Monday, December 01, 2008
The Circus Book Paul Binder Will Never Write, and Why ...
Hard to imagine any circus producer down through the ages as well educated or intellectually inclined as outgoing Big Apple Circus founder, one-time ringmaster and artistic director Paul Binder.
Like Ringling’s late ringmaster Harold Ronk, who was himself a master diplomat who virtually never criticized big top people and the shows they presented (he did note, during a speech, that Ringling in his day was considered “the modern circus,” leaving the rest of the sentence for us to complete), Binder is equally prone to conceal any critical feelings. After all, he has spent thirty years fund raising and holding an organization together.
And yet, since Binder does not hesitate to discuss, class room style, the roots of circus and his producing guidelines, he is fair game for a set of candid questions (my wish list that follows), which he is never likely to take on. Were he to address these questions in book form, we might have something worth reading. So, I soldier on in hopes, waiting for Amazon to bring out Paul’s memoirs ...
Last week, taking to National Polite Radio’s Tom Ashbrook, Binder once again touted his oft-pitched deference to “virtuosity” as the leading criteria for selecting circus acts, along with, and he stressed this greatly, a co-criteria, “you have to be able to make contact with the audience.” Well, okay ..
He returned to this theme during the interview. “We want the audience to identify with the artists. These are not superheroes. They are people just like you. They get up in the morning ... what they show us is what we are really capable of ... that’s how the message gets across, that you identify with that person in the ring. They’re not a big superstar ... Oh, my, she could be a person — that’s a human being.”
So, exploring the idea that artists in spangles are just as likely to show up at the corner laundromat, let that be our Binderesque springboard into my questions for Paul:
* Circuses once brought mystery and magic, other worldly mystique into towns. Irvin Feld broke down the fourth wall when he invited audiences to participate more in his shows (in the specs, in pre-performance interaction with performers, etc). Does this marketing concept not match your own passion for wanting your performers to directly connect with the audience?
* Currently, Circus Vargas has its artists standing at the front door after the show lets out, in effect, a manipulative move to bond its patrons more intimately with its performers. Why have you not done the same, since this would surely advance your desire for artist and audience to connect on a more human level?
* Cirque du Soleil brought back loads of other worldly atmosphere into its tents, and for many years it has had little difficulty filling up virtually all of its seats. Is this mystique not part of what the public hungers for?
* When I attended two of your recent shows, Picturesque and, Celebrate!, certain outstanding performers (among them, Cong Tian and Gui Ming Meng) did not come off as trying to joyfully make contact with me, even though I found them to be tremendously entertaining. Were they exempt from your criteria?
* Were you able to sign arguably the world's greatest juggler, Anthony Gatto, would you require that he revise his act to bring in more of the "joyful" factor?
* When I saw the greatest act in my life, the Wallendas (before they "flew")execute with miraculous perfection and control — and courage — the 7-high pyramid, I don’t’ recall their lending the impression of a certain joy in what they were doing. Rather bravery and skill. Would they have failed under your tent?
* Since you endorse the idea of anybody being able to be a circus star, why are virtually none of your acts ever from the U.S. or from U.S. circus schools? Would this not advance and validate your philosophy?
* In the beginning, your short-lived New York school produced a few exciting acts. Evidently, they did not live up to your criteria, or you gave up on the idea. You maintain we all have it in us to be circus superheros. Then why are there so few United States-born citizens in your shows?
* Do you believe that such elements as bravery and daring do, of risk taking work against your preference for the “joyful” relationship between the audience and the show?
Circus owners, as a rule, shy away from sharing what they really think. Has any big top boss (John Ringling North, Louis Stern, Cliff Vargas) ever turned out a book of any significance? Early-day innovator dynamo William Coup did a pretty decent job in his Sawdust and Spangles: Stores and Secrets of the Circus --- I think. The Ringling Bros (via Alf T.) gave us a lovely little puff piece of a book describing their early years in the business.
And, so too, Paul Binder, I fear, will defer to a feel-good approach if ever a publisher can get pin him down to his memoirs.
Look for high-grade cotton candy and another cozy and safe NPR interview. For all of his talent, Paul is, I am beginning to realize, the ultimate spinmaster.