Chicago's nerd circus: An interview with Tana Karo of Acrobatica Infiniti

Do you know the origin of the word "geek," gentle reader? Predictably, it isn't very flattering! The term dates back to the early 20th century. "Geeks" were circus folk- and not funny clowns or brave lion tamers.

"Geek shows" featured gruesome acts, such as the biting/eating of live animals or insects. Audiences were meant to mock and jeer. These acts were the weirdest and darkest of the traveling production. (See the X-Files episode Humbug.)

Obviously, we have reclaimed the word in the past 100 years. Superhero movies, comic cons, sci-fi reboots- I don't even need to explain it. We won the culture war. Now, in 2015, a local group is taking back "geek" in the word's original home: the circus.

Acrobatica Infiniti lovingly calls itself "The Nerd Circus." Founded by Tana Karo, the show features aerials, acrobatics, and cosplay fun from iconic characters. AI just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign. The group is now gearing up for C2E2, this weekend's mega convention.

I sat down with Tana Karo, aka Tank, at The Wormhole in Wicker Park. She's the founder of Acrobatica Infiniti, calling the project "her baby." Here are Tana's thoughts on circus art in Chicago, and what AI has to offer the already-booming field of geek culture:

Tana Karo headshot

Geek Girl Chicago: "For the uninitiated, what is Acrobatica Infiniti?"

Tana Karo: "I'll start big picture. There isn't much of an infrastructure for solo artists in the circus industry, especially in Chicago. For years, I've wanted to start a project that helps circus artists connect with one another, and gives them resources- a safe place, basically, to communicate, ask questions, get answers, and share information."

GGC: "It sounds like Acrobatica Infiniti will be about a lot more than performance."

TK: "The goal is to open a training space that is solely a training space- not a school, not a day care... there are lots of schools in Chicago, and lots of teaching facilities- no just training spaces."

GGC: "What is the difference?"

TK: "A school is a place where students go to learn, and circus artists go to teach. Its main focus is the students, and being a sustainable business. A training space is, generally speaking, a community meeting center for professionals that need or want to practice or create new work. It takes the business aspect out of it, a little bit. There are spaces like that across Europe, and in other parts of the country. They end up being places where you reconnect with the rest of the industry. It can be quite isolating to be self-employed."

GGC: "Why did you choose the geek/cosplay theme for AI?"

TK: "That one's quite personal... I've been a nerd a lot longer than I've been a circus artist. At some point in my career, they started to intersect. I started to create acts that were themed. I had a Leeloo Dallas act for years, because of my hair. It was the most popular act that I had on offer, even for events that weren't themed.

Tana Karo as LeelooI think that, culturally, the timing is excellent for integrating with geek culture. It's blowing up, especially with all of the superhero movies being made. The comic cons are getting very popular, HBO is doing really well, AMC is doing really well. It's more mainstream than it has ever been. From a marketing perspective, that's a huge opportunity! I felt like, OK, it's now or never. We've gotta do this, or we're gonna miss the trend.

So, I started a group on Facebook that was private about 7-8 months ago, maybe more. I put all my nerd friends on it, and my circus friends on it, and asked them questions. 'Would you go see this show? Would you be a part of this show? Is this a thing? Could it be a thing?'

...The answer to all of those questions was, 'Absolutely.' We have more ideas than we can ever do in a lifetime, I think. Which ones are practical? Now, where do we take these ideas? Where do we put them, how do we implement them?

That has been my job. On top of touring, I've been running this company from overseas. I hired a friend- somebody I met in yoga class- who turned out to be an Arts Marketing Consultant. I recently hired Envy Us from Envy Us Cosplay as our Social Media Marketing Manager. I've got a 'Head Nerd Consultant,' [Sarah.] She used to be my double trapeze partner, but she retired. She's the biggest nerd I know. I go to her for accuracy criticisms and the like."

GGC: "You said you have more characters and ideas than you can use. What are some of your favorite acts you've put together for AI?"

TK: "We've got a Harley and Joker act. Now, I know they are cosplayed to death, but what I'm excited about is that they're doing a knife-throwing act. That's not something you see very often, especially not up-close.

