Friday, October 24, 2008

Circus Performers Who Blog from the Inside: Of What Value Are They?

A Showbiz David Essay

(original posting date lost)

One of the most interesting issues of the moment is the potential value to the consumer and researcher of the insider blog. By this I mean, for on-point example, the blog of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs that gives a day by day account of their activities as clowns on the Kelly Miller Circus.

At the same time, it also raises serious issues involving company information and whether or not show owners have any legal basis for controlling what is issued from the blog of an employee. We are, I suspect, advancing into uncharted territory. I am addressing this issue from the perspective of three parties involved : the researcher, consumer, and the show owner.

Research Tool: When I first came across the Copeland and Ryan blog, I predicted that it might become very popular, for Steve Copeland, a passionate and in many ways likable guy, gives you a fairly predictable run down of his day to day travels: The kind of lots they play on — many of them in the mud; the malls nearby that he shops at; laundry duty, his association with Ryan, socializing with other performers and visitors to the show.

On a professional show-oriented level, Copeland is nothing less than candid in detailing many of his personal ups and downs, most of them the result of audience size (he provides a general overview of the attendance for each show, but we are left to guess, for example as to what his word “average audience” means). He is acutely sensitive to how the audience reacts to his work with Ryan, and, it seems, he is forever tinkering with their gags in an effort to improve their comedic impact. (I wondered if they do not need a strong directorial hand, maybe they have one in John Moss, to firmly help them decide on a final script) About a month ago, the guys butted heads and wills against the prop hands about the set up of their props. It is clear that Copeland believes he is being ill served. We do not hear from the prop hands themselves, nor, so far, from the Kelly Miller management.. This resulted in a high number of comments (as I’ve learned such heated issues will generate), among them from veteran John Herriott, sympathizing with the boys over the ongoing feud. Herriott correctly pointed out an organizational protocol for issuing a grievance, which evidently has not been followed. The impression left is an unflattering portrait, by default, of John Ringling North II and James Royal remaining passive on the sidelines, of a show unable to solve what should be a solvable problem. So we may not be getting the full story. The issue of tipping a prop hand came up; Copeland is adamantly against it, and there was a consensus that tipping as extortion should not be condoned. This is a very old issue; on Ringling, tipping was a routine tradition honored by all.

Recently, he alluded to contract renewal talks with North II, obviously hoping that he can return to Kelly-Miller next season, indicating that Jim Royal would need to get involved in order for negotiations to advance further.

After following this blog for quite a while, because my interest concerned two topics: the actual business the show was doing and how JRN II is involved as show owner (his personality comes through very well), I started tiring of the repetitiousness of it all. The malls, the mud, the indifferent audiences.. And I grew weary and depressed reading of those dead crowds, especially one that Copeland dissed as a bunch of cell phone addicts chattering away while ignoring the show. Not a pretty portrait for the strength of the show. So I stopped following the blog until recently, prompted by a remark that JRN II made to a reporter stating that ticket sales had doubled since the last few season: I wanted do see if this seemed to jibe with Steve’s accounts. Hard to tell; the impression I gained from his accounts is that business could well be up, but not by very much.

For the Consumer: It is doubtful that such a blog can affect business one way or the other, which is why it may not be much of an issue, yet, to show owners. Circus blogs reach a relatively small market. I can’t see many people reading them in a serious effort to decide whether or not to patronize a circus. However, I can cite my own example, since I am a valid circus consumer who spends a lot of money on occasion traveling across the country to see shows. Right or wrong, the choice is mine, and I was put off by Steve’s account of a number of things — lackluster audience reactions, a trapeze act that did not work all dates, among other things. This influenced my decision not to spend an entire day, and costly, from NY to Pemberton, NJ, and back. So for me, the blog was helpful. It may have saved me one very disappointing day.

For the Circus Owner: Here is where conflict and controversy, even eventual legal challenges pitting circus owners against their blogging employees, may yet enter the picture. I am not sure what the legalities are, that is whether circus owners can sign contracts with performers stipulating that certain things can not be blogged. We are getting into all kinds of Constitutional issues, I imagine. Up until now, there has been no viable way for a circus performer to share with the world the gritty inside information of the sort of things about which Steve writes.

But, that having been said, I can’t imagine, for example, a stage star in a Broadway show blogging about inside conflicts; and yet, it might be legal. I would imagine a show owner can rightfully believe it in his or her interest to avoid hiring such artists, fearing all sorts of adverse publicity.

The things about which Copeland writes were, in past years, confined to “tell all” books by ex-circus employees recounting their season with ....

Perhaps JRN II takes this in stride. He strikes me as laid back. Last season, he had Ben Trumble, a less temperamental voice, questioning routing decisions and reporting on business.

I think that North and Royal, as I have already suggested, should put out a blog of their own (The adventures of John and Jim), sharing with us their side of the story. I have to think they don’t feel very good coming across as two managers strangely passive in the background while two unhappy clowns vent their anger with, in their opinion, and underperforming prop crew. Can you imagine Art Concello condoning such a thing?

Interesting new midway.

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