In response to the Provocations we posed on circus and audience, Nia teacher and retired science writer Patti Rieser shared with us her experience of being a circus-goer in Durham, North Carolina.

What “types” of audiences does circus draw? Do circus-goers vary from region to region?
In my limited experience as an audience-goer mostly in NC, much circus tends to draw families and mostly white audiences. I haven’t seen much racial/ethnic diversity in audiences here, unlike in NYC.

Is the audience for theatre and dance the same as for circus?
I’m a long-time American Dance Festival-goer, I see more aerial, gymnastic and acrobatic dance there in recent years, it’s not just Pilobolus anymore. The ADF crowd seems quite receptive to the change.

What does an audience anticipate when you call a show “circus?”
Physical skills that amaze and stun, an element of risk (like Nascar); depending on the type of circus, either a spectacle or a story – occasionally both.

Is there such a thing as circus “literacy?’ Is audience response to contemporary circus dependent upon what it already knows? Should that matter?
Based on my experience watching changes at ADF over almost 30 years, I’d say that more contemporary, line-crossing circus initially presents a challenge to people who think they’re going to see something else – theater or dance. I remember Charles Reinhardt (founder of ADF) saying years ago that what excited him most was people in the lobby saying “that’s not dance” because then he knew something new and different and challenging was happening. No one knew what to make of Pilobolus the first time they performed here. Some classic modern dance folks hated them. Others loved the playfulness, fun, physicality, rawness and story-telling they shared with the audience. To me, those aspects of circus can be a bridge to new audiences who would never pay to see Ringling Brothers. That brings up the wild animal issue, which is hot-button for many folks. Audiences need to expand their ideas about what circus “is” – Ringling Brothers on one end and Cirque du Soleil on the other, not much in between.

What – if anything – is unique about the ways the circus interacts with its audience?
There’s often no fourth wall, as some performers directly interact with an audience. That helps create a sense of community and cohesion that’s often lacking in theater and dance.


Patti Rieser is a 60-year-young retired nurse practitioner and science writer who now enjoys teaching Nia (mix of dance, martial arts, and yoga), taking walks, and watching strange Indy movies and documentaries. She lives in Durham, NC, home of the American Dance Festival, Full Frame Documentary Festival, and new foodie hot spot. She follows circus more closely since her son chose to make it his life work.