Case Study 12: Tony Hernandez and Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale

While all of our Case Study subjects have crafted some truly incredible pieces of work, from motion graphics to documentary films to new typefaces, nearly all of it was created in a stationary position and in front of computers. But that trend ends here, as we recently got the chance to talk to Tony Hernandez, lifelong circus performer and creator of Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale, a remarkable piece of theater that blends circus acts with a solid script — the Wall Street Journal said it was “explosive, dangerous and dazzling” and Variety said in its review “it’s a pretty rare show that feels successfully directed at both family crowds and hipsters.” Tony has also used Jewelboxing to help promote the show and we’re thrilled to be included in what’s sure to be a meteoric rise to the top.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in the theatrical circus world?

I was born and raised in the circus, literally. Actually my family was touring with the circus when my mother was pregnant with me and we were on our way to our home in Sarasota, FL when she couldn’t hold me in anymore, so I was born in Dubuque, Iowa. I then grew up with my family traveling the world and learning the family business, which meant becoming an acrobat and a juggler. By age 6, I was the little star in the family act. I was featured on Captain KangarooKids World, and other children’s programs (you can actually find the Capt. Kangaroo one on YouTube). After we finished a 5 year run with Ringling Bros., I was 17 and bored. I knew I wanted something else in my life, so I left the the road to go to a community college. After a year of that, I knew it wasn’t for me, so I moved to Chicago where my sister had a circus school. I taught for a while and fell in love with the city. The first day I was here in ’96, I went to a friend of my sister’s house where they were having a reading of a movie called Since You Been Gone. It was the whole ensemble of Lookingglass Theatre Company including a then VERY popular David Schwimmer of the TV show Friends. I got to know Lookingglass very well and they kind of took me in like family and eventually made me a member of the company. Since then I have done a dozen productions with them as an actor, director, writer, choreographer, and producer.

You’re from the Hernandez Troupe and your wife Lijana is from the world famous Wallenda family — hoping that it’s more interesting than “oh, just at a bar after work one night,” how did you two meet one another?

Lijana and I met when she was seven and I was nine. Our families worked together in a circus one year, but our parents knew each other before we were born…ew this sounds like a planned wedding — it was not, I assure you. Anyways, we started dating years later and her parents were, like, “Well, if you’re gonna date our daughter, you need to learn to walk the highwire.” So I did (they weren’t gonna scare me away that easily). We got married in our twenties and I stole her away and brought her to Chicago. We do still work with her family once in awhile. In 2001, we went to Japan with her family and broke a Guinness world record with an eight person pyramid on the highwire. Yeah, never a dull moment in that family!

I’d wager that most people don’t have any idea of how someone gets into the circus world other than how they’ve been informed by movies and books and the idea that you have to run away from home at ten years old and ride the rails with a traveling circus. Is it something someone who doesn’t have a family background in the circus can pick up?

Absolutely, anyone who has a desire and a good work ethic can train and run away to join the circus at any age. It’s called cleaning elephant poop. Just kidding. Actually, like I said, my sister has a circus school here in Chicago called The Actors Gymnasium. And anyone, at any age, can train there. Some people go to just train because it’s a great workout — it works muscles you don’t even know you have. Others take classes with the goals of joining a circus or Cirque Du Soleil. Still others are actors trying to learn how to act from the neck down.

Can you tell us about your latest show, Hephaestus?

Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale (its full title) is adapted from the myth of Hephaestus. It is the tale of the infant hurled from Mount Olympus by his mother, Hera, when he was a baby because she was embarrassed by his ugliness and his disfigurement (my wife Lijana plays Hera,and I play Hephaestus). He crashes to the earth, fully grown, but has his legs rendered useless on impact. Hephaestus survives and teaches himself the art of the blacksmith, crafting magnificent works of iron and metal. In time, his abilities allow him to bring his silver statues to life to aid him in his forge. When his skills are perfected, Hephaestus begins the journey to Mt. Olympus to claim his throne as the God of the Forge. Along the way he meets fantastic humans and gods, all portrayed by world-class circus artists and athletes, including members of the Wallenda family, Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group, and others. At the end of the show, we do a Wallenda trademark pyramid on the highwire where Hephaestus and Ares (God of War) carry Hera, perched on her throne, across the highwire. Our story is narrated by a 10 year old girl who is reading herself to sleep and trying to drown out the sounds of her feuding parents. We see her imagination come to life.

Were you interested in mythology before writing the show or were you looking for something that you felt would fit well with mixing in your circus talents and this story seemed to help blend the two?

