Barry McNamara  |   Published October 10, 2016

‘Odd and unusual’

Hill ’04 shares story of his journey as a ‘conceptual artist’
  • Alumnus Tom Hill’s troupe “The Carnival of Curiosity and Chaos” performed two shows at Monmouth College within the last week, including a “completely improvised” fire show.
As a Monmouth College student, Tom Hill ’04 straddled the line between theatre and art.

Although Hill had opportunities to go down only one academic path, he is grateful that he took the broader approach at a liberal arts college. Both of his majors have become part of his highly successful performance art business, The Carnival of Curiosity and Chaos.

“I wanted to be able to do it all,” said Hill of his choice to attend Monmouth and double-major in art and theatre.

Hill was accepted into DePaul University’s prestigious theatre program, but he was worried that he would not realize his goals if he chose that route.

“I knew if I stayed in Chicago, I wouldn’t finish my degree,” he said. “I was already performing, and the more I performed, the less likely I would’ve been to complete my studies.”

Hill brought The Carnival of Curiosity and Chaos to Monmouth last week for a pair of shows – including a “completely improvised” fire show. He also shared his business experience with students in Terry Gabel’s “Principles of Marketing” class.

“My company creates a fantasy world for people to live in, just for that moment in time,” Hill said. “We create an intimate experience that we hope creates a long-lasting impression. I get you out of your normal routine and allow you to experience something you may not see or experience again. … What I really see myself as is a conceptual artist. I’m creating a fantasy for the audience.”

And it was a fantasy that had a lasting impression on campus.

“It was a lot of fun to have Tom back on campus and to share his enthusiasm and drive with our current students,” said art professor Stacy Lotz. “Many of them were still talking on Monday about what they saw and experienced last Thursday and Friday. Tom told me that he knows a show is successful when people are thinking and talking about the experience days later.”

Hill and his troupe are known for their surprises during performances. He surprised Gabel’s class when he told them that social media and his website have “zero” effect on his marketing.

“Social media stunts my creativity,” he said. “When I’m on the road, it’s hard to stay in contact with all those people. Staying off it gives me the opportunity to be fully engaged with what I’m doing.”

Rather, word-of-mouth advertising, along with three booking agents, are the carnival’s top marketing allies.

“My reputation is outstanding with all the nightclubs that are out there,” said Hill, who also works at festivals, corporate conferences and conventions, and for any clients looking for something “odd and unusual.”

He has frequently appeared on television and in commercials – including one that shut down a portion of Chicago’s financial district to be filmed. He has also worked with several performers, including Lady Gaga, Pink and, currently, Jane’s Addiction.

“I’m playing,” he said of his performance art craft. “I’m living my 10-year-old dream. I’m a risk-taker. I’ll take that risk to push limits, to find limits. When I’m performing in academia, I need to know what my parameters are. I have to make sure I bump those lines, but not cross them.”

Although Hill spoke to marketing classes, his message would be equally appropriate for Gabel’s popular seminar titled “Midwest Entrepreneurs.”

“I was working for a company, and I got screwed out of $9,000 of pay, as well as costumes and equipment, and so did some of my friends,” he told Gabel’s class. “It left a sour note with everyone. I said, ‘You know what? I’ll start my own company.’ It treats the performers the best way it possibly can. We do little things to keep them happy, and if we keep them happy, we keep them working.”

Gabel said that Hill was an ideal speaker for his students to learn about a popular topic in the marketing world.

“A hot topic in the consumer research and marketing fields right now is ‘unconventional entrepreneurship’; meaning entrepreneurial thinking not bound by traditional norms of planning, launching and building a venture,” Gabel said. “Tom’s visit to my two marketing classes gave the students a rare inside look at just such a business. His Carnival of Curiosity and Chaos is the product of Tom’s passion for selling a fantasy world with his product strategy evolving on-the-fly as delivered. In line with his unconventional business objectives, having him in class was a short but joyous intimate experience that will surely leave a lasting impression.”

Hill said he will spend most of the latter half of October performing Halloween events in Chicago.

“That’s my busiest time of the year,” he told the class. “Consumers spend $1 million a year for Halloween in Chicago. What I love about Halloween is it’s the one time a year you can live a fantasy, and it’s OK. I do this type of thing all year, but Halloween is made for me.”

This season, Hill has 22 shows scheduled in a 16-day stretch around the ghoulish holiday.

Chicagoans know his work. A recent Chicago Tribune article called Hill’s “Full Moon Fire Jam” – held on full moon nights from April through October – one of the top 25 things to do in the city during the summer. But Hill’s business is not limited to the Windy City.

“I love that I’m able to travel,” said Hill, who has performed in 44 states. “And I love that I’m able to be with my friends and collaborate and create with them.”

He left Gabel’s marketing students with an encouraging word: “I’m selling an idea that costs me zero dollars. We all have ideas, and we can make money off our ideas.”
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