LAS VEGAS — In a cavernous audition space, one by one the circus performers contorted, flipped, spun, danced and stood on their heads (at one point while on another person’s head), drawn from around the world to this circus casting call. But there was one notable absence in a room filled with would-be ringmasters, macabre clowns and more than one person capable of hanging from a hoop suspended from the ceiling.
Not a single animal act.
Five years ago the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus packed up its proverbial big top for what it said was for good, ending a 146-year run in the face of slumping sales and a growing public distaste for the lion, tiger and elephant acts once synonymous with this circus. But over the past year, in places like Las Vegas, Ethiopia and Mongolia, the circus has quietly been evaluating talent and ramping up for comeback.
On Wednesday, the company announced that it will officially return, with its first show on Sept. 28, 2023, and a tour of more than 50 cities, but without any animals.
“Ringling has always evolved: Logically, in order to be successful for 146 years, you constantly have to change,” said Kenneth Feld, the chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment, which purchased the circus in 1967. Feld is betting big on a revamped show that is centered not around things like elephants standing on their hind legs, but on narrative story lines and human feats.
“It has been through every economic upturn and downturn that we’ve had,” said Feld of the circus. “It’s been through two pandemics now; it always adapted.”
The circus is just part of the Feld entertainment lineup, which also includes franchises like Disney on Ice and Monster Jam, where giant trucks perform stunts. The company blames the collapse of its circus not on the condemnation of animal rights activists, but on what it called an outdated business model. In an era where video games and the metaverse compete for children’s attention, it toted things like its trapeze equipment, motorcycle cages and a crew of 500 people and 100 animals around the country in mile-long trains, an expensive endeavor.
As some states, like New York and Illinois, began to move toward banning the use of elephants in traveling shows, Feld retired its herd, with the final elephant appearance in 2016. It sold off the trains with its purpose-built cabins for the cast after the closure in 2017. Performers will drive or fly from city to city in its new iteration, and stay in hotels, a tremendous savings made practicable by the fact that there’s no longer a need to check-in, say, a big cat.
Not everyone is convinced that Ringling Bros 2.0 is a sure thing.
“They can call it a circus, but I think their audience is going to be disappointed,” said a competitor, Justin Loomis, the co-founder and producer of the Loomis Bros. Circus. It still features 12 ponies, five tigers and Ellie and Tina, its two elephants; Loomis navigates restrictive laws by skipping tour dates in cities where they are banned.
The Return of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus
“The Greatest Show on Earth” is back after folding its big tent five years ago.
- No More Animals: The Ringling Brothers circus said that it is returning in 2023. But the lions, tigers and elephants are not.
- 2017 Shuttering: In ending its 146-year run, the show cited a decline in ticket sales that was made worse after elephants were phased out.
- Longtime Fans: The circus has a long history with New York. Some devotees in and around the city have seen upward of 100 shows and befriended performers.
- Behind the Scenes: In 2015, we got an inside look at life on the Ringling Brothers train, and our 360° video from 2017 offers a peek backstage.
“People are going to go under the assumption it is what they remember,” he offered, “and then when they arrive and purchase their ticket and sit through the show, they are going to be like: ‘Where were the animals?’”
Indeed, when Ringling closed in 2017, it was still selling elephant-shaped plastic mugs at its concession stands. But Feld Entertainment has sculpted its return around the concept of circus as a “365 day a year experience,” though what that exactly looks like is still a work-in-process. Ringling-branded household items like toiletries are not out of the question, Feld said; a Ringling and Barnum & Bailey TikTok channel will debut in January 2023, according to the company, and there are plans for branded NFTs, or nonfungible tokens.
It has also hired Giulio Scatola, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, another human-only circus, as its director of casting and performance for the new production, which it is continuing to herald as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Citing influences like the television show “America’s Got Talent,” where the personal journey of contestants is as much on display as their art, Scatola is hatching a narrative show, rather than the three-ring extravaganzas of yore, that will weave its performers’ back stories into the tale. In addition to casting calls around the world, he has solicited online submissions, looking for “people with stories and people who are able to use their bodies to tell that story.”
Animals, though, have been part of the circus’s story since its inception in 1768, said Jennifer Lemmer Posey, the curator of circus at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida. That’s when the “ring” of the three-ring extravaganza was invented: at 42 feet in diameter, it is prescribed to fit a galloping horse with a trick rider atop. “At its heart there is that relationship,” she said.
She continued: “But the circus has to respond to the world around it in a really flexible way,” she said. “We carry these computers in our hands and it is so hard to awe us in the way that it used to be.”
The move by Ringling Brothers has been applauded by animal rights groups.
“Feld’s decision to bring the circus back without animals sends a very clear message to the industry that the circus can dazzle audiences with willing human performers and that no animal needs to be exploited,” said Rachel Mathews, the director of the captive animal law enforcement division of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation.
In 2009, PETA conducted a hidden-camera investigation into the treatment of Ringling’s elephants. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered Feld Entertainment, the circus’s parent company, to pay a $270,000 penalty to settle violations of the Animal Welfare Act for its treatment of performing animals.
“What people see in the circus is a display of human dominance,” Mathews said. “The fact is the public doesn’t want to see that anymore.”
Criticism of animal acts in the circus dates back to at least 1920s, when the Ringling circus, facing pushback from a growing animal rights movement, removed lions and tigers for about a decade, according to Greg Parkinson, the former executive director of Circus World Museum, in the Ringling family’s hometown, Baraboo, Wis. (The sea lion and elephant performances stayed on.)
While the circus, with its striped tent and old-timey aesthetic, can feel preserved in amber, it has actually evolved, often in response to shifting societal mores, said Parkinson, who is also the editor of the journal of the Circus Historical Society, “Bandwagon.”
For example, freak shows — where bearded ladies, strongmen, obese people and racial minorities were put on display as objects of curiosity — were once part and parcel for many shows. But by the middle of the last century these displays were largely phased out from most circuses, including Ringling, and were increasingly seen as exploitative or racist by the public.
“Thrills, spectacular acts, the costumes and people; the human emotions they stir are constant,” Parkinson said. “But the method that showmen and show-women present those things that have thrilled the American public are constantly changing.”
Certainly other circuses have been able to operate animal-free, though it can be an adjustment. Reopening without animal stars was a problem for the Mexico-based Circo Atayde Hermanos, recalled Christopher Stoinev, 22, whose family operates the business. The circus, he said, had to transfer its elephants, Safari and Tommy, to zoos after a law banning wild animal performance took effect in 2015, he said.
“Once we stopped using animals, our circus really took a turn for the worse because no one wanted to come see a show if there weren’t animals,” Stoinev said at the Vegas auditions for the new Ringling show. His act? Juggling. He left his family’s four performing Chihuahuas at home.
The Hermanos circus, like Ringling, has also evolved; it ultimately rebounded, he added, by shifting to theatrical storytelling in the absence of pachyderm wow. “After a while we started to figure out ways to live without having animals in our show,” Stoinev said.
And the animals themselves have moved on. At Ringling’s final show in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Alexander Lacey, 46, a big cat trainer, paused his act to decry the loss of wild performing animals. Without personal experiences with such creatures like the circus affords, he said then to the audience, he feared people would lose interest in conserving them in the wild.
With circus work circumscribed, today Lacey’s 14 big cats, including a leopard named Mowgli who used to ride on a float at the Ringling circus, now perform at Krone Farm, his family’s feline ranch in Munich, Germany.
“The animals are going to be missing out on the opportunity of the next generation caring about them and giving a damn about them,” Lacey said in an interview from Germany. “If people don’t see lions and tigers around them, they really don’t think about them. I think the animals are really going to miss out in the long run.”
For some, Ringling’s return is about something other than a retooled circus, representing the hope of resurrecting a tradition that not only offers employment, but also a way of life.
In Vegas, Skyler Miser stood with her mother and father, Tina and Brian, just after her audition, anxiously awaiting a callback. Her parents had been Ringling’s human cannon balls, and were devastated by the closing.
Out back on their property in Peru, Ind., is one of the decommissioned circus train cars similar to the one in which Skyler grew up on the road. Her father flashed his phone screensaver: Skyler, age 11, being shot out of a cannon for the first time. That day, the Misers learned that their daughter will likely be Ringling’s next human cannon ball in the new, animal-free show.
“The humans really have to step up their game,” said her mother as they headed back to Indiana where Skyler plans to spend the summer practicing with the cannon they keep at home. “They have big footprints to fill.”