It's not easy designing costumes for the circus; there are all sorts of things to worry about — like budgets, materials, silhouettes, and tiger urine. These and more were part of the learning curve when theatre costume designer Ann Hould-Ward went to work for the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus.

Hould-Ward has several iconic Broadway designs to her credit, including Sunday in the Park With George (done in collaboration with the late Patricia Zipprodt), the original production of Into the Woods, and Beauty and the Beast. One day, however, she says, “I wrote Kenneth Feld [head of Ringling] a letter, saying I'd like to design for the circus.”

The designer says she had many motivations. For one, there's a tradition of Broadway names working with the circus. For years, it was the province of Miles White (the original productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel, among others) more recently, Gregg Barnes (Side Show, next season's Flower Drum Song) has been onboard. Also, says Hould-Ward, she simply asked herself, “Why haven't I done this? I'd like to do it.”

There was another, more practical reason for the circus gig. The designer's work for the international success Beauty and the Beast had taken over her career, with a few complicated side effects. “Beauty and the Beast took up so much time — we did 12 companies in four years,” she says. Meanwhile, she was unavailable to do newer shows. A big new project would be just the ticket, she felt.

For all these reasons, Hould-Ward was delighted to receive a phone call from Feld, who set up a meeting with her and Philip Wm. McKinley, the circus' director. All three hit it off and an offer was made. It was then, she says, laughing, that the chilling realization came: “Oh my God, I don't know anything about the circus!”

a circus dancer

The designer is a fast learner, however, and she soon got in touch with certain realities. Among them: A circus is a work in progress, with new acts added to the roster as the show is created; that means the costume designer must learn to improvise, work on the fly, and generally strive to be brilliant on a dime. Then there's the language of the circus, which she learned as she went. For example, she says, many of the clown costumes fell outside her purview. “They have their agent suits,” she says, adding wryly, “That term trips off my tongue now. That means the costume you, a clown, have developed for your character.” (In fact, she designed costumes for the stilt-walking clowns, because they were part of a parade sequence, dressing them in blue paisley silkscreened trousers and purple sequined tailcoats.)

There are always two editions of the Ringling Bros. circus out at any one time. The Blue Unit, which Hould-Ward was hired to design, went on tour in January. The unit is built around three female star personalities: the trapeze artist Sylvia, Siren of the Circus; Sara, the Tiger Whisperer; and the gymnast Mei Ling. (Other featured performers include the clown David Larible, T. M. the Gator Guy; Jumpin' Jon Weiss, who is shot out of a cannon; and Crazy Wilson, whose nearly indescribable act involves something called the Wheel of Death.) There were other visual ideas as well — horses for Sylvia's sequence, and motorcycles for Mei Ling. “But,” says the designer, “as you're working, everything can change. Acts come and go. For me, it was a very different experience. It was like, why don't we know for sure?”

However, taking the basic concepts she was given, Hould-Ward went to work creating storyboards, using them to develop her ideas about color and to get a panoramic view of her design vision. Once she got official approval for her designs, building began. Here again, she says, “You build the show differently. You construct the costumes to your measurements, then you go to Tampa [winter home of the circus] right after Thanksgiving. There's a costume area set up at the Florida State Fairgrounds.” Representatives of each costume shop involved showed up to work on clothes, with final fittings held in December, for a first performance in Tampa on Christmas. “During the fitting process,” she says, “you take each type of costume into the ring for Mr. Feld and Philip Wm. McKinley to approve. It takes time, but at least everyone knows what's happening.”

To create a unified look, Hould-Ward chose a variety of colors and fabrics. “The colors move from pinks and silvers for Sylvia and the ladies who attend her, to blues, greens, and silvers for Mei Ling and another Asian act, the WuSu Warriors, to leathers for the motorcyclists.” The costumes need lots of glitter, but beading is expensive and doesn't always wear well, so the designer relied when possible on more economical approaches. “I chose surface leathers with shiny patinas,” she says, adding, “I was worried about how they would look from a distance, so I chose holographic fabrics for details and trims.” In addition to costing less, she says, the leathers and holographics “have a more contemporary flavor, which Philip Wm. McKinley wanted.” Most of the costumes were designed to be as form-fitting, and sexy, as possible. Indeed, she adds, many of the surface leathers that she chose have “only been available for 18 months or so.”

the Ringmaster's costume

Hould-Ward, aware that many acts are dangerous, was careful to take into account the artists' requirements. “They are literally putting their lives in your hands,” she says. For example, Sylvia rides in wearing “a pink ruffled skirt that sheds down to a pink unitard with beading and a diamond pattern. She had a requirement about how much of her calf and ankle had to be freed for her act, where she falls from a trapeze and catches herself with her ankle.” Sylvia also has a sheer pink cape and is accompanied by dancers wearing semi-transparent horse heads, created by Nino Novellino of Costume Armour.

