The Performer’s Ten Commandments

1. Know the script.

Whether you have lines you need to recite or specific choreography, know it well enough that you can do it without thinking. If you are unsure of yourself, your performance will show it and your audience will feel it.

Example: STREB Extreme Action Company – One of the company’s most well-known pieces is called “Human Fountain,” where dancers jump off of different levels of scaffolding to recreate the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. People are flying through the air and landing on the mats below within split seconds of each other. If a piece of the choreography is forgotten or altered, it could result in the collision of two people, negatively impacting the performance.

2. Costume is key.

Costumes are important because they help distinguish the performer from the laymen. Costumes should be clean, appropriate for the routine and audience, and should fit the performer. The way you look is the first impression you make on your audience; make sure that first impression is a good one.

Example: Big Apple Circus’ The Grand Tour – Before the show starts, Mr. Joel and Skip walk around the audience greeting people in their color coordinated costumes. The costumes are extremely sharp and crisp in appearance, and reflect the character of each of the two performers. Before they have even started performing, their costumes immediately draw you in.

3. Clean up.

Leave the performance space just as clean (if not cleaner) as it was when you first got there. The owners of the venue will see you as professional and will be more willing to work with you again in the future.

Example: Kelly Miller Circus – The Kelly Miller Circus is brought to different towns by local sponsors. Sponsors are told that if they provide trash receptacles and water, the circus will leave the area as clean as they originally found it, if not cleaner. Kelly Miller is able to return to the same grounds year after year because of this behavior.

4. Use your own stuff.

Bring everything you will need for your performance. Do not assume that the venue will have what you need or another performer will lend you something.

Example: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – Ringling brings their own floor with them that they roll out in each arena. Rather than relying on the arena to have a floor that is suitable for the performers, they use their own.

5. Be friendly to your audience.

If people want to talk to you after the show or get a picture with  you, do it. A small, simple interaction like this will enhance the overall quality of the show experience for the audience member and create an even better memory.

Example: Penn & Teller – After every show, Penn and Teller take the time to meet their audience in the lobby of the theatre. They sign autographs, take photos, and just talk. This meet and greet takes about forty-five minutes from start to finish, and actually delays the crew from closing up and going home, but Penn and Teller still do it.

6. Know your audience.

The routines that you perform should vary by the demographic of the audience. A late night cabaret will warrant different material than a Sunday morning children’s show. Choose routines that are appropriate for your audience, and that you think they will enjoy the most.

Example: Cirque du Soleil – Cirque has a variety of different shows in different geographic locations. La Nouba plays in Disney’s Disney Springs in Orlando, Florida, while Zumanity plays in Las Vegas, Nevada. La Nouba is a show designed for families and is completely appropriate for all ages, while Zumanity is highly sexual, and is intended for audiences eighteen and older. Cirque knows the demographic that makes up their audiences, and they cater directly to them.

7. Sandwich the new in between the old.

When performing new material, always put it in between material that you have done before and know works. If the new bit falls flat, the audience will remember the two good bits that surrounded it.

Example: Circus Bicuspid presents Sunday in the Park with Clowns – A new bit about the physics of juggling was going to be put into the show. Instead of opening or closing one of the acts with it, the piece was sandwiched between two pieces that had already been performed many times, a card trick called Boxhead, and the cups and balls.

8. Be inspired, instead of a copycat.

Copying another performer’s act or character is morally wrong. However, if they have done a trick or have a certain style of performing that you enjoy, there is no reason you can’t use that as inspiration for creating your own material.

Example: The Water Gag – There are an infinite number of variations of the classic water gag where people spit water at each other. No two are exactly the same, but all have a very similar vibe to them.

9. Slow down.

Time moves faster onstage than it does in the audience. Slow down. Allow your audience to take a breath. Don’t rush from one joke to the next because the laughter will get lost in the process. If you have just done a trick, stop and give the audience the opportunity to applaud.

Example: Avner the Eccentric – If you watch Avner’s show, he spends a great deal of time breathing. This calms the audience downs and allows them the opportunity to take in everything that is going on.

10. The show must go on.

Your audience is there for a show, and that is exactly what they are going to get. It doesn’t matter if you are sick, in a bad mood, or just don’t feel like performing-you have to go on.

Example: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – Several years ago, the circus arrived in a town extremely late. By the time load-out would be completed and the arena would be set up, the show was scheduled to be mid-performance. Instead of cancelling the performance, the ringmaster narrated to the audience what the crew was doing to set up, while the clowns did crowd work. Once everything was all set up, the show officially began.


Matthew “Phineas” Lish, 18, is an award-winning clown and juggler. Notable performances include off-Broadway, the Ronald McDonald House, the Century Club with Dick Cavett, and guest ringmaster at the Big Apple Circus. He was offered a spot with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and currently holds the world record for juggling clubs while bouncing on a pogo stick. 

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