Last weekend, I attended the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, which focused on the ways of the people in circuses. It was very cool and I learned a lot.
One of the cool things was they set up a big top circus tent and had hour-long circus performances. The one that we saw was excellent. As I thought about it, the more I thought about how much a good circus was like a good book.
It started off really well, with a dazzling act involving a man twirling flames. He was doing a traditional Samoan dance and dressed accordingly, twirling batons lit with flames. At certain points, he would transfer the flames to his body and then back to his baton. It was just amazing. The second act was also amazing. Not as fiery, but very cool. Two contortionists performing on the lyra (a contraption that looks like a hula hoop, but is sturdier and dangles several feet above the air from a cord). These ladies Luna & Storm were amazing. I couldn’t wait for the next act. Oddly enough, the next two acts were just OK. Not awful, but the pace slowed a bit, and I was getting a little restless. Well, the final act. That was wow. That was showstopper. That was everything good about storytelling and circus combined.
Why? Because it was the ultimate in storytelling and showmanship. It was a smaller than normal circus arena, because it had been erected temporarily on the National Mall. So there was only one ring, and in it wasn’t the most robust. The ringmaster starts by telling us this is a death-defying act, and it starts just by getting the apparatus in the ring. Immediately, I’m thinking, how hard can it be to put the apparatus in the ring, but then they wheel in this piece of equipment, a huge wheel at the bottom, a long shaft, and then another smaller pivot wheel. The thing, truly, barely fits in the arena. They’ve got tons of staff handling the thing, and trying to get it upright. Wires break loose and this pendulum wheel thing starts to rock back and forth on it’s own, and people are grabbing it to try to steady it, and looking relieved when they finally get hold of the thing, to get it in it’s right position.
And this is all part of the showmanship, because as you watch all this, you’re thinking, that does look dangerous. Why would anyone get on this thing? The entire time they’re setting up the aparatus, they’re playing ominous creepy music, which just makes you think no one would be foolish enough to get on it.
Then, the gentleman who was going to get on this contraption comes out. And he’s, umm, not to be indelicate, but not a young flower. He’s at least 50, which is a great age to be athletic, and by no means old, but certainly an age that is mature enough and wise enough to not climb on this thing. Yet, this dude comes out with brass and swagger. He has an assistant who is a sturdy looking girl, and her job, appears to be to grab the thin wheel opposite the large wheel, and give it a big push so the thing spins around the pivot point.
Again, this is all great showmanship. He could’ve had your typical paper thin assistant, but that wasn’t the point. He needed someone who could deal with this enormous piece of machinery.
Next up, the guy gets on the inside of the metal mesh and the assitant sends the enitre thing spinning around. It was quite daring. Very cool. He’s running to keep from falling out of it, and you’re thinking, cool. But, next, the guy, goes on the outside of the metal ring, standing on top of it. She spins him around while he’s standing on top of the outside of this thing. He was running to make sure he dind’t fall, and he always looked like he was one step from toppling to his death.
Then, the assistant throws him a jump rope. She spins him and he attempts to jump rope on top of the thing, while it’s spinning in a circle. I say attempts, because he stumbles on the rope, lurches forward and amazingly catches himself from falling but drops the jump rope. There were universal gasps. The assistant gasps, too. The man clutches his heart, and looks shaken. The wheel comes to a stop after a couple of spins. He looks down at the assistant. “Should I try it again?”
Oh, yes, and that’s the best part of the showmanship. Someone in the crowd when we were leaving said the trip was staged. Whether it was or wasn’t. That’s story. Because there were calls of no, you don’t have to, and Yeah, try it again, you can do it. The audience was utterly invested in him. He had failed, but he was about to try it again. The assistant tossed him the rope. He caught it. He mouthed to himslef, I can do this. He jumped in place a moment, getting up his confidence. The assistant, looked up at him, asked if he was ready. He nodded. She gave the apparatus a push to send him spinning again. He was spinning and pulled out the jump rope. And this time, he did it. Three jumps over the rope on top of this wheel that was rotating 360 degrees and very fast.
Standing ovation. Huge cheers. He’d conquered the beast.
And it was an absolutely awesomely satisfying end to a show. I loved it.
It reminded me of the best elements of story telling. Overall, like any good book, the circus started out strong, with really exciting, visually lovely acts that got me saying how glad I was I was there. And I admit, it flagged a little bit in the middle (and while this is not ideal in a book, the reader can be OK with it, if you’ve started out so strong), and then by the end, it was everything. The last act was the epitome of story. An underdog faces a huge obstacle, he succeeds at the simplest part, but as it gets harder, he flags (the jump rope). However, he doesn’t give up. He gives it another try. And this time we are so rooting for him. When he does it, when he executes it flawlessly, we give the standing ovation because we wanted it so bad for him.
Yes, great storytelling at its best. And I was so glad I got to see it.