I want to make a disclaimer here at the start:

You should make whatever kind of circus 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. I’ve picked up these tips watching presenters book shows and speaking with them about new circus work over the past three years. The market is constantly evolving, but in my estimation these ideas are pretty constant starting points for new companies looking to get started.

It’s also important to add that there are many questions we can use to examine performance work and they all have validity depending on what your artistic and career goals. Is your work bookable for a tour? Is it accessible across both national cultures and artistic cultures? Does it move technique, or artistic discipline, forward? The questions you use to evaluate your work will have a big effect on how you develop over time.

I am, in this listicle, using an unabashedly commercial lens. The reason for this is that many emerging artists know a lot about making work, but not a lot about how that work actually makes it into festivals, theaters or tents, or what presenters and agents are looking for when they present performance.

OK! Disclaimers complete.

2ring circus

1. Be Artistically Rigorous

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 narrative, movement and arc of the show are all fundamental to the creation process. To appeal to these presenters, you have to be really rigorous with how you structure your show, both thematically and technically.

Here’s a good litmus test: remove aspects of the show one at a time, and see if what’s left stands up. Does the show work without the “wow” level technical skills? Does it stand up without the lights and costumes? Does it stand up with ONLY the circus skills?

During the creation of shows, we have to be willing to take the work apart and put it back together, finding out what makes it tick and fine tuning its inner workings. This process takes time, discernment and rigorous questioning…and presenters can tell when it hasn’t happened.

2. Start small, grow big.

While circus is not a new addition to the performing arts landscape in the historic sense, it is still fairly new to the performing arts landscape. This means that performing arts funders and presenters are 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.

Building a track record is a really important part of establishing a new company. Very few presenters will take risks on a new company, and so you need to have an especially attractive package. That means a being technically and financially accessible. Be the easiest decision a presenter has to make that day.

An hour long, two-three person show that fits in a van, has relevant and well executed artistic themes and a high technical level? Done. (See the recent and highly successful tours of Water on Mars, Bromance and AirPlay).

A 12 person show with 4 aerial apparatuses, a loose concept and no track record? Not a great place to start. Build your way up to your big ideas by starting small!

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, and as 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. Other performing 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 other artists bring to the table are important ones, if only because the process of questioning often leads to greater clarity about the purpose and execution of performance work.

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 and expert command of the tools of narrative 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, performs 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 do audiences need to see your show? It can’t be because you need a pay check. 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 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 learn to work together.”

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 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?