There’s always been a fog of mystery settled around my perception of the circus. I’ve seen the performers come on stage, flip, sparkle and wow, then disappear behind the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) smoke and mirrors, leaving me wondering where they go, what they do, how they feel, what they believe, where they live. Who are they?
Ringling Brothers recently allowed me to walk through the smoke and explore the space behind the mirrors- the people behind the show- they are extraordinary. I interviewed many of the acclaimed performers, producers and directors, soaking in stories of their life in the circus and receiving an intimate view of the extreme level of their skills. I was so close to one contortionist I could see the rise of her chest as she breathed in and exhaled her toes down to rest beside the top of her head.
I left their home (a 580,000 complex in Tampa, Florida) with a clear vision of the genius, dedication and creativity infused in everything down to the tiniest sequin on the stage. But most importantly, I left inspired to incorporate more of the following circus values into my life.
1. Importance of Family. The performers and crew of the circus are not just co-workers, they’re family members. Many respect the profession so much they’re passing the love of this unique brand of live entertainment down to their children, just like many of their parents did for them. May we all be inspired to find a career we love so much, those we work with become an extension of our own family.
2. Loyalty. Holy moly me oh my- circus folk are loyal as they come. I met two women on my tour that have been with Ringling Brothers for almost fifty years, starting as clowns and eventually transitioning into the business side of the company. The employees aren’t the only loyal ones, the employers (in the case of Ringling Brothers, the Feld family) value their employees so much they often create space for their families in the shows, or other areas of employment in the company. Loyalty in business often feels like a dying value, let’s keep its pulse pumping.
3. Love of Culture. Being in the circus is not just a job, it’s a culture- a way of life so deeply ingrained in most of the performers they have no desire to ever leave. This culture is free of detachment, laziness and mediocrity, and bursting with collaboration, precision in all the things and heartfelt appreciation for their audience.
4. Open-Mindedness. The humans that make up the rich tapestry of the circus originate from all the nooks and crannies of the globe. Currently, there are sixteen different languages spoken behind the scenes at Ringling Brothers! Because they share a common goal to create the best possible experience for their audience, and love for their shared circus culture, barriers (even language barriers!) are dissolved and replaced with patience and a willingness to learn about that which is unknown.
5. Honing of Craft. The skills you see at the circus were not learned in a weekend course- many of the performers have spent decades perfecting their ability to gracefully defy gravity and conquer feats most humans would balk at, while the directors and producers (some with a history in Broadway) have mastered the ability to orchestrate the epitome of marvel amongst a sea of moving people. The circus is the ultimate exemplar of dedication to craft.
6. Embrace Change. While circuses such as Ringling Brothers have been “circus-ing” for almost 150 years, they’ve had to adapt with the shifting interests of their audience. Instead of viewing these shifts as a problem, they’ve used them as an opportunity to make their show better. For example, Ringling Brothers (recognizing the near obsession our culture has with technology) has begun using a projection technology that allows them to transform the ice portion of their stage (that’s right, ice!) into a spaceship, distant galaxy or an intergalactic funnel. Change can either cripple us, or be the push we need to step into our full potential.
7. Belief In Magic. A belief in the unseen wonder present amongst us is a must for those who transform an ordinary shell of a building into another world, full of creations so far outside the realm of possibility many humans live in, it’s impossible for audiences to leave unchanged. Magic.
My new mantra in times of challenge? “What would my circus peeps do?”