Circus success: Grads who trade boardroom for the Big Top

The fire-breathing, nail beds and sword-swallowing of circus sideshows captured Thom Britton's attention at age 14. And so, after graduating from University of Alabama with a degree in computer science, he decided to pursue his true passion. Even as he finished his freshman year, he knew that he preferred the circus. So he finished his degree to satisfy his father--then ran away, so to speak, to follow his big-top dreams.

"I have a knack for it and I knew I had some sort of ability because my first shows were hits," said Britton. "I thought, 'I'll never have that with computers...' Other than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates no one can name anyone else in computers, so if I am going to make a mark on something, I have more of a gift here [in the circus business] than with computers."

Britton's colleague Samuel Sion, the entertainment director of Circo Rose Entertainment, agrees that working with the circus has perks that day jobs lack. The director and specialty trapeze artist enjoys working the hours he chooses and the opportunity to travel the world. "It's rewarding," said Sion. "It gives you a thrill that you don't get anywhere else."

Britton, the side show performer who performs at Sion's circus as well as at the Flying Cat Circus, has a quality that sets him apart from most circus folk: He always reveals his tricks. He specializes in skills such as breathing fire, swallowing swords and lying on a bed of nails, which are learned skills rather than optical illusions. He believes that explaining exactly how he hammers a nail through his head or extinguishes a torch with his mouth helps the audience better appreciate his show. "That's what makes what I do better than magic," said Britton.

Although he reveals his secrets, he warns that each trick takes time and patience to learn. His "Human Blockhead," where he shoves a nail through his nose, relies on a nasal passage that he stretched over the course of years. He said that he burned his mouth the first time he attempted to eat fire. Britton compared this skill to playing a musical instrument. "I can explain how to hold your tongue [so it doesn't burn], but it's like explaining how to play an F on a clarinet," he said. "You've just got to keep working through it until you get the F note."

This unique style of performing helps Britton bring home the bacon. He performs at a variety of theaters and smaller, hole-in-the-wall venues, but prefers the theater because the lighting and presentation help elevate his art form. In the past, shows at colleges such as Michigan Tech and Eastern Illinois University have provided a large source of income for Britton. He rarely charges more than $2,000 for these shows unless his venue, for example a four-year college, has a large budget and can afford to pay more. He keeps his costs low because he likes exposing different people to the circus and spreading art appreciation, but he's never lost money on a show since he started performing at 16 years old. "You cannot have a flop at 300 or 3,000 [audience members]. You are too intimately connected to your market," said Britton.

Britton plans to use his business and performing skills to open his own venue in Chicago. In two years, after he attends culinary school, he will be able to work every section of his future restaurant-circus theater. His computer science degree helps him with the financial aspect of his profession and as soon as he has a degree in cooking, he feels he'll be better informed and able to hire a chef. "I don't like relying on other people for the important stuff," said Britton, who believes that there's a large profit to be made by performing circus skills in a permanent theater venue.

Zacc Fricke, who teaches circus and has also spent a significant amount of time performing, agrees that there are plenty opportunities and money to be made in the circus profession. Other than teaching, he points out that most traveling circuses hire local acts, which allows performers the opportunity to participate in the shows without constantly leaving home. In the past, Fricke's made a lot of cash by working as a jester at corporate events because, as is true in most performing arts, private events pay the most.

Fricke makes most of his circus cash by teaching clown, unicycle and trapeze classes to children at the Circus Juventas Youth Circus in St. Paul, Minn. He's paid an hourly rate of $25 for teaching, but makes around $50-150 an hour when he performs. Recently, however, he's been leaning more toward teaching. "It's exciting to see a kid work hard at something for months and then all of a sudden, one day their body understands what they want it to do," said Fricke. "Seeing the excitement on their faces -- that's the big reward."
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