Thursday, June 21, 2007

MIDWAY FLASH ... Circus Chimera Closes Early. What Are We to Make of It?

Showbiz David Speculates
Circus Chimera was the first American show to be created in the shadows of Cirque du Soleil. When it tried out in the Bay Area before pitifully attended houses in 1998, I recall discovering it by accident at Jack London Square. So good was the bargain basement version of a Cirque-like experience which Chimera offered— winning acts cleanly and artfully presented against an original taped soundtrack more lyrical than bombastic — I went back a second time.

Carson & Barnes veteran manager Jim Judkins invested a lot of his own money in the one-ringer, which eliminated animals and favored an intimate program that is referred to by some as "the new American circus." Promising, indeed, seemed the idea of offering lower and middle class families an affordable Cirque du Soleil experience.

The wonder is that Chimera has lasted this long. Now, Judkins has issued a press release stating that the show will close on July 2 in Newark (northern California), and take a "hiatus" to "prepare for next year." The reasons cited are "economic."

Remember when Ringling-Barnum played Europe in the mid ‘60s and closed early? When Feld’s Kaleidoscape toured for nearly two years and then suddenly shut down? Each early closing generated a press release similar to Chimera’s promising better things to come in the season directly ahead.

If Judkins really intends to return, what must he do? Here are some thoughts:

* He must elevate his performance to a higher level of showmanship. He needs to engage a first-rate director and give that director autonomy. He needs to 86 his concession pitches from the program. Circuses face a far more competitive era. What worked thirty or forty years ago may today only irk.

* He must revamp his physical layout. Send the Hugo midway home. It does not belong as a prelude to Chimera’s contemporary allusions. The tent must be better ventilated. The heat it produces under the sun can be as oppressive as the ear-shattering speakers under the UniverSoul Circus big top.

* He must rethink his audience base. Does it really desire an affordable Cirque experience?. Maybe the Berkeley-Bay Area crowd does, but Berkeley-Bay Area types hardly count for the country at large, and those who do prefer Cirque have loads of money to spend. They do not need bargain basement Cirque. The crowd with a lot less money to spend — potential Chimera ticket buyers — are of a class more inclined to favor real circus, as in ...

* Animals. They are not going away, not yet as some have predicted. Time for Judkins to rethink this policy, well intended when he started out in 1998. Producers should not confuse the public’s infatuation with cirque for a lack of interest in circus — not when circus is done right. Consider that both Ringling and New Cole, evidently listening to their customer base, have not given up on animals. John Pugh retired the bulls for a season and then brought them back. Kenneth Feld interpolated a white tiger act in his first Ringless opus during its firs-year tour. Why? Not for sentimental reasons. No, because these producers listen to what the public tells them, and the public is obviously telling them to give PETA the you-know-what.

Chimera’s challenges are daunting. My guess is that only with a noticeably improved show and a major thrust on the front end does it have a fighting chance of generating the word of mouth necessary to fill up the seats and turn the critical corner...

That said, Judkins may already have toured beyond the point of a solvent return. Personally, I feel very sad at this point. His original idea seemed sound, but to Cirque, you almost have to cirque all the way, even on limited funds. And then, you may still be pitching your good modern intentions to simply the wrong crowd.

John Ringling North II presents?

[Thanks to Don Covington for sending along a copy of the press release]


henry edgar said...

i frankly wonder why nobody seems to use american performers. it might be possible that the public is a little tired of seeing nothing but oriental and hispanic performers. at one time, shows had a better mix of performers. of course, at one time, there were occasionally shows with more than two families, or if they had one big family providing the backbone, it was a group like the cristianis who did more than straps, juggling, silks, hula hoops and an occasional wheel.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the haunting question has to be, what is the audience for circus in 2007? Sixty years ago, maybe you could say "almost everybody." Forty five years ago, it was the baby boomers and their parents, as reflected by the number of small three-ringers touring in the 1960's and early 1970's. Today the audience is throughly splintered. There's an audience for Circo, but it's markedly different than the audience for Cirque. For a small show playing small towns either under a tent or in school gyms, certainly it's still children under 10 who slip in with free tix while their parents (the hostages) grin and bear it. (Hard to determine if these shows are making any money.) For Universoul it's an urban audience. For Feld it's Ringling Consumers, since most Ringling Consumers don't see any other shows. Chimera appears to have had a difficult time finding it's audience, but they aren't alone. There's no real danger that circus is going to go away anytime soon. But unless the mid-sized shows better define what they are, and who they are playing to, and where that audience lives -- there is a very real possibility that large parts of country won't see much "honest" circus, the shows that don't surprise you at the ticket booth, or disappoint you inside the bigtop, the shows where circus itself is still as important as the "brand."

Showbiz David said...

How neat to see probing and thoughtful comments like these! We live in a very perplexing era, but with every show that comes along, we are forced to consider, just what IS circus. And I think that's healthy.