PC 151 A Human Circus

A couple of years ago a circus came to town; the ‘big top’ was erected, the caravans and trailers were a hive of activity and the sales booth almost cried ‘Roll Up! Roll Up!’ I dropped in to see what a modern circus had as its acts but the booth didn’t have a little free flier, only a big glossy brochure for which they wanted £10! Someone lent me theirs: we didn’t go! In the western world the circus had been a huge entertainment venue …….. when we didn’t think too much about the damage we did to the performers, when we humans didn’t care too much.


In ‘Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah’ Richard Bach recounts the activities of two pilots known as barnstormers who brought entertainment to rural communities across America; a sort of cheap circus! Here in the UK the annual visit of Billy Smart’s travelling circus was a memorable part of my childhood. Today it’s different, thank God, and it’s rare for a circus to have anything other than human acts. We have become more civilised in our treatment of animals. But the whole idea of an entertainment venue where some audience participation is essential prompted the following observations of real life events, if only in a parallel universe; an analogous tale if you like.

Once upon a time there was a chap who was extremely confident about doing anything, had enormous self-belief, a super ego. He thought he could create a circus of some sort, that would put on the most popular and challenging acts and that everyone would want to come and marvel at his skill and business acumen. In a nod to the times, no animals were to be involved. He found the perfect site in a run-down part of town, where most people wouldn’t dream of going and set about it. Despite having no knowledge of the basics of building, he decided to have a central support and pillars around its side; he saw himself metaphorically as that central support, the only one that really mattered. He thought he could wing the other supporting structures and was deaf to advice. He didn’t listen and went ahead and built his theatre.

Circus 1

Initially it was successful and people flocked, as he had hoped, to participate in his productions, either as actors, acrobats or as members of the audience, as no ‘play’ was performed without audience participation. He acted as Ringmaster, exerting maximum control over every aspect of the performances; now and again he cracked his whip to show who was boss and bullied his staff! Sometimes he even played his part as an actor, for he was good! The audience, a mixture of the normal and the abnormal, the cranks, the introverts, the extroverts, the young and the old, all got involved in their own way. Then a female actor refused to perform, siting the extra requirements of the job that hadn’t been apparent when they’d signed up. The owner shrugged; there were plenty more who would die to work for him, or so he thought. When interviewed by the Performers Guild, the actor said she had been asked, for instance, to clean the loos, something the Academy of Circus Performers had not trained her to do. The audience sighed …… and missed her; social media started buzzing at what was going on, someone started a Facebook page to collate the stories. A reputation was developing; a Twitter account was created.

As the area became less run-down, another venue opened within a mile, offering cheaper and more attractive packages for those who wanted to attend regularly, rewarding their loyalty. The actors they hired were looked after, valued, developed, consulted and included in the management decisions. Still the circus owner believed their personality and reputation would continue to be a big draw, becoming deaf to the obvious criticism levelled at them by those who dared.

Circus 2

Then one day a support pillar cracked, causing the canvas roof to sag and let rain in. It was repaired as cheaply as possible but it was clear to the actors and audience that maintenance spend was a minimum; paint peeled, water stains weren’t fixed, wood rotted.

A month later a rumour started that the Performers Guild was investigating the way one actor had been treated. It was all hush-hush and whispered conversations but eventually the Facebook entry suggested that attendance at a life changing family event had not been allowed. Other actors and even members of the audience began to search their souls as to whether they could continue, especially as other peoples’ theatres had better offers. A week later, one of the star actors was dismissed. Again the rumour mill swung into action; Facebook couldn’t decide whether it was because they had been such a star performer, that their music-accompanied performance was always a sell-out, and that the owner was jealous, or that the actor had had to start going to the local Soup Kitchen to survive. The owner haughtily ignored the clamour for a change of style and substance.

The final straw seemed to be the booking of plays that few members of the regular audience wanted to watch and be involved in. Bit part actors performed in the empty, round space. Another pillar showed cracks, which were hastily papered over. And then a pillar collapsed, weighed down by the pressure of responsibility without adequate recognition; it had simply had enough. Fortunately no one was hurt but the damage was irreparable and within two months the theatre closed. For those who drove past a week later, there was a sorry sight on the steps outside. The owner, still wondering why no one came, still not getting what had happened, wondering whose fault it was, because it certainly wasn’t theirs, sat with their head in their hands.

Every story that has a ‘Once upon a time ……’ beginning should have ‘…… and the moral of this story is …….’ ending. Well, the moral of this one is that if you run a business and treat individuals with respect, are interested in them, their lives and their welfare, develop their potential without being selfish, and reward them appropriately, they will go the extra mile for you. If you don’t, you will end up lonely.


Richard 9th May 2019

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