Ringling Bros Circus Is Back With More Story And No Animals

Via Artsjournal.com is a story on Fast Company about the return of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus which ceased operations in 2017. Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus is looking to return to the road with a trimmed-down, humans only performance that is less abstract than Cirque du Soleil, but more adult than Feld’s Disney on Ice.

The part of the story that grabbed my attention most was the decision to bring the circus back without animals. In 2014 the circus had won $16 million in settlements from lawsuits brought by animal rights organizations who alleged animal cruelty, but public perception was that animals were being mistreated. However, when they announced in 2015 they were going to phase out the animals by 2018:

“Immediately, ticket sales slumped. Despite public sentiment against the use of animals, dancing tigers and trained elephants proved to be a driver of customer interest, according to Mollica. Animal acts turned out to be synonymous with the very idea of a circus.”

As soon as I read that, I thought about how this paralleled the experience of some arts organizations who made attempts to heed warnings about diminishing audiences and tried to diversify their program offerings only to find ticket sales and donations almost immediately evaporate. The lesson here is probably to consider how you are going to execute and communicate the transition because not every effort has resulted in such a strong public reaction.

The Fast Company article does a good job examining many of the decision points that were part of the revamp. For example, while there will be video and technological enhancements not found in the previous version of the circus, the creators wanted to avoid any suggestion that the performers weren’t able to perform various feats without the presence of technology.

“We don’t need technology to allow a performer to appear like they’re flying from one end of the room to the other. They actually can do that.”

Much like other live performance experiences, the newest version of the circus depends on storytelling to generate audience investment:

The new circus will also be more story-driven than previous iterations, structured around eight characters who will drive its narrative arc. Feld Entertainment has cast a musical theater entertainer, Lauren Irving, in the lead role, pointing to a substantial musical element at work within the show.

Shipton explained that leaning into narrative provides other avenues through which audience members can engage with the circus, beyond pure spectacle. “Story equals emotional connection,” he says.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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