A Brief History
On April 4, 1768, the origin of the modern circus occurred when a cavalry officer named Philip Astley (born 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England) set up the first modern amphitheatre for the display of horse riding tricks in Lambeth, London. Today, over 200 years later, circuses remain a major form of entertainment around the world.
What are the hallmarks of good circus acts?
Well, we could go on for ages about experience, reputation, training and so on. But the thing is, since they do such a dangerous and demanding job, performers start training and amassing experience since early childhood. Look for people who are professional on and off stage and with whom you can have clear communication.
Search for circus acts that are good fits with your event profile and your venue. Are you looking for a classic spectacle or an interactive close up experience? Do you have enough room for acrobats? Is the ceiling high enough for stilt walkers? Will there be enough distance between the audience and fire dancers?
What different formats of circus acts are available?
You can generally classify them into a few big groups.
Aerial acts are elegant acrobatic performances, mostly done on large silk ribbons or various ropes suspended from the ceiling, or plain old traditional trapeze setups. Sometimes these performances are extended by including dance acts on the ground.
Fire dancers and glow performers employ open flame, sparks and embers, and electric light to form trail patterns, ropes, balls, fans, and hoops, usually accompanied by some form of dance. These performances can be held both outdoors and on indoor stages. Fire eating and fire breathing are also in this performance category.
Jugglers have evolved into a class of their own, with sub-types according to what and how they juggle. Balls, bowling pins, plates and other classics are still popular, but there are also daredevils who juggle chainsaws, blades, lit torches and other dangerous items – and even other people! Things like teacups and small-ish furniture can also find their place, and there are specific performance styles like “comedy juggling”.
There are also traditional displays such as clowns, mimes, tightrope walkers, animal tamers, large-scale puppeteers, gymnasts, illusionists, contortionists, and so on. Many performers can also walk around in a “mix & mingle”, meaning they take their act right into the audience. Click here for an overview of different circus skills.
Do you have to provide any equipment?
Sometimes. Most of the time, the performers will bring their own stuff, but you may have to request some particular lighting, a PA system, or music to accompany a specific act (e.g. tightrope walking, fire breathing, aerial dance). In that case, you might need to help fill in for some hardware, depending on what the performers have and what the venue is equipped for.
Make sure you can guarantee a safe, dedicated performance area, especially for acts involving fire, animals, height, and weapons. You are responsible for preventing any injury to either the audience or the artists. Make no mistake, animals are also considered part of the team and are a legal responsibility. They must not be exposed to any danger or undue stress that might interfere with their behavioral training. Let the handler alone decide what is the appropriate level of animal-audience interaction, or if it can even be allowed at all.
What else do you need to keep in mind?
Ensure a smooth process from the get-go. Reserve a parking space as close as possible to the venue entrance, so that the performers can unload and re-load their stuff easily. Most acts will come in a van or similar vehicle, so have a space suitable for that.
Have someone ready to meet them as soon as they arrive, and make sure their changing rooms are ready in advance. These should have a bathroom facility (like in a hotel room) whenever possible, so the artists can relax and wash up a bit between performances. Remember, this is sweaty work!
If your venue features a bar, inform the staff to not charge the acts for any soft drink, and make sure no alcohol is offered. You do not want a drunk fire dancer, or someone plummeting to their death onstage! Most of them will just want water, but better be safe than sorry. Also, inform the venue administration about the types of acts you have. Maybe they will need to adjust for fire regulations, or do a health and safety risk assessment beforehand.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been to a circus? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Jacob, Pascal. The Circus: A Visual History. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018.
The featured image in this article, Astley’s Amphitheatre in London as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.