There’s a cat wearing a vest, and three guys shout in Russian to coordinate its capture through a crowd of people. One of the guys is Gregory Popovich, the world-famous circus performer and juggler. The cat is named Sebastian, and right now he’s kind of being an asshole. His scene is now over, the cameras are pointing another direction, and he just can’t accept that it isn’t all about him. But one of the Russians catches him, and cages him. Popovich is relieved. At that moment, Todd Hailstone, one of the Light Forge Studios producers, shouts for silence. The reason we — the crowd, Gregory Popovich, that asshole Sebastian — are here is about to commence.
Months ago, we talked to Mike Thompson about filming The Popovich Pet Theatre and the Voice of the Fabled American West, a Chaplin-style comedy about Gregory Popovich and his pet theater. The plot: Popovich lives with his best friends Rex (dog) and Sebastian in a junkyard. When a neighbor reports him to Animal Control, he needs to figure out a way to raise money and save the animals. Throughout the story, 33 other animals, all shelter rescues, will share the lens trained on Rex and Sebastian and Popovich.
Skip to present. Nine p.m., the street performance scene — one of the money-raising schemes. A volunteer crowd squishes against the UNLV outdoor amphitheater. Two lights flood the face of Erik Amblad, who’s playing the exaggerated role of a ringmaster (and absolutely nailing it). Half to the cameras, half to the crowd, he’s announcing three street performers. Popovich, Space Mime and Mr. Screw. Mr. Screw pierces his face with a drill-mounted corkscrew the size of a novelty baseball bat. The other two were doomed from the get-go: In the history of street fairs, anything involving home improvement and the human face usually tips the Applause-O-Meter. Tonight is no exception.
Mr. Screw wins. Popovich loses. Space Mime throws a box of silver frisbees to the ground and stalks offscreen. The crowd goes wild. The crowd, made of a mix growing more diverse and unfamiliar. Tens of friends, lookyloos, late-comers and passersby attracted by the snow-cone truck and animals wearing vests. Some kid is there because he loved the Thompson brothers’ Thor at the Bus Stop and wants to be a part of their next piece. I’m told that I arrived at the wrong time. Three hours ago, it was in full tilt. The crowd was double. The performers were awake and bushy-tailed. And most of them still are. But the heat, and being here since 4 p.m., is taking a toll on even the most exuberant lazy samurai. Todd calls for everyone, even those who had no intention of participating, to approach the stage. “We need all the extras we can get,” he says.
It’s the fourth time Amblad has said, “Let’s hear it for Mr. Screw!” It’s the fourth time the crowd goes wild. The Thompsons and their crew keep going back, focusing on a different part of the crowd. Having Amblad walk from a different direction. Fix his laugh. Fix his arm movements. Reposition the skeletal face of Mr. Screw so the light hits it correctly. The adjustments are minute and crucially important only to the guys making the calls. But everyone stays optimistic.
For the fifth time, Amblad says, “Let’s hear it for Mr. Screw!” The crowd goes wild. Sebastian sulks.