How do you make the Greatest Show on Earth even greater? That's the challenge facing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as it prepares to re-open after a six-year hiatus. The reimagined Ringling show kicks off on Sept. 29 in Bossier City, La. and then criss-crosses the country over the next two years, visiting upwards of 50 cities, including stops in Brooklyn, N.Y., Columbus, Ohio and Tuscon, Ariz. (Visit the official Ringling site for dates and ticket information.)
And audiences in each of those cities will see a circus that's been redesigned and reimagined for the 21st century. That means out with animal acts and greasepaint and in with video screens and plenty of music. But the new Ringling still plans to fill the proverbial big top with plenty of big spectacle.
"This is a huge production," promises Juliette Feld, COO of Feld Entertainment, which has overseen Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey since 1967. "We've got 75 performers, three different video screens, special effects and flying. We re-conceived what's possible and came out with a new production that's relevant to today's audiences and upholds that promise of being the Greatest Show on Earth."
Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Feld and other key Ringling creative talent for the full story of how one of the world's oldest circuses returned to the ring — and how it plans to make young circusgoers look up from their phones.
Fade outs and fresh starts
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey dates back to 1919 as a combined circus, but go all the way back to the 19th century as separate spectacles that combined human feats of strength and agility with attractions that have long since fallen out of favor — think freak shows and big cat acts. Claiming the mantle of The Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling ran a near century-long non-stop tour until declining ticket sales, operating costs and controversy over the remaining animal performers led Feld Entertainment to close up shop in 2017. The circus's last stop was at Long Island's Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 21 of that year.
"It was heartbreaking," remembers Juliette Feld, the third generation of her family to run Ringling. "I was so lucky to get to grow up around the circus and make connections with so many talented people. But at the time, it was the right thing for Ringling."
Naturally, discussions about when and how to bring the Greatest Show on Earth back kicked off not long after the big top was folded up and put away. Feld says that the company's original timeline aimed for a 2021 relaunch, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a two-year delay. That gave them plenty of time to bring a fresh pair of eyes into the mix: Ross Nicholson and Dan Shipton, the British directors of such major road show productions as Jurassic World Live Tour. Notably, neither of them had direct circus experience... and that was by design.
"I've never seen a Ringling show live," admits Nicholson. "We obviously watched videos of past shows when we were doing research for this one. But circuses didn't really play a huge part in our life culturally growing up."
"That's one of the reasons why Feld asked us to do this in the first place," Shipton adds. "We had a strong relationship with the company after doing Jurassic World with them. On the morning that show opened in 2019, they invited us to breakfast and said, 'Would you consider doing Ringling next?' Part of the charm for us was that we didn't know anything about it! So we were able to look at it with objective eyes and ask the questions you need to ask when you're an institution trying to reinvent itself for audiences in 2023."
One of the first questions that Nicholson and Shipton asked was: "Why does Ringling need a ringmaster?" Historically, circuses relied on an emcee to direct the audience's attention between the various acts. But the directors felt that modern audiences needed a narrative to follow. "Having a loose story helps you make sense of why you're going from this act to this act to this act," explains Nicholson. "At the same time, we didn't want to get too hung up on narrative beats, because there might be younger children in our audience and you don't want to overcomplicate things."
The newly-conceived Ringling story takes place, appropriately enough, at the circus. Newcomer Wes, played by Wesley Williams, has just joined the Greatest Show on Earth and he's helped through this colorful new world by three guides, who show him the variety and diversity of performers he's about join — from Mongolian jump ropers to Cuban acrobats. "Wes is really a character based on me," says Williams, a skilled unicyclist better known as the One Wheeled Wonder. "I've always been that kid peeking behind the curtain, but now I'm a big kid who gets to be onstage throughout the entire show and be astounded each and every night."
By the end of his Ringling tour, Wes goes for his own big stunt — a Guinness World Record-breaking ride on the world's tallest rideable unicycle that towers in the air. "We're gonna make a new record here at Ringling," Williams promises. "I start out riding a small unicycle and it just gets higher and higher as the show goes along. So I definitely find my place at the show!"
Wes's personal Ringling guides include vocalist Lauren Irving as Aria, musician Alex Sitckels as Stix and clown Jan Damm as Nick Nack, who invite the audience to go on a journey of sight and sound as well. "Aria is the melody of the show," says Irving, who performs several original songs throughout the course of the performance. "We use music and sound in a way that I've never seen before. Right out of the gate, the songs paint a picture as to what's happening."
Asked whether the blockbuster 2017 musical, The Greatest Showman — which starred Hugh Jackman as a singing and dancing P.T. Barnum — was the inspiration for making this version of the Greatest Show more of a musical, Irving chalks it up to coincidence. "I understand how there will be an element of association, but we're just using music to make a human connection with the audience. It gets to the basics of what makes us smile."
Meanwhile, Damm characterizes Nick Nack as an "absent minded professor" type who likes to think of himself as an expert, but keeps making hilarious slip-ups. "He's a traditional clown, but he also speaks in order to keep the show contemporary and relatable," explains the longtime circus artist, who won't be wearing traditional clown facepaint in the show.
"I've never worn the make-up," Damm notes. "It was an important element once when clowns had to emote with audiences who were 300 feet away. But modern audiences are used to going to a Taylor Swift concert and seeing her face on a video screen that's two stories tall! We have these amazing video screens as well and when we appear on them, we want to project the kind of human image that audiences are used to seeing if they go to a big rock concert."
The animals are retired... with one exception
Even before Ringling retired its previous incarnation in 2017, many of the circus's remaining animal acts had been phased out under pressure from animal welfare groups. And the incoming directors of the revamped version say they had no intention of bringing any big cats or elephants back to the ring. "It wasn't ever a consideration for us," says Nicholson. "We wanted to celebrate human achievements, and that kind of athleticism and skill. That has an innate relatability to audiences now."
But the directors did make room for one animal character who directly connects Ringling's future to its past: Bailey, a robotic dog who becomes best buds with Nick Nack. "Historically, the circus was a place where people came to see new things — the first light bulb was exhibited at the circus," explains Nicholson. "We wanted to incorporate future-forward technology into our show and give people the experience of seeing something for the first time."
"We obviously worked with animatronics for Jurassic World Live, but those only have certain emotions," Shipton notes. "Whereas Bailey is an actual robot who learns when working with another performer. It's been amazing to see what she can do."
As Bailey's human companion, Damm has played a major role in her programming. "She's a little bit of a puppy robot," he says, laughing. "I take her for walks, we have a dance contest and she gets up to mischief. She's goofy and unique, but has a charisma that audiences can relate to."
Even as they expect audiences to fall for Bailey in a big way, Ringling's creative team knows that older generations of circus-goers might get grouchy about the absence of the animal acts they remember. When the Feld Entertainment retired its elephant performers in 2016, former president Donald Trump complained on social media that "the circus will never be the same." Other conservative-identifying critics have similarly accused Ringling of "catering to the woke crowd," even though polls have routinely shown that a majority of Americans favor laws prohibiting the use of animals in circus acts.
For their part, Nicholson and Shipton say it's "above our pay grade" as to whether or not any modern circus could or should feature animal acts. And Feld says that the company arrived at their decision largely because of audience feedback. "We listened to our audience about what is contemporary," she notes. "That's also why we don't have clowns in full face make-up. We've taken the essential elements of a circus and presented them in a way that speaks to today's audience. We can't recreate the memories you might have had of a special experience at Ringling, but we can create something that gives you that feeling again."
The TikTok Circus
While Ringling may be competing with its past self amongst the older set, grabbing the attention of the younger audiences pits the circus against an even more formidable opponent — social media. That's the impetus behind the pronounced presence of video screens and cameras in the ring, which lets the production replay the death-defying stunts from different angles and at different speeds, like a live sporting event.
"It's a whole new layer of storytelling," notes Shipton. "By offering close-ups and replays, you start to understand just how death-defying everything these performers are doing is. Plus, audiences today are used to seeing close-ups at live events. When you go to a concert, you always have image magnification. Why wouldn't we do that at Ringling as well?"
The casting reflects the diversity inherit among social media influencers as well. "We have 18 nationalities represented in the show and they each bring something different," says Ringling casting director, Guilio Scatola. "We were always thinking about how we wanted to bring these cultures to a new generation in a world that's moving very fast. We wanted to capture the speed of TikTok videos and bring that to Ringling. It connects to the audience, and it relates to young kids."
Irving says that she's proud to be part of that larger cultural shift within the world of Ringling. "As a Black woman, it's an honor to have representation in this environment," she notes. "When I came to the circus as a kid, I always had this feeling of awe and wonder, and I hope that I can be that for anyone who looks at me and says, 'Wow, this person loves what they're doing — I want to do that, too.' I'm thankful that they gave me this opportunity and I don't take it lightly."
Irving and her fellow performers — many of whom are already on Instagram and TikTok — are also planning to adopt the very thing that can make stars go viral on social media: authenticity. "We want this to feel just as funny, human and relatable as if you're watching your favorite stand-up comedian or musician," says Damm. "We're out to prove that in an age where the entertainment industry has been so splintered by technology and the internet, there can still be a single piece of entertainment that brings audiences together."
"You're not gonna see all these super-fancy costumes that hide performers," Williams adds. "We're celebrating these people and how amazing they are. And then we're going to magnify that in a huge arena. I don't think you can call this a circus anymore — it's an experience."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey kicks off its nationwide tour on Friday, Sept. 29; visit the official site for dates and ticket information.