Once again, back across the Big Pond we go -- for relief and rejuvenation. Back over there because something is happening over there. Can you count 15? There may be that many circuses now playing UK dates More than half of their seats are off limits to customers, but the other third or so are getting filled up fast. This by way of my Atlantic correspondent, journalist and author Douglas McPherson (Circus Mania), writing me that all of the show owners he has spoken with “reported good business and regular sell outs.”
For example, take the charming little Giffords Circus, an annual staple in the enchanting Cotswolds region of England. Early in the year, they were forced to cut short their tour of The Feast, a circus and dining experience under the big top. (What a novel twist on restaurants featuring circus acts.) When Number 10 Downing Street lifted restrictions by granting tent circuses (without sidewalls) outdoor event status , Giffords regrouped to salvage the rest of its season by offering The Feast at its winter quarters in Stroud. They are now doing three shows a day — virtually sold out for the rest of the run.
Ingenuity rules circus lots in the land of Philip Astley. Currently celebrating it’s 25th year, the apparently booming Circus of Horrors — I’d be inclined to designate it a fringe circus — yet has my respect in at least one regard: Clearly, it is not another Cirque du Soleil wannabe. In fact, in spirit defiantly anything but, I would argue, Circus of Horrors comes closer to capturing the gritty old American circus show complete with kinky midway attractions: As described by McPherson, “They’re kind of the heavy metal circus, with a lot of rock music and freak show-style performers.” So freaky, indeed, that last year they featured a daring young legless man on the flying trapeze.
Which gives me added respect for UK circus owners, a doggedly determined band ready to adapt and innovate and fight their way from one stand to the next. “Against all odds,” wrote McPherson to me in an earlier e-mail, “big tops are on the move all over England — everyone is pulling out the stops to open for August, the busiest month of the year.”
What might we learn or surmise from of all this? The critical component of course is management. Here in the U.S. I can think of three major forces in very recent times who presided over our three largest circuses, neither of whom was active when Corona hit: Kenneth Feld (Ringling), Paul Binder (Big Apple) and John Pugh (Cole). Their loss, I believe, may have marked the most crippling blow ever to our American circus scene.
Tricky new terrain ahead? On opening night in mid-August at the Big Kid Circus, one family left halfway through the show, the father complaining to The Daily Star about the lack of social distancing and face masks being optional. In fact, the show's seating capacity had been reduced from 1,000 to 300. Big Kid's Facebook page clearly spells out Covid guidelines. An audience photo above.
The future is far from a settled matter. Who really knows when a vaccine will come, and what unexpected misfortunes Corona may yet throw at us? In the meantime, Over There the spirit of survival is heartening. “Circus is as popular as ever,” said John Lawson of his John Larson Circus. “Everyone is saying we’re heading into a recession, but normally we do quite well in a recession. You very rarely hear of a circus closing in this country. You hear of circuses starting. The circus has been around for a long time and I’m confident it will be around for a lot longer.”
I believe him.
Thanks to Douglas McPherson and Don Covington for their contributions to this post.