If the United States of America has a circus capitol, it might be Las Vegas, home to casinos, conventioneers, and 6 different Cirque de Soleil shows, plus endless variety shows that feature circus acts. It is here that the professionals go to get steady work if they prefer staying local to being on tour.. But while Vegas has big circus, it lacks in small to mid-sized circus companies—the kind that often produce shows that redefine what is cutting edge artistically and draw a dedicated audience. Instead, the performers are employed by the rich tradition of ever changing variety shows that are after the tourist dollar. Cirque du Soleil may have a tremendous presence, but they draw artists from their system of scouts and their global database, meaning in town artists rarely have access to that level of employment.
On a recent visit to Las Vegas, I took in the oldest permanent circus show in town, Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère, checked out the popular and scurrilous show Absinthe and met up with several circus industry people to discuss how to make it work as a performer in Las Vegas. Nick Karvounis knows more than most how tricky it can be to set up shop in town. When he and his twin brother Alex moved to Las Vegas in 1997 with their seasoned 7-minute juggling act and a dream, they had trouble even figuring out where to audition. “There was a print publication that came out once a month. There wasn’t internet so you had to go to a bookstore and pick it up and if you missed the deadline you missed auditions because everything had to be done so far in advance. So we launched the subscription service VegasAuditions.com as an online trade paper in 2002 out of frustration about how to get audition information and get it quickly.”
Nick has seen the entertainment industry in Las Vegas become more circuscentric over the years, “There used to be more traditional reviews like Folies Bergere and Jubilee. All of those shows featured show girls doing 20 minutes of dance and singing numbers and then curtains would come down and you’d have a variety act. Since Cirque du Soleil came to town, many of the shows started booking circus acts as the curtain act, so it’s no longer the Vegas style act that’s popular, its trapeze and other aerial acts. That has
attracted more circus people to town too.”
Nick and Alex lived in Las Vegas and performed there for 17 years before relocating to San Diego. Although they still perform, managing Las Vegas Auditions and Vegas Report (an industry news outlet) has become their full time work. Nick says Las Vegas is still where it’s at still for the aspiring circus professional. “It’s one of the cheaper places to live in the country. There’s inexpensive housing and variety acts get paid very well.” He admits that there is a robust turnover rate for many shows, but says “The longer you are in town— the more connections you make with performers and booking agents—and there’s work out there for people. It’s a very small entertainment community. The directors and booking managers that are in town know everybody and they go to the same events— the red carpets, the show openings and closings— and you know these people and it makes it a lot easier.”
He advises newcomers to come with their act together. “You move in and from day one you can present your act and producers know exactly what they are going to get. That doesn’t mean you can’t get work if you don’t have an act though. Las Vegas has many training facilities and people out there are willing to put together an act with you.”
In some ways, Las Vegas’ entertainment methods seem outmoded. In cities like San Francisco, New York and all over Europe, contemporary shows are developed through aesthetic and marketed in mysterious ways through word of mouth and social media. But Las Vegas is a big machine that operates on older principles. It is the convention capitol of the USA, churning out 22,000 conventions a year, with over 42 million tourists, and all of those people expect to see a show or two. As soon as a visitor steps out of their airplane they are inundated with competing advertisements for every production. Giant billboards, magazine ads, the sides of busses and even hotel lobbies advertise, vying for the purchasing power of every visitor. Las Vegas therefore is not subtle, and their shows and marketing techniques need to be big in order to stand out. Because of this rigorous environment, Nick says there is a constant influx of shows opening and closing, extending and auditioning new acts.
Portrait of a Circus Artist
What is all of this like for a working performers? Sarah Romanowsky, a freelance aerialist, sees a different side to Las Vegas. “I love hiking because its physical and its outside and I get to explore and there are so many great outdoorsy places in Vegas. Not many people know that,” she says, ticking off the names of half a dozen lakes and trails and nature preserves nearby. But what brought her to town was the affordability, the opportunity and the consistency of work. Originally based in Los Angeles, she had no shortage of work there. But Sarah moved to town when she and her fiancé, who is touring with Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk, decided it would be the best home base for them. “He likes to do these longer contracts where he is really committed to one show and the cost of living here is so cheap. We have an instant community here. I really feel like I am at home here. For example, there is a training space called L’Oracle . I train there almost every day, but it’s also social hour. I run in to people I worked with, and people I’ve trained with. It may be networking but it’s also social time.”
