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Meet the PCAC – Pittsburgh’s band of misfits

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April Bryan and Gene Smith’s wedding was a real circus.

Stilt walkers served as flower girls. A magician made cold feet disappear. Jugglers, acrobats and fire breathers sat among the dearly beloved.

For members of the Pittsburgh Circus Arts Collaborative performance troupe, spreading joy is all in a day’s work.

“The whole night from start to finish was the best night of our lives, and Pittsburgh Circus Arts Collaborative was a huge part of that,” said Bryan, adding that her photographer snapped more than 2,000 pictures. “She said, ‘I couldn’t stop! Everyone was so happy and so many smiles, there was a picture to be had every second!’”

Founded in September 2016, PCAC is made up of about two dozen people with skills ranging from contortionism to hula hooping. This merry band of misfits is available for hire to give any event a carnivalesque kick. Over the past two years, PCAC has done more than 150 gigs, including weddings, birthday parties, community festivals, carnivals, corporate picnics and parades.

Michael Willis, a professional DJ, event planner, nightlife marketing consultant and owner of Modern Era Weddings, needed circus “freaks” to entertain at various parties throughout the city so he took to social media. Before he knew it, there were folks doing death-defying stunts in his South Side office.

“It wasn’t until I started working with these performers that I really felt the flame of artistic passion again,” Willis said. “We put everybody in the same room, and everything morphed into this collection of incredible art.”

Jason Kirin grew up in Monroeville and took up juggling to earn a gym credit in high school. His natural aptitude for the act led to the formation of his alter-ego, Zero. The longtime solo artist says partnerships with other entertainers have refined his skills. He even teaches at Iron City Circus Arts, a South Side-based school that offers classes in aerial arts, pole dancing, fitness, floor acrobatics and juggling.

Thanks to fellow juggler O’Ryan the O’Mazing, Zero went from tossing rubber balls to playing with fire.

Willis was quick to point out that all PCAC employees are fully insured.

O’Ryan the O’Mazing, whose full name is O’Ryan McGowan-Arrowroot, left his West Virginia home when he was 17. He went from busking on local street corners to doing shows at orphanages in Thailand.

“Sometimes you go out on the stage and you don’t know who you are going to be yet,” he said. “Different audiences bring something different out of you.”

Tara Kirkman, organizer of the Pittsburgh Freaky Fair, a bi-annual pop-up marketplace for macabre art and vintage goods, hired PCAC because they meshed well with her event’s spooky aesthetic.

“They have the ability to really customize their performances so this is very appealing to many organizations, like mine,” she said. “For example, they did their makeup and dressed like creepy circus people you’d see in a haunted house, and the contortionist even did a backwards crab walk through the fair, as a nod to ‘The Exorcist!’ It was amazing!”

PCAC members can easily tone down the scare-factor to appear at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

“When thinking about groups to bring in for programming that ties into events or our exhibits, I’m anchored by our mission to provide innovative museum experiences that inspire joy, creativity and curiosity,” said Zena Ruiz, the facility’s arts and cultural manager. “The PCAC definitely inspires all these qualities in our visitors. I’m more excited that they are makers themselves. Many of the props they use, like the rola bola and stilts, they make or customize to suit their needs.”

Zero smiled and said that PCAC uses drywall stilts purchased from Home Depot.

While he doesn’t have any circus skills, Willis has taught his staff how to balance a budget, juggle venue bookings, bend to the whims of a client and walk a tightrope between business and pleasure.

The group currently is looking to rent a rehearsal space – preferably a large warehouse that allows open flames – where they can practice their original stage show that’s set to debut this spring.

“It’s great to see the joy the performers get out of it,” Willis said. “I want to help them become more sustainable through their art.”

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/pghcircusarts .

Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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