Household-type cats, we're talking about here.
Felis domesticus, to be specific.
Jumping through hoops. Propelling themselves on barrels. Pushing carts. Walking on tightropes. Playing music in a band. And so on, with hard-to-believe skill and as-yet-unquantified amounts of cuteness.
Yes: Housecats. The old lie-around-like-a-lump-of-sunbaked-pelt-until-it's-time-to-go-completely-berserk-for-ten-minutes moggies that clutter the abodes of smarter people everywhere. Now they're tripping the light fantastic and cutting capers on command at the Blue Theatre on the Eastside.
But: Years ago, before anything else, it was rats.
"When I first moved to Chicago," says the Acro-Cats' master trainer Samantha Martin, "I started a show called The Amazing Acro-Rats, which consisted of trained rats doing similar things to what the cats are doing now – and then I expanded into other animals from that."
Which was … just a natural progression?
"I always wanted to train animals for film and television," says Martin," but I couldn't make a living with just rats. And I started doing educational shows about eight years ago, but then realized I wasn't doing what I'd started out to do – which is to train animals. So I decided to focus on some domestic animals, and the second most-requested domestic animal is cats. And there are just so many dog trainers out there, and not many cat trainers. And I've always loved cats, but they're notoriously difficult to work with. If they're not out there, being exposed to new and different things, they kind of lose their edge? So I put the show together to keep the cats busy while I developed my name as a trainer, and the show just kind of took on a life of its own. People love it so much that now I'm doing both – training cats for print ads and tv spots, and doing shows."
So, okay, cats – doing these incredible things. But there's a chicken in the show, too. It's not a cat in disguise, walking on its (shaved) hind legs and wearing a fake beak and feathers. No, it's definitely a chicken. So how did this, ah, this refugee from KFC get into the act?
"I actually went to chicken-training school a few years back," explains Martin. "A chicken-training school in Hot Springs, Arkansas – because I was working on a chicken documentary. And I learned a lot about chickens, like how they're super-easy to train. And there are times, when conditions aren't just perfect, well, sometimes the cats will refuse to do anything – because they're very particular about their environment. So I figured, if all goes awry, at least I'll have a chicken there that I know I can count on. Because chickens aren't so picky, they don't really care about their environment. And I kept the rats in the show, as well – because they were the start of it all."
And are Austin and the Windy City … are those the only two places that are graced with this Circus of the Feline Stars?
"We're based out of Chicago," says Martin, "but I tour all over the country with the Acro-Cats – we've been all the way to Seattle. And this next spring and summer, we'll be hitting the east coast. We've had some international interest, too. They haven't been able to meet our conditions yet, but there have been talks."
And how do the animals fare in the midst of a northern winter?
"That's when I try to go south," says Martin. "I'm basing my tour on weather patterns, trying to put together the perfect tour based on what place is the best place to be in at that time of year. Like, never come to Austin in September."
And what brought this happy spectacle to Austin in the first place?
"Our publicist Polly Smith has been phenomenal as far as finding theatres and doing the promotions," says Martin, "so she was the one who got me here initially – and continues to get me here. This is my fourth time in Austin, and I always hit '80s Night at Elysium on Sundays while I'm here. I already have a little bit of an Austin routine outside the show: '80s Night, any place with a bottomless mimosa, breakfast sandwiches, and 24-Hour Fitness."
And does Martin ever consider adding more animals to the show?
"Well," she says, "we have a groundhog."
A ... groundhog?
"Yeah," says Martin, nodding. "We have the chicken, the rats, and the groundhog. But we're kind of limited as far as space goes, and the show is mainly for the cat lovers, so we're not anticipating adding any more." She smiles like a true ailurophile. "It's really all about the cats."
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