Itching to Perform

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Tiny but Talented: Adam Gertsacov C’86 eyes one of his acrobatic fleas. 

Many folks might scratch their heads—as well as a few other parts—at the thought of raising creatures that feed off human blood and have the alarming ability to jump about 1,000 times an hour. But professional clown and “psycho-entomologist” Adam Gertsacov C’86 assures us that Midge and Madge, the diminutive stars of his Victorian-style flea circus, don’t eat much or often.
    As members of the species pulex irritans, each is no bigger than the period in this sentence. Gertsacov uses a high-powered magnifying glass to keep track of his agile charges; audiences can only gape at the 
miniature props moving across a tabletop stage as the fleas perform their stunts. 
    Reached by phone between gigs at his Providence, Rhode Island, home, Gertsacov manages to describe the highlights of his Acme Miniature Circus in a tone of total seriousness. First, he explains, there is the miniature chariot race, featuring an eight-inch-long course over which “the flea that hops the fastest wins.” Next, the fleas cross a perilous tight-wire while balancing a miniature chair and pole. “For the finale, the fleas get shot out of a cannon through a flaming hoop of death and into their lavishly decorated trailer.” But what’s most remarkable about his circus, he claims, is that he can get audience members to cheer on two insects whom they “outmass by something like a million times.” The show was named by Details magazine this year as one of the top alternative circuses in the country.
    Gertsacov majored in theoretical communication and minored in theater at Penn, going on to study at Trinity Rep Conservatory and becoming, in his words, “a moderately successful regional actor.” He enrolled at Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1989. One of his first clown acts featured imaginary fleas; his mentor suggested he use the real things. Gertsacov did some research and became determined to revive this “lost art.” 
    Flea circuses first appeared in Europe in the 1820s and featured such spectacular diversions as the reenactment of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. They died out sometime in the middle of the last century, apparent victims of the success of television. 
    Talent, it turns out, comes pretty cheaply in flea circles. Gertsacov ordered his performers as well as their understudies from an entomological-supply company at the rate of $5.00 per dozen. Residing in a custom-made Victorian-style suitcase, Midge and Madge are content to collect their salary in blood. “Originally I experimented with putting them on my arm, but I didn’t really like that,” Gertsacov says. He now pin-pricks his finger every 15 to 20 days to provide the fleas’ occasional meals. “They’re able to shut themselves down if they aren’t fed.” Gertsacov incorporates flea facts into his act. “A flea can pull an object 131,000 times its own weight,” he marvels.
    Though Gertsacov won’t reveal his training secrets, he says it’s a matter of figuring out what fleas are capable of and then getting them to “repeat their instinctual behaviors.” Occasionally, Midge or Madge refuses to perform. “That’s just part of the show,” he says. “It’s not under my control.” 

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