Stephanie Monseu didn’t run away to the circus, but her story is just as magical. She’s performed on the streets of New Orleans, did fire eating tricks five nights a week in New York clubs and founded her own circus based non-profit. Circus has been Monseu’s passion for 25 years, but this is her first year as a ringleader (or ringmaster if you’re feeling vintage) at Big Apple Circus. It’s her first time working in a tented circus and her first time working in an actual ring (as opposed to a stage), but you would never know that. Monseu is confident and comfortable as she leads me around. The wind presses the walls of the tent in closer and the lighting is dim, but Monseu ducks down and maneuvers around props and trunks to lead me her slice of space.
The little makeshift dressing room barely fits three people, but we pile in and watch as Monseu goes through her trunk. It’s filled with mementos from her travels, but the first thing she pulls out is an intricate drawing of Topsy the elephant that was made for her by a friend. After talking about the history of circus (Monseu is a self avowed history nerd), she takes us back to the ring where she shows us her favorite place to watch the show. With her head just peaking out from behind the stands, she can watch the performers and survey the crowd at the same time. “I need to connect with everyone in the show,” she explains.
It’s clear how important that connection is to Monseu. It’s the inclusiveness of circus, the ability to bring many different people together, that fascinates and drives her. As we chatted about the beginning of her career, her new schedule and her work with adults and children who have cognitive disabilities, inclusivity comes up again and again. Circus is her dream job because it’s open to everyone.
BYT: What was your first job?
Stephanie Monseu: My very first job was as a chambermaid. My family bought an old resort in the Catskill mountains in New York state and my sister and I at, I guess 11 and 12, were making beds and scrubbing floors and cleaning the rooms.
BYT: Did you like the job?
Monseu: I didn’t like the job, but I did like getting paid. There’s something really satisfying about cleaning things and making them sparkle… but I definitely got the lesson there. If you want things, you have to work for them and I’ve basically never stopped working. I was actually able to buy my first car before I could even legally get a license because I was making money as a waitress. At the age of 15 I purchased a used car and I had to wait a year before I could drive it.
BYT: What kind of car was it?
Monseu: It was a guacamole green 1977 Volkswagen Rabbit and I’ll never forget it.
BYT: How did you get involved with, not just Big Apple, but the circus in general?
Monseu: I think my interests lead me into the circus more than family tradition. I had always been really active in sports, I studied dance, I studied gymnastics, I was in theater, I played music… But I have to also say I’m a very avid reader and I love history, so the nerdy side of me is really appeased by the history of circus and the idea of creating possibilities using physical expression. Long story short, over the years I ended up going to FIT to study jewelry design and silversmithing in New York City. During the my final year, I got hit by a car and couldn’t completely my project, but on the road to recovery I started waiting table and met a guy who was a fire eater and a juggler.
In 1994, that was it. I bugged him and bugged him until he taught me how to eat fire. We quit our jobs and went to New Orleans to street perform and then hit the road and went to LA and San Francisco and then came back to New York City, working in clubs as a fire eating duo. At that time in New York City there was a major performance art scene at clubs like Limelight… This was even before Twilo. We very readily found work five nights a week eating fire in clubs. We just started meeting other people who had performance art backgrounds, dance, music, poetry and were really interesting in the circus concept, so we just started doing it on our own.
BYT: Clearly you’ve been doing this for many years, but this is your first year with Big Apple, why did you decide to make the jump?
Monseu: I always had a dream of being a ringmaster in a tented circus. The show I perform normally is theatrically based, we don’t own our own tent. So it was definitely a dream to stand in the middle of a ring and work with horses and a live band and travel all over the world and connect with an audience in that way. It all came together this year.
BYT: What is the difference between a tented circus and the theatrical performances you were doing?
Monseu: For us, it’s space. Working on a stage, even if you pretend there isn’t a fourth wall, there is. You’re literally separated from people by the height of the stage and the orientation of the audience. In a circus ring, you are surrounded by people, but I think even more profound then that, there’s people seeing each other across the ring. There’s that commonality of experience that is so powerful in the circus. We’re all experiencing superhuman feats and dreams taking flight and I can stare across the ring and see someone else being transported in the same way I am, I think it just really connects people in a different way.
