Timothy Mack is one of those guys who really did run away and join the circus. Now he gathers performers to join his own, the Atlanta-based Imperial OPA circus.

Surrounded by tumbling acrobats and twirling aerialists on a recent night at the Imperial OPA’s small training gym in Buckhead, Mack explained how the circus is a noble art and a tough business.

Imperial OPA circus founder Timothy Mack juggles pins. (Phil Mosier)

“I think a lot of people think of circus as an oddity or a curiosity,” said the 38-year-old ringmaster and circus-founder, who sports a classic handlebar moustache, explaining the art has mood-changing and life-altering potential. “Entertainment can really heal people … You can be happy, be amazed.”

Mack will help the country celebrate the art as one of two ringmasters at this year’s circus-focused Smithsonian Folklife Festival, running June 29-July 6 in Washington, D.C. Just weeks ago, he also personally experienced the business’s challenges, traveling as a stagehand on the final run of the legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which shut down in May after a 146-year history.

The circus business is “a lot of hustling to keep the lights on,” he said.

But its unconventional charms can be their own reward, as easily seen on that training night. The Imperial OPA is based at a downtown office, but holds open practices and its “Circus School of Atlanta” classes at Buck’s Sports Barn, a small, red building hidden behind a row of storefronts at 2303 Peachtree Road. The one-room gym, overseen by a giant painting of Muhammad Ali, was topped with a multicolored cloth suggesting a circus tent.

Mats and a springboard were on the floor for the acrobats, including Rocco Lapaire and Nova Hawkins, a duo who perform regularly on cruise ships. A trapeze and ropes and sheets, or “silks,” dangled from the ceiling for aerialists like Amelia Chambless.

Amelia Chambless practices on the aerial silks. (Phil Mosier)

“A lot of adrenaline,” said Chambless, a 20-year-old Dunwoody resident, explaining the appeal of climbing and twirling on the silks. “It just gives me a lot of self-confidence.”

She’s proud that she has performed on 40-foot-tall silks at Midtown’s Opera nightclub, where she once saw another aerialist during her prom. And she’s so enthusiastic, she bought her own training rig for about $3,000 and drives around with it in her Jeep so she can practice in local parks.

That’s the kind of daring and emotion that Mack said drew him into the circus life. In 2005, the Connecticut native found himself at a personal low point after a broken relationship. So he joined the circus, signing on with the famous Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil as a photographer.

Acrobat team Nova Hawkins and Rocco Lapaire practice a pose while fellow acrobat Joshua Douglas looks on. (Phil Mosier)

Traveling the East Coast with Cirque, he enjoyed the freewheeling, colorful circus life. He started picking up such skills as juggling and fire-spinning.

“You hang out with Russian guys eating tons of food. They ask you to marry their Cuban girlfriend so she can stay in the country,” he recalled.

But what really struck him was the effect on the audience.

“You would see guests as they came in” – he pulled a frown – “and saw them leave” – he smiled broadly.

Mack came to Atlanta and got an animation job at a videogame company – one of those digital challengers that can make business hard for real-life performers. But he didn’t forget the circus’s impact and set out to start his own. After an early, unsuccessful effort, he formed the Imperial OPA in 2008.

Amanda Richards stretches out before practicing aerialist stunts. (Phil Mosier)

“Opa!” is a Greek exclamation of celebration, so Mack says the circus’s name loosely translates to “the Big Cheer” — “because as an entertainer, that’s what we’re going for.”

The Imperial OPA joins a small, closely knit circus community in Atlanta, which also includes the downtown-based UniverSoul hip-hop circus. The Buck’s Sports Barn classes are one way performers meet, develop acts and join the circus. Particular performances are based on the setting and client and can include varying numbers and types of performers.

“We’ve done all the ranges,” from street performances to stage shows, said Mack. The Imperial OPA has performed at street festivals and provided performers for the popular TV series “The Vampire Diaries.” It staged cabaret shows and productions with such titles as “Night of the Living Circus.” Its clients have included the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and 11Alive.

All that work has big up-front costs. Renting a performance space can run $3,000 to $4,000 a night. Performers have to be paid – anywhere from $100 to $1,000 each, depending on skills – and a big show can take 20 of them. Costumes have to be made. Insurance has to be bought. Last year, the Imperial OPA had revenues over $175,000, with the majority going to performers’ pay, Mack said.

Rocco Lapaire strikes a pose. (Phil Mosier)

The troupe is far from Mack’s million-dollar dream of setting up its own permanent circus space. He says it needs a more sustainable and stable business model, and may seek official nonprofit status. Right now, it accepts donations through Fractured Atlas, an organization that acts as a fiscal agent for small arts groups.

Even planning a circus show can have a big effect, Mack said, recalling how a former hardware store clerk told him how an unusual Imperial OPA request inspired him to follow his own dreams to become an architect.

“‘You came into Home Depot one day and you asked me how to build a bed of nails … You changed my life,’” Mack recalled the man saying.

That kind of perspective shift is what Mack hopes audiences take away from Imperial OPA, whose performers range from teens to an 86-year-old acrobat.

“I hope people get inspired that they can do anything,” said Mack. “It’s never too late to have a passion, to throw your heart and soul into the ring.”

For more information, see theimperialopa.com.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.