Sarah’s resume is impressive and diverse. In addition to performing weekly on silks at Fantasy in Luxor, she has worked for Cirque De La Mer in San Diego (where she dove in to the bay and swam to a platform to perform aerial stunts). She’s been in commercials both on silks and as a dancer, performed for Cirque du Soleil and at Radio City Music Hall (a childhood dream come true for her) and done more corporate gigs than she can recall. But her favorite work is the jobs that give her creative freedom in her act, what she calls “full artistic control” to choose her own music and create her own choreography. She agrees with Nick that Las Vegas is a place where it is possible to collaborate and explore the art form, if not exactly because of the vision of the employers then for the abundance of creative talent. “The opportunities for creativity are endless, though we don’t get as many independent shows. There are more popping up. What a lot of people do now is get involved in the charity shows in town. There are the shows like One Drop and I’m going to be in Golden Rainbow which happens every year. That’s where artists get to have their outlets for creativity.”
Although Sarah’s fiancé enjoys the stability of longer contract circus employment, Sarah says being a freelance performer gives her a lot of freedom to work locally and travel as much as she pleases. “I love short term travel. Being gone for a week or two is great. But I like having a home base. I like my bed and my car and I don’t know how well I would do touring. My fiancé has 2 weeks off after every 10 weeks and they’ll send him home, which is nice. Lately, I’ll look at his calendar and where he is that week and I’ll get a teaching gig there. It pays for the trip.” She credits her teaching gigs to word-of-mouth recommendations and also to social media platforms like Instagram where she has garnished quite a following. “It’s going to sound silly, but I feel like it’s part of my job to be dedicated to my Instagram account. The students and studios who reach out to me have all found me through Instagram or Youtube. It’s really cool. I think social media gets a bad rap sometimes but I’ve met so many people this way. I got to go to Europe last year, teaching in Vienna and Bordeaux. I even went to Ecuador.”
Sarah isn’t as certain that a newcomer could walk in to a job in Las Vegas as Nick is. “For an artist who just wants to move out here blind and start freelance work, I think it’s hard. Its competitive. There are only so many jobs and events and companies. Maybe it’s a bit easier in other cities, because you’ll get all levels of performance, but everyone working here is at a pretty high level.”
When I asked Sarah what her goals were as a circus artist she said simply, “ A lot of people have their egos riding on checking off a particular box in their career. I’ve never really had that. I just feel particularly grateful that I can do this for a living. I feel so lucky and so fortunate and my favorite jobs are just when I get to be hired with my friends.”
Evgeny Vasilenko is a 2nd generation Russian slack wire artist based out of Las Vegas where he most recently performed in Twisted Vegas up until its abrupt closing last month, in spite of his three-year contract with them. The show closing had nothing to do with the skill level of its talented cast, and more to do with uninspired artistic direction, if the critics are to be believed. Before this, he performed for two years at Circus Circus Hotel.
But Evgeny is used to bouncing around, on the wire and off. He originally moved to the US to perform in a small show in California. Since then he has taught children circus, tried starting a family circus (he even has his own tent) and medaled in circus competitions (he won the bronze award at the Latina Festival in Italy in 2015), but currently he says he prefers having a home base in Las Vegas for the performance opportunities, even though he admits he found it hard to break in at first. “I thought that Las Vegas was the capitol of entertainment in the US, and I could easily find a job in town. But it wasn't like that! I did a lot of auditions, knocked on a lot of doors of talent offices, and tried to email the right people to get hired. I still do this! If you're a performer, you should never stop marketing yourself. It was difficult in the beginning for me because of the language barrier and culture, and I didn't know showbiz in Vegas. Now I have a little bit of experience!”
