This first appeared on February 15, 2009
From Showbiz David to Beleaguered Circus Owners
I feel your pain, even if you don’t. I would like to see you succeed, even if you believe you already are. Even if you refuse to be traumatized by the thousands of empty seats you fail to fill. And so, risking a class action lawsuit for subjecting you beyond your will to my forced advice, you are hereby enrolled in my (drum roll, please!) ...
TWELVE STEP SELF-HELP RECOVERY PLAN
1. IT’S THE SHOW STUPID! No matter the venue, crowd-wowing showmanship is built on time-tested elements — swiftly paced action, smooth transitions, contrasting moods, music, lights, costumes -- all tautly shaped between sudden decisive openings (as opposed to haphazard pre-show ceremonial nonsense) and big flashy finishes. Bottom line: everything that goes on in and around your single or half ring either adds to or subtracts from the flow of action. REPEAT AND MEMORIZE: EITHER ADDS TO OR SUBTRACTS FROM THE FLOW OF ACTION. Anything that does not (to be addressed next) must go, and go NOW. We in the audience are not impressed. We see through your desperate veiled appeals for money. We do not welcome their disrupting the seductive sawdust spell you sometimes cast over us.
2. OUT, DAMN CONCESSIONS! Are you a circus or a concessionaire on the skids with a backlog of cotton candy to blow up before you blow out? If you still harbor a secret desire to be the next Royal American Carnival, I’d suggest moving your coloring book spiels, your photo ops and various rides along right now, out of the tent and onto the midway where they belong. And the moment I hear one more idiotically intrusive Peanut Peterson pitch DURING ANY PART OF YOUR PERFORMANCE, I swear, no matter the hour, no matter the place, I am getting up out of my seat with megaphone in hand, placing it up to my frothing mouth and shouting “I've heard that fifty thousand times already and I’m not gonna be pitched it anymore!”
3. CONFINE YOUR RING TO THE PERFORMANCE ONLY Money changers, out of the tent! Why? Okay, let’s think this through. A good performance creates and sustains audience engagement. Think of watching a movie in a theatre that every 10 or 20 minutes is shut down while some hack tries selling you on having a pet boa constrictor wrapped around your neck during intermission while a priest gives you last rites and your photo is taken. How might you feel, huh? Clutter your show up with junk and your audience leaves subliminally irritated by everything that got in the way of why they went there in the first place. Have I made my point yet??? They paid to see a performance, not to watch Shopping Channel Goes to the Circus. If you still don’t get it, I’d suggest simply getting out of the business.
4. RETIRE ALL "GUEST ARTISTS" TO THEIR SEATS, WHERE THEY BELONG I do not pay to see customers perform. Give them a good five years off, during which time you will relearn the art of hiring sufficient acts to entertain in lieu of filling up dead space with audience dead heads. I have yet to see a member of the paying public become part of the show in any other venue, be it a rock concert, ballet, stage show, rodeo, or public hanging. And please, will somebody tell the Shriners that we can no longer risk incalculable damage to whatever is left of clowning in American by their unwelcome holidays in greasepaint.
5. REMEMBER ATMOSPHERE? How about restoring a little, such as (and you know who you are) spreading a little sawdust or pink spray paint where the ring used to be. Or at least taking a crash course from any one of the two thousand co-founders of Cirque du Soleil who are standing by this very moment, ready to French up your operation.
6. POPCORN BY THE TON Give us a bloody break! Give us the half-ton box at half the price. You lure the public in with generally humane ticket pricing options. And then you ensnare them in your calculating concession pits, draining them of every last cent you can. I sat behind a poor woman at a small very under performing circus with her son, who kept raising the subject of popcorn. She told him she'd pop some when they got home. They did not return after intermission. Really, what do you accomplish by making it so difficult for adults with children to survive circus day? Why not a Dollar Matinee or two at the concession booth during each stand? Jack up the VIP night show prices, if you must, for rich Wall Street survival geniuses wishing to flaunt their stolen wealth in high American fashion.
7. ORGANIZE A UNIFIED MUSICAL SCORE If you can’t afford a live band (and by "live band," I am not talking accordion and/or bongo player), at least assign a real person to assemble a recorded score that is more than a juke box randomly stocked with the CDS handed you by your arriving acts.
8. PACING, PACING, PACING Remember when acts flew by? When, after one ended, somehow, someway, the next was actually somewhere inside the tent, maybe already in or over the ring performing? Return to the one-act format and concentrate your assets into a tighter, more memorable one-two wallop. Know what? If you thrill a few people, they might go out and talk up your show, and that might pull in more people to the next one. It’s called “word of mouth.”
9. OFFER A PIECE OF PAPER LISTING THE ACTS -— if that’s all you can afford. Remember the program magazines you once sold? The demise of these expected items which are still offered in virtually every other avenue of live entertainment is a tell tale sign of a big top being wheel-barrowed down the road on cherry pie life support. If you can’t hand out at least a one page flier listing the names of your performers, I’d say it’s time to consider a career change; check out some self-help gurus on PBS (Pledge Break Society) for re-birthing advice.
10. IF IT'S SOMETHING MY NEIGHBOR CAN DO, I DON'T WANT TO SEE IT IN YOUR CIRCUS I do not pay to see marbles or kick the ball, doing the daisy chain or hula hoop sleepover, thank you. Unless you can engage that true rarity -- the artist who makes me forget I'm actually watching a hula hoop act -- bring back pin the donkey.
11. RINGMASTER, HOLD YOUR TONGUE I know at least one who can’t stop talking. An immediate gag order on every gasbag announcer who thinks he or she is the real show. He or she is not. These vocal hosts should be heard briefly, and should not themselves become the show unless they have valid acts to offer. "Are you enjoying the show so far, folks?" is not a valid act.
12. IT'S NOT THE STORY, STUPID! You are not the Royal Shakespeare Company over sawdust staging Six Characters in Search of a Producing Clown. No matter what you believe, modern-day "story telling" under a tent is nothing more than big top broccoli designed to give snobs the satisfaction of having endured a quasi Cirque du Soleil out-of-body experience. If you can't resist, then tell your “story” in brief fleeting moments, so that it passes quickly enough to satisfy theatre types without in any way impeding the flow of CIRCUS action. In other words, it should have the tantalizing brevity of an old fashioned American clown walkaround. Leave’em wanting more, not less.
And on that note, I'm leaving. There's a man out there who wants to see me about ad rates. Anybody heard of Dixiana Peanuts?