I want to make a disclaimer here at the start: this is a listicle, and so is necessarily reductive. You can make any kind of circus that you want to, and you can ignore every single one of these ideas and be wildly successful.

These ideas are going to be relevant to emerging companies and artists looking to break in to the performing arts world–it’s not the only marketplace for circus arts, but it is a market where the demand is high and the supply is low, especially when it comes to American companies. These are some of the tips I’ve picked up watching presenters book shows and constantly speaking with them about new circus work over the past three years; of course the market is constantly evolving, but in my estimation these ideas are pretty constant starting points.

2ring circus

1. Start with the Art

If you’re interested in presenting work with performing arts centers you have to put yourself in their mindset–they are bringing your show along with many other dance or theater productions, productions where the art, narrative and movement are all fundamental to the creation process. To appeal to these presenters, you have to start with the art.

A good litmus test: remove all the technical skills. Does your show still make sense? Would someone want to watch it? Does is still have an important on nuanced point of view on the human experience?

In order to appeal to the performing arts space, you have to have a show that could exist outside the skills of the artists, that showcases relationships, concepts, narratives or innovation.

2. Keep it small

Circus is a new addition to the performing arts landscape, not in an historic sense, but in the sense that the funders and presenters are still sometimes wary about the work. Larger companies that you see touring successfully (7doigts, Cirque Mechanics) have spent years building relationships and teaching presenters to trust their product.

A new company needs to come in with an attractive package, and that means a small show with very little freight and a small cast. Be the easiest decision a presenter has to make that day. Circus tends to sell very well, and so your opening pitch to presenters should be a no brainer.

A 2 person show that fits in a van, has relevant and well executed artistic themes and a high technical level? For $5k? Done.

A 12 person show with 4 aerial apparatuses, a loose concept and no marketing package? Probably not without a pretty deep track record.

3. Have impeccable materials

1) You need a tech rider, and it should be a one-stop-shop that I can use to understand everything about your show, from square footage to rigging requirements. It’s great for a new company if it’s under one page and is nice to look at, branded and clearly formatted as a .pdf. The exception to this is if your show is SO simple that your tech rider is literally “We need X hookup for our sound and to program 10 cues from a general rep light plot.”
2) You need a press packet. A GoogleDrive or DropBox folder that contains the following:

  • Press quotes and a ~100 word blurb about the show.
  • High-res, print quality photos at 300dpi.
  • A sizzle reel (under 1min) and a trailer (under 3min) as actual movie files, not links.

3) You need a website. It doesn’t have to be big, but it should have your reels, lots of pictures and a description of the show. It’s actually better for an emerging company of the website is small and sleek: contact page, video, gallery, press, schedule.

Jonathan Fortin

4. Collaborate

Because our field is still fringe in the performing arts space, collaborating with established directors and choreographers can go a long way. Dance and Theater artists, especially directors and choreographers, have experience and eyes that we need on our work, especially as we begin to really dissect what circus, the act and the trick really are as an artistic experience for the audience. The questions that theater and dance artists bring to the table are important ones artistically–What is happening in this moment? What is the world of the show? How do we structure the experience for the audience’s clarity?–but the collaboration itself is also important.

Personally, I believe that circus contains narrative and expressive movement within itself–I do not like to say that circus is “incorporating theater” or “using dance,” I simply like to say that “this circus is really good” or “what an amazing show.” However, that doesn’t mean that every circus artist has an intrinsic understanding of the tools of narrative, storytelling or expressive movement, and artists who have specialized in those disciplines are invaluable assets to a new show.

Having these collaborations is also a plus when it comes time to pitch the show-if you have an established name attached, the riskiness of the proposition is mitigated for the presenter.

5. Make a difference

Art, and performance art in particular, needs to perform a societal function. Performing arts presenters are particularly aware of this, especially in the digital age when competition for eyeballs (not to mention butts in seats) is at a record high.

What difference does your show make? Why should society commit its resources to your show? If you cannot tell me an answer that piques my interest in under 20 seconds, you need to get more specific.

“This show teaches people to embrace risk in their everyday lives.”

“This show is about how intimate relationships are scary and how do we deal with that fear.”

“This show can remind anyone of the wonder and awe that they felt as children.”

“This show is about what happens when different cultures clash and how we can all learn to work together.”

But making a difference doesn’t have to be a content-based idea–you can also make a difference by creating and packaging community engagement opportunities around your show. Circus provides such amazing opportunities for participation and engagement. If part of the package of your show includes a community engagement option, that makes presenters more likely to want to learn more.

That’s it folks! Five things that every emerging circus company should know. What do you think?