BYT: What’s your schedule like these days?
Monseu: I’m a very early morning kind of person. I’m a runner, I meditate and I’m also the artistic director of my own circus company, Bindlestiff, which has been around for 25 years. I spend a good chunk of time every day doing administrative work for my own show. I run a couple of social circus programs in New York state and I’ve got two teams of coaches who work with kids and adults with cognitive disabilities and I do a lot of grant writing for those programs. My role as a ringmaster in Bindlestiff is a little different because I’m also a founder and administrator, but my role here is just as a creative person and I get to let this incredible team at Big Apple Circus do all the heavy lifting.
BYT: How did your work with children and adults with cognitive disabilities come about?
Monseu: I love what I do so much and when I see the changes it can make in people… This past decade has shown tremendous light on the positive impact that practicing a discipline like circus, which is ambidextrous, done with other people, non competitive. These disciplines can make a tremendous impact on development, in terms of cognitive functions if used in therapeutic settings for people that suffer traumatic brain injuries.
People are studying ways to use it with patients who are facing Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s used with kids who have traumatic backgrounds. It’s used for physical rehabilitation. All of those particular applications are really interesting to me, because I know that movement and physical activity has changed my life in the way that I think, in the way that I feel, physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t know. Everyone has their own particular area of interest and that’s one of mine.
We bought a house in Hudson, New York and moved out of New York City. As a new person in the community, I wanted to meet neighbors and I didn’t really know how to do that, but I do know live circus skills, so I thought I could offer that somehow. I ended up volunteering at a community center and then teaching there. Now it’s 10 years later and I’ve got a big program with 75 participants there and another 50 in New York City in a school in the East Village.
BYT: That’s really amazing.
Monseu: It’s nothing I invented on my own! There’s a very powerful group of peers in the American Circus Educators Organization, American Youth Circus Organization and they sort of spearheaded the idea of using circus in this way, and there’s a really big international movement. I’m really glad to be part of it.
I also want to say, the program that Big Apple has kept going, including Circus of the Senses and the autism shows fall into that tradition of understanding that circus is a very powerful artistic medium and it’s an inclusive experience. The more people who can feel included and have accessibility to it, the better for us all.
BYT: Do you have anyone in the circus world that inspires you?
Monseu: Yeah! Every day. It’s so hard to pick one… But I would have to say, right here in the Big Apple Circus, Jenny Vidbel is really an inspiring figure to me. She’s a very powerful self directed woman. She has the horse and dog acts on our show. She works with animals who were either sent to auction or are from pounds or other rescue services. She rescues animals and lives with them and works with them according to their interests. She also founded a nonprofit so children with various illnesses can be introduced to horses and animals. She takes care of her animals to an incredible extent, they’re apart of her family, and she’s just a really down to earth person.
When you see her in the ring working with animals, you feel the love radiating out of her. She works really hard. I see her up at 6 in the morning when I wake up and she’s got a pitchfork in her hands and boots on.Two hours later she’s in the ring in full make up and costume. She always has a great attitude, very positive, and that’s the kind of person I aspire to be.
BYT: What’s your favorite part of the show you’re doing right now?
Monseu: I love the Circus of the Senses a lot and I’m also very excited about an ASL night that we’re having on March 14. We actually have two very special shows that day. During the day we have Circus of the Senses, which is facilitated so people with hearing and visual disabilities and impairments can really experience the show. We have ASL interpreters and headsets with live narration. We also have a hands on segment, so after that early show, kids can come into the ring and touch one of Jenny’s ponies, they can try the circus props.
At night, we have an internationally known rapper and DJ, Sean Forbes, who is going to be our guest ringmaster. He’s also performing a live set with music in our mirror room after the show. I’m really excited about that, I love the inclusiveness of these shows. I love seeing families share the experience with their kids and watching the wonder on everybody’s face.
BYT: Since you travel extensively, what is the most important item you travel with?
Monseu: My running shoes! It’s the best way I’ve ever found to see a city and get a feel for what communities are like.