Well it’s actually a little bit of both. I did always like mythology — my mom would read Greek myths with me as a child. But I was actually looking for a story to mix with circus, partly because I was frustrated with Cirque Du Soleil’s vague story lines. And at Lookingglass we do rich story lines with little circus, so I wanted to pull everything closer to the middle. It was Lookingglass’s artistic director, David Catlin who brought the story of Hephaestus to my attention. I did a little research and found that it was as if it was written for me. It had everything I wanted to do, with the freedom of taking some liberties because it’s a myth. I wanted to use amazing circus artistry, elements of dance, live percussive drumming, but I didn’t want to use all those elements just for the sake of doing them; it had to fit the story. I was very cautious not to be like those other shows that leave you feeling like you missed the point.

When you come up with an idea like this, how do you go about assembling it and making plans for what will go on when and where? And how do you go about rehearsing?

Well luckily I am a member of an AMAZING collaborative theatre company at Lookingglass. I wrote the very first draft of the play and then I passed it to a few ensemble members, including Heidi Stillman who would end up being my co-director and co-writer. A handful of us picked at it for a while, including David Catlin, Kerry Catlin, John Musial, myself and Heidi. Catlin decided to put Hephaestus in Lookingglass’ Glassworks program, which gave us a little bit of money and allowed us to have workshops, readings, and get the story up on its feet.

The show features former members of Cirque Du Soleil and the Blue Man Group — how did you approach them to come join the show? And what’s a cast party or a casual summer barbecue like with that crowd?

Growing up in the circus, my “little black book of performers,” like Phil Smith of Lookingglass likes to call it, has grown quite a bit. I am fortunate to have met and performed with some amazing artists. And if I didn’t know them, I knew someone who did, it seemed. For instance, when I wrote the part about Aphrodite being a beautiful handbalancing/ contortionist I wrote it with this amazing women in mind named Olga Pikhienko (who had become a star at Cirque Du Soeil). It was kind of like writing a part in a movie with someone like Natalie Portman in mind, while you kind of know it’s not very realistic that she’ll do it. But I asked her and to my surprise she said yes. And on the Blue Man side, one of my best friends, Jonathan Taylor, who is a Blue Man, and helped me design the drumming side of things, and actually took a break from Blue Man to be in the first incarnation of Hephaestus. So luckily all my old friends and family were just eager to support my vision.

As far as cast parties go, I’m sorry to report that they are pretty mellow. Well there was this one time after a show that we all went to my friend Billy Dec’s club called Rockit Bar & Grill and we had our own roped off corner. Olga was doing handstands on the pool table and the whole club was cheering…ok, so we can get a little crazy.

Now that you’ve performed at the Village Theatre in Detroit and the famous Lookingglass Theatre here in Chicago, what’s the next step for the show? Long term goals for it?

We have been very fortunate with the success of the show and have had great reviews. Now we are trying to find a theatre space to have an open run somewhere, something like Blue Man where we run until audiences stop coming (which they never will because the show rocks!). We are also talking about a tour as well. Long term goal would have the show sitting somewhere running, while another version of the show is touring. We are currently shopping the show around to producers in New York City and other big cities, including Chicago, of course. You can look for the show to hopefully happen here later this year, or maybe early 2010.

You’re using Jewelboxing to package promotional materials for the show. Why Jewelboxing and any notes on your experience with using it?

Well, like our production, we feel like Jewelboxes are different than anything else out there, and they really make you stand out in a crowd. On the design end of things, at the moment I’m a little bit of a one man show, meaning I took all the photos you see on and in the case, designed the images, designed the box with a friend Mark Stevens (a designer who actually told me about you guys), and even designed and edited the DVD. So it’s been very helpful that the Jewelboxing templates make it easy and it’s great how simple it is to snap it all together. It really is a great design. Actually, they are printing as we speak!

As an aside, did you and your wife see the documentary about Philippe Petit, Man on Wire? If so, what did you think about it? Any of that rebellious streak in you?

We did! We saw it in NYC on opening night. It’s truly a great piece of art that moves you and isn’t that what great art is supposed to do? Lijana also bought the DVD for me for Christmas and I have already watched it like 5 more times. I just love how passionate he is about what he does. I do have a very rebellious streak, but whenever possible I enjoy getting paid for my daredevilry, not put in jail. I do love that about him and respect him very much.

Lastly, what’s next for you, or how would you like 2009 to pan out?

I am working on a project with Redmoon Theatre of Chicago and if all goes as planned, you will hear about it. I am also writing a few new things, one is a screenplay, and the other is a play that hopefully will make it’s way through the Glassworks and onto the Lookingglass stage. Also, Lijana and I are going to be performing in Tampa at the Superbowl on February 1st with my company Silverguy Entertainment (we specialize in special events), which should be fun. I also have some other big projects lining up for this year, but it’s probably a little too early to talk about them just yet…