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Arts and Entertainment

Cirque Berzerk Partners With Chrysalis to Provide Jobs for Downtown's Homeless

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Photo by Tom Andrews/LAist

From the minute one steps foot inside the Los Angeles State Historic Park, the site of Cirque Berzerk, no minute is left unstimulated. A small crew outfitted in pirate-like burlesque circus costumes greets entering cars. As you walk toward the entrance, distracted by the LA skyline that unfolds ahead, a burst of intense heat startles you and you instantly jump back 5-feet. It's easy to miss the enormous torch towering above; that is until it lets out this fire-breathing roar. Just when it seems like a good time to ask yourself "What the hell is going on?" a giant pale faced 'clown' on stilts drunkenly stumbles your way, looks down at you for a second and keeps going. And at intermission, the 1930's brass band, Vaud and the Villains, put on a show with so much energy, it's not only worth the price of admission, but they leave you tempted to hop on the next flight to New Orleans. One might imagine this is how David Berrent, Cirque Berzerk's executive producer and managing partner, felt when he attended the wedding of Cirque Berzerk's founder's Suzanne Bernel and Kevin Bourque prompting him to "quit his day job" as a TV-producer, and put everything into developing the current show, Beneath.

At a recent show, LAist sat down with Berrent and discussed this 'labor of love', why Cirque Berzerk wouldn't work as a reality show and his desire to create a business that also gives back to the downtown community. Berrent partnered up with Chrysalis, the LA-based organization that helps the homeless find employment opportunities. At each performance, Cirque Berzerk employes about 10-12 Chrysalis workers and Berrent says he couldn't be more pleased with their hard-working, positive attitudes and the organization itself.

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During a time of much downtown development, when many residents voice concern over the fact that downtown residents are being ignored when it comes to employment opportunities, LAist was happy to learn that Cirque Berzerk is taking advantage of these services.

Vaud and the Villains. Photo by Emily Lerman/LAist
How did you become involved with Cirque Berzerk?I met Kevin after working on various TV projects together, he works in editing. [At the time] I was developing a reality tv-show. He told me he and his girlfriend started a circus a few years ago, and every time there was a show I was never available, or I couldn’t come because I was out of town. And then he told me he and his girlfriend were getting married and invited me to the wedding.

The wedding was [in the original Cirque Berzerk tent, now the party tent] in the middle of the desert somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, and I met all these crazy circus freak people and I thought “Dude, this is a crazy world, this is a great TV show!” So I was developing this show with them, but the show never sold because there were no real strong jerk-offs in the cast, there was no real drama. Then, when I saw how successful the show was in last year's tent [in LA], I said “Forget the TV show, let's just develop the live show as a business.” So we spent the year raising money, and trying to put this on, and it was really really hard, but here we are and we did it.

What has made it most difficult?

We raised just enough money to almost produce the show. I’m a well-paid TV-producer and I literally quit my job, my salary. Everyone quit their job to do this, not to mention all the the tent is expensive..and the rental on the park. It’s a really expensive endeavor…and we raised enough to put on the show, but a lot of people work for free, and work for heart/work pretty hard. In the previous year it was a labor of love…and it still is a labor of love. But now we have enough resources to develop it into something bigger and better.

So far the show has been well received, I know you extended the dates.

Yeah, we extended the dates through July 26th and if the audience holds, we’ll extend the dates as long as we have an audience. And if it continues to grow, we hope to be here for a while. It’s still all fresh and new but based on the last two weeks, we couldn’t be happier.

Is everyone based out of LA?

Yes, and a lot of people live here, downtown, including Kevin and Sue, my partners. We’re all big fans of downtown. It’s cool and hip and fresh.

I know you guys have partnered up with Chrysalis. How did you get involved with them?

One of our investors is friends with Adlai Wertman and he’s the former CEO of Chrysalis, and he told me about the organization. [Wertman] now teaches business ethics at USC. While I was forming the company I said ‘look, we want to be a business and we want to make money of course, but we want to do something that is right for the community, and be good neighbors to the community. We originally wanted to have a bunch of charitable organizations, and we’ll get there eventually, but he recommended working with Chrysalis. It’s a great organization and they provide jobs for the homeless, and we needed people anyway.

What jobs are the Chrysalis workers performing?

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They are helping park and direct cars as well as cleaning up in the tents.

And you have enjoyed working with them?

Yes, it’s been great. They could not be more positive and friendly. We hope to work with them for a very long time, and as we grow, we hope they can grow with us.

So you put everything into the show, how do you feel about it all now?

It’s been a very rewarding experience; time will tell if the gamble I took paid off, sitting here today, it feels great.

Cirque Berzerk runs through July 26th. Tickets are available online.

Chrysalis has three locations, downtown, Santa Monica and Pacoima and is always looking for volunteers to facilitate job preparation classes; help clients create resumes; conduct mock interviews; assist with computer use; organize their clothing room and help with special events.

Those interested should contact Jessica Wishan, Volunteer Coordinator, at (310) 401-9392.

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