The destiny of all circuses resides in the hands of the owners, not the performers. The decisions they make ultimately dictate success or failure. Here are three shows, each either in trouble or transition, that intrigue me the most. For a number of widely varied reasons, their ongoing sagas will be interesting to watch in 2011.
John Ringling North II: Content to run Kelly-Miller as an average mid-sized show, or burning with the artistic ambitions of a true Ringling?
Key Question: The story here is John Ringling North II — how far does he wish to advance as a producer? Is he a work in progress, or have we seen already what he may be content to stand for? Nearing the end of his fourth season, North is not straddled by a cumbersome performing arts structure, such as that which could be the ultimate undoing of the Big Apple Circus. North enjoys autonomy as sole owner, and there is no reason to believe that his show is in trouble. The respectably pleasing program he turned out in 2010 was hardly a world class circus, but he may be building up good will attached to his world-famous name. On the down side, his inexplicable willingness to condone by far the most offensive show-disrupting peanut pitch I have ever seen must count as a negative reflection on his showmanship.
What to look for in 2011: Operating on a narrow profit margin, don’t look for big changes in the Kelly Miller tent. At best North can make subtle but important improvements to the performance and foster a more seriously legitimate artistic impression. He can easily rid his performance of all obnoxious commercials without risking foreclosure. He can possibly add another act or two to enlarge the lineup and create the illusion of greater depth and breadth. He can impose sharper direction — this need not cost much money but does require will and discipline. If you do not see such changes in 2011, count on JRN II to have probably defined himself as an about-average circus man. Even then, he can take pride in his accomplishment and join a rare gallery of big top producers still on the road after many arduous years. But if “average” to be is his easy pleasure, don’t count on the “Ringling magic” he promised at the outset; it’s not coming.
For these reasons, I believe Kelly-Miller is the show to watch (sorry to those who take offense to my “obsessing" over it). So get out your score cards. And if the laugh is on me, I do hope you enjoy-enjoyed yourself.
Michael Christensen: Did he decide not to retire in order to preserve a way back into power for himself and retiring founder Paul Binder?
Key Question: Who will end up in charge? That’s the big story here, and on it may pin the future of this circus, rumored to be fast running out of money and close to some sort of an abyss. The “retirement” as earlier reported of Paul Binder may not, in essence, have completely happened. He is still prominently listed on the masthead, as is his co-founder Michael Christensen, holding active title as “creative director.” My questions relative to these realities and what they mean, sent to the BAC press department, remain unanswered.
The show is reeling from declining ticket sales and a loss of important corporate sponsorships, blamed on the Great Recission. A bloated administrative staff has been trimmed some, but not, as I see it, nearly enough. Incredibly, its board of directors numbers 33. Difficult to understand why it takes so many people to turn out essentially a moderately sized one ring circus, albeit of high quality.
Default ace in the hole? By virtue of not retiring as was earlier rumored, Christensen may have plotted to preserve a viable return route back to full power for himself and Binder, whose history together may be thicker than water.
What to look for in 2011: Despite new artistic director Guillaume Dufresnoy finally getting to direct, don’t look for remarkable changes to a solid if staid format. If the show does well, this should strengthen his position, however precarious it may be given all of the other personalities in play (among them, “consultant” Barry Lubin, Paul and Michael), with whom he must work. But if Dufresnoy's first opus fails to register strongly with the press and public, look either for the return in some form of Binder and Christensen, or to executive director Gary Dunning cleaning house and making radical shakeups.
CARSON & BARNES
Can a proud circus family yet adapt to 21st century standards? Seen here: Geary and Barbara-Miller-Byrd, their daughters Traci Cavallini and Kristin Parra along with their husbands, Julio and Gustavo. Photo by Hillsboro, TX, Chamber of Commerce
Key Question: Will they still be on the road in 2011? From fairly reliable accounts, business this year has been very weak; some wondered if the show would head back to the barn mid-season. Owners Barbara and Geary Byrd seem the least willing or able to shuck aside the old hard-scrabble carnie-circus policies they doggedly pursue — policies that increasingly mark them as out of touch and over-the-hill
When C&B threw in three rings for one two years ago, a few seasoned troupers optimistically envisioned, finally, a first class show from Hugo, Oklahoma. The thinking was that a single ring would force a superior artistic focus onto the Byrds, like it or not. This does not appear to have happened, certainly not when I saw what they were up to in 2009. To be fair, they enlivened the performance a little by engaging the clown Alex, whose presence has caused a favorable buzz among some. But overall artistic standards (talent selection, sound system, announcements, music, and lights, etc.)remained generally inferior, and this only makes C&B a harder sell in the era of Cirque du Soleil.
What to Look for in 2011: How long can C&B survive on strategically-placed concession sales (cutting into the show and during the intermission) if they can’t lure enough bodies, via free tickets, into the tent? Look for a somewhat smaller operation returning to one day stands. Don’t look for much more.