Evgeny may be getting by on his considerable talents—he is also a Cyr wheel artist and does a quick change act with his wife— but he is still searching for his big break. “I will be honest, I make a better living in the USA than I did in Russia. I don't want to say that it's so easy here though. The most challenging part of my job is to find a good contract and the easiest part is to do this contract! I think I could make a good living in the United States if I could find a stable job in Las Vegas.” So Evgeny is out there, hustling, marketing, searching for the right job and the right agent and figuring out the American dream on his own, but also looking to the future. “I want to make sure that I have something to do that I like very much when I retire and I want to finish my career on a high point!” he says, and he concedes to dreaming of competing at Monte Carlo someday and winning a Golden Clown.
From my conversations with circus artists in town I learned that Las Vegas has the jobs for qualified performers, pays good wages and is an affordable place to live, but is often short on the solid long term contracts, making it a big part of the work of the professional circus performer just to find the jobs and market oneself, which can be done the old fashioned way, preferred by Vegas—by knocking on doors, or the modern way, by social media. Perhaps Absinthe is a good remedy to that short term contract problem. It’s a wildly popular (also highly advertised) mid-sized tent show right on the grounds of Caesars Palace that packs the Spiegeltent every night and delivers a variety of top level burlesque and circus acts with a raunchy host and hostess to shock the audience far more than the bare torsos of the three acrobatic strong men or the flirty burlesque girls. I spoke to Almas Meirmanov, one of the three Chicago tight rope walkers who perform their comic tight rope act, after the show. “I came here expecting to perform for a couple of months, and 6 years have gone by,” he said with a shrug and a smile.
At Circus Promoters, we are committed to increasing your access to happenings and trends in the worldwide circus community. We also aim to provide access to exclusive interviews with inspiring people in the industry. If you are not a member of Circus Promoters yet, registration is free and all levels of performer are welcome. Visit circuspromoters.com to create your profile and learn about employment opportunities. Kim Campbell is a circus and theatre critic and writer. She has written for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Talk and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where she writes about arts and culture. You can follow her frequent musings on circus via Twitter, Instagram or at Kimzyn Chronicles . Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Circus Promoters and Kim Campbell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
One of the most exciting things about being a professional circus artist is the increasing abundance of training and performance opportunities available to you at residencies and festivals. Of course, not all events are equal in stature and focus, yet each has something to offer the aspiring circus artist looking to break in to the network of global performers.
Still, the path to these opportunities is dimly lit to all but a few brave souls who seek the way. To be invited to perform, you must have a solid concept of your act, clear goals, know your company’s availability, and you must be highly organized. How do you know if your circus company is ready to move to the next level of performing and getting snapped up by circus programmers for tours? We spoke to festival artistic directors and residency directors around the world to see what they recommend to newbies on how to break in to this performance platform and we highlight festivals and residencies that are worth considering.
With a residency you can secure a space to develop your work at a circus studio without the regular distractions of home and get valuable feedback from a new audience, collaborate with new artists and explore a new artistic environment.
Also, a residency can be the entrance ramp to a festival, explains Steve Smith, Creative director of Circus Center in San Francisco, California. They offer 6-8 week residencies to circus artists year round (excluding summer camp season). He explains what their residency is and how to know if you are ready for it. “Our residency is absolutely a good stepping stone to festivals. It provides exposure to artists and an audience (that are not friends and family) that will respond authentically. When artists apply to us they are looking to refine a piece of work and take it to the next level; so it’s an incubator. What we offer is space, equipment and time to work through it all. At the end of their program the artist or company offers a workshop as part of our outreach program and they do their show as a capper.”
If huge chunks of time and space to develop yourself or your company’s show seems too good to be true, rest assured there are some caveats, the main two being the need on your part for commitment and clarity of purpose, explains Steve “Residents have to be able to answer questions and articulate what they want. They must bring those intentions fully formed when they get here because this is not an exploration of their inner child or their psyche. It’s for people who are ready to take it to the next level, to start going to festivals with their work and start performing in whatever sense. It doesn’t really matter if it’s in a church basement or a school gymnasium or the finest theater, your audience is your audience.”
Steve says the types of works they see vary widely, as does the type of performer. They’ve worked with soloists and small companies. But what each recipient must have in common beyond a professional approach is a “sense of story, a context, empathy and compassion towards the world to tell their story. If the story is just about ego or personality, we are not interested.” Another more intangible but essential quality Circus Center seeks in their residents is “do they have a pragmatic understanding of what can be achieved in the time they’ll be here and do they understand and demonstrate the potential that lies in all of us to do these strange and wonderful things? We want them to be able to inspire audiences to follow their own dreams.”
