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.