Mei Ling makes a stunning entrance in a long, long blue kimono (“It's a satin surface with a poly base, with vinyl butterfly appliques, and lots of hologram fabric,” says Hould-Ward). The kimono pulls off in three sections to reveal the performer in a hand-painted mesh bodysuit, sitting on a motorcycle. For her act, Sara wears pants with a heat-transfer pattern and beading. “She wanted the tigers to get used to her clothes,” says the designer, adding that the tigers can react negatively to glittering surfaces, and also because “they smell who goes into the ring.” So Sara wore her costume in stages in front of the tigers — even then, a cat took a swipe at her brightly beaded pants. For that matter, all shoe leathers used in the circus have to be acid-resistant, because of the prevalence of animal urine — apparently the tigers are among the biggest offenders. For Crazy Wilson, Hould-Ward devised a green stretch panne velvet outfit that let him move comfortably. For Jon Weiss, Hould-Ward asked the artist “questions about friction points, and where he was going to hit the net, and how much padding was needed in his leather vest.”

Even after costume construction began, the changes continued. September 11 happened and suddenly a patriotic finale was indicated. Hould-Ward created new designs, putting the ringmaster, Kevin Venardos, in a boxy red, white, and blue suit with tailcoat, with female performers wearing rings of stars around their necks and shoulders. The full list of costume shops involved include Parsons Meares Ltd., Barbara Matera Ltd., Eric Winterling, Inc., Michael-Jon Costumes, and Costume World for Hagenbeck-Wallace, Inc. Millinery was created by Woody Shelp, Lynne Mackey Studio, Katherine Silverii, and Arnold Levine Inc., with shoes by Capezio/Balletmakers, Der Dau, and Andre I. The clown shoes are by Wayne and Marty Scott. Cynthia Nordstrom was assistant costume designer. Todd Kauchick is director of costumes and wardrobe for the circus.

The project, says the designer, began in April 2001 and ended in January 2002. “I thought it would be a lark,” she says. “It was difficult — but it was a such a great time. So many performers are sixth- or seventh-generation circus families. They all know each other. It's not a profession; it's a way of life. They're learning it from the time they're little.”

The designer's time at the circus coincided with an uptick in her schedule, with new assignments at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Globe Theatre in San Diego, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Next up for her is the new Broadway musical Dance of the Vampires, which opens in the fall. After that comes The Boy From Oz, the new bio-musical about Peter Allen. Compared to the circus, dressing the undead should be a walk in the park.

Lighting & Sound Under the Big Top

Like Ann Hould-Ward, lighting designer Don Holder is a circus neophyte, and he too found it to be a challenging process. “Because of its scope and magnitude, and their working process, which is ingrained over the last 100 years, it's like a ride you can't get off of,” he says. “You have to accommodate the existing process, to adapt your expectations to the overall needs of the piece. I came in with different expectations and had to rethink them. We're theatre designers; our impulse is to find a visual through-line for the piece. But that's not what the lighting needed to do. It's such a massive space — the lighting designer has to direct the audience's attention to the right place, in a celebratory and fun way.”

There was, he adds, “one big philosophical difference. I felt that we should treat the entire arena as a single composition — the unused space should be addressed and included in each moment of the show. I had to give that up — the circus is one long scene shift. Kenneth Feld [and McKinley] felt the focus needed to be exclusively on the performers and I understood that.”

As a result, he says, “There's a lot of cueing that says, ‘Look over here.’ The big concept in circus acts is the trick — the big moment that's important to see: the triple somersault, the animal standing on his hind legs. Each one is a feat that has to be emphasized; it was an idea of cueing that was new for me. Not that you don't have pivotal moments in a play that have to be highlighted, but, somehow, this is different. The other challenge involves the parades and the other spectacle moments where the arena is filled with light; you have to work to make it look interesting, not washed out. I did a lot with ballyhoos, beams moving in the air to the music, to give the lighting an active, interesting dynamic.”

