Eli Chornenki is the founder, owner and creative director of Zero Gravity Circus, a Toronto-based circus production company.
By the time he graduated from high school, Mr. Chornenki was already a performing juggler smitten with the circus. Now the 39-year-old produces custom entertainment featuring acrobats, aerialists, fire eaters and stilt walkers for everything from marketing launches, corporate events and fundraising galas to private backyard parties.
Leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Zero Gravity toured Canada as part of the Olympic Torch Relay, performing 180 shows for Coca-Cola in front of more than two million people, and it currently partners with Harbourfront Centre to produce the annual Toronto International Circus Festival. So how does a 14-year-old Ukrainian boy from Winnipeg go from street performer to owning the show?
Q: How did the circus become your career?
A: I learned to juggle as a teenager from Canadian musician Valdy at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. It was fun, so I partnered with my friend Jeff Krahn to create a show doing acrobatics, comedy and juggling. We saw some guys doing it professionally and thought ‘we could do that,’ so we taught ourselves some cool, difficult tricks and started performing. By the time I was 20, I was working full time, and by 25, I was making a really good living at it, travelling all over the world. That’s been my full-time occupation right from the get-go. I was a pretty hard-core street performer in the beginning but later worked more in circuses and cabarets. There are festivals all over the world that hire people like me.
Q: When did you stop performing and start running the show?
A: I had the concept of running this company early on and got it rolling in 1996, while I was still performing. Once I stopped juggling, I moved to Toronto in 2000, and started the Toronto International Circus Festival within the first two years I was here. We’re coming into our 10th year and are now partners with Harbourfront Centre. It’s a free festival that attracts about 30,000 people over three days.
Q: Does Harbourfront pay you?
A: We don’t get paid to do the festival. Harbourfront Centre is our co-producer but it’s a not-for-profit venture.
Q: Why do shows for free?
A: It gets me recognition on the international circus stage, so when I’m talking to my international clients, they know me as a circus producer who does a successful event. There aren’t a lot of circus festivals in North America – we’re the first and longest running. It also creates another source of revenue for performers. Even though Zero Gravity Circus is a for-profit company, part of our mandate is to funnel as much money as possible into the circus community because a strong community of artists helps us develop better products for sale. We also get lots of attention from the press, which drives people toward our websites and sells shows for me.
Q: How do you make money?
A: Zero Gravity’s revenue comes from corporate and private events, product launches, television and film. Basically, we’re a specialized circus boutique production company. What we’re good at and known for are one-off programs. Our client list includes everybody from the major soft drink and beer companies to financial and arts institutions. We’ve produced huge shows for the City of Toronto, the National Capital Commission in Ottawa, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and did a massive fundraiser for the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where we had 65 performers throughout the gallery.
Q: Where did you learn how to produce shows?
A: Most of what I know is from the street. You learn a lot about people working on the street. People can walk away. They haven’t bought a ticket to your show so they can leave in the middle if you’re not great. I learned to create a really quality product that people were willing to pay for even though they didn’t have to, and I translated that into what we do now.
I know the difference between a good show and a bad show. Through years of performing, I’m really educated on how to read an audience and to find what’s going to work with that audience. I have a huge data base of performers from all over the world that I’ve worked with over the past 20 years on stage as well as having hired them to perform in all kinds of events. I’ve experienced all the situations they’ve been through – dealing with difficult clients or situations, tiny stages, rain – all the hiccups that come with putting on shows. I know the feeling of being onstage and having your microphone fail, or finding that the lights aren’t working. That helps me a lot.
I’ve also watched other people who ran cabarets, circuses and festivals through the years. I copied the ones who were doing it right and made sure I didn’t do what I thought was wrong.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you when you started?
A: It took a while for us to get recognized for being able to produce a product at a high level. People wanted to know who you worked for before, so the first few big clients were the hardest ones to catch. We tried really hard to align ourselves with the event-planning and marketing industries.
Q: Who was your first corporate client?
A: Andrew Turner from Jetstar Entertainment. He hired me to do a series of promotional shows across Canada about three months after I arrived in Toronto – partly luck and partly because Andrew thought I could do something great for his business and his clients. He’s been a big mentor to me over the past 10 years.
Q: What’s your business strategy?
A: We’re a custom made-to-order kind of circus. We don’t build a show, put up a tent and sell tickets. That’s not the way our company has evolved. We work with clients who have something in mind and build the show the way they want it.
I knew I wanted to produce circus, and I was very pragmatic about the idea. I love the circus, any kind of circus, but instead of building my own show and trying to find somebody to pay for it, I went at it from the other side. I presented myself as a producer of quality circus and looked for people who had third-party reasons to produce circus shows, as in marketing campaigns, corporate events, and opening ceremonies for things like the Olympics. We’re putting in a big bid for the Pan Am Games this year.
We work with clients to pinpoint what they’re trying to achieve, how to find the most creative way to do that and keep within their budget to get the most bang for their buck. Sometimes people want the wow of a circus performance but they want it to be new, so we mix in a lot of break-dancing, parkour artists and aerial acrobatic stuff that resemble modern rock climbers. You name it, we do it. We’re always working on new ways to present things.
Q: What kind of staff do you have?
A: We have five full-time employees for administration and approximately 15 part-time employees for our related circus school, the Lunacy Cabaret, out of our facility on Gerrard Street and other projects. Then we have production people we hire for staging, lighting and rigging for each show. Sometimes we need a lot of guys and sometimes two. It’s a very flexible company. It’s the way a modern company has to run. I have a big Rolodex of people who are happy to come out and do shows with us. We’ve created great relationships with people in all parts of this industry.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in doing live shows?
A: It’s absolutely critical that everything goes smoothly in live situations. There’s only one chance and it has to go perfect. What’s key is having very high quality artists and technicians, rehearsing, knowing what you’re doing, identifying what could go wrong ahead of time, and making sure that you’ve covered all your bases. At that point, you roll the dice a little bit because the circus is dangerous. There are accidents every year somewhere in the world. Luckily we haven’t had any bad ones. You just need to do everything in your power to create a situation where you have the optimal staging for the artists to perform.
Q: How critical is insurance for this business?
A: We’re insured up the yin yang. A huge portion of our yearly income goes into insurance. We work with some great insurance companies who trust that we’re safety conscious and we do absolutely everything to be safe. In any case where there’s the possibility of really dangerous falls, people are on a safety line or there’s a crash mat.
Q: Was Cirque du Soleil an influence?
A: Canada has a really great name in circus around the world and I have to give some credit to Cirque du Soleil for that. What Cirque du Soleil has done in North America is make a shift from American style circus to Canadian new circus, which is far more based on dance, music and the beauty of the circus rather than old-school shoot-the-guy-out-of-the-cannon thing. They do fantastic shows and we work with a ton of people who have gone through their programs. It’s been really positive for us. Every time Cirque du Soleil is in the news, it profits me as a business person because it brings more attention to the circus. And Cirque does a good job of staying in the news.
Q: Are you making a profit?
A: Yes, but most of it goes right back out the door to fund other projects, to create new things and hold up the community work that we do. We’re always creating new projects.
Q: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs?
A: You can’t buy a reputation. You’re either honest or you’re not. Most people are really smart, especially the successful ones who are calling to hire you. Treat everyone with respect and they will do the same for you.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Join The Globe’s Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT