Photography: Casey Rearick
None of childhood’s flights of fancy bear greater wings than running away with the circus when it comes to town. Initiated into a deeper mystery of colorful characters and uncanny abilities, the scope of reality broadens in the presence of such performers. Curtains rise—romantic with the legacy of traveling caravans and tents—and then fall—leaving the audience witness to the spectacle of imagination. Strongmen, aerialists, sideshow acts, singers, dancers, and magicians—not as nostalgic legend, but here, now.
The Wizbang! is in town.
Fused from an amalgam of diverse talents gathered together by showrunners and performers Jason and Danielle Tilk, the Wizbang! has already begun developing a cult following in the few years they’ve been performing as one. The troupe’s first tents were raised with help from Ingenuity Labs funding and a Kickstarter campaign, which funded their performance at 2013’s IngenuityFest. Not long after, they would be selling out shows for hometown crowds before beginning successful tours of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Dubuque, Columbus, and points in between.
Raised on Smothers Brothers reruns as well as the stage acts of magicians Tommy Cooper and Paul Daniels, Danielle’s innate vibrancy proved a rush of oxygen to a fire Jason had kept kindling over the years. A product designer by day with his name attached to over a dozen patents, Jason recalls first meeting his future wife: “She had an accordion when we met. When we got together, she reignited my joy in being a ham. Next thing I know, we’re writing sketches and I’m accompanying her on accordion.”
Soon, Jason and Danielle would be taking stages as Pinch and Squeal, respectively. Their alter egos’ costumes and songs are a gonzo pastiche owing to the traditions of carnival and vaudeville acts as well as pop culture institutions like Hee-Haw and Laugh In. While the pair would later meet with other wildly diverse talents to form the nucleus of what was to be the Wizbang!, Danielle’s pursuit of the stage first saw light early in her childhood.
“I did musical theater growing up and Russian-technique ballet. At fifteen I realized I didn’t want to do other people’s dances anymore.” Taking cues from inspirations like the Carol Channing, Phyllis Diller, and French singer Edith Piaf, she counts the multitude of styles and acts she’s performed off the tips of her fingers. “I did some Liza Minnelli impersonations in Arizona and learned belly dancing—dancing in restaurants and teaching while I was putting shows together. I kept adding, with my dancers, more showboat stuff, weird costumes. That’s when I realized there was more to this.”
“We cut our teeth in the neo-burlesque scene,” Jason adds of their early days. “The groups that were putting on shows, they were having variety performers, like us, in their shows, and then we met all these amazing characters. That’s what started us curating our own variety shows.”
Half the thrill for the showrunners lies in finding homes for all the disparate talents they recruit through their travels. From the Hungarian violinist to the cadre of hip-hop dancers in Detroit they’re in the midst of carving places for, the joy of Wizbang! is the breathtaking diversity of its acts.
“We like to add local talent in while we’re away,” Jason remarks of the ever-fluid lineup. “If there’s a performer in Grand Rapids, maybe it’s a little much to ask her to come all the way to Cleveland, but Detroit is an easier sell.”
Jason considers his retinue: “Half of the draw is their stage performance and talent, but another huge half it is their personality. Basically everyone that we perform with is welcome in our home when they’re traveling through town.”
“Yeah, it’s like the Happiness Hotel in the Muppet Show,” Danielle laughs. “Fortunately, we’ve never really had a problem with egos. We’ve always communicated really well that we’re in this together.”
2013’s Ingenuityfest served as a baptism by fire with the troupe performing between 20 to 30 15-minute shows over the weekend while still in its infancy. The event offered insight for Danielle on the unique, organized chaos the Wizbang! would run on going forward. “I learned quickly, ‘What can you give that’s different but rhythmic and people get a lot for a little bit of time?’ Then we were doing stuff like putting the strong guy with the cabaret singer. I love people walking away wondering what it was they saw.”
Aside from a small handful of performers that have earned a wider latitude from sharing the stage with Pinch and Squeal over the years, the two take ownership of the show, maintaining a level of uncompromising wonder throughout the bill. Danielle explains, “All of the acts in between that, we have them show us what they’re going to do. I’m constantly working with them, so it’s theirs. It’s not me giving them a script.”
Jason adds,“The bottom line is we’ve got such insane respect for our performers that, simultaneously, we see a vision for them in their act and if they need any help, it’s always a collaborative effort.”
Possessing a special, manic energy, the shows never spin out of control. Rather, it is this very flirtation with insanity that has come to serve as the Wizbang’s most endearing feature. Whether it a banjolele- and accordion-clad Pinch and Squeal, one of the Big Icky’s feats of self-flagellation, Will Oltman’s triple threat of juggling, puppetry, and interpretive ‘90s nostalgia-dance (replete with Skip-Its, slap bracelets, and pogs), or any number of the night’s other unpredictable acts, the audience hasn’t a chance knowing what they’ll see next.
Jason jokes, “We always says, ‘If you don’t like this act, wait five minutes.’”
