Work Behind the Spotlight

Chelsea performing jump rope

What does it take to put on a circus show? A lot of hard work, commitment, and time. Circus performances are beautiful and full of entertainment for the entire family. The music matches the motions perfectly, and everyone performs amazing tricks, but these beautiful tricks take months of hard work. All circus shows take work, whether you are a performer in a massive theater in front of thousands of people like Cirque du Soleil or you perform at the Aronoff Center (a large performing arts center in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio where my circus troupe, My Nose Turns Red (MNTR), performs in front of our close family and friends).

Hard work is the most important aspect of circus. If you don’t work towards your goals, then you won’t be able to achieve them. When this hard work is put in you will achieve perfection on your trick faster. Persistence goes hand in hand with hard work. Part of the work is consistently attempting the trick at hand. Working hard on the trick for one class will do nothing for you. If you combine work with persistence, then you will have the trick faster.

Hard work also goes along with commitment. There can’t be a good show if performers miss rehearsals. If this happens, then they won’t know what to do and may not be able to perform. Commitment is another key component to work behind the spotlight because if you aren’t fully committed to what you’re doing and you don’t care if you miss classes, then you won’t be able to perform on stage. Everyone has to stay committed or the performance will fall apart.

Not only is commitment required for circus, but you will also need to put in a lot of time. Even in youth circus performances, students will spend hours at their circus studios every week. Some students will spend many days there as well. You must be prepared to spend a lot of your time working on your skills and perfecting your performance outside of class. After the act has a basic outline, the performers need to start learning the routine. Depending on the skill level and difficulty of the trick, the performer may need a while to learn it. This has to be put into consideration when planning for a performance. No good performance can happen in a day. At least a few weeks will be needed to create a good routine and then a while longer to perfect the work.

I had to put all of these key components to work when I was learning how to jump into jump rope. When MNTR was training for our end of year show we were working on our teen piece. We have a group called “Circus Youth in Action” also known as CYA where teen students work on their coaching skills along with advancing skills that our whole group works on. This year we decided to create our own act for the end of year show which we call the “Extravaganza.” This year CYA decided to create a jump rope piece, but I had never tried jumping in before and that was the main part of the piece. I had to work hard every hour we practiced during class time and I also had to practice at home. After I worked on it many hours for a few days, I could do it! This is just one example of many times I have had to put in the commitment, spend a lot of time practicing, and use hard work to achieve one of my circus goals.

Circus is very rewarding, but you have to work for it. Some of the many benefits include getting to meet new people, being physically active, and having fun. This makes all of the work, commitment, and time well worth it. It takes a lot to put on a circus performance, but it’s just all part of the work you have to do behind the spotlight.

– Chelsea

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Backstage at The Teatro ZinZanni Circus Cabaret

Circus has been mesmerizing people for centuries with its raw beauty, and promise of the new and strange. When walking into a circus tent, you know that no matter what happens next, it’ll be an adventure. A circus performer can take something as simple as two straps or a piece of rope, and somehow manage to tell a beautiful tale from which no one can look away. A little piece of who the performer is always shines through.

Plenty of people have experienced large-scale circus, and it’s often what comes to mind when thinking of circus. You think of shows like Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros., where the performers are 50 feet away and most of the viewing tends to be from afar. Far less common is the opportunity to experience circus on a smaller, more intimate scale, as is the case in Europe, or in Seattle’s Teatro ZinZanni; a circus cabaret. Even fewer have been lucky enough to see what happens backstage.

Cartoon by Roz Chast, The New Yorker

When I was little I always looked forward to the days where I could visit Teatro ZinZanni and watch my mom work. Teatro ZinZanni takes place in a 100-year-old Spiegeltent with a multi-course meal, and the circus happens all around you. My mom was the stage manager there and called the cues for the show every few nights. The show was pure magic. It didn’t matter what the show was, as it changed every few months, but the feeling was always the same. Watching the dimly lit circus tent come to life, being on the edge of your seat, being drawn into the bright lights and stunning figures, unaware of anything else in the world that might be happening around you. The acrobats would perform near and at your table. Leaping off the center lift in order to spin high above your head, before gently touching down and bringing you back to Earth, but still not quite. None of it ever felt real until it was over, and even then you still weren’t sure what you’d just seen. I would walk around in a daze for weeks afterward, never able to stop thinking about the show.

