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Cascade student's Big Underwear Tour to visit Latin America

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Big things, it is often said, spring from big ideas. Or, in the case of Portland Community College Cascade Campus student James Sibelle, from Big Underwear.

Clearly, an explanation is in order.

Sibelle, a student in the Emergency Medical Technician program at Cascade Campus, is part of a group that is organizing a most unusual journey. Calling themselves the “Big Underwear Social Tour,” they plan to drive an old bus to the town of Puebla, Mexico, where they will perform an old-fashioned variety show for the locals. From Puebla, the troupe will make its way by bus south to Panama, performing at various stops along the way.

“We’re attempting to do a variety show reminiscent of the old vaudevillian style,” Sibelle explained. But that explanation only scratches the surface.

According to Big Underwear’s Web site, “The Big Underwear Social Tour is an experiment in the social action and reaction of a group of international artists brought together, close together, aboard a tour bus in Mexico bound for Panama. The tour bus serves as a mode of transportation, a home, a refuge, a courtroom, a middle ground in the highs and lows of life on the road.”

Sibelle’s role in the troupe is show medic and documentarian. He plans to film the entire endeavor – on the bus and off – and produce a documentary film of the troupe’s adventures. His studies at Cascade Campus are helping to prepare him for his role as medic, and he plans to enroll in the campus’ Paramedic program after he returns to the United States.

“I feel I’m ready for whatever we might encounter on the road,” Sibelle said. “The EMT program does a great job preparing us for a whole range of situations.”

The idea behind the Big Underwear Social Tour was hatched several years ago when a couple of Sibelle’s friends – local Portland street performer Brady Bradshaw and German performer Irmtraud Speigel – were discussing how live performance can connect with onlookers in an immediate, visceral way. This conversation morphed into a talk about performance as a medium for cultural exchange, and the Big Underwear Tour was born.

But why “Big Underwear”?

“It’s a metaphor,” said Sibelle, grinning. “It’s the underwear that’s under your skin. It’s the set of experiences and beliefs that shape how you view the world.”

The idea then, is for the performers on the tour to display their Big Underwear to the world – no pretensions, no assumptions, just performers and audience, each equally influencing the other. The tour will be not-for-profit, and “as self-sustaining as possible,” Sibelle said. At each performance venue, the troupe will solicit donations to help them reach the next. For the artists – and the eventual documentary film – the tour will be as much about life on the bus as it is about the performances themselves.

Having conceived of their mission, Sibelle said, the troupe is now facing the daunting task of organizing a road tour of diverse performers through several countries. First on their agenda was obtaining a set of wheels – they bought a 1976 American General from a Seattle-based circus troupe, and are outfitting it to sleep 15 people.

When asked about the potential pitfalls of driving a 30-plus-year-old bus through Central America, Sibelle was confident.

“It’s got a good transmission in it,” he said, laughing.

Another priority, of course, is finding performers. To this end, Sibelle said they are relying on Bradshaw and Spiegel’s connections to recruit their members. So far, they have assembled a multitalented mix of performers from North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and will have a full complement by the time the tour kicks off in November 2010. In the meantime, Sibelle is planning a preliminary trip to Puebla this November to construct a stage and lay the groundwork for the rest of the tour.

At this point, Big Underwear’s biggest obstacle, Sibelle said, is startup funds. They are being supported by the Rodara Foundation, a nonprofit group, but are still in need of donations. If you’re interested in making a contribution, or just learning more about Big Underwear, you can visit their Web site at, or e-mail Sibelle at


Once the tour is over, the performers will disperse and Sibelle will get down to the business of editing and producing his film, which he plans to screen here in Portland. And if it’s a success, will he and his compatriots take their Big Underwear to another part of the world?

“We’ll see,” he replied thoughtfully. “For now, it’s one country at a time.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »