Thursday, June 26, 2008

It's Circus Season

Tom Dougherty,lead clown sits with Kid Reporter Shelby Fallin to answer a few questions..

By Shelby Fallin | March 19 , 2008

Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, the 138th edition of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus® has officially kicked off its 2008 season! The show premieres at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 20. A national tour will follow the shows in New York and will take the circus from coast to coast.

But before the elephants, clowns, and acrobats climb aboard the circus train, they first have to undergo months of rehearsals. For the first time ever, the Ringling family of entertainers trained to launch two different shows at once: the new 138th Edition called Over The Top and Boom-A-Ring. Scholastic News went behind the scenes at rehearsals in Tampa Bay, Florida, in December as the troupes prepared for this season's shows.

Behind the Scenes

As I walked into the arena, people gathered around the performance ring for pre-show entertainment. Clowns and acrobats practiced their jokes and showed off their tricks. Volunteers from the audience helped with the demonstrations. I was chosen to beat the drums during a clown hip-hop act.

After the preshow, we all hustled to our seats. When the show finally began, the arena rumbled with excitement and felt like a volcano about to explode.

The ringmaster entered on an electric red cart. Girls in colorful outfits pranced behind him. Acrobats hung from poles and flipped through the air like birds. Suddenly the Ringmaster announced, "Welcome to MY circus!"

More brightly clad young women emerged from behind a huge curtain riding on gray elephants. The giant pachyderms held each other's tails by their long gray noses as they lumbered around the arena.

Little white ponies pranced out next, their prim high steps shaking the glitter and feathers on their heads. A radiant brown horse galloped into the red ring ridden by a woman in a brightly glittered costume. Giant white tigers roared, elephants stood on their hind legs, and goats rode atop horses. Even a porcupine with long spiky quills performed in the show.

The animals are trained using positive reinforcement, a trainer explained. This means that they are not threatened or hit. Trainers teach by granting rewards for good behavior. The elephants in particular are trained based on their natural behavior. The elephants are also often treated better than people!
"When someone has a baby, they have only 12 weeks off from work," said Peggy Williams, the first female clown ever to graduate from the Ringling Clown College. "When an elephant gives birth, they get two years off work."

The animals rehearse just like their human partners. Practice not only makes perfect, it helps prevent injuries.

Rehearsal also involves people the audience never sees. While the animals and performers perfect their acts, lighting technicians are also busy.

Dramatic lighting and music do more than provide atmosphere. Both can be an important part of the act. For example, the Shetland ponies follow a spotlight on the arena floor as a cue. The light has to be just right and in the exact spot at the right time for the animals to perform properly.

During rehearsals, the director calls out questions and instructions about the lighting on a loudspeaker. When problems come up, performers continue rehearsing as technicians work to get everything just right—or should I say just bright!

Weaving the Magic

Each circus performance tells a story. In the rehearsal I attended, the story centered on a struggle between Tom the Clown and Chuck the Ringmaster. Each one wanted to be in charge of the show. In the end, they learned that a circus doesn't belong to just one person—it belongs to an entire team, including the audience.

I learned a similar lesson as I met the entertainers, animals, and spokespeople for Ringling Bros. This circus has a long history of performances, and the brand is actually older than Major League Baseball! In total, Ringling Bros. has performed for 138 years, stretching from the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century. It is a history of magic, performance, laughter, and families—hundreds of different people performing hundreds of different tasks.

Shelby Fallin is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.