Feature Article Vol. I, No. 7

Turning the Circus into Adult Entertainment

Ross Mollison (right) clowns with the Gazillionaire in Las Vegas

It has long been accepted wisdom  that as long as there are children there will always be circus.  The concomitant idea is that the circus appeals mainly to children.  In America all circuses are, therefore, marketed as family entertainment.  But now, after several years of finding his way, onto the lists rides Ross Mollison and his spiegeltents, pitching his circus/cabaret/vaudeville/burlesque entertainment to an adult market.  The circus acts in his entertainment remain pretty much standard circus, literally dressed up in costumes that would, however, seem scandalous in a traditional circus.  But it is the comedy, provided by circus trained clowns, where Mollison’s shows, directed by Wayne Harrison—(what is the word? dip? sink? revel? ) both in words and actions worthy of the raunchiest burlesque comics.

The last time Ross Mollison had one of his spiegeltent shows in New York City, it was pitched on a pier in the shadow of  the Brooklyn Bridge, a more idyllic setting it would be hard to imagine.  The show did so well, the initial summer engagement  could have been extended well into the fall, but was cut short when the venue was no longer available.  The producer is back in town with another spiegeltent  entertainment, but this time he has moved  across town and set his tent up in the very heart of the theatre district on West 45th Street, across the street from Tony Award winners Once and One Man, Two Guvnors, and next door to the light-hearted musical Nice Work If You Can get It, shows that are more geared to adults than children.  Mollison  has traded the enchantment of the South Street Seaport for the glamour of Broadway, although, as the host of the show called Empire announces, it’s really “the bowels of Broadway.”

“I loved having the show at the South Street, but it was such a hassle for audiences to get there,” the forty-eight year old producer says.  Besides, the move opens a whole new market for his brand of  entertainment.

The tent is squeezed into a vacant lot, with about an inch to spare at each end.  In order to be able to use this space, Mollison had to rent a particular sized tent from a man in Belgium that could fit in such cramped quarters.    The tent seats about 340 and has room for a bar area that is busy before and even during the show.  But the producer has foresworn  an intermission that might generate more bar business.  “The intensity of show would be diminished with an intermission,” he says in a remarkable display of integrity. “ The main theme is to create the best shows possible and ninety minutes of intensity is more powerful than stopping” half way through and resuming after a break.

The move across town has not been without its problems, in addition tothose created by the tight quarters.  The local stagehands union protested when Mollison used non-union stagehands.  That dispute was worked out amicably with both sides acting reasonably.  Mollison argued they were not in a Broadway theatre, and the union pointed out they were in the Broadway district.  A single union stagehand was finally hired, putting the contretemps to rest.

Nor has the run, despite it lively business at the box office, been without unexpected problems.  The weather in New York City this summer has been “challenging.”  The excessive heat has caused the producer to face a doubled air conditioning bill.  “The humidity has been dramatic,” Mollison points out. “ I’ve done a lot of tent shows in New York and this summer is the worst.”

Mollison’s background as a theatrical producer has always been in that area known as “adult entertainment.”  A native of Australia, one of his first effort in New York was a show called Puppetry of the Penis.  He was also the producer for Slava’s Snow Show.  After he saw his first spiegeltent entertainment at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, the thrust of his career as a producer took a more pointed course.  He was instantly hooked, and he is now dedicated exclusively to this form of entertainment.

The show that he  saw in Edinburgh eventually became Absinthe, an entertainment that has had two different versions play New York at the aforementioned South Street location.   He also produced La Vie, one of the shows created by the Seven Fingers company at the same site. He staged the latter show as a late night entertainment along with another of his own productions.

Interestingly Mollison views the shows of the Seven Finger company as family oriented entertainment, especially their current New York hit Traces. “ I have known the people from Seven Finger since they were formed.  They are really great people and would love to work with them again.”  In fact he is co-producer of the La Vie tour. “ If they approach us,” he would certainly be more than willing to consider any proposal for a show that could work as adult entertainment.  In the meantime, however, he points out, that Traces takes up a lot of their time.” (As wecan see from the related item in the FYI page.)

Empire, his show currently playing 45th Street in New York has been under development for six months, and is, in fact, still, according to a report from Hovey Burgess, adjusting its comedy routines.  “We are always coming up with new stuff constantly to get better and better,” Mollison says.  The show will  close on September 2 and launch a world tour that will begin in Australia.  There are also negotiations underway for sites in South America,  Mexico,  Japan and South Korea.  Adult entertainment, it turns out, has proven to be enormously popular universally, and “many cities around the world would like to have one of our shows.”

Meanwhile the Aussie producer  has what has the potential of being a permanent installation at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.  His incursion into the so-called Entertainment Capital of the World began with a proposal to produce a spiegeltent show at the Flamengo, which was going to be backed by Lehmann Brothers, but when that firm went belly up, the deal fell through.  Mollison next reached out to Caesar’s Palace who bought into the idea.  Eventually the spiegeltent in which the show opened in March of 2011 was replaced by a new permanent structure prominently located in the resort’s elegant Roman Plaza in front of the casino itself.  It has proven to be a big hit here, and its run was recently  extended.

Although Mollison  has devoted his producing efforts to spiegeltent productions, he does not  own any of these unique pavilions himself.  He did buy one and kept it briefly before selling it off because he has found that each installment has different and specific  requirements, so each site requires a different tent, and it no longer made sense to own any of them himself.   The Las Vegas installation seats seven hundred.

The Las Vegas show features, the Gazillionaire, the aggressively obnoxious host, whose comedy plants the show firmly in the realm of “adult entertainment.”  He comes to that show from the most recent version of Absinthe, the last spiegeltent show to play the South Street Seaport.  The rest of the show, Mollison explains, is composed  mostly of  new acts, “all of the highest quality.”

In addition to the shows now up and running, Mollison’s company is also working on two new productions for next year and the year after.   Wayne Harrison, his director who previously worked for the  Syndey Theatre Co. , as well as his choreographer,  and costume designer all spend a good part of their free time going around the world in search of the unique, bizarre and startling.  “We will  go anywhere,” Mollison says. “It could be a Lower East Side bar in New York City or the circus school in Kiev.  We get lots of referrals  from creative people.  We also get videos daily, as do many others. “ It’s a small world with the  internet.

“We are always looking for new talent and new ideas,  things we haven’t seen before.  Each show is unique in atmosphere and the acts in it.  We go for what is exciting to us and potentially for our market.”  In Australia, he believes, a chair stacking act which is the final act of the New York show, would be a novelty.   Speaking of Australia, Mollison also views Circus Oz as a family oriented circus. It has strong comedy, unquestionably,  but in his view its flippant iconoclasm, anti-establishment bent does not shove it far enough left to become what he would classify as adult entertainment.

Mollison hopes to extend his brand by insuring that  “If you come and see one show, the next show will be different,” and decidedly adult.