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Modern Freak Show Makes Magic of Science

By Chloe Riley | December 28, 2012 3:24pm

WEST TOWN — The flyer for Freak Show and Tell says “100 percent science b---hes,” and performer Thom Britton isn’t messing around.

His one-man show, currently playing at the Nebbia Gallery, breaks circus acts — such as fire swallowing — down to bare bones physics.

“If you will listen to me and learn about physics, I will pay for your attention by sticking torches in my mouth,” he said.

Britton, 40, has worked the sideshow scene since he was 16, when he started off in his hometown of New Orleans as a “talker,” the guy who barks out a description of each act to the crowd.

He’s learned from sideshow greats including “Poobah” Pete Terhurne, who taught Britton how to eat fire and who claimed to be the last munchkin from "The Wizard of Oz."

Since learning the art of fire eating, he performed for the “be-mulleted” in rural America before starting his own circus, Flying Cat, which toured college campuses for nine years. 

“I’m a huge geek for science,” said the show’s producer, Joseph Rovener. “I have physics equations tattooed on my back.”

Rovener, 32, has a background in circus management. He saw Britton’s act at a wedding in October and the two joined forces for this show.

“My favorite part is the fire eating. He [Britton] says, ‘Fire eating in three easy steps! And the first step is eat the fire.’”

Freak Show and Tell is Britton’s way to pay homage to the science behind the showmanship.

“I’m not a magician, I’m a nerd,” he said at Thursday’s show.

A nerd who built his career around performance, Britton still remembers initially struggling to access the theatrical world.  

“I was the dirt poor kid who went to see theater and fell in love with it,” he said. “Now, I’m a gateway drug for live theater.”

For that reason, the price for admission is left up to the audience. In his many years as a street performer, Britton said the system works — people give more than you anticipate, he said.

Half the show’s money also goes toward funding a Chicago variety theater, where Britton envisions magic, sideshow and burlesque dominating the stage.

Freak Show and Tell combines fire eating, glass walking, electricity channeling and plenty of good and bad jokes. The show starts at 8 p.m. and runs Friday, Saturday and Jan. 3-5.