Perhaps a good example of the type of resident they consider is Amelia Van Brunt. “Last year, she did a wonderful performance and she is now booking in to festivals. She created a clown character named Mona and the piece is really focusing on dementia, which may seem a bit odd for a clown but the empathy and compassion that she was able to generate takes a very funny look at what happens when we lose our cognitive ability. That was a hard balance to find. The residency was kind of a springboard for her. We were just so pleased that we were able to offer this opportunity for her to put the nuts and bolts together.”
Steve recommends getting an early start planning to apply for any residency. He suggests at least 6 months in advance at Circus Center but the more lead time the better because there is now a waiting list. Steve says that is because “the artists who come here are successful at their work and expanding upon it. Of course, the work may be quite different when they arrive after 6 months of development, because we all work better under a deadline. But the work will evolve as they prepare.”
At a festival, your company will be exposed to a new market, and to programmers who will see how your work goes over in a
live venue. You will see how your contemporaries are performing, partake in and even lead workshops and gain professional development insights. The audiences are full of fellow artists and critics looking for trends to pass along and the social media marketing implications are endless. Add to that a fattened up resume with contemporary performances around the world, and you will have a much more intriguing profile to all prospective employers.
(Photo: Marisol deSantis announcing the showcases of the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival at the MICC -International Contemporary Circus Market. Photo credit Marie Andree LeMire.)
Circus Festivals started with the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, which has been handing out gold and silver clown awards since 1975. Currently, there are dozens of circus festivals worldwide, both for contemporary and traditional circus performers, though some do not occur annually and not all of the festivals draw the same crowds. Nevertheless, they are growing in popularity along with festival culture in general. The popular fringe festivals which occur in major cities worldwide often have a big circus presence. Alan Gordon does marketing for the oldest and largest of the fringes, Edinburgh. He says that 4% of the program was made up of dance, physical theatre and circus last year, which would total well over one hundred shows. What circus festivals have that other festivals (even ones who welcome circus performances) don’t have is a solid fan base, a large turnout of industry attendees and a genuine insight in to circus trends.
Marisol de Santis is in her 5th year as the circus programming agent for Tohu (Montréal’s indoor circus venue in the Cité des arts du cirque) and for the popular annual festival MONTRÉAL COMPLÈTEMENT CiRQUE. This year the festival will host 9 to 10 indoor shows and 3 or 4 outdoor shows from July 7th until the 17th. Marisol says that the main attraction for performers at the festival is the programmers. “There are a lot of companies that want to come to our festival because there are a lot of programmers here. They come from big venues in Europe; Scandinavia, France, Spain, the UK & Germany. They come here to find performers to program one or two circus shows in their season. We have a lot of Americans and Canadians--even though there’s not a lot of circus festivals in America-- there are a lot of programmers from universities and festivals that don’t program only circus. For a circus company, it is really great. They know that if we are programming then it is good, there will be plenty of contacts and maybe a tour.”
This coming year, Marisol and her colleagues will travel around the world to arrange the festival because they don’t believe in hiring an act from video alone. “A company can send me a video and I will watch it, but we don’t program on video. We need to feel part of the audience to know the show-- and a show can change a lot. Sometimes we see a show twice.” They also scout the bigger festivals, like Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Circa festival in Toulouse, where they meet with agents in what Marisol admits is a tight knit community “When you work with agents--it’s a little international community. We know each other very fast.”
But what kind of circus artists are they looking for? Soloists, duos, small companies? Marisol says it all depends on the audience, but in any case, they have that covered too, “At Tohu we have a big venue, so we can have up to 1000 seats. But at other performance spaces in Montreal, we can set up a show at a little venue of 150 seats, or a medium venue 300-500 seats. So we are able to program companies with a lot numbers and artists and a lot of décor but also the little solo or duo that is more intimate for the audience and for what the artist wants to say. We can have a show that has just one discipline even. The word that we say all the time for the festival is ‘diversity’.”
