Features Vol. III, No. 5

 

Conversations with Circus Administrators

 

Joel Emery, Executive Director Circus Flora

 

David Balding, Circus Flora’s producer, passed away suddenly just weeks before the season that just ended its run in St. Louis, and Jack Marsh took over his responsibilities.  However sudden Balding’s death may have been, this change in management was not a spur of the moment improvisation occasioned by necessity.

Several years ago Balding and Joel Emery, Flora’s executive director, along with its board of directors (it is after all a not for profit arts organization and is required by law to have such a governing board) identified Marsh as the successor to Balding.  As a result the show’s management was already about eighteen  months into a two year plan for the succession/transition process when Balding died.  “We had planned ahead, and we had positioned ourselves for the future stability and longevity of the Circus.  So when events dictated there was no moment of hesitation,” Emery says.  “We all found out  by the morning of the 10th of May that David had died,” he adds recalling the sequence of events, “Laura [Balding’s wife] called Cecil [MacKinnon], Cecil called Jack and Jack called me.  We were, of course, all extremely upset, we loved David dearly; he was a dear friend that I’d known for the past seven years.  Then [Jack and I] made up a list of other people who needed to know as quickly as possible.  Between the two of us we reached out to that set of people to make sure they all knew what had happened.”

Marsh thus began functioning immediately as the artistic director.  It did, however, take everyone  a few days to get their heads around the fact that David had suddenly passed away. “Jack and I had coffee a few days later to talk about it and begin the process of moving forward,” Emery recalls.

The irony of the timing is that Balding as of June 30 (once the season had closed) was going to assume the role of executive producer of Circus Flora and Marsh was going to assume the role of artistic director.  “So essentially,” Emery explains, “we jumped that process ahead by about fifty days.”

With the critical success of this past season’s production The Pawn, the response at the box office was the  strongest ever.  “As far as the box office is concerned we’ve continued to work on collaborations, that’s what we’ve become known for, being a great collaborator,  trying to work with other groups to help them and ourselves to accomplish our mission at the same time.   For example this year we had a Sensory Friendly Day at the circus for children on the autism spectrum who are frequently overwhelmed by sensory stimulation.  So we added another performance and adjusted the production values.  We brought the house lights up and the volume down  to make it accessible for children that would be overwhelmed otherwise.  In that way it became a safe environment so that the kids and their parents could feel comfortable.  They were not being judged; there was no need to feel self-conscious.   We’ve done more and more of these  things to make our performances accessible to audiences.   It has helped the box office by opening the doors to new audiences.”  Box office currently covers about sixty percent of operating costs.  Forty  percent comes from sponsors.

Another program that has helped build box office is the circus’ collaboration with the city’s symphony orchestra, which resulted in about 600 new audience members.    In the meantime corporate giving is still a  challenge.  “It’s coming back with a different structure and different corporate goals.  Wells Fargo came on board this year as a sponsor for the first time.”

Flora’s major out-reach program is Clowns on Call.  It is similar in operation to the Big Apple Circus’  Clown Care Unit.

As for Emery’s role, he acknowledges that it has evolved over the years in a variety of ways.  “My goal is to get as many human beings as possible into the big top.  I want the institution to have a long term viability.  Jack and I both work together on this goal.  Everything has to have that artistic inspiration.  Everything has to be artistically at the highest possible level.”

One factor that has made the collaboration between Emery and Marsh a bit awkward is that fact that Emery lives in St. Louis and Marsh has been located in New York City.  Plans are under way for that physical relationship to change.  Marsh is planning to move to St. Louis in the fall.  “He [Marsh] will be here more or less full time,“ according to Emery

This is especially important as the circus looks forward to 2016 and its 30th anniversary celebration.

 

Jack Marsh, Associate Artistic Director and General Manager, Circus Flora

 

For Jack Marsh the change of title came somewhat unexpectedly, but after David Balding’s death, the actual moment to moment part of the job didn’t change very drastically from what it would have been otherwise.  “I was going to be doing close to what I’m doing now even if he hadn’t passed away when he did,” Marsh points out.  “We planned on my being both associate artistic director and general manager simultaneously,” which is where he is now.    A big part of his job involves bringing in the show and being creative partner with his mother Cecil MacKinnon who is the show’s director and dramatist.

Admittedly it is an unusual, but not unheard of collaboration.  “We would always have conversations about the shows as I was growing up,” Marsh recalls.  “It’s been nice to have a formalized situation.”   Neither hesitates  about giving criticism to the other, and there are no mother/son squabbles.    “It’s all about what we see and understanding that we’re working in the same direction, to make the show better, so we’re  able accept each other’s views on things.” This relationship did not spring into being overnight at Balding’s passing.  Marsh has actually been associate artistic director for the past couple of years, and  during that time it had been a three-way conversation with himself, his mother, and David.

