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Northwest circus voyeurism

The Flaming Idiots - 2009 Credit: Photo: Michelle Bates

For over 20 years, Michelle Bates has been steeped in the local physical theater scene. She’s been photographing circus performers and their wacky brethren street performers, jugglers and those who commit themselves to solo shows.

She was the first photographer at The Stranger. She was also one of the first photographers charged with documenting the annual Moisture Festival, the month-long comedy and variety bash that begins again March 20.

She first started photographing performers on a fluke. A friend asked her to shoot a fundraising benefit and the UMO Ensemble performed. “I was like, ‘You guys are amazing.’”

“I like working with people who are creating their own work, whether that’s a circus act or a solo show. I like doing this work. You get to meet really interesting people and you get to check out great work. It’s a great world to be in.” 

A show featuring Bates’ work is now up in the gallery at Seattle’s West of Lenin.

Here are a few tidbits behind some of her images.                                                         

Kevin Joyce in “A Pale and Lovely Place” – 1996

“I stood on a chair in my living room at the time and I stuck a flash on my camera. His character is creepy, so I wanted to capture that. I used a wide-angled lens. I try and go off on what people tell me during the shoot. And then it’s a dance of interpretation."

Kevin Joyce is still performing with his wife Martha Enson. They have a Vashon Island-based company called EnJoy Productions, which puts on all sorts of events for corporations and non-profits. He's also completing a graduate degree in organizational leadership.






Mik Kuhlman in her solo show “House #30” – 2013

“Mik used to live in a beautiful house on Vashon Island that was gutted by a fire. I was with her [right after the fire was put out] and we were walking around this smoking, stinky, soggy house and were able to look around at what was left behind and she said, ‘This is beautiful. Michelle, you should photograph this.’ Which totally blew my mind.

“In 2000, she put a show together that was about the house, talking about the day of and the day after the fire. She had moved around a lot and this had been the 30th house she had lived in. She performed inside a fabric house and you can see some of my images of what remained of her house on the walls of the fabric."

Kulhman is currently in New York but will return to the Pacific Northwest later this year. She is developing "House #30" and is hoping to restage it soon.


Alex Zerbe – 2012

“He calls himself a zaniac. He’s fun and full of energy. He’s a comedian/juggler/performer. He brought in a mini-trampoline and these scrolls of paper. He’d jump up and throw them out to me. We had to keep doing it until we got one shot that works.

“He has this rubbery, elastic face. One of the best parts about working with performers is they know what they look like and they know how they want to present themselves.”

The comedian/juggler and Hacky Sack World Champion will be performing at the upcoming Moisture Festival.

Michael Neff, co-founder of 14/48: The World's Quickest Theater Festival, writing a short play late at night – 2002

“Writers, directors, actors and a whole bunch of people get together and they have to create 14 short plays in 48 hours. They come in on a Thursday. The writers pick a theme at random and then that night they’re told to go home and write a 10-minute play. In the morning, they deliver a script. Then they perform the play for the world.

“I would shoot in the evening and most of the day, then I would go process the film and make contact sheets and prints and then I would have them hanging up in the lobby, in time for the performance.

“I wanted to follow the writers around because they’re at the core. This is Michael Neff, a classic shot of him writing in a bar with a drink and a cigarette. I think this is at Belltown Pizza.”

Neff is living in L.A. "14/48, The World's Quickest Theater Festival" has recently morphed into "The 14/48 Projects," which aims to bring the festival to new audiences around the world. The organization also produces Theater Anonymous in Seattle. 

Michael Trautman at Moisture Festival – 2011

“He’s a great performer, who gets these kids to balance on his face. And it’s completely out there.

“This festival is 4-weeks long. After a while, you get warmed up at the festival and sometimes my finger knows what’s going to happen before my head does. So I’ll take these pictures of things during live performances and there’s a skill predicting when something’s going to happen. It’s pretty fun."

Trautman has been performing full-time since 1977. Next stop is Florida for a couple of weeks.

About the photo: "I've been doing that trick with the kid in that chair since 1982. Michelle managed to capture the best photo of that moment. And it's a trick that has been shot MANY times!"





The Flaming Idiots

“We did a number of normal pictures, them standing in front of a backdrop, doing their whatever ridiculousness. And then we came up with this idea of putting their heads through the paper. I’m not sure who came up with the idea. When you’re rolling along, it’s a collaboration.”

Another related tidbit: This photo was a promotional shoot for the group’s upcoming appearance in New York. It ended up on a billboard in Times Square.

According to their website, The Flaming Idiots' last performances were in 2009.

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