Employing method to their madness, their ever-adapting presence has allowed them all the wider an audience. “We do kids shows every once and a while. Family friendly in the afternoon. Not that our evening shows are that much, but they’re a little more risqué.”
“That’s my fault,” Danielle cops with a laugh.
“It was really fun doing [the kids shows],” Jason reveals. “She sings Edith Piaf’s ‘Padam’ and I play the accordion while she brings kids on stage. She makes them hold her sheet music and messes up their hair. Everybody laughs, but she’s singing and there are these kids in the audience the whole time that are just completely enthralled.”
The performance offered a profound insight for Danielle. “I almost held back on doing that song thinking they were going to get bored. That’s when I realized, ‘No, you give them something odd and magical sounding and they’ll listen.’”
Affording this relentless pace is their learned mastery over efficient stagecraft, working with only the bare minimum before passing the floor to the next act. “We’ve always kept it really simple,” Danielle explains. “We’re on and off—ten minutes. It’s getting a little bit more elaborate now that we’re working together for a long time. We like to keep it simple though for the audience to use their imagination. I think that’s part of the magic. You don’t want to force a feeling.”
Remaining true to those lessons, learned on the road and between friends, has seen the Wizbang! expand as prolifically as their desire is to perform. With restorations scheduled for completion later this summer, North Collinwood’s vintage La Salle Theatre stands to serve as the group’s de facto base of operations. Jason explains, “We were looking for a home. We’ve got an arrangement with Northeast Shores to put on shows there—big Wizbang! shows.” In addition to staging larger performances that will see portions of proceeds going toward rehabilitative non-profits, the duo is also considering the potential of creating a circus school on the grounds. “We love the idea of bringing kids in and teaching them stuff and putting on little recitals, making variety shows for them.”
If that wasn’t enough, the pair maintains a regular spot most Friday nights at Pickwick and Frolic and is in talks with Cleveland Public Theatre to begin a recurring nightclub act in addition to the larger Wizbang! performances.
Championing invitation over confrontation, politics remain the only subject from which both Pinch and Squeal are strident for the Wizbang! to avoid. The disconnect from our own world is what fosters such wonder in the one they’ve created. A boundless enthusiasm courses through every instant of their live performances. Theirs is a joy that is not at odds with our reality, simply one to which they are fantastically alien. Jason admits, “I would love to make a statement, but simultaneously I want people to just forget for a minute.”
Such is the magic of their traveling circus. They are misfits, weirdos, sideshows, and self-avowed oddballs. They are also some of the most incredibly talented, dedicated, generous, and beautiful people on a single bill. That’s Wizbang! for you: they pitch a big tent and there’s room for everybody.
“It’s like we say,” Jason and Danielle explain in unison, “Pinch and Squeal: one fan at a time.”
THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS:
You’ve met the ringleaders, now meet the rest of the Wizbang! performers
Powers: “I’m something of a pain psychic. I divine my images by having pain inflicted on me.”
Origins: “I’ve always had a darker side in general. … I built my own bed of nails. I picked up juggling, oddly enough, on my honeymoon with my ex-wife.”
On pain: “ People know that sensation. They can associate with what’s happening to me on stage because everyone has done something to hurt themselves by accident.”
Desired superpower?: “Wolverine’s healing factor. Then I could set myself on fire on stage. It would look horrific, but in a couple hours I’d be fine.”
Powers: “I play a Jazzercise guru who needs to constantly chain smoke cigarettes and sing at the top of her lungs.”
Origins: “[Danielle and I] used to perform together in a different entity, and then we got together one night and she came up with this brilliant idea of this character and I immediately said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is hilarious. Let’s do this!’”
Inspirations: YouTube clips from ‘70s and ‘80s exercise videos
Dream Stage: “The Tiboli in Copenhagen. It’s the world’s oldest amusement park. It’s so charming and kitschy.”
Keith Cavey aka Sweet Keith
Powers: “I take parts as narrator, jokester, singer, and foil to Pinch and Squeal.”
Origins: “I played [piano] for eight-and-a-half years with various Marine Corps bands and went all over. I played at Reagan’s funeral. I met Squeal while I was playing downtown at a burlesque show.”
Inspirations: “Tom Lear. Tom Waits. I’ve been on a big diva kick lately, so I’m really into Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce.”
What cartoon should join the WizBang!?: “Calvin [of Calvin and Hobbes]. I like his imagination. Who knows what he would bring, but he’s got a ‘bad boy’ spirit and an edgy philosophical air about him.”
Powers: “I’m a little German theatre mixed with American vaudeville mixed in with surreal humor.”
Origin: “I was in an art band in the eighties. We were still punks, but we were arty-farty punks. Then I carried on that sort of machismo into Satori Circus, which I started in ’88.“
Inspirations: “Buster Keaton. Captain Kangaroo. I absolutely adored Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers. Then I got into my teens and it was Monty Python.”
Monster Team-up: “It wouldn’t be Nosferatu. We look too similar. I think Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s version because that dude was smart.”