Was it the Greatest Show on Earth?

In May 2017 Feld Entertainment closed the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth after 146 years of successful touring in the States. In a statement Feld Entertainment said ‘this was because they had been running at a loss’, however there had been a lot of bad press from the animal rights activists about the way they treated their animals.

But regardless of the reason for their closure I wondered if it really was the Greatest Show on Earth? This was two circuses that had merged together, the Barnum and Bailey Circus which was first opened their doors in December 1871 and the Ringling Brothers Circus which was opened in 1884. It only was after PT Barnum’s death in 1891 and James Bailey’s death in 1906 that the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers who continued to operate the two shows separately until 1919 when it became the Ringling Brother and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Feld Entertainment was first involved to manage the operation from 1956.

Up until the Ringling Brothers took over in 1906 the Barnum and Bailey Circus had toured in Europe. It wasn’t until 1980 that they began an oversea venture trying to mirror the three ring effect in Japan and Australia.

Though I never had the privilege to see the show live and I am sure it was one of the Greatest Shows every produced, but the bit I question is ‘on Earth’?

When James Bailey and PT Barnum first hatched the idea of The Greatest Show on Earth I am sure their vision was to take this show not just on a rail road tour or reproduce the three rings on other continents, but one massively amazing, translantic, multi continent, international phenomenon, which I don’t think ever was fully achieved.

So what was it that Feld Entertainment and the Ringling Brothers did wrong that led to reduction in ticket sales which led to the canvas being folded for the last time for the great show? Was the show mismanaged? I don’t think it was, Feld Entertainment successfully produces over 5000 shows a year internationally. Was it the animal rights activists? I don’t think it was, I read somewhere that in fact ticket sales had increased during the initial protests, which I can believe since people still do love to see animals perform, but for very different reasons then that when they were first brought to the ring. In the 21st century science has now shown us that many animals have high IQ and actually benefit from the stimulation of human interaction. Wild animals also have the ability to care for humans as it has been found online if their keeper were attacked the animal will defend them.

I think there are a couple of things going on here which were possibly the main contributors to the final closure of the show. These were simply failing to close the generation gap and lack of vision. I think these really go hand in hand, but I will discuss them separately.

Firstly the generation gap both from audience and that of performers. When you read and listen to the performers who have lost their jobs you quickly learn that some of these people have never written a CV as they have got to where they are by default because other family members, their parents mainly, have done it before them. If this show requires you to be top of your game then how can you do that without competition? Other people coming in to do what you are doing will automatically help you to raise your game because it become competitive this is all extremely healthy.

So for generations of people in this show some of which some have been in as long as 20 years plus, it almost starts to become what Brits call a ‘Gentleman’s Club’. What this means that it’s an exclusively private club for members only and in this case generations of performers coming from families who were already were doing specific acts in show and not allowing performers from outside with a new perspective of the act to come and be part of it, because the notion is ‘regardless of our standard., we have 20 clowns we don’t need any more thank you’.

So when you have the same performers for 20 plus years, you have to think about the audience’s perception, parent would have seen the acts when they were kids, and they may be willing to take their children to see them, how many times can you sit through the same people doing near enough the same thing time and again? Les Miserable has been going for over 30 years in the West End and still plays to a pack audience wherever it plays. Whilst this is a different genre of entertainment the principles are always the same. The reason Les Miserable can continue to play to a full house is because they change their cast every 12 to 18 months. You may see this musical 2 or three times over a 5 or 10 year period, but it will be very unusual to see the people playing the principle parts more than once in that time frame, unless they were your family or close friend.

The lack of vision, this comes really hand in hand with the second part of the point above. If you are continually having the same people performing the same act year on year in the same places across the country then how can anyone expect the public to keep coming after 146 years? While I do accept that new performances may have been added as in as different kind of act, how many long term families left the train? PT Barnum actively went out looking for new acts and as act stop making him money he sold their contract on.

So while The Greatest Show on Earth was widely known about I am not sure that it quite reached PT Barnum’s full expectations or followed his business plan if he had one.

But with all this said how do I think The Greatest Show on Earth on should look and operate? Or should the question be what direction do I think PT Barnum would have taken the show after nearly 150 years?

First and foremost I think he would say there needs to be an acknowledgement of change over the decades, views on uses of animals for example, while I don’t disagree with the views of PETA about the handling of animals on a broad scale and I do disagree with the way they handled their protests. But I still don’t think there is a need for animals in circuses on such a large scale in the 21st Century, but then you need to know what the tastes of the audience are.

When PT Barnum took on Jenny Lind, he had never heard of her, he didn’t know her work, was unsure if the American public would accept her, so he thought she was a high risk act. But he still signed the deal, later she would made him a fortune and became his most respected act.

Technology has changed and updated, and I don’t just mean things like lighting and sound for the performance but also for transportation. How small can equipment be packed, how fast can we get from venue to venue? The train was customised to the needs of the show, what other methods of transportation can be customised to make the touring experience easier?

The final ingredient is the staff, acts and crew. The opening ceremony at the Olympics is often referred to as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, and when you watch it either live in the stadium of as one the millions of TV viewers from around the world you see why, each performance tops the last Olympic ceremony. They just get better and better, why? Different people, new ideas, different setting, but mainly time. It can take between 4 to 8 years to create performances of that size and quality.

This is why we have 4 years between the big international sporting events, each country has 4 years find the stars that are top of the game including a new and upcoming generations. The Olympics are about proving they are top. Over the cause of that four years those competitors would have been to other sporting events to help them improve, the Olympics is just the ultimate challenge.

The World Scout Jamboree again held every 4 years hosted by a different country the participants are all aged between 14 and 18. This means to participate in the world’s largest youth event becomes a once in a lifetime opportunity to spent 10 days sharing a campsite and thousands of activities with 33,000 other young people. You may go back time and again to volunteer to help run the event, but that is a different experience.

So while the Greatest Show on Earth should be a continual 365 days a year event, to make it successful we should to learn from the big sporting and youth events. Whether you are management, backstage crew or a performer the contract is for a time maybe 12 or 18 month, then you move on and the policy would mean you couldn’t re-join the show for something like 4 years. The only thing that remains the same and a constant is the operating company just to ensure that policies and procedures are kept up to date.

With so many people coming and going it is always giving new people the opportunity to be part of something amazing, and also gives them time to try out other things, to go and have a life away from it then maybe come back fresh after the period. Also there will be a whole new generation of audience who may never have seen or heard those performers, it means performers are talked about in the exciting way those who saw them may 4 or 8 years earlier but doing something new. But most of all there is a continual flow of new ideas being generated in every aspect.

So maybe one day in the not so distant future there can be a revival of The Great Show on Earth, that doesn’t travel by train in one country, but is an international phenomenon just as PT Barnum first dreamed it.

Bot Banning

Many events have authorised secondary sellers of tickets which help to get the event sold to a wider audience and quicker, because not everyone knows who the promoters are. This is usually done on a commission bases. But like everything there are those individuals that spoil this and operate only to exploit this privilege.

For many years there have been people using computer software to harvest a large number of tickets for sports, music and theatre events from promoter’s websites to resell illegally at higher prices. This has led to people turning up to events with invalid tickets after they have paid incredibly high price for them only to be turned away from the venue as their tickets are void.

As I am sure you can imagine this creates a lot disappointment and frustration for both promoters and consumers alike. Often it is the promoter that is blamed for the invalid tickets, but some people don’t realise that they have been unwittingly conned through people selling on a black-market.

Many venues are now turning to paperless tickets which in the long term can cut the amount of fraud tickets being sold but can’t completely remove the problem.

In 2016 the UK Government first instigated that they would work to reduce the problem. It has recently been announced that they will be outlawing this software through new legislations enshrining the ban into law, they have also informed the EU commission of this decision.

However, for this to be fully enforced and policed promoter will need to be able identify when they have been attacked by a bots, ensuring they report them and for the authorities to take quick action to remove the risk from growing.

Censoring Controversy

When the arts industry cancels or makes the decision not to show a production that has themes that directly link with controversial issues within society it is telling the world that the issues are not important and should not be dealt with and this means the industry fails to uphold its job within society.

The National Youth Theatre (NYT) cancelled their production of ‘Homegrown’ due to be staged in August 2015. Earlier the same year Ipswich High School for Girls cancelled Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, from an incoming touring company to the school.

Both of these cancellations were due to either being deemed as inappropriate or concern over how they would be perceived.

NYT’s production ‘Homegrown’ dealt with the issues surrounding young people and terrorism, something that is very much part of today’s world. Here in the UK, we hear of people, both young and old joining extremist groups and then going on to harm innocent communities.

The actual reason given for this cancellation is ‘that there was no complete script’, this just tells the public that there was no real plan or organisation in the process, giving a double barrel of negativity to the NYT since the script or concept of the final production should be in place before auditions began. So was the real reason for the issues which it explored?

Then for a school to cancel an incoming tour because they deem it as ‘inappropriate and not an educator for girls’ when it contains topics of sex and abuse, claiming that ‘it’s hard enough to think or talk about let alone watch’, seems quite ironic coming from any school when society has a problem with teenage pregnancies and child abuse which is in the media more and more. Is it not the job of schools to talk about these issues? By not doing so, are they failing the children they are entrusted with and the communities in which they serve?

In today’s world young people are far more aware of these issues then we, as adults will ever realise with modern technologies, the internet and social media. They all probably know someone, either directly or through a friend who is affected by one or more of these issues. They themselves may even be affected with one of the issues, but maybe don’t know how to deal with it because society tells them it’s a ‘taboo’ topic and its not to be spoken about. But by allowing them to explore the issues through the arts, either watching or being part of it helps to break down those barriers and helps them feel connected in ways that they may not otherwise feel in their education.

We should never underestimate the power of the arts and how it tackles issues head-on. Shakespeare dealt with racism and social class through his play Othello, the actor may well have been white with a black painted face, but this is still a topic we still deal with on a daily basis in the 21st Century, but in the 1600s this was a radical idea. Les Miserable deals with issues surrounding oppression and poverty and what it does to people. Disney’s Lion King deals with corruption teaching children that the truth will always manifest itself in some way or other.

Abuse happens; terrorism is a very real experience for some, so they must be addressed head-on, yes there is a need to be sensitive but at the same time, it all needs to be kept very real. The best weapon society has against these issues is knowledge; the best industry to provide that is the arts in what they do best, by telling stories.

Have we forgotten that part our heritage of the industry is to create discussion? Part of that process is negativity but it shouldn’t put us off dealing issues in society. It should make us feel as though we are doing our job unless the comments are about the actual staging of the production directly.

We have to accept that there will always be those who find the opportunity to twist the story into something that it was never intended to be. In May 2016 I read an article on the BBC news feed about a photographer who had posted a picture on social media of her sick son in her husband’s arms in the shower attempting to keep the boys’ temperature down. For most, it was a humbling photo, yet there were a few who found it offensive and inappropriate simply because the persons featured were naked.

The ease of offending people has become so easy and it does put people off having those important discussions, these people will always be around and just because they are offended it doesn’t make them right. However their views are still important to the conversation, as they keep things real and ensure we get nitty gritty as we explore the underpinning issues that we are trying to convey.

Young people should be encouraged to see and be part of productions that deal with controversy because if we have agreed they can see it at least we know what that the information is and how it is being given, it is being done on our terms in a controlled and safe environment. If we don’t do this, then at the end of the day they will go find that information themselves because that’s human nature to say ‘no’ is a temptation to do.

If they do go looking for themselves online behind our backs, there is no way of knowing what they are viewing or whom the information is coming from and the consequences could be a lot worse. As adults and the curators of today’s world who apparently want a better place for our children need to fulfil our duty and be ready for those awkward conversations and help them create a better place to live.

The Arts and Funding

We often read that theatres should be working with more diversity in their performances and possibly being penalised if they fail. At the same time there’s this discussion about lack of funding for new works. Surely there is a link between the 2 here?

I think maybe we forget a few things, for instance all of today’s great shows all started the same way trying to source funding. Look at Les Miserable, when you look back at when the idea was first hatched it was, in all cases, the rejected play and for no other reason than it had miserable is the title. Yet as it began its 30th season 2015 it had become one the best loved and longest running musicals of all time being translated into 22 languages with productions in 42 counties and 319 cities.

Or look at Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap playing at the St. Martin’s Theatre, the longest running West End play as it began its 63rd session in 2015. There is also the world famous works of Shakespeare, originally written in the 18th Century, they all needed funding at to start out.

All of these scripts were written about a society that was racist, that was sexist and worked on stereotyping. But some of these stories are well loved and give a powerful message reminding us about our past. But to penalise a theatre or production for lack of diversity when attempting to stage these shows would be wrong and it wouldn’t solve the diversity issues in our theatres.

In The Stage on 28th May 2015 Maria Friedman spoke about the lack of work for ‘Older Actresses’, and is almost forcing a generation to move over to directing. While for ‘diversity’ this is good as we are seeing a rise in the female directors. But what does it do for the on stage diversity issue? Is it really the fault of the director or the actors that there is a limit to variety of works to cover all bases of diversity?

Steven Berkoff’s recent comment that ‘White actors should be allowed to play Othello’ seems like a desperate cry to close the diversity gap, as Othello works because of the black / white issue of the day in which it is written. White people have never been singled out and forced into a situation that Othello was, and to do that would make the whole play unreal and unbelievable.

Now I am not saying that funding bodies should just give out money to new works, as the element of risk will always be high. The writers and all those involved to producing the works should work on their pitch and not just to the funder but also the potential audience. In today’s techno world there are ways to gage if a show is going to work, in very much the same way as the retails can gage if there is a market for new product.