The Harley character- that's Tosha- is a contortionist. She does lots of bendy, flippy stuff. The guy playing The Joker- his name's Bryan- he's a juggler and an acrobat. He tumbles, he juggles, they do some partner acrobatics, and then they throw knives at each other..."

AI performers

Mr. Spring and Natalie as Deadpool and Wonder Woman

GGC: "That's pretty in character!"

TK: "(laughs) I'm really excited. That one will be at C2E2. We debuted it at Links Hall a month ago, and it went really, really well. I'm also really excited about our Deadpool character... he does acrobatics, handstands, and physical comedy. He's a delight to watch.

One of our acts is Sailor Moon hula hooping. She's touring in Europe right now, so we won't see her for a few months, but that's the nature of the business. I'll miss her, but am quite excited. She's really talented. In place of her now, we have Wonder Woman hula hoops."

GGC: "Both of those make sense."

TK: "Yeah. Normally, when we have our full show, Wonder Woman does a rope act with her [lasso.] [We also have] a trapeze act, inspired by Dark Phoenix, from one of our core members- Camille."

GGC: "So C2E2 is your next big performance. What are some of your other upcoming appearances?"

TK: "We may have a small appearance at ACen. We have a few corporate galas in May. We're doing a show with Raks Geek, the bellydance troupe, at the Oak Lawn Public Library Fan Fest.

The big one that we're gonna start promoting is a gala opening show on May 29th at the Vittum Theatre. That's going to be a full show- aerials, acrobatics, maybe trampoline, if it fits- all of the things. That's our show. We control it, so it's going to be a huge event. If that goes well, we're looking at doing maybe a monthly spot."

Tana KaroGGC: "Congratulations on your Kickstarter being funded! How do you think it went, and what are you excited to put the money toward?"

TK: "It went really well. We reached our goal about 2 weeks in, which was amazing. Friends told me before I started, 'Kickstarter is wonderful. A lot of your family and friends come out of the woodwork and surprise you.' That's exactly what has happened. It's heartwarming- an amazing feeling, when your close friends and people you don't know equally support this crazy concept that nobody has even seen yet.

As far as what the money's going towards- a lot of it is funding our spot at C2E2. We're a startup company, and nobody is doing what we're doing. We're having to stomp out a pathway, a little. We don't fit into a category. We want to work with the con to make it more memorable- give it a spectacular image that people take away with them. That's the point of the circus.

I'm excited to cover some of the costs that I've already incurred... to pay my artists for all of the hard work that they've done, and order some of the big gear that we're gonna be traveling with very soon- like a 24-foot, free-standing rig."

GGC: "I get the feeling that once you all start performing out there, people are going to get excited and wish to contribute. If fans want to join, give ideas, or just talk to you, how can they reach out and be a part of the discussion?"

TK: "We've been thinking about this, because we have our own, inner circle message board, and we have our fan page. The Facebook fanpage is probably the best way right now. We have a Twitter, a Tumblr... We've got a newsletter, as well.

I think we'd like to, eventually, have a community page where fans can talk to us and suggest things, or share pictures that they've taken. It is very much meant to be a fan-driven show. We wanna do what people wanna see. We're nothing without our fans. That's where comic cons and circus kind of intersect- our goals in circus are the same as any convention goal. That's to please the people that are attending, and give them something memorable... a reason to return the next year."

GGC: "Is there anything else you would like to tell people who are hearing about Acrobatica Infiniti for the first time?"

TK: "We have a whole section on our website called The Why of AI that explains why we relate to circus and cosplay. I think comic cons and cosplay are places where people can go to be something else, express something else- to feel comfortable and encouraged to do that. I think circus has got a lot of the same elements. It's about being something different, being something extraordinary, and expressing something personal in an art form."

Banner for Acrobatica Infiniti


Thank you so much for taking time out for Geek Girl Chicago, Tank! Acrobatica Infiniti is truly reshaping what it means to be a circus geek. :)

You can see Acrobatica Infiniti this weekend at C2E2 2015. Circus artists will be at Booth #162, and daily performances will take place in the Family HQ. For more information, visit AI's Official Site, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or- wow, they're really on pretty much every social media outlet.


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