I was lucky enough to go visit Teatro Zinzanni again last month, to see the show Love, Chaos, and Dinner, through the current stage manager, Jordan Muller. I shadowed the backstage managers John and Liana, watched them work, and saw the planned chaos that happens backstage every night. Here’s a rundown of the hard work and mayhem that takes place backstage to bring the show to life every night.

4.15 – I get to the tent and meet Jordan.

4:30 – The presets (getting props ready, checking lights, steaming costumes) are almost done. John’s presets last until almost the start of the show at 7, even though they can be finished in about an hour or two with no distractions. This is because John likes to draw them out so he can be around Jordan, the servers, and anyone else working on getting the show ready so that he’s there in case anything needs to be done or anything goes sideways.

5:15 – The server meeting. Along with the show, Teatro ZinZanni serves a four-course meal every night, so as well as performers and tech people, there are also servers and cooks. At the meeting, the servers gather on the floor in the lobby to hear about the details of that night. They sit like attentive grade schoolers waiting for their favorite teacher to come in; some are alert, others lounging and talking. The restaurant manager talks about new assignments. Because there are only two stagehands, the servers help with moving stuff like the crash mat, Chinese pole, and dessert slide. She also talks about new items on the menu, and tonight’s seating chart: no touch tables (tables that don’t want any of the performers to interact with them) and which tables are VIPs or friends of the cast.

One of the servers backstage

After that are more presets, and I watch Liana stack Zingo cards (like bingo, but better), and one of the servers shines silverware.

6:30 – Servers file out of the house (so the audience can come in) and high-five all the tech people. Jordan plays a game where he’ll try and leave the house right before the audience comes in, and sees how close he can cut it. After that, Jordan goes to the cast check-in in the green room trailer, and introduces me to the cast I don’t already know from previous shows. He puts the no-touch table number on the whiteboard, while one of the performers, Svetlana, a contortionist, stretches on the floor and everyone else gets ready.

We head back to the tech trailer where we hurry up and wait, for the next 20 minutes. We play mini-basketball above the doorway and discuss beaning people in the head as they walk in. We also discuss socks. When it gets closer to showtime, everyone changes into their blacks and puts their headset on before heading back to the tent. The headsets have 2 channels, one for Jordan’s cues, and the other an isolated channel just for John and Liana so it doesn’t interfere with the cue calling. I’m given my own headset as well.

7:00 – The show starts. I watch the start with John, standing in one of the voms outside the producer’s bar (where two-three Teatro Zinzanni staff, cast, or tech guests can sit to watch the show without being at a table on the floor). There’s a small box outlined on the ground with tape that we stand in. It has been deemed small enough to not be in the way of the performers rushing through. However, after standing there for the first bit of the show, I might disagree.

I follow John around for the first third of the show and then switch over to following Liana during soup service (one of two breaks in the show to serve food to the guests). I watch John set up for a magic trick involving a wine glass that floats through the air, and talk to Svetlana about circus school and the classes I’m taking.

I go to the green room during main animation, the second food break, where I talk to Rachel (one half of the trapeze duo Duo Madrona) and Elena (who does contortion and lyra), who are stretching on the ground. We mainly talk about the weather, but we also talk about our families and schools. Many of the performers have children and manage to integrate it into their circus life. For example, two of the performers have young children who are frequently backstage with them during the show. On some nights there are as many as six kids backstage. Svetlana and her partner (Voronin, an illusionist, also in the show) have older two children, one of whom performs in the show alongside his father now that he’s a teenager.

The green room on the right, with one of the entrances to the tent on the left

I come back to the tent just in time to watch John and Liana set the 24’ long Chinese pole, an activity that requires four servers, Jordan, both backstage managers, a performer, and a hydraulic winch to raise into position. It takes about one minute to put up and about 30 seconds to take down, in full view of the audience. After that, I hang out backstage and talk to the performers. The most exciting moment by far is when John and Liana are setting for the train’s arrival. They take 2-D wooden train cars stashed all around the outer ring of the tent backstage, piece them together, and line them up on the outside wall (filled with smoke), before rushing them into the darkened tent. Assisted by 6-7 servers, it races around the outer ring of the tent, blowing smoke and whistling, before exiting again. It is very important in this instance to hide in the corner so as to not get your toes run over.

After that comes dessert service, also known as Chaos, in which 287 desserts are served in 3 minutes, while the show continues on at a frantic pace. It is here where the performers fly on the winch, do back handsprings off the table, and sprint through the tent. While this is all happening, dessert is also being served via the dessert slide. This is a contraption that pedals like a bike to race the desserts on plates up a conveyor belt, and down a slide with a jump at the end, so the servers and performers can catch them and put them on tables. It is also here that Eleanor the bright pink sparkly baby elephant is wheeled through, wearing a tutu and with the show’s diva perched on her back.

Eleanor waiting backstage for her turn.

At the end of the show, everyone lines up to watch the bows, the crew is thanked, and the audience heads home for the night. Everyone returns to their trailers to get changed, cleaned up, and put everything away, and then returns back to the tent for the crew meal. After the show, the kitchen makes one more meal so the cast and crew can eat together as a circus family before heading home.

The tent after the show, with the tables and chairs up for the night

The circus is spectacular, inside and out. To someone who never sees the chaos backstage, it all seems impossibly magical. However, after watching the show from backstage, it’s even more so. I spent a lot of my time figuring out where people were going to be rushing next in order to fling myself out of their way, and I spent a great amount of time smooshing myself in the corner. But to me, that’s just part of the fantastical beauty and mystery that makes circus so exciting.

-Jordan

One of the backstage voms organized for the night

If you want to see more of what it’s like at ZinZanni, backstage or in the audience, check out these videos:

Onstage:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGxsauIXvhw

Backstage:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWAOwDcSN6Q

*All photos in this article were taken by and remain the property of Jordan.

A Pathway to Circus: Interview with Cirque du Soleil Artist Beejay Joyer

Zoe circusing it up on a statue outside the Luxor in Las Vegas

Over my spring break, I had the awesome opportunity to travel to Las Vegas with my aunt to see some of the world’s most renowned Cirque du Soleil shows. I was there for four days, and managed to squeeze in four shows: The Beatles Love, Michael Jackson One, Mystere, and Ka. As always, I was astounded by the colors, set, stage, costumes, apparatuses and choreography which all made me daydream about performing with Cirque one day. But by far the best part of my trip was my chance to interview an artist. Beejay Joyer is in Michael Jackson One, a Michael Jackson tribute show described by Cirque du Soleil’s website as “An electrifying fusion of acrobatics, dance and visuals that reflects the dynamic showmanship of the King of Pop”. In the show, Beejay’s character is the thread which holds the acts together as he and his friends explore a Michael-Jackson-themed wonderland.

On a Thursday morning he picked my aunt and me up at our hotel on The Strip and brought us to a small restaurant near Fremont Street. Beejay offered to answer a few of my questions in exchange for some excellent breakfast, so I got out my notebook and started asking him about his history with circus.

Beejay’s first circus experience was when he was very young. His family took him to see the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. He began truly training circus in junior high, when he discovered juggling. When I asked him how he chose this discipline he simply said, “I’m not really sure… I just found it, and then it stuck.” After high school he attended the San Francisco Circus Center, where he trained for two years with an eye to a professional career in circus. All his training paid off when he joined Le Reve – The Dream, a show in Las Vegas produced by Franco Dragone. Beejay stayed with the show for seven years. After his run with Le Reve – The Dream, he auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, and has been with the company for two years.

One of the burning questions I had for Beejay was about the audition process for Cirque du Soleil, and what advice he could give to younger artists who want to join one of the most prestigious circuses in the world. He was quick to answer: “Of course you have to train, but really what’s important is that you be on their minds. When the casting crew has an opening, it needs to be you that they think of first.” I was curious about how to “get on the minds” of casting directors, but Beejay said the answer was simple: Be kind. Reach out. And make an effort to KEEP AUDITIONING. Beejay mentioned, “Some of the best people I know in Cirque had to audition 10 or 12 times before they got in.” He reassuringly noted, “Not making it the first time shouldn’t scare you.”

One thing I began to realize about Beejay as we talked more was his emphasis on trying things more than once and trying everything you can, even if it scares you. In fact, when I asked Beejay what he would change about his pathway to professional circus, his one comment was, “I wish I had tried more of what scared me.” He pointed to one of his friends in Cirque du Soleil who always tries to go to dance classes, even though he isn’t a dancer. “He goes every week,” said Beejay, “which I couldn’t do because it would scare me, even though I know I should try more things.” He pointed out that the more you can do, the more likely you are to be accepted into a show. For instance, Beejay is a juggler, but in the show One he mostly does character acting, and wouldn’t have gotten the role if he didn’t feel comfortable with that skill.

The final question I asked Beejay was about the possibilities for circus artists after performing. He sat back in his chair for a moment before listing the various other options he could think of, such as going to school or learning more about things that interest you. “Or,” he said, “be part of another department, like rigging, in Cirque.” As we finished our eggs and got ready to leave, Beejay left me with a final thought that applied both to circus and to the rest of life: “You can’t know too much.”

– Zoe

At Home Strength Exercises

Every day since I was about six and a half, I have challenged myself to make my own nightly routine consisting of strength building exercisesAt home strength drills are a great way to get you on the road to more complicated skills and benefit Chinese pole artists, aerial artists, tumblers, hand balancers, and just about everyone. Developed and strong (but also stretched and healthy) muscles are a valuable asset in your training. Below is my nightly routine, and then some of my very favorite exercises. 

MY NIGHTLY ROUTINE

  • Handstands {Tuck plance, L-sit, straddle sit, x1 one-arm drill}
  • Muscle {x10 handstand push-ups or x10 wide arm pullups, 30-60 sec. hollow hold or plank, and 30 sec. wall sit or horse stance, or x15 squats}
  • Physical Therapy {Exercises change but always an exercise for my right knee and both shoulders}
  • Stretch {A nice stretch for arms, shoulders, legs, and core}

NOTE: If you’ve never done these exercises before, it’s a good idea to do them first in person with a circus coach so that they can watch you and make sure you have good form. I also must remind you that after every drill to build your strength, don’t forget to match it with a stretch (at least 30 sec. long) on each set of muscles you were building up. It’s also a good idea to prep yourself with a light warm-up (jumping jacks, arm circles, etc.) before you begin your exercises. 

Push-ups

Builds upper body

There are many great variations of this exercise. There’s the regular: arms by your side, on your feet, kiss the ground and let your elbows graze your ribs, then push-up! There’s also the handstand push-up, which I find very helpful – especially for training my handstands and flags on the Chinese pole. For this variation, you’ll kick up to a handstand with your back against the wall and your arms fairly wide. Next, let your head almost touch the ground by bending your arms along the same plane as the wall, then push up, back to your handstand position. It’s tempting to arch your back or pike your hips in this position especially while pushing back up to your handstand position. Try to isolate the movement all in your arms and upper back. I love this exercise! Don’t forget to give your shoulders a nice long stretch after this one. 

Pull-ups

Builds upper body

There are so many different versions of pull-ups but the most basic version is to put your hands about shoulder width apart on a pull-up bar, trapeze, playground monkey bars, or anything you can hang from (SAFELY!). Take all the weight off your feet and into your hands, stay tight and try not to roll your body or pull with your arms at different times to pull-up. Pull the bar all the way up to your chest and come down slowly with control. If you do not yet have the strength to pull-up, jump up to bent arms and lower yourself down with control. A great way to get stronger is to train the negative! So, if you can’t yet do a pull-up, do lots of “resist downs to build up the muscles. 

Hollow holds 

Builds Abs 

For this exercise lay on the ground with your back on the floor. Press your back into the floor so that you couldn’t even stick your pinky finger under, lift your legs about 4 inches of the ground and lift your head, neck, and shoulders off the ground to about that same height. Next, squeeze your arms at your sides. Hold for at least 30 seconds, 60 seconds if you really want some abs, 90 if you’re Beast Mode, and 120 if you REALLY want a challenge (or if you have a death wish.) BONUS: If all of those are too easy then try it with your arms squeezed by your ears!

 

V-ups

Builds Abs

You will hold the same hollow position as described in the previous exercise, but now you will thrust your toes and torso to each other and hit your toes back down, over and over! Don’t let your limbs, head, neck, or shoulders touch the ground. Do at least 25 of these and if you’re feeling game, do 40!

 

Pistol Squats

Builds glutes, quads, hammies, and calfs

For this exercise make sure you have a carpet or pad you would feel comfortable doing a forward roll on. Next, stand on one foot and bend your knee as though you were doing a 1-legged squat and roll back. Then, use the energy from the roll to help you stand up. Try not to touch your hands or other foot or leg to the ground. If this exercise is too hard at the moment, do it next to a wall and use your hand closest to the wall to help you up. If it’s too easy, take out the roll back and simply do a one legged squat. Do an equal amount on each leg. I’d say a set of ten on your left and a set of ten on your right. 

Stair-Runs

Builds glutes, quads, hammies, and calfs

This one is brutal! But it’s good for you. As the name implies, stairs are involved. One simply runs up a flight of stairs and jogs with caution back down over and over and over and over. If an average flight of stairs has around 12 steps, I think you should go up and down around 15-20 times. If the stairs you’re working with are more than that, say about 20 steps, 10-15 should suffice. 

Tired yet? Good! I would recommend a good stretch, some rest, some water, and heck, why not a tasty snack? There’s nothing like a well-deserved snack bar after a workout routine. Repeat again sometime soon!

– Julaine

Dyslexia in Circus

Hannah practicing aerials (Photo by Dawn Richards)

Dyslexia is a common learning disability that affects reading and writing, but what many people do not realize is it also can affect balance, coordination, confusion with instruction, and sense of direction. I have struggled with these issues all my life. I never enjoyed playing team sports because I was not very coordinated and had trouble with instructions. I remember my teammates getting mad at me for going the wrong way during a practice and not kicking the ball the right direction. So as a little kid, I pretty much avoided sports. However, as I grew up, I realized I enjoyed being active, so I joined cross country. It was simple enough: run until you finish. Running made me feel confident enough to try other fitness endeavors.

A lot of my friends at school are in the YMCA circus, and I often heard them talk about all the cool tricks and apparatuses that they got to perform on. I would see them playing together at lunch doing tricks, doing handstands and acro. Hearing them talk so passionately about circus made me really want to try it. I brought it up to my parents, who were supportive but seemed a bit skeptical that I would be able to succeed. I think they tried to picture their daughter, who couldn’t play catch for the life of her, juggling or walking the wire. Nevertheless, they hopped on board, and I started my first circus class that year.

My first season was challenging both mentally and physically. I started as a novice to circus at age 15. This meant that I was in an intro class with kids mostly half my age. Often I would stretch the wrong leg, and the child next to me would notice and comment on it as if they had solved a murder case. I would just patiently respond, “Well, we will do the other one next.” Although the first year was tough, after my first performance, I knew I was going to continue training no matter what. I was hooked!

As I have continued on in my circus career I have realized the unique challenges that dyslexics face when performing. For example, when you already have trouble going the right way, it only gets more confusing when hanging upside down. Learning new tricks is the hardest. I memorize the tricks not by method or side, but how the trick flows in my mind. So if I have been practicing a trick on the trapeze on my left side, when asked to switch it to the right it becomes very difficult. Verbal instruction can be very confusing and frustrating, not only to me, but to my instructors and spotters. I have gotten so frustrated that I have broken into tears, and there have been times where instructors make a teasing comment like, “Your other left!” or “Are your feet backwards?” Instructor please note – these comments can be hurtful when you are pouring all your efforts in, and encouragement makes all the difference!

