From Vaudeville to Renaissance: Rob Williams of the Kamikaze Fireflies

Summertime is here, and things are heating up at the Catskill Mountain Foundation – but that may be due to a fire breather in the Doctorow! Together, Casey Martin (the human torch in question) and Rob Williams are the Kamikaze Fireflies, a comical circus act that will be coming to the Doctorow on June 4th. I recently got to speak to Rob about climbing on strangers, doing dishes, and the greatest story of a first meeting I have ever heard.

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What got you into circus performance?

For Casey and I both it was going to renaissance festivals. We grew up near them, and in a lot of ways I think vaudeville in America ended up at renaissance festivals. You still see stuff out there that you won’t see anywhere else; the style of performance that we do exists in very few places. Renaissance festivals grew out of the street performing explosion of the 70’s, but I think that grew out of vaudeville. I don’t know how on earth it happened, but somehow it ended up in renaissance.

How do you create new acts?

I think of creating new stuff as something you don’t always have to be working on. As a creator you always have two big jobs when it comes to the art part: to maintain and execute what you currently do, and to always be creating new. If you don’t do those things well, you’ll be at a dead end.  No idea is too stupid or a red light, no idea is too dumb. Everything is open so you’re always creatively keeping your antenna out for new ideas, props, pieces. Often times we buy a prop, play with it for a while, and then put it aside because it doesn’t work. Sometimes you buy a prop and it just clicks, it works. I look at it as a funnel: that means bit by bit you narrow it down. Some ideas aren’t feasible or don’t connect with you, so you just narrow it down.

How did you learn to do all this?

I’m almost  100 percent self taught. Over the years I had specific teachers for specific skills, like Casey trained with Matt Plendl, who is one of the best hula hoopers in the world. Most of it has to be just trial and error. You grab something and play with it. It’s a lot easier now with the internet, because you can get a lot more from how-to videos. But a lot of it is just going to a gym somewhere and knocking it out. 

I heard about a part of your act in which you climb onto a member of the audience and stand on their shoulders. It must be a little nerve wracking to trust a stranger that way, isn’t it?

It is. I did have a bad accident recently where I was up off the ground and a participating audience member didn’t do what they were supposed to, and I just smashed to the ground. Just because it’s obvious how much danger I’m in,  I never thought that would happen. I was on crutches for a month. But that’s not usually the case, it’s a rare occurrence. It’s sort of like stunt work in movies; that guy may be falling off a building, but they’re making absolutely sure that he’s not actually falling off a building. We want the audience to be emotionally safe as well. We want them to go back to the audience as a hero, that’s the success for us.

Are you and Casey couple? How does that change the dynamic of performing together?

Yes, we are. For the most part I think it’s really good. Before I also worked in a three man show and we all worked together well, but it’s really hard being away from your wife or girlfriend for long periods of time while on the road. The best part for us is we’re never apart. We get along and there’s no fighting, so we’re just always together and it’s good.


How did you two meet?

We were at a renaissance festival in Florida. I was doing a solo show and she was doing an acrobatic show. When I first saw her she was breathing fire, and when she first saw me I was dressed like a nun and crowd surfing an audience. It’s too weird to not be true.

Is this the only thing you do, or do you have a hobby or passion besides this?

It’s kind of boring, but we’re both avid home cooks. I know lots of people are but that’s one of our big things. For most people going out to eat might be special, but because we’re always traveling, eating in is a treat. Getting to shop for groceries and cook dinner – and even do the dishes – is a rare and cherished thing.

What kind of venues do you perform in?

I think to have a show like ours you have to be able to have a lot of flexibility. It’s also an advantage. We still do the occasional renaissance fest (I think we’re doing one this year) but you just put on a renaissance costume and do the show. It’s different costumes, but it’s pretty much the same show. Lots of acts have things about their show that define where they’ll be able to perform, but our show allows us to do many different venues with very little modification. You would call it street performing, not like street musicians, but people who draw a massive circle around them with hundreds of people. Just this year we’ve been to New Zealand, Australia, Northern Ireland, doing large international outdoor festivals as well as cruise ships and art centers all over America. I love it because if you’re lucky enough you get an extra day or two, and you can explore. The blessing of what we do is that we get to entertain people AND see the world.

What has been your favorite place to perform so far?

It’s gonna sound funny, but I love the audience in Ireland. They’re just remarkably ready for a good time. What I love about renaissance festivals in the states is that the people who usually go to those things are right up our alley – not just up for watching the fun, but for participating too. That’s what renaissance festivals are, you fully plug into the fun. We want people to have fun WITH us.

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What would you say to someone considering attending the show in the Doctorow?

I would say one of the things I love about our show is that it works for anybody. A 70 year old couple should be able to enjoy our show just as much as the family with a five year old and eight year old, or the hipster couple out on a Tinder date. I hope lots of different demographics come out to enjoy it.


See Rob and Casey in action at the Doctorow Center for the Arts on June 4th at 3:30PM. Reserve your seats through our ticketing website while there are still seats left!


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