Behind the scenes at the big top
Blending high-tech theatrical production values, commercial interests and the expertise of generations of travelling performers, Circus Vegas is a mixture of traditional circus life and modern day entertainment. Yvonne Gordon reports
The entrance to Circus Vegas is through a bright and colourful circus façade. With blazing lights, a large sound system and a ticket booth with surveillance cameras, it all seems impressive and high-tech. However, when the ticket-seller disappears to find the main man, I take a peek beyond the entrance. I see two campfires burning in the open field, struggling hard against the wind and the rain. This is more like the romantic circus image that I was expecting.
Talking to the people who work on the show, it's clear that behind the showbiz façade of the Circus Vegas production itself is a group of hard-working people with families, making the best of living and working on the road.
European publicity manager, Richard Waters, is a former photographer who joined the circus just last year at the age of 33. "I've known circus families for about 15 years. When I was younger, I loved going to the circus. One day I was doing photographs for a circus and from there, I got to know them all. I don't know what made me run away with the circus but I did. I used to be a press photographer and then I became a circus manager - though there's not much in the difference."
Waters says that the biggest drawbacks of the lifestyle are things like waking up at 6 a.m. and having to move on to the next place in freezing cold weather. "But it's like a small community on wheels. Everybody has water, power, the whole lot. It's a great life really, it's different. You're travelling all the time, in a different town every week, not stuck in an office nine to five. That's one good thing about it. And there's always good fun on the show, good camaraderie."
This year will be Circus Vegas's third year touring Ireland. It originally only came for one year but was so popular, it was extended. It's a new show this year, with a brand new Big Top and new acts and performers including three African elephants and Californian sea lions as well as traditional clowns, jugglers and acrobats. Owned by CBC International, an Irish-American organisation, the name originates from Circus Circus Las Vegas - a casino in Vegas where a lot of the acts have performed.
In this production, the acts are from all over the world - Germany, The Netherlands, Colombia, Portugal, Bulgaria, California, Mexico and Las Vegas. "Circus acts travel the world," says Waters. "The Cater family and their sea lions have performed in America and all over Europe. So have the elephants. Circus acts will move from circus to circus. It's like any show in the theatre, you put the actors and the show together in one package."
Musical clown Clari Daniels, who is Irish, is one of the show's more traditional acts. He has just joined Circus Vegas after 24 years in South Africa touring with circuses and theatrical companies. His parents were originally in the circus and touring shows. "I was born into variety and drama and the old fit-up shows that used to tour around the halls years ago."
Daniels travelled with his parents when he was growing up, apart from an unhappy stint at boarding school, from which he kept running away. "Life in the circus is something that you grow used to. I worked for state theatre in Cape Town in South Africa and was living in a house, but I hated it, it was like a ball and chain around my neck. You're a nomad. Once you're moving, you're happy. Once you're born into it, that's it, you don't have any choice.
"My typical day depends on where we are. I would check my props and instruments out, make sure everything is working. If I have something new to do, I start working on that. I don't really have a lot of free time outside work but if I do, I like to play jazz."
So how do you train to become a clown? "As a child, I used to admire the old clowns like Johnny Duffy and Bobby Fossett. That's basically where I started. For me the challenge in my job is to see adults laugh, because when you walk in with a red nose and white make-up on, kids will laugh anyway, no matter what you do. But if I see adults laugh, I'm happy then."
Most of the acts at Circus Vegas are married with children and some children live on the show. Waters explains: "There are people here who have been in the circus all their lives, they were born into it and they now have children. Although the children are being educated and will have the choice to go to university or whatever, a lot of them probably will end up being performers in the circus. It's in their blood."
So what kind of acts will the children do? "Some of the young kids are training to be acrobats or jugglers, whatever they take a shine to or have a talent for. There's no pressure on them, most just want to do it. They see all the adults in the ring performing and they want to go up and do it. Sometimes we've a juggler on the show who'll help the kids and train them. Or if there's an acrobat or trapeze act, they'll start to show them how to do the tricks."
Robert Gordon, ringmaster and general manager of Circus Vegas, has been in the circus since the age of 18. "I lived in Belfast and was a keen amateur actor, very interested in theatrical performances. The circus came to town. I wandered in and got to know a few artists. Then one day, I was asked to compère a show."
Gordon's children live at home and are in school. They come to the circus at weekends and are there fulltime during the summer. "When they are here they do what kids anywhere would do - play games like hide and seek. I prefer my kids to be in a stable school system. Some of the foreign children have "transit teachers" who visit five days a week. There's a mobile classroom and the kids are in class from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. There are about 11 kids doing this at Circus Vegas at the moment. Some of the other kids are in boarding school."
Gordon is not sure if his children will train for a future in the circus. "My seven-year-old son is a natural clown, but he wants to be a doctor when he grows up. He's very smart." In Gordon's 29 years in the business, he has worked in many different circuses all over the world. He describes Circus Vegas as a very "theatrical production" as opposed to the "raw sawdust and spangles of 25 years ago. This is a huge circus.
"There's so much equipment, there isn't room for it all on site. The theatrical production and professionalism is excellent and all the equipment is first class. You could buy two or three houses in Dublin for what the Big Top cost. There is a big emphasis on lighting, dance and singing. It's a modern circus but we still have traditional circus acts like animals and plenty of slapstick comedy."
Circus Vegas is owned by a large production company, it's not family-run. "Today, people want big productions and acts," says Gordon. "The small family circus is dying out - it's a relic of a bygone age. But there are more circuses in Europe and Ireland today than the last 30 years. People still want live entertainment and the circus is one of the last forms of clean, family entertainment."
Being manager and ringmaster, Gordon sees both sides of circus life and describes himself as the "link between the circus and the outside world. The circus is a very open community. Despite what you see in films and read in books, there's nothing mystical or secret about it. There's a good social life but a lot of work and pressure. You do meet a lot of different people and come into contact with all sorts of animals and places you'd never see, but I still have great respect for everyone in the circus. It's a very hard, very demanding life. People have to work and live together.
"The circus is a small community. You see some neighbours every day and some maybe not for a few weeks, unless it's showtime. Some of the animal trainers are up very early every day, exercising the animals, feeding and training them. They have excellent patience. The best part of the day is the performance. This is when the magic comes alive. People are doing things you wouldn't see anywhere else. Some are risking their lives. The feedback from the public is brilliant."
I look forward to attending the opening night of Circus Vegas a few days later. At the end of the show, when the ringmaster bids his farewell to the audience, saying "may all your days be circus days", I have a feeling that some more of mine might be.
Circus Vegas will perform at the Cattle Market in Kilkenny on Friday, February 14th (5 p.m. and 7.30p.m.), Saturday and Sunday, February 15th and 16th (2 p.m. and 5 p.m.). For further details tel: 087 7714667