Despite the mix ups and occasional falling over, I have learned a few tricks to keep up with the game. I fold the right side of my pants up just once so I can have a reference to which side is right. Practicing my routine multiple times and watching other performers practice helps me feel more comfortable with the act and helps me memorize my directions. I have also learned that it’s always good to let instructors, spotters, and partners know about my dyslexia and how tricks might be confusing to me at first.

I love circus and I think everyone should join, with disability or not. I have found the circus community to be very accepting and supportive of individuals of all levels, strengths and weaknesses. Being a trainer myself as well, I know it can be frustrating working with students who “just aren’t getting it” or have other needs special to them, but keep pushing through. The reward of seeing students succeed in and enjoy circus is worth it.

-Hannah

Overcoming Fear in Circus

“On the other side of fear is freedom.” – Marilyn Ferguson.

Imagine that you are about to walk onstage. The announcer is calling your name and you know that as soon as you step onstage, everyone will be watching you. How do you feel? If the answer is scared out of your wits, then don’t worry, you are in good company. As a circus performer, I know that some of the most frightening times are when I’m about to go onstage, when I’m in the air, or when I’m doing a new skill. I have found numerous ways to overcome fear so that I am not weighed down by hesitation and I can have a lot more fun as I pursue my love for circus.

Stage fright is the worst! I have definitely experienced stage fright before. In my experience, the worst fright is before you get onstage. You are waiting for your act to be called and your stomach is lurching around and you just think, “I can’t do it! It’s not going to work. I can’t do it.” Usually people give into this fear at first. But what you might not know is that when you actually step onstage and the music starts, your mind flips into performance mode. Once you are in performance mode, you stop thinking about the audience and your brain is focusing on other things like, “Point your toes. Climb up a little more, now right on cue…” You may occasionally need to force yourself into performance mode, but it is usually pretty natural. Now, just because you know this, it doesn’t mean that your pre-performance fear is going to vanish. I have been performing for three years and I am still scared before every show. Here is how you can deal with this fear: DO NOT fight it! When people feel fear, their first instinct is to try to get rid of it. That will only make your fear worse. Just accept it, acknowledge that you are scared and don’t be afraid to be afraid. Because fear isn’t bad! Sure it feels bad, but if you push it away, it will get worse.

Another common difficulty is fear of heights. While I personally don’t have a fear of heights, I knew someone who did and I admire her for her bravery. When I was first getting into circus, I was going to a camp in Chicago called The Actor’s Gymnasium. There, I made friends with a girl called Lina (name changed for privacy). The first time I noticed that she was afraid of heights was when our group was learning how to get up onto the trapeze. Lina took the bar, hooked her knees, and put one hand on the rope before whimpering that she wanted to come down. After the lesson, I asked her why she was so scared and she told me that she had a fear of heights. At that time, I had never really taken into account that people could be afraid of being more than a few feet in the air. Seeing as I had never been afraid of heights, I couldn’t relate to Lina’s fear. I saw how her fear impacted her circus experience, and I felt that she didn’t get enough credit. All of the instructors kept telling her to “be brave” and that she, “didn’t have to be scared,” but I think that anyone who has a fear of heights should be acknowledged that they are brave for challenging their fear, even if it means getting halfway to sitting on the trapeze. By the end of camp, Lina could sit on the trapeze! Even though she didn’t meet the goals of the class, she met her own goals by conquering some of her fear.

Even though I don’t have a genuine fear of heights, I do go through a lot of fear when it comes to drops. Drops can be very scary to a lot of people, even those who do circus aerials. You need to climb up very high, and do the wrap, and let go, and then just fall into space for around two seconds before you are caught by the fabric or whatever apparatus you are using. I am always scared before I drop because I think that as soon as I let go, I will fall into a terrifying abyss. Whether you are afraid of heights or scared of the process of drops, there are a lot of ways in which you can overcome your angst. Little by little, create a list of tangible goals. Break down the goal into smaller parts, and tackle them one at a time. The worst part for me is the adrenalin that comes before you let go. The best way that I deal with this fear is right before I release my hold on the silks, I tell myself, “All you need to do is let go. Just let go.” I convince myself to let go with my hands and then momentum does the rest. Trust your teacher, your equipment, and yourself. You just have to go for it, and you will be okay!

