Feature Article Vol. IV, No. 7

Bringing the Big Apple Circus Back

to its Roots in the City



Joel Jeske (left) and Mark Lonergan


What does a clown do when he wants to be taken seriously?  That is the problem Joel Jeske faced three years ago, at a time when he was looking to move his career along by creating something larger than anything he had done before.  To make that happen he would need the powers that be at the Big Apple Circus to listen to his idea for a new production.

To make that happen he decided he needed to be totally prepared when he sat down with the circus’ artistic director  Guillaume Dufresnoy.  First of all he came to that meeting with not one but three fresh ideas.  “I had been talking to Barry Lubin and Paul Binder, asking what the circus needed,” Jeske explains, “So I came up with three different concepts and instead of just going in and having an appointment, and a casual conversation, I literally, came in with projected outlines, and vision boards.  I even had marketing ideas.  I had seriously done my homework, so I could lay it all out in a concrete way.  I wanted to have a serious business meeting, I didn’t want it to be, ‘Okay some clown is going in there to pitch an idea.’  I wanted Guillaume to know I knew what I was talking about.”

As it turned out, of the three ideas,  Dufresnoy liked the one that became The Grand Tour best.  From the image boards Jeske had prepared, showing pictures of various forms of transportation and travel, Dufresnoy could see a number of tie-ins and ways of integrating circus acts and decided that it would be the Big Apple show two years hence.  Next the two men began talking about a creative team to bring the concept to life.   Since the size and complexity of a Big Apple Circus show was not something for someone who had never directed before to take on, Dufresnoy said he would prefer seeing Jeske as a clown in the show.  That was fine with this graduate of Clown College, and he recommended someone he had worked with many times before in a company of new vaudevillians called Parallel Exit.  He sent his friend and collaborator Mark Lonergan to meet Dufresnoy.

At that meeting Lonergan laid out all his experience. Impressed. Dufresnoy hired him to be the show’s director.  Next they had to build the rest of their creative team.  They turned out to be people Jeske and Lonergan had worked with in the past through Parallel Exit, the set designer, Maruti Evans and the costume designer Oana Botez. The choreographer, Antoinette Dipietropolo, was someone with whom Mark had worked with before as well, and who had actually worked on the Big Apple’s previous  show  with West Hyler.

The reason Dipietropolo was brought in to work with Hyler a year head of The Grand Tour, was to get a head start on the Jeske/Lonergan project, “which to me,”Jeske says, “was a tremendous gift for her to have done an entire season already; it was like gold mine for me.”

So once it was settled that Lonergan was going to direct, and Jeske was basically going to write the script, the team’s objective was to begin rehearsals in Walden, N.Y., the Big Apple’s Creative Center,  with as fully developed a script as possible, including act order and transitions.  To accomplish that Jeske and Lonergan prepped themselves and the script for about a year and a half.  “We didn’t want Walden to fail, to be filled with the typical pit falls that usually happen when you put a circus together, like running order.  The one thing we really emphasized was that with all of our ideas we knew there was going to be a lot of compromises, so based on what the circus was capable of doing, what our ideas were, what the financial situation was, what could be done physically, we developed this mantra that said if something had to be changed  the change had to be  something we were proud of, so with Maruti, every design for his set was a design he was proud of.  If we had to make a change, boom he came up with something that was just as spectacular as what we lost.

“With Oana she always had three back up designs in case we didn’t like the first one.  In putting the show together with the clown material, we timed everything, to make sure the show moved along and we kept it within a certain boundary . Everything was designed to serve the show.”

Since this was the first time the show would not go to Virginia for a break-in period, the company stayed in Walden a little longer than usual, but after three and a half weeks, audiences were brought in to see it.

“The incredible thing with Mark and Antoinette working together as they did and our team working together as efficiently as we did,” Jeske points out, “is that with the act people, any concern they had was addressed with equal weight.  If the wheel or the teeterboard had problems, Maruti, the lighting designer,  was there to talk to them.  Every concern was addressed with as much importance as possible.    Even in the running order of the show when we did a drastic change in the first half and rearranged some of the acts, because we had prepped hanging the whole show on the two clowns, we could make changes, without the structure collapsing. “


Alexander Koblikov

Based on what was in Joel’s concept the team began scouting acts.  “The juggler Alexander Koblikov, who works in a navy uniform” Lonergan says, “was a no brainer and the wheel of wonder could be used to represent the locomotionof the train.   The Dosov troupe had been here two years ago, but Joel had a number of ideas for them, insofar as comedy and costumes and characters and they just ran with it.  It blew our minds the first day they showed us what they had come up with.  We had to pare the act back to fit into the confines of the show.  They had so many gags and tricks.   They knew before they got to Walden what we had in mind for them, which is not typical.  Guillaume was open to contacting them in advance and giving them of our ideas.  That gave them a head start, and it felt like it was woven into the theme in a way that if it were simply a teeterboard act it would not have been. All the artists were very open to all the ideas that we brought to them.  There were no big conflicts, which was very rare and a positive development.”

Jeske and Lonergan were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, ex-Ringling clown and agent Michael Bongar.  “He came to the first show of my company Parallel Exit had done in New York,” Lonergan says. “He knew that Joel was creating shows which he was writing, directing, starring in, and he was lifting these shows on his back almost singlehandedly.   Michael, said to me that there was a guy he wanted me to meet who he thought would benefit from a connecting with a director to help ease the burden.  We met and immediately discovered we shared  a love of all things vaudeville and clowns.  My background was in theatre, but I got very interested in the work of Bill Irwin early on when I came from Canada where I am from originally, and it was that style that I really wanted to pursue and when Joel and I met that’s where we really intersected and saw that there was something there we could really play with.”

“In the first project Mark and I worked on together, Joel recalls, “Mark said we were going to do a show that fit into a trunk, and we did this show that looked like a Depression era silent film called This Way, That Way.  It was about two brothers going across America in the height of the Depression. It was a little like 39 Steps ( a recent off-Broadway hit based on the Hitchcock film) in that we made everything out of something else.”

Another show This Way, That Way began the company’s relationship with an off-Broadway house called the 59E59th St. Theatre.  It was so successful Jeske and Lonergan were asked to create another show for the space aimed at families during the holiday season.  That show was  Cut to the Chase.  “That show was written while I was in Step Right Up here at the Big Apple Circus,” Jeske recalls, “a version of that show Exit! Stage Left! Exit! is the show we just finished performing in Germany during the last year on the GOP (no relation to politics) variety circuit.”

“Doing that variety circuit was the best experience before coming here,”Lonergan adds, “ because we were working with many different artists.  I would go in and install the show in each theatre and then they would run it for two months.  Guillaume saw Brent  McBeth, our other clown when we were playing in Symphony Space, and he said, ‘I could take you two and put you in the circus right now.’   So Brent went in and had his talk with Guillaume and Germany turned out to be his proving ground as well, because initially he was more musical theatre.”

As the creative team planned the show, they were fully aware that like many circuses around the world the Big Apple Circus was having financial troubles, but there was never a moment when they were made to suspect that something was going to be a roadblock to their seeing the show come to fruition.  Dufresnoy was very good and honest with the creative team.  When he told them that the budget had been approved it was full steam ahead.

In sitting down to talk about the music, Rob Slowik, conductor, asked, since the show was set in was 20’s, “Can I do it all acoustic. “  “Make it as hot a jazz band as you can,” Jeske answered.  “When you hear really good 20’s jazz you feel a surge of excitement.  We really wanted to build excitement, not have it be tepid.  If we could have children running all over Lincoln Center plaza after the show it would be job well done.”

From the artistic point, because of the financial circumstances, “we knew we had to make the show that much better.  My motivation and Mark’s in pushing The Grand Tour forward, Jeske says, “was that we wanted to get back to the kind of Big Apple Circus that everyone flocked to at Christmas time. You went because you were best friends with Grandma or you wanted to shake hands with Mr. Paul.  You wanted a hug from Gordoon.  You wanted to visit them every holiday season.  While putting this screw ball comedy in the middle of the circus we wanted to bring that personal aspect back.  We convinced Guillaume to allow me and Brent to go out and greet people  before the show.  It was very much saying hello, thanking them for coming, learning their names and making it feel very personal, because I’ll tell you one of the things that drove us was trying recreate those warm feelings so many people talked about from their past experiences at the Big Apple.  I was searching for ways to bring that  kind of thing back.  It was one of the great things about the show.  There was Mr. Paul walking around, fully accessible.  A woman came up to me recently and introduced her grandchildren.  She said her parents had taken here to the circus, and she took her kids for many years  and now it was her turn to take her grandchildren.”


Brent McBeth (left) and Joel Jeske


In order to bring those feelings back, on the first day of rehearsal, “because it had been ingrained in me from Guillaume and Paul, I told all the artists, that the most important thing they will do in this show is to stand in the ring and look at people, right in the eye.  ‘This is me; this is you; and we’re in this together.’  I really felt it was the most important thing,” Mark believes.  “If you were coming to Big Apple Circus for the first time and you knew Ringling Bros., and Cirque du Soleil, where would you put this in relation to those two others?  Besides the intimacy there’s something else that I haven’t been able to pin down yet, about coming here.  We want people to feel welcome.  I want the artists to say, ‘Come in!’  I don’t know that the other shows do that.  They do other things.  But I think that’s what makes this place special when it’s done well.  “I think when people leave here they have a real sense of ownership because it is really theirs,” Jeske adds.  “That’s why embracing the audience is the so important.  We are your circus.”