Among his innovations, working with scenic designer Kenneth Foy,

[Editor's note: Foy designed the scenery for the Blue Unit edition of the circus, including any number of whimsical vehicles for the clowns and other performers. As we go to press, he was not available to be interviewed for this story]

Holder added 10 High End Systems Studio Colors in floor positions, to create the ballyhoos. Then, for the parades, which previously have been lit with “any moving lights on the rig that could be spared,” he added approximately 200 ETC units on the perimeter of the space to make them crisper and brighter. That freed up the moving lights to do more sweeps, ballyhoos, and to feature specific moments in the parades. We built new extensions to the rig, with Tomcat [the circus' supplier of rigging] so there are 10 or 12 extension bars, with Source Four PARs on them.”

Holder notes that the circus “has a large complement of [Vari*Lite] VL5s and VL6s, plus a number of [High End Systems] Studio Colors. They have in the neighborhood of 250 moving lights. The VL6s were used exclusively for floor treatments and to occasionally highlight a specific location. There were also about a dozen [High End] Cyberlights, which were used for very specific moments. We also added eight Clay Paky Stage Zooms for specials, accent lights, and template washes.” Other key pieces of equipment include four PAR-64 ACLs, 21 Strand Codas, a dozen UV fluorescent units, four DF-50 hazers, six F100 foggers, 18 Thomas eight-ways (with 12 scrollers), and 78 Wybron Coloram scrollers. Control is provided by an ETC Obsession 3X for the conventional units and a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II for the moving lights.

But perhaps the biggest challenge was in meeting the needs of each artist. “The aerial acts have to be lit very carefully,” Holder says. “Nothing can be in the artists' eyes. It's all sidelight. Crazy Wilson can't deal with any flashing or changing light. When he gets up on the outside of the Wheel of Death, the light is white, bright, and doesn't move at all. In the animal acts, the tigers and horses are very sensitive to moving or changing light. You have to make the light static during the tiger act, or someone's life will be at risk. The only animals you can do anything with are the elephants. They're seasoned professionals. Kenneth Feld said, ‘You could drop an atom bomb in the ring and they wouldn't flinch.’”

Holder adds that he spent about a month in Tampa teching the production. “We spent the first two weeks doing the graveyard shift,” he says. “We'd come in at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and work all night, programming, based on videotapes we had seen of rehearsals, and CDs of the score. There were no real technical rehearsals. Once you're in the process with the animals, they run the acts from beginning to end — you can't tell an elephant to stop for a cue. So we had to go from dry techs to full run-throughs, without building the cues that bridge one sequence to the next — it was lighting on the fly.” The designer's team included associate lighting designers Jeanne Koenig and Michelle Habeck, and programmers Warren Flynn and Gordon Olson. Janene Steele is the tour's lighting director and Dennis Flenniken is the circus' electrical operations manager.

On the sound side, Charles Garza, the audio operations manager, says one of his main challenges comes from the fact that “we're in arenas, which are incredibly ambient.” As a result, he uses an array of wireless mics and in-ear systems. Ringmaster Kevin Venardos uses a Crown 312 AE mic, while individual musicians who make solo appearances in the finale wear AKG 419 units, as does David Larible when he appears playing a trumpet in the opening. Some of the acts, such as the WuSu Warriors and Cossack horse riders, are captured with an Audio Technica AT895 mic — “an adapted array mic, which works like a parabolic that sounds like a shotgun” — that isolates and amplifies the clanging of swords, yells, and other fight noises. The mic works almost too well, Garza says: “In quiet moments, you can hear some Mom talking to her kid on the far side of the house.” Other mic products used included Lectrosonic, Telex, and Shure PSN700s for in-ear monitoring.

For control, the front-of-house board is a Langley Recall from AMEK, with Rupert Neve modules, “a 56-channel board with virtual dynamics on every channel.” In addition, there's the Crest LMX monitor console. All speakers are by Meyer, “the MSL2s for most of our horsepower, and with USW1 subwoofers. It's a great product. How can you argue with a brand that's in Carnegie Hall?” The Meyer Sim System II is also used to analyze the space.

The sound crew consists of four members, Garza says. “There are two guys, Lou DiEva and Kerry Cook, at the front of house — one on the board, one roaming the house checking for consistency and the tonal level. They switch off jobs, too. The third guy, Ely Howell, runs the monitor console and caters to the needs of the band. The fourth is Pat Milner, the wireless guru — he takes care of the mics, carrying a handheld to the floor if necessary, collecting them as the acts come off.” All four members are cross-trained to cover for each other.

Garza stays busy, what with a new circus and new ice show (also produced by Feld) every year, plus other currