Neal Skoy, Alex Hathaway, and Joshua Palmer are coming together to devise a piece of theatre titled ‘Fat Cat Fall.’ We will play five mice under the regime of Fat Cat. We will explore through a unique style of physical theatre complex questions of society, leaders, followers, and relationships.

I have also received the offer to teach a Clown Camp in Mexico City in the month of March.

I was accepted into the Lookout Arts Quarry in Washington in April and May. I will receive time and space to create a piece of performance art that expresses my ideas on our reliance of objects. And then many small projects here and there. Needless to say, 2017 will be full of excitement (and travel!)

You are fairly new to the COMPAS roster, what is it like so far to be a COMPAS artist?

There is a certain amount of pride I feel saying I am a part of COMPAS. I love meeting other COMPAS artists out in the wild and having a connection. I am excited to have my first chance to represent the values of COMPAS in a school.

Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?

I think the people that live in Minnesota are unique from many of the people I have met around the world. (Isn’t everyone unique?) But something about Minnesota folk have me thinking I’m lucky.

Cities have different speeds to them. Chicago is wicked fast paced compared to St. Louis. And both pale in comparison to Mumbai! Minnesota (the Twin Cities in particular) seems to have a perfect balance of speed.  I think this idea allows me to really develop a well-rounded way of approaching my work. (How? Well… that is a different discussion.)

How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

Everything I do is to foster my creativity. Every moment is utilized during the day. It could be in the way I move to pick something up. It could be the way I say hello to a server at a restaurant. It could be how I am answering this question. I try to take each occurrence throughout the day and analyze why they happened. As an actor: so that I can act better. As a clown: so that I can clown better. As a musician: so that I can express the music better.

But that is all theoretical practice. In order to apply that theory, I train my juggling in a structured format. I practice my movements in a mirror. I study and repeat clown bits I find. I ‘play the scales’ of each of the different fields of art I am interested in daily.

How does this apply to creativity? For me, true creativity is improvised. The stronger skills we have, the better we are able to translate our subconscious expressions into what we create.