Noah Mickens is Portland’s circus guy. He is the ringmaster of the city’s largest and longest running circus troupe, Wanderlust Circus. Originally called Batty’s Hippodrome, the performance group has been around since 2006, thrilling audiences with an impressive roster of aerialists, dancers, and musical talent. Along with writing, directing, and producing the shows, Mickens emcees the performances as William Batty, his grandiose theatrical persona.
A charismatic character, Mickens talked to me about his long career as a performer, musician, and artist, all between mouthfuls of ceviche.
What drew you to Portland? Why did you choose to make the move here?
I couldn’t really tell you. I came to Portland with a big group of my crazy, Los Angeles friends who were all just a bunch of ex-punk rock, artist and drug addict types. We were all sort of trying to clean up our acts and grow up, so we made the decision to move here. I got to tell you, it’s not even for any particular reason. Most of us had never even been here before. This was 1996, way before this hype surrounding Portland even existed. We sure did move here, though, I’ve been here for 18 years now.
When did you get your start as an entertainer?
I’ve been entertaining and performing since I was a small child. I grew up in theater and choruses. As a teenager, I began starting bands, crazy bands. Things just started happening from there.
After coming to Portland, I became involved with an international collective called the Radon Collective. Started by Scott Nydegger, the collective came here for a while, right around 2000. We befriended one another and produced many shows. There are hundreds of us, in every city, all over the world. I also joined an arts non-profit called 2Grylz Performative Arts. It was a real big deal at that time. 2Grylz was my Portland crew, the local office of Radon. We did a lot of stuff together that even predates Radon. My association with the Radon Collective began in 2001 and lasted roughly until 2008. I released a bunch of recordings with them, and went on tours, and did big performances here in Portland too. Starting in 2008, my focus shifted towards the circus, and I haven’t done much with them since.
For a period of time, I worked as a Software Quality Assurance guy and then as an online marketing executive. I had to do it because I was raising my two kids. My wife and I broke up suddenly, and I was left with the kids, so I had to make money. I went and hustled my way into these jobs that I wasn’t qualified for. It was cool, for a while. I’m not suited for that kind of thing though. When my kids went back to live with their mother again, which was years after that, I pretty much immediately got on a school bus with a bunch of deformed people and musicians and went full bat circus and never looked back.
How did Wanderlust Circus come into being?
Right around 2000 or 2001 I met all of the circus people here in Portland and got involved with the scene, mostly through Dante’s. There is an entire group of underground circuses around the West Coast. It is a huge thing that a lot of people don’t even really know about. I just got more and more into it as time went on.
Wanderlust was finally developed when this guy, Nick “The Creature” Harbar, who is a genius, had a circus out of San Francisco. He ended up moving here, and we teamed up and became Wanderlust Circus. We basically brought together my people and his ideas and expertise in other areas. We started writing all the shows together and collaborated for a long time. The Creature and I have actually parted ways though. I have been running Wanderlust Circus by myself since the beginning of this year.
What place does Wanderlust hold in Portland’s circus scene?
In Portland, we’re the big circus. We have one foot in an underground, art scene kind of life, and one foot in more of like a mainstream theater, show business world. If you want to go see a circus in Portland, it’s pretty much us.
We hold a place in the overall circus scene as well. We’re the Portland guys. We’re who people talk to if they’re coming through town, or if they want to collaborate in Portland, or if they’re looking for talent from around here. In the overall circus scene, I’m just a relatively minor version of a character that exists in every city. There’s a circus like us in every big town and there’s a guy like me running all of them. A lot of those guys are doing bigger things than I am. The version of me that’s in Los Angeles or something, he’s a big time show business guy. Probably a millionaire. I’m the Portland one though. I try to keep the real Portland style. It’s real homey, real artsy, we’re just these cool friends who enjoy doing this together, but we push it to a professional level.
How do you get into character?
I don’t really have an artistic process for getting into character or anything. I don’t approach things that way. William Batty is a character that is easy to fall into because I’ve been doing it for so long. I’ve been doing versions of this character for 10 years or so. Pretty much all of my William Batty announcements are improvised. I don’t really have the luxury of spending a lot of time on an acting process, because I’m running the shows. I just do it on the fly.
What’s next for you?
The future looks very much like right now to me. Wanderlust is traveling around all over the place doing festivals. Our ongoing seasonal shows are still happening, like the “White Album Christmas” and “A Circus Carol.” We’re trying to get our Valentine’s Day show back up off the ground and we’re working on another state show next year, with 3 Leg Torso. I’m also focusing a lot on the band right now, our big ten-piece bohemian swing band, of which I am the lead singer. That’s really what I’m interested in right now, developing that more.
I’m definitely sticking in Portland. I’m not going anywhere else. People get scared off and they move out to Astoria or Grass Valley. They throw their lives away, trying to find a quiet, cheap place where they can go make art with their friends in the backyard. But not me. I’m staying here.