Feature Article, Vol. III, No. 2



Circus Sarasota Has Become The Circus Arts Conservatory, and Steve Smith is its New Creative Director.

A little over a year ago Steve Smith was sitting alone in a log cabin somewhere in the wilderness of Idaho.   His only companion was a word processor.  Having been on the road more or less for forty years he was exhausted and totally spent.  Touring a one man show and serving as your own stage manager, booking agent, wardrobe master, lighting technician, and  travel consultant can do that to you after all those years.  Tired he may have been, but not finished.  There was still something he wanted to do: write another show for himself so he could take it out and be all those things once more.  It turned out not to be a clown show.  It came to be called Finishing Touches, and it was the story of his life’s journey.  A few months ago that show was put on a back burner.  He had gotten another offer.  It came from Pedro Reis, who asked him to be the creative director of what was then still called Circus Sarasota but has since morphed into the Circus Arts Conservatory.

When I visited him in his office in the Sailor Circus building in Sarasota, the glow of the  computer provided the only illumination, Steve being adverse to incandescent lighting.  But the computer provided more than illumination.  On its screen was a spread sheet that somehow managed to make some sense of the various talents of  the one hundred or so students involved in  what has come to be called the Sailor Circus Academy, in another of the significant name changes involving the organization founded by Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs.   Sailor Circus Academy, Steve quickly points out, is his main focus at the present time.

The sixty-five year old youth circus was recently the recipient of a brand new, sophisticated lighting system for its unique home.  It arrived in time to be used in the academy’s recent holiday show, and its effect was nothing short of transformative.  “It raised the bar,” Steve says.  Not only insofar as  production values are concerned, “but in the expectations from our audiences and our student artists”  who were suddenly able to see, as they never could before, the potential to which  they and their work could aspire .  The staff could talk about professionalism until they were out of breath, but now suddenly the young artists could see what that meant, and they had a greater sense of their own responsibility.  “That’s what we are trying to do with every element,” Steve says.

Those spread sheets on the computer screen, were helping Steve organize the coming spring show. It is being called Legacy and it is being produced with a community partner, Sarasota’s  Paterson Foundation and their campaign called “Legacy of Valor.”  The campaign is  designed to embrace veterans and the ideals of patriotism and freedom.  The show is also being staged  in conjunction with the opening of the group’s Patriot Plaza, a new amphitheater situated  in the Sarasota National Cemetery, which has been modeled after  Arlington .

So what’s in a name and all the changes thereof  in recent times?

“This new name helps protect, if you will,  the legacy of circus in Sarasota and Dolly and Pedro’s entrance  into producing circus here sixteen years ago,” Steve explains.  Since Circus Sarasota has a very short season,  it can’t sustain itself by itself,  so all the other spokes in the wheel (Sailor Circus, humor therapy, education projects, performances and training) with Circus Sarasota being  the hub, work to keeping Circus Sarasota vital so that there can be a live production every year.”

That, according to Steve Smith, is a  win/win situation.  “We are trying  to elevate production values not only for Circus Sarasota, but also Sailor Circus which celebrates its  65th year this year.”  There is also a building improvement plan which is enormous, including as it does, air conditioning, new rest rooms,  and other amenities.  The lack of air conditioning currently makes the building all but unusable for about eight months of the year  and , “we would like to use that venue more often, with things like circus cabarets and other performances.”

As to the role he plays in relation to Pedro and Dolly, Steve says, “Pedro is the artistic director.  It is his vision that  we follow.  I whisper in his ear.”  I couldn’t help pointing out that this arrangement sounded very much like that of Paul Binder and Michael Christiansen before they retired. Steve agreed with a hearty laugh.  “You think?” he cried with abundant facetiousness.  But more seriously he added,   “It’s not such a bad template to use, and having  worked for  both I can see how it could work.  There are lots of similarities, and huge differences.  The Big Apple Circus is able to  offer artists a nine month contract, we make different adjustments.  Like Binder Pedro is learning to detach himself.  I watched Paul do it; I was there during that process.  The organization  needs to thrive and grow without them so it has to do without them.”  Despite Smith’s assurance it seems a bit difficult to believe Pedro’s stepping back is as far along as he suggests,  especially after seeing him work props during a recent performance and serving more or  less as performance director from just outside the ring curb.

“We needed an umbrella organization to cover  management of the academy ,and if we are going to elevate production values and the quality of student artists we also need to elevate the name,” Steve says providing further explanation for the name change.  “The name Circus Sarasota didn’t encompass everything that was going on and can go on.”  The overall feeling was the idea of Circus Sarasota being the big top show was so firmly embedded in the public’s mind, that without a change of name it would have been difficult to  include everything else the circus is doing in the minds of the public and to keep it before them year round.

As for Sailor Circus, the addition of the label “academy”  is also meant to be indicative of a different structure albeit one that may be slow in emerging.  In the past it has always been viewed as an after school program on a different level than student athletics.  With  athletic programs, Steve points out, if you want to make the team  you  have to make a commitment to be at all the team’s practices.   “We  need the same kind of structure and level commitment from our student artists.  Admittedly we have a broader age range than most athletic programs, but we can expect more and in return  give them more of a sense of ownership of the product they produce and a better quality of production.”    In other words he is looking to effect a change in attitude and outcomes.

In typical Steve Smith fashion he quotes Groucho Marx to remind us that “change is inevitable… except from a vending machine.”

In addition to the students  (approximately one hundred and fifteen students enrolled in the program during the school year),  Sailor Circus does provide summer camps for local kids and tourists.  Its alumni base is enormous, so there is a vast pool of good will and support from which to draw support going forward.

Back in the present, Steve comes up with the conception for each  new Sailor Circus show and then is in charge of the staging.   He is working on getting more discipline involved.  Courtney Wyatt, the  program manager of the Sailor Circus works with him to untangle the knot of logistics involved with so large a cast. He makes suggestions to the coaches for the music to accompany the acts, and since the program tends to be heavy on aerials, there is a concerted effort to add a teeterboard act and a Russian barre act.  He is also struggling to install a regimen in which  production meetings are held  months in advance rather than weeks in advance.  To elevate the awareness of how a show is effectively put together , they cannot be slapped together. So, he concludes, “Every day a challenge.”