Although he obviously has a relationship with his mother beyond the professional one, Marsh says it’s pretty delineated ig we’re talking about the show or other things, like family stuff.  Right now we spend a lot of time together because we’re talking about the show a lot.  She lives in Rockland County, NY and I live in Manhattan.  So we see each other every couple of weeks.”

As with every other show attempting to import talent, immigration problems are a challenge.  To bring in one of the featured acts in the recent show negotiations were started as early as last fall and required the services of an  immigration attorney who works pro bona for Circus Flora.  Despite the lead time and the legal services it still came down to the wire.

Marsh began his professional life as a lawyer.  After law school he started working as a corporate attorney in New York City.  “Right before I started that job, the circus was working on its first collaboration with the St. Louis Symphony.   I was finished with school and waiting to start my job, which was to start the Monday right after the show was to have its final performances.  With some time on his hands, before moving into his new job, he was anxious to contribute to this new collaboration.  He and his mother bounced ideas off each other, and he became in effect, assistant director providing an outside eye on how it was coming along. It was in his words, a wonderful experience and something of an epiphany.  “It turned out to be a great show, beautiful and very powerful  with the symphony, our performers, and a powerful story.”   It all merged together so well that the idea to go from that to a boring corporate job the very next day was something Marsh had a difficult time bringing himself to do.

He ended up staying at this position for two years.  “I had loans to pay off and a good chunk of those two years was spent planning my exit strategy,” he explains. “My heart wasn’t in it.”  It definitely seems to be with Circus Flora.

 

John Ringling North II, owner Kelly Miller Circus

 

JRNII-2

Photo by Paul Gutheil

When John Ringling North II was asked what the biggest surprise for him was when he first took control of Kelly Miller Circus seven years ago he said, “the amount of paperwork.”  There was a lot more of it and it was far more complicated than he had anticipated.  In addition to all the documents involved in getting foreign circus artists into this country, there is also a lot of paper work in dealing with each town the show played each year because they all have different rules and permits required.

The United States Immigration Service is frustratingly unpredictable.  Visas were delayed in getting completed and into the hands of the people who are hired each year as the tent and prop crews.  In fact Kelly Miller opened the current season and played the first ten days, moving three times during that period  while in the Texas Rio Grande region,  without a crew.  Circus life is not so glamorous a life style as it may seem from the outside, but, North says, “I wouldn’t trade my position now with Kelly Miller for anything.  When the big top is full,  the roar of the crowd is irresistible.”

“We take the show mostly to small towns which would never get to see acts of this quality otherwise,” he explained.

When he is not traveling with the show, he is back in Ireland on his cattle ranch.  What he misses most, on these occasions,  is the people.  “I miss being around circus people.  They are a special breed of humans.  When we were without a crew everyone here worked until 2:30 in the morning.  Our thirty performers, staff and department heads, and even the candy butchers worked to keep the show on the road.”

When we talked it was June, early in the season, but he, like so many other circus managers/owners, was already thinking ahead, looking at acts for next year on Youtube.  When I complimented him on the show’s costuming he replied, “If you want to be a quality circus you have to spend some money.    Tavana finds the costumes in catalogues and will have them made for us.  Dan, the fleet manager, contributes ideas for themes for the show.  He proposed the ‘50s themed show and the current ‘Carousel’ aerial ballet.”

Asked about his experiences growing up around the Greatest Show on Earth he revealed that the UK’s Bertram Mills show was his favorite circus, as it was also his uncle’s.  So his ambition today is not to model his show on Ringling’s three rings, but on the single ring of Bertram Mills.  “It was a beautiful show in all respects.  The one ring show,” he adds, “was also preferred by my uncle,” John Ringling North.

When he is with the show, North makes it a point to sit through almost every performance, a habit which turns out to be quite unlike his uncle who could not manage to sit through an entire performance even once.   How does the current generation of Ringling North manage to stay interested through so many performances?  “Because first of all no two shows are the same, and they [the performers] like knowing I’m watching.  So the least I can do is look at what they are doing.  It seems to mean a lot to them.”

 

 CIRQUE du SOLEIL PREPARES TO GO ‘LEGIT’

NEW DIVISION MOVES INTO ACTION

 

 Stewart McGill meets Scott Zeiger, President of Cirque du Soleil Theatrical

 

Cirque du Soleil continues to surprise everyone in the world of entertainment.  After a period of rationalization and regrouping it, has already given audiences Kurios.  Soon there will be the new dinner and show Joya om Mexico. In another example of its awakened spirit of adventure Cirque has announced the creation of a new division, Cirque du Soleil Theatrical, whose mission is  to develop unique and extensive theatrical opportunities.  Its main office is symbolically located in the very the heart of theatreland, Broadway, New York City.

Scott Zeiger, co-founding partner of BASE Entertainment is President and Managing Director of the new and powerful division promoting the company’s ongoing strategy of diversifying its content and live-entertainment activities worldwide.

I spoke with Scott just a few months after the New York office had been set up.  Although the first projects have yet to be finalized I did get a much clearer picture of what to expect from Cirque du Soleil Theatrical. Firstly we spoke of the rationale behind the decision and the mandate to be explored. “Cirque Du Soleil has enjoyed global success in Big Tops, arenas and, of course, the custom designed theatres in Las Vegas and Orlando but never until now has the company extended its live performances into ‘Legit’ theatre. This company has a very brand aware style and Guy Laliberte decided to develop a planning mandate to take us into Broadway, London’s West End and subsequently anticipate global legit touring for both branded and non-branded product. Our logo and association with the title of the piece ensures that every potential show meets our full brand requirements, virtuosity, whimsy, very high level of skill and production values, to satisfy Cirque du Soleil fans globally. We will, as well, develop non-branded pursuits and associations,” he explained.

“For thirty years we’ve not had a New York office and since early March when the office opened we have been able to consider and explore many opportunities that are only possible in this location – cabaret, dinner shows, immersive theatre, real estate. Cirque du Soleil in New York requires us, as part of our mandate to find the right locations, explore business development opportunities and, of course, Broadway offers. There are many prospects to consider and evaluate.”

In this arena of theatrical exploration Cirque du Soleil joins many seasoned big hitters, Disney Theatrical, Cameron Macintosh, Really Useful Group and many more exceptionally established producers. I wondered where Cirque would fit in this mix? “Well naturally we have our areas of interest, cabaret is one potential avenue of intent and this is very distinctive from, say, Disney and others. Guy Laliberte sees a growth area and our expertise in developing hospitality through our ‘Sandbox’ division provides innovative and inspiring experiences as does our Special Events divisions. You could say we are starting small in New York, looking at all our options from real estate to permanent shows; right now we are floating lots of ideas for this Zeiger market,” he explains.

Knowing how Cirque du Soleils love to realign, rebuild, reconfigure and even tear down their potential venues in preparation for new shows, I have to ask if New York faces the Cirque Demolition Squad. “There may be some building modifications in time – most spaces do not have the infrastructure for extensive trapeze work, trapdoors and so on, so nothing can be ruled out. To be a player on Broadway we will explore all options fully. What I have found quite wonderful is that the Cirque du Soleil brand is beloved; developers and creators are very excited to consider projects that, until now, have not been on the radar. I’ve been on many a hard-hat exploration since arriving in March. A Cirque creation usually takes two years from conception to opening.  Kurios was two years in the making – yet smaller shows, a cabaret or an immersive may only take half that time,” he hinted.

One of the names I mentioned to Zeiger was that of Diane Paulus, a popular Broadway director whose work as Artistic Director of American Repertory Theatre has revitalized the scene in her own theatre with exciting spin-offs on the Great White Way. Paulus created Amaluna for Cirque and more recently the Broadway hit Pippin with the 7 Digits de la Main [Seven Fingers] from Montreal. “Diane’s show is loved by us at Cirque. Interestingly Pippin came after Amaluna, but because audiences in New York have only just seen our show they think it came after Pippin!

“There should be lots of cross fertilization, like this on Broadway with many varied models. We will have some projects with the traditional book, writer, lyrics and so on with a very strong Cirque du Soleil input of style,” he stated.

Zeiger has been in town for only a few months, time he describes as ‘fantastic’ with many creatives and potential business associates coming into the Cirque office, “It’s taking time to look at the Broadway season, the ticket prices, and other variations.  We have no gun to the head but I hope we can announce a project soon! Many of the theatre’s top directors, designers, musicians are certainly up for potential collaboration and ask us to think of them when optioning a book or film source. We are considering a bunch of things and, I suppose, right now have literally two dozen possibilities. Our sources could be originals, adaptations of popular movies or classical literature.  We’re all over the map,” he exclaims as he introduces the term ‘revisal’ a hybrid conception where Cirque du Soleil will explore the reimagined model. Whilst Broadway will mount huge revivals of The King & I with Bartlett Sher as its director, it will not be Cirque’s route into production, “Our collaborators will have to be willing to take a revisal approach, reimagining in shape, in scenic design, in every aspect… There is a place for revivals but not for this company!”

The new venture for Cirque is potentially the biggest arrival on Broadway since Disney set up camp with ‘legit’ productions and we will have to watch and wait for the development of new theatrical productions with the best creative talent in the world.