Looking (Not Too Far) Down the Road
What with all the catastrophic events that have rocked the circus world this past year I was given, as I am sure many others were, to thinking about what the future might hold for the circus.
In thinking about current trends and how they might foretell the future, I couldn’t help but recall all the inquiries I get from young circus artists, inspired by Cirque du Soleil, who want to start their own companies. To do that they have to do some fund raising, and it quickly becomes obvious that it is a lot easier to raise money to stage a new production that they could then tour than it is to have to raise enough capital to buy a tent and equip it with seating, etc. After that there is the problem of finding transportation. I am sure not all these eager young artist will end up with a company but some of them surely will. Then becomes the problem of promoting their show and finding bookings. Those that are successful will surely wind up performing in the ever expanding group of art centers that are cropping up in almost every mid-sized city.
These young artists who are interested in being a part of the new circus, have many different ideas as to what the circus can be. As a result it has become more or less the case that anything goes. In this youthful burst of creative energy the contemporary circus has taken many forms some of which are very exciting and others that are still in the experimental stage, but they never include anything resembling a circus under a big top. And then, of course, there are the ever proliferating youth circus organization who want to show off the circus skills they have acquired.
What is left of the traditional tented circus is struggling in all respects, artistically as well as financially. For one thing audiences can’t be faulted for preferring to attend a circus in the comfort of a heated or air conditioned building that doesn’t require picking one’s way across a muddy field to get to.
Another advantage young circus start-ups have over traditional tented circuses is that they can incorporate as a not for profit and seek public funding or private tax-deductible contributions. Arts council funding has helped the contemporary circus stay afloat where traditional circuses might sink because it is not geared to asking for money from such sources. Look at the problems the Big Apple Circus, a tented show, encountered in that area when it went hunting grants.
So what are we to make of all this? Renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote a piece called “How Easy It is to See the Future.” You do it, he suggests, by looking at current trends and determining whether or not they are leading us to an inevitability that will have to be dealt with in some way. I have been thinking for quite some time now that whatever form the circus of the future takes it seems inevitable that it will be presented in either an arena or on a theatre stage. Tented shows are a relic of a bygone era. John Ringling North saw that inevitability sixty years ago. Recently, Carson and Barnes after abandoning the five ring format under canvas, has finally decided to try some indoor shows during the holiday season. I don’t think it will be long before they go that route permanently. The trend is observable and apparently inevitable. We could have seen the direction things were going back in 1956.
The advantages for being indoors are many, for both the performers and the audience. I one asked Lou Jacobs if he missed being under canvas. He looked at me as if I were crazy. “Of course not,” he replied. “It’s much better in every way being inside.”
As equestrian acts have all but faded from most circus programs and elephants are increasingly out of the picture, the idea of an actual circle circumscribed by some form of curbing makes no sense and is essentially un-necessary. So why not move on to a stage or into an arena?
To thrive in these new venues the traditional circus will have to look more seriously at the contemporary circus for inspiration as to style of presentation. Melding contemporary circus aesthetics with traditional circus’ skill level should raise the quality of circus in all aspects. It seems obvious that this is what the paying public wants to see, at least for the time being, but another observable trend should serve to remind us that changes in the public’s taste for entertainment is another one of those inevitabilities of which Asimov speaks.
There may be a few vestigial circus shows such as Kelly Miller that will survive in their present form for a time because their style of performance would not work in either an arena or on a stage, but whatever tented shows remain, they will be forced to play only such venues that are rather remote, before a population that will have no access to local theatres and have no choice, if it wants to see a circus it will have to find somewhere that a tent is pitched. But these circuses will be a small and inevitably vanishing minority.
Save your memorabilia.