Since last I wrote, John and I traveled for nine months straight with a traditional tent circus from southern Texas to New Hampshire and back. For those of us who didn’t grow up in circus, the lifestyle can be quite jarring but it amazed me how quickly I adapted to it.
It’s now been three weeks since our last show and we are settled in Indiana for the winter. We’re negotiating with two other shows for next season. I thought it would be tougher to adjust to civilian life than it actually ended up being. There was a window of about two days where I was astonished not to have elephants living next door to me (they were excellent composters and cuddlers) and not to need my mud boots at every living second outside of my home. Hot showers with good water pressure and toilets that weren’t emptying into a holding tank that smelled after 4 days were also very nice adjustments.
I won’t lie to you; it was a tough, tough season. Anyone on the show will tell you it was so it wasn’t simply because we were newbies, aka “First of Mays”. We dealt with a lot of bad and severe weather, no international crew (and some performers) for the first two weeks of the season because of immigration policy (which made things VERY tense on the lot), towns that were good last season not being good this season, and more days off than we’ve had in past seasons (which was great for relaxation but terrible for making money). And our last lot for the season was a 9-day stand in an untested market we’ve never played near before.
Veterans would tell us throughout the entire season that this was a very bad season to be newbies on. I truly believe that most folks on the show expected us to blow the show (circus jargon for quitting the show without notice) at some point. There would always be the joke when we’d leave the lot to fill up on propane or dump our holding tanks and return a few hours later that “everyone assumed you were blowing the show!” which we laughed about in the beginning and then became an irritant later on when the stress of the season was weighing on us.
I managed the front gate of the big top tent which essentially meant I took tickets, answered a lot of questions and filled the role of PR person when a wide-eyed individual wanted to know what it was REALLY like to work for a circus and how they could join up. I was fortunately sheltered from the equally wide-eyed animal “rights activists” who, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, probably had the animals’ best interests at heart but went about it very, very badly. During the actual shows, once the tickets were tallied and my only necessary job was to tell people where the portable toilets were (“The bathrooms are to the left!” or “Los banos estan a la izquierda!), I was able to read or daydream. The music from each of the acts melted together, the ringmaster’s script was quickly memorized (including his inflections), and I exchanged smiles and jokes with the other crew on the midway as we waited for intermission.
We traveled with almost 100 people…the same folks for nine months. Just like any other towner job, you had the people you liked, the people you didn’t like, the people you knew you could trust and the people you only exchanged shallow pleasantries with. The backyard politics and power struggles bit us both in the ass in the beginning of the season simply because we didn’t know where they’d be coming from. We stepped in it big time unknowingly and unfortunately that followed us through the rest of the season.
Unlike a towner job, a circus job requires you to eat, sleep, socialize, and otherwise bare all with your co-workers 24 hours a day. In some ways, this was a good thing: you learned who you could depend on and you proved yourself trustworthy. We had a couple of mechanics who would follow us from town to town and fix your vehicle no matter where you were. There were several of us on the show with sewing machines and with a quick exchange of money or bartering for something you needed, you could get the zipper fixed on your coat or your pants patched up after tripping over a tent stake and ripping them. We had a cook who made two hot meals a day that everyone had access to for free. No one had utility bills because our generator truck provided our power, our water was pumped into our homes twice a day from city water, and every couple of months you’d need to refill your propane tank for heat, hot water, and your refrigerator.
I kept a blog throughout the season that I tried to keep impartial but found more and more that I needed to edit myself when it came to my daily frustrations. Name dropping people who are making your life hell or even referring to a disagreement would only make things worse in the short term. Admitting to being frustrated with certain ways the show was run would only exacerbate the issues if someone took the words personally. Wishing I could be seen as a newbie who has a lot of life experience to offer that could translate well into circus life just wasn’t a possibility. Much like the music industry, many in circus hold to the way “we’ve always done it” and don’t wish to make many, if any, changes.
And that’s fine…to a point. But that’s just my opinion. I don’t have my own show nor do I have years of experience trying out different ideas only to have them blow up in my face. Maybe it is just easier to do things the way they’ve always been done and leave it at that. Even though it causes tensions to rise throughout the season and blow-ups to occur that cause people to leave, maybe in the long run, it’s worth it.
I’m not generally of that mind though. When I come into a new situation, I can’t help but see the overall picture and then focus on the way you can make it better. It’s never meant as a judgment on my part but I believe it’s usually seen that way. I learned to keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself when it came to the day to day life on the lot. And since we decided on our own not to return, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t attempt to make any ideas for change known. I won’t be the one to live that life with that particular show next season and those who will be are the ones who will need to decide.
I think the greatest misconception about circus (and you can probably extend this to any flashy performing arts job) is that it must be fun and glamorous every single day. When you are an audience member and our guest in our big top, what you see is the extraordinary talent, the beautiful costumes, the showmanship, and the exotic. You can’t relate to the people in the ring because they seem to be from a different planet. Their skills are unimaginably difficult and nothing in your life has given you the ability to learn what they are presenting to you. You’re face to face with tigers, elephants, and zebras which doesn’t even happen at the zoo. How could this life be anything else BUT glamorous and joyful?
I wouldn’t want to burst anyone’s bubbles when they’d ask me breathlessly what it’s like to work with a circus and to live that life every day. But honestly, it becomes like any other job you’ve done but with a different backdrop. God forbid, you get used to seeing exotic animals in your front yard and you see the performers along with the crew slogging through knee-high mud and elephant droppings. After the 5th time of spinning your tires in the mud and needing to wait two hours for the forklift to pull you out, you have glimmers of thoughts of working indoors during inclement weather and mud being something that you can easily avoid in the land of concrete and pavement. Everyone on the show led regular lives outside of the performance ring with their families, their house repairs, and their blown tires. Some performers would be sick as dogs while performing but you wouldn’t have known it from the stands. Performing, selling popcorn and souvenirs, and taking tickets were the way you made your money each week in order to pay bills and send money home to your family if you were the breadwinner.
However, now a few weeks removed from the season, I do miss aspects of it. I miss the freedom afforded to us with traveling every day, having the same schedule each day, and the relatively easy job that I performed. I miss many of the people I lived, socialized and worked with for nine months. I miss being in a new town every day and a new state every week or so that held unknown promises and secrets to uncover during the short time we were there.
I am a very different person than I was going into this season. I have developed a thicker skin, I have made peace with the knowledge that there are people who only have their best interests at heart even to the detriment of those around them, I have lived with very little and in harsh conditions and emerged victorious, and most importantly, I have shed the stifling fear of homesickness. In the beginning of traveling, I felt untethered and loose in the world with nowhere specifically to call home and that scared me significantly. I didn’t want to be in a new state with new experiences; I wanted to be in a familiar town surrounded by family and friends who I knew unconditionally loved me. By the middle to end of the season, I learned to embrace the new, the strange, the unfamiliar in favor of appreciating the unique experience afforded to me in this job. It didn’t strike me as weird anymore that I was living in a parking lot in Fort Worth, Texas surrounded by a community that didn’t speak my language as a first language. I adapted, continued learning and practicing my Spanish, and enjoyed it for what it was.
At this point, we’re not 100% sure if we’ll be returning to the circus world next season or not. We’re negotiating but if we can’t get the money we need to live on, we may stay in Indiana for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s my ego talking, but I do fear the idea that if we don’t return to a show, we’ll be seen as newbies who couldn’t hack it. That those in the circus world who made it obvious they didn’t like us or think we belonged there will feel triumphant at their supposed correct assumption of us. But then I’m reminded that those people probably spend very little time thinking about either of us at all now that we’re not on their radar and more importantly, to live my life in reaction to that would be counterproductive. We’ll go the way that is best for us and we’ll thrive. We’ll be happy and we’ll be confident in the knowledge that we keep refusing to settle.
There isn’t much more I can ask for at this time in my life…