So, whether you are terrified of heights or have paralyzing stage fright, just know that there are ways to overcome your fear. You will find them! Remember to acknowledge your fear and work towards your own goals. Accept that every act, drop, or performance comes with a little fear. Know that the only way to practice bravery is to be scared.

– Lyra

REVIEW: The Greatest Showman

Warning: May contain spoilers!

If you have an interest in the circus, you probably know that there isn’t always as much hype around the subject as other sports or activities get, especially in the media. However, the new musical movie “The Greatest Showman,” told the story of mister P.T. Barnum, founder of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. The movie brought the viewers through a heartwarming tale of how Barnum brought misfits together, through catchy songs and colorful visuals. The movie tells of Barnum’s want to have an amazing, magical life for him and his family. In the movie, Barnum is portrayed as a fun, inspiring man, but in real life that wasn’t exactly the case.

Barnum was driven to become wealthy and well known. In the movie, his first act towards this goal is the purchase of the American Museum. The movie leaves out altogether his first endeavor, the purchase of a black woman named Joice Heth, who he showcased claiming she was 161 years old. Encouraged by the hype around this impossibly old woman, Barnum then purchased the American Museum in New York City, which contained stuffed and wax animals and “curiosities.” Barnum built on the idea of the strange and unique, bringing in live attractions from all over that had something strange or different about them. Many were fakes and lies like the “Feejee Mermaid,” but others, such as the 25 inch Charles Stratton that we saw in the movie, were quite real.

In “The Greatest Showman,” P.T. Barnum left his museum to go on an American tour with the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind. This was a part in the movie where we saw his flaws, as Barnum left his friends in order to be a part of a higher social class. Before the tour, Barnum had never heard Lind sing, which proves how desperate he was to be remembered as more than a museum owner. Like in the movie, the tour ended early, but not because of a scandalous relationship between Lind and Barnum. Neither were interested in being more than business partners, but they got in a fight that made Lind want to return home to Europe. After the scandal in the movie, Barnum returned to his friends, realizing he shouldn’t have ever left. In reality, he wasn’t the good man who learned his lesson that Hugh Jackman portrays in The Greatest Showman. Although a few “oddities” were also his friends, like Charles Stratton, Barnum was more obsessed with creating spectacles to the public, and making a name for himself. He got to where he was and became so successful mainly because of his lies and scams. For example, the “Feejee Mermaid,” was a source of attraction that he marketed as a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, but was actually the head of a monkey sewn onto a fishtail.

In 1865, the American Museum burned down, like in the movie. All the employees escaped and no human lives were lost, but some animals weren’t able to escape, and the museum was unsalvageable. Barnum set out to reopen a new museum within a year of the burning of the first one. However, the new museum was heated using boilers, which were new and not very well tested. The second museum burned down to a boiler explosion in 1868. It wasn’t until the end of his career that Barnum became affiliated with the circus. He was in his sixties when he first teamed up with a traveling show in 1871 that he called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” something you’ve probably heard before. By 1875 he had full ownership of the show, and in 1881 he teamed up with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson from the Great International Circus, to form and manage Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, which is still referred to as “The Greatest Show on Earth” today.

Although the real P.T. Barnum wasn’t the good man we saw in “The Greatest Showman,” he celebrated the odd and the unusual the way we still do in the circus. By creating a museum of things that people hadn’t seen before, he demonstrated the spirit of accepting and praising people for being unique. The movie may have not been one hundred percent accurate, but it honored the beautiful message that we have in the circus today. Every single person is at least a little different, learns a little differently, performs a little differently, or has different strengths. Like the movie demonstrated, we all have a place in the circus because all our strengths and specialties end up fitting together perfectly. As a quote from “The Greatest Showman” says, “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”

– Annika