The only constant is the high artistry of the performance, which Marisol admits is advanced, but there is more to it than that. “Our audience is really used to high caliber performance. But it also depends on the character and the story of the show. Contemporary circus now mixes a lot of mediums like theatre, music and dance.”
Although the bar is set very high for this festival, Marisol says the benefits for the artists are worthwhile. Beyond the intangibles like resumé building, MONTRÉAL COMPLÈTEMENT CiRQUE provides compensation for performance, a per diem, transportation, housing, and cargo transportation. A young company would start the process of applying by contacting Marisol at Tohu and inviting them to see the show. Marisol suggests sending a press kit, a recommendation and a video, along with upcoming performance dates up to a year in advance. Each year her team dwindles down 50 applicants to a working group of 20.
Simon Abrahams is the Artistic director of Melbourne Fringe, an open access festival that hosts 400 shows during 2 and half weeks in September. The scope of the work is broad, covering theater, dance, comedy, performance art and of course circus. Although it is not as huge and renowned as the Edinburgh or nearby Adelaide Fringe, Simon explains that works in their favor “Its a 35-year-old festival so we get the whole range; emerging artists, novices and experienced top-of-the line performers who all sit side by side on the same program.”
Simon sees his work as a way to augment the audiences experience and create meaning, making each performance part of something much grander, a hidden benefit to working in a festival setting. “A festival creates a context. With our festival, we are very lucky to have a kind of risk taking audience that is interested in new, innovative and interesting work. So you have an audience that is out for almost anything and we spend a lot of time creating a context so that meaning is created not just within the different artworks but also between the different artworks. Then the festival experience is about navigating those moments of discovery. So when those artists are making their own works—the way they come together and the experience of the audience can often change the work itself by placing it in relation to other works in the festival.”
When explaining how newcomers can navigate an international festival, Simon is reassuring, describing how they assist with citywide marketing and venue selection. “We have a team of people whose job it is to help match artists and venues. In the case of circus, you might need rigging points and a space with a particular height. That may limit you to 5 venues and suddenly that makes the decision making a lot easier. Once they’ve chosen a venue, the venues will market the show on an individual basis but the artist also has a responsibility to market themselves…we provide advice, support, resources and contacts to help artists do that.”
Flo Fitzgerald works in marketing and production for Cirque Bijou, the circus company that has been running the popular Circus & Street Theatre stage at Bristol Harbour Festival since 2003. Her advice for getting your work in to their festival is simple, “Ensure you have a slick and impressive showreel that showcases your skills to send to festival programmers. Also word of mouth is key, if good things are said about you we will want to work with you.”
Steve Smith of Circus Center explained the benefit of residencies and festivals another way, “It’s also about networking and exposure. I’ve worked with Ringling and Big Apple Circus and it does sometimes come down to the old cliché; it’s who you know. People call producers and say ‘Keep an eye out for these people, they’re up-and-comers.’” So, if your circus company is ready to go beyond the occasional gig or short tour, consider preparing for a residency or applying for a festival as motivation to get your work out there.
Floor To Air Dance- Santa Barbara, California
Fringe Festivals with Circus
Circus Center, San Francisco, California
For a more thorough list of festivals, visit the Sideshow Blog or Circus Diaries. For a look at some of the residencies available, visit the Circus Now website.
At Circus Promoters, we are committed to increasing your access to happenings and trends in the worldwide circus community. We also aim to provide access to exclusive interviews with inspiring people in the industry.
If you are not a member of Circus Promoters yet, registration is free and all levels of performer are welcome. Visit circuspromoters.com to create your profile and learn about employment opportunities.
Bio & links:
Kim Campbell is a circus and theatre critic and writer. She has written for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Talk and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where she writes about arts and culture. You can follow her frequent musings on circus via Twitter, Instagram or at Kimzyn Chronicles .
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Circus Promoters and Kim Campbell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Employers are constantly searching our artists database for performers just like you. Creating a profile and uploading your photos and videos here will enable them to find you.
Looking for artists? Submit your request and choose the best.
You can add videos from YouTube or Vimeo
This photo will be deleted
This video will be deleted