A Sad Year for Circus in America
It’s been a tough year for the traditional circus. First Ringling retired the most iconic figures of the American circus, its elephants. Then we heard that the Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars would not go out this year and then it would go out, but as the King Cole Circus and finally that enterprise collapsed before its first payday came around. And Lastly New York’s Big Apple Circus, we have learned. is teetering on the edge of extinction or some version of collapse.
The reasons for the first two actions noted above have been well thrashed over, so we will avoid stirring that pot of disappointments once more, at least for now. The Big Apple Circus crisis has been a fairly long time in the making and bears some examination. The first note of alarm was sounded with the economic crisis that hit the nation in 2008. The official word from the Big Apple is that this crisis affected the show in an unusual way. Many corporations and other business organizations that had, in past years, bought out entire performances for their friends and family suddenly opted out of a tradition the circus had come to rely on as earned income. More importantly, to me, the economic downturn dried up outright contributions from the business sector, robbing the show of a significant and vital source of income.
The negative impact of that might possibly have been off set were it not for the death of Alan Slifka, early in 2011. Perhaps more than anyone, Slifka was responsible for helping the Big Apple Circus become a viable reality. In its early years, he pumped his own money and twisted the arms of his wealthy and powerful friends to become the show’s benefactors. It seems inconceivable to me that he would allow the enterprise into which he sank so much of his energy, intelligence and heart to allow the show ever to have arrived at the situation it finds itself in today.
Paul Binder, one of the show’s co-founders, has recently written in his blog: “This organization means the world to me.” I am sure Slifka would feel the same and would be as determined and capable of keeping it from disappearing. As it is, however, Binder and many of the show’s fans, which judging from the contributions its fund raising campaign has accrued, numbers 1,150 people, but they helped raise only $900,000 of the needed $2m.
Michael Christensen and Binder’s retirements didn’t help either, first on an emotional level and from there onto a financial one as well. Neither did Barry Lubin’s departure. Without Grandma the clown and its founders the show’s personality was changing in subtle but significant ways that audiences seemed to sense.
So here we all sit waiting for some white knight to ride in throwing a million or so at the red ink and making it disappear and allowing the circus to go on, considerably chastened, ready to install some new strategies that will keep the wolf from the door for years to come.
The Critic’s Dilemma
On certain occasions a peculiar dilemma faces critics, whether discussing theatre, dance or circus. Should the report that he or she files take the form of a critical assessment of the artistry involved or should it be a consumer report, advising potential patrons on how to best spend their money at the box office or elsewhere? I must confess that problem came to mind as I sat through five performances of a certain show recently. What other circus goer would have either the inclination or financial wherewithal to do that? In the interest of full disclosure I do not pay for my tickets at any of the circuses or theatrical productions I attend. For the twenty-five years I was a Broadway critic I never bought a ticket for any of the thousands of shows I saw and reviewed. So I don’t tend to think like the ordinary theatre or circus goer. Most times I don’t even know how much a ticket costs. But there are times I can’t help wonder if the audience is getting its money’s worth. It’s difficult to know for sure, except for obvious and unmistakable audience responses that sometimes occur during and always at the end of a performance. I try not to take those into account either. My reviews reflect only my response to the material in front of me. Any other considerations would make life too complicated.