The Feld Sisters Talk Circus…and Ice Shows…
and Motorcross Shows, and…
It all started with the Chinese calendar. The year 2012 is the year of the dragon. That simple fact proven to be the inspiration for the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Blue unit. “We decided as a company that we wanted to celebrate the Year of the Dragon,” Alana Feld says, by way of beginning our conversation. “Once we had that concept we went out and hired Shanda Sawyer [as director] because we felt she was the most talented and the best person to bring our idea to life and conceptualize it in the circus.
“We did a lot of research on dragons,” she says, continuing. “They are found in almost every culture, and so we pulled dragon imagery and its meaning from all different sources and came up with these four attributes that represented dragons in many cultures, but more than that also represented our performers, who have all these qualities themselves. Heart, wisdom, strength, and courage.”
Nicole jumps in: “The importance is that the show and particularly the dragon registers with the kids. If you look at what’s happening in kid’s pop culture today there is a lot of dragon lore and fantasy. It’s in their books and cartoons, and the idea of competition is something they are used to. That’s why we took attributes that all humans possess. And then we wanted to give them something to look forward to, as a pay off.
“The issue today with kids is that they have no context for the circus. They don’t see it on TV or pictured on their lunchboxes,” Nicole continues, warming up to a subject that she feels is of great importance. “It isn’t in their vernacular. Everything here [at the circus] is so foreign to them. It is not something kids relate to. It’s not like Disney. That doesn’t need to be explained. So whenever we can, we try to create a scene that they can relate to. That’s why we think dragons is so successful, because dragons are in the kids’ vernacular and applying it to something that is not, like the circus, gives them a connection. When they leave the show the circus experience is more relevant to them because it was connected to something that is familiar to them. Otherwise, they don’t know how to talk about the circus. They don’t know how to say to their parents, “take me to the circus,” because they don’t know what it is. It’s like a whole other vocabulary for them. That is a disappointing and frustrating aspect to youth today, and that’s is why we struggle so much to package traditional circus acts in a way that’s relatable to thing kids understand. And that’s in everything we’re doing.”
And, the sisters are quick to point out, they are already thinking about how to do that in next year’s show. They were scheduled to have a creative meeting the day after we spoke in early April. “We’ve been working on the new show for about two months already,” Alana says before Nicole adds, “There is a new director, Andrew Logan. He does a lot of live corporate events. His background is in music.”
More than some of the recent Ringling productions, Dragons has a stronger plot with an element of suspense in it, and the sisters obligingly took me through the creative process of developing that plot. “At the end of act one we have a ‘power throw-down’ where each of the tribes does an incredible feat.” Some explanation may be needed here. The cast is broken up into four rival dragon tribes who are competing against each other in “a tournament of circus champions” to show that they have the qualities of the dragon themselves. And then there is Paulo, a diminutive character who wants to see the dragon for himself and is told by the skeptical ringmaster that he can only do that by demonstrating those aforementioned qualities. Just before intermission, at the conclusion of the “throw-down,’ the dragon’s head appears. We had previously caught a glimpse of its eye, wings and tail.
At this point in the proceedings, having been surprised by this sighting, the kids, are excited and asking, “Are we going to see the dragon?” So they are obviously rooting for Paulo.
“We decided we needed someone to represent the kids. Johnathan is leading the audience on this journey and Paulo is there as the proxy for the kids. That idea was always in it. Paulo [dos Santos] had previously been part of 140th . Coincidentally he was actually the last performer Tim Holst hired before he died,” Nicole interjects. So this is his second tour. He is so willing to learn and try anything. I’ve never met a performer with more energy than he has. Even backstage. Everybody loves him. Talk about heart.”
Everyone who sees the show ‘s star dragon, once they get to see it in all its glory, agrees that it is a spectacular creature. It looks like it put a big dent in the show’s budget. “Did it ? ” we asked.
“We had a large budget to work with,” Nicole answers. “This show was no more expensive than others; it’s all a matter of how the funds are utilized. We didn’t have to do new lighting this year. It had been updated last year, so we had some extra money available.”
So was the absence of elephant blankets a cost saving measure? Not really. The elephants on the Blue show are quite young, a majority of them having been born at the Center for Elephant Conservation, and so they are not yet accustomed to wearing blankets. “Another consideration,” Alana adds, “is that we felt there was already a lot going on. We felt the opening number was pretty complicated with so many different costumes,s ince each of the tribes had their own color and style. So there is a lot tolook at and we didn’t want to do too much,” and confuse the eye.
Once the show got on its feet, the rehearsal process went very smoothly, so that by the time it opened, it was in incredible shape. And there were almost no cuts between Tampa and the New York area enagagements.
One aspect of the show that has required a lot of patience to develop is the cage act presented by Alexander Lacey of England. The male lion is very young. The plan was always to train him to go on top of the mirror ball, but it is a painstaking process. Nicole points out that this is a brand new act that has never worked anywhere before. Lacey has been breeding a whole new generation of lions and tigers, because his cats were aging and needed to be retired. When he came over, the act had never worked anywhere before. Since there are some very young cats and some very old cats in the act, it is in a constant state of training. He is working on them to learn the tricks of the older cats.
Lacey, like most recent animal trainers with Ringling, wears a body microphone so the audience can hear what he is saying to the cats. “The audience loves him. He speaks proper English so that the audience is really engaged. They get a real understanding of what it takes to train a cat,” Nicole says, and Alana adds, “The way he talks to the cats, it as if he has a classroom full of children and this is relatable to the audience. He has a conversation with them.” Back to Nicole: “And then you see the payoff after all the talk. Anybody who comes in with preconceived notions about training methods, all of that falls by the wayside when they can actually watch somebody doing it. There is nothing negative about it. He is so articulate that it is useful and helpful and educational for the audience, and they should hear what he says to them. He had no problem doing it. It keeps it interesting.”
In addition to being young, these cats have never worked in a soft cage before, never been in these types of holding and transport cages, everything was brand new, the lighting, his costumes and “they adapted so well it was remarkable to watch him during the rehearsal period. The animals are well trained, and he has such a good relationship with them.”
There has been some discussion involving the difficulties in getting the animals into this country. “Anytime you take animals anywhere, especially coming from abroad, it is a huge investment and major undertaking . We had been working on that for over a year. Then there was the change of animals to be considered. You must have all the paper work in order and for that you need all the lineage, the legacy of each animal, its date of birth and exact names. There is a lot of paper work, and our veterinarians were also involved.”
This production features a single ring, which is changed during intermission from the banked curbing required by the Cossack riders to a standard height for the second half. The change was made, according to Alana because they felt the big ring inhibited what could be done in and around it. “It’s very heavy to open and close. It is very cumbersome and also very high, so anything that happens in the ring would have their feet cut off from view, as for instance the dog act. We had more flexibility without it.”
For the past few years our conversations have been limited to Nicole and Alana Feld. But there is another sister, Juliette, the youngest, who has already worked her way up to the position of producer. She has filled that function with Feld Entertainments’ latest group of show, centering around motorcross sports. Juliette produced the latest such effort, Nuclear Cowboyz, a state of the art motrocross experience
“We have had unique training, all three of us,” Alana says regarding the girls’ experience growing up in the Feld family. “We have been afforded unique experiences that no one else has had. We grew up around this business and whether or not we knew it then, that we would work in this business, and I don’t think we did know it then, we have learned things you don’t even realize that you have learned. So I think we all had some time watching our father who mentored us and still does, and from a lot of other people in our company as well. And being around the shows for so long, I don’t think there’s a certain time frame that we can call being an apprentice.”
Juliette also produced last year’s version of Disney on Ice with Nicole, and they are working together again this year. There’s plenty to keep three people busy in so far as producing three units of Ringling Bros., eight Disney on Ice tours, five Disney Live tours (soon to be six) plus all the motor sports. In addition to the Nuclear Cowboyz show there is another show IHRA motorsports,. Monster Supercross and Monster Jam, six different motor cross productions in all. “On any given weekend in the first quarter of the year,” Nicole points out, “we could have, world-wide, thrity-five events going on one Saturday. We played to over a million people on one weekend.”
And all these events have different needs the producers must meet. “You talk about Ringling Bros. or Disney on Ice or Disney Live,” Nicole explains, “granted they may all be on a little different scale, but even with something like Nuclear Cowboyz, you are spending a year concepting a show or rehearsing it, putting it together. These shows are,in theory, the same every time we see them. But the monster jam is not scripted; there’s an event line up, but there is no set outcome. Monster jam and super cross are really sport.
All of the work involved in all this is divided between the four of them, with Kenneth Feld, the fourth producing partner. “Its our company,” Alana reminds us, “and we can sit around and determine what’s best for the show, and there is a great deal of collaboration involved. We attend each other’s meetings, and we watch each other’s show because we want the other’s input because its all so collaborative. We do a lot of that. I think there might come a time when we have a show that is so big it will require all three of us as producers.”
“It also depends on what we have going on in any given year,” Nicole joins in. “Last year we produced seven new productions. This year we’re producing four or five. Everybody’s work load is different. So Alana might have a time because she is not working on a show she would typically be working on. I’m busy with two circuses and Disney on Ice and Juliette is busy with Disney on Ice and Nuclear Cowboyz. Alana is sharing in the circus. All of this frees our father to work on other things, like new ventures or other ideas. He is definitely not slowing down. Which is good. What is great is with Michael Shannon, who is the president of our company, our dad has more time to focus on new business development or other creative ventures. It also allows him to take a step back from being involved in the day to day operations and focus on what he loves, and this is much more helpful to us in the sense that he can come into a meeting and say ‘What about this or that?’ or throw in a splashy idea that we hadn’t thought about because he’s not as close to it as he has been in the past and that’s helpful to have a fresh eye.”
That’s a whole lot of creativity going on.