Going to the circus should be just plain fun. There are clowns and acrobats, a ringmaster, tigers and elephants, trapeze artists, and strongmen. My son, Sam, took us (Rich and me) to see Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in Boston along with our 4 year old granddaughter, Lauren, and her friend and dad. We reached the Garden after parking 20 blocks away, because every access street was blocked off for the filming of what looked like a disaster movie. (If it wasn’t, it should have been!) This created its own hilarious pre-show spectacle as we rushed past fallen debris in the streets, staged traffic jams with crushed trucks, cars artfully jammed and crunched into each other, alongside the wide-eyed tourists who happened on the mess, clicking away on their cell-phones and cameras. We would have spent more time investigating if we didn’t have a date with the three rings.
We missed the opening promenade, but that didn’t dampen Lauren’s enthusiasm. Although she is already a circus going veteran, the ritual of act openings and closings don’t seem to matter, nor do exceptional feats yet fully register. The acrobat flying through the air, doing a somersault, and landing upright in perfect form on his massive vaulting stick wasn’t a remarkably trained athlete working with a disciplined team—for Lauren, he was a guy in bright colors bouncing around on a stick. Isn’t there a TV commercial like that? “Cool!” The woman balancing her male partner in beautifully choreographed, gravity-defying poses that required exceptional strength and trust wasn’t a slow motion, role-reversed ballet—they were two people acting like pretzel magnets. “Neat!” The elephants seemed to have special relationships with their trainers and moved with unexpected grace and precision. Lauren pointed gleefully at the dog rushing about. The tigers seemed far less happy to be there. And we were less happy watching them. Motorcyclists raced inside cages dodging one another with inches to spare bringing the first act to a heart pounding finale.
Elaborate costume changes helped to keep spirits high and to shift our attention from the ancient Egyptian segway riders (didn’t they use to ride in chariots?) to rough and ready cowboys with high stepping cowgirls in short skirts. In fact, that seemed to be the overriding concern of the circus—that the circus itself somehow wouldn’t be enough to hold the attention of its twenty-first century audience. So on top of the wonderfully colorful and joyous costumes, continuous stream of acts and non-stop narration and singing of the huge, black ring-master, they piled on sound—tons of it. A constant soundtrack blasted throughout the arena at decibels guaranteed to promote hearing loss. I finally wrapped my scarf around my head turban style to muffle the noise. I looked like a circus act myself but didn’t care. My ears were ringing. I couldn’t hear Lauren 12” away from me. To accompany the auditory assault, large LCD screens hung above and below the performance space broadcasting jarringly bright images. My eyes ached from the glare. Meanwhile, in the darkened space, hundreds of flickering LED lights flashed constantly in the dark as tiny patrons clutched their souvenir batons, pendants, and swords and waved them about. For us, the experience soon moved beyond exhilaration to exhaustion. We were saturated with stimulation.
Happy in the realm of celebration, we’d been shoved into the land of overload. Joy turned to dismay. We loved the circus for itself. Why hadn’t the circus returned our affection? Sure, not every act was great. But we weren’t that fickle. Besides, a constant stream of awe-inspiring performance might also be overwhelming. Josephine liked the clowns while we found them barely silly. We thought clowns were funnier when we were kids—without all the fancy sound effects and elaborate storylines. The tightrope walkers were a bit wobbly. The audience didn’t love the skillful trampoline jumpers, but their zany costumes were a distraction. If the music and the LCD screens were supposed to divert us from what didn’t work or enhance our entertainment experience, the tactic failed.
Afterwards, we visited Sam’s office which has a great view of the harbor, a yoyo, and a water cooler. Oddly the day after, Lauren remembered that and the long walk to and from the Garden, but almost nothing about the circus. I can’t help but think that the total sensory overload inside the Garden made it nearly impossible for her to sort through the things she had seen. It all converged into one massive stimulation barrage—the circus that flattened my granddaughter.
We came to the circus like everyone else to celebrate fun and us. But I learned something else there. Fun sells itself. To celebrate US, create the right vista and trust people to appreciate the view for its own virtues. Even PT Barnum would tell you the memories aren’t as good when you invite folks up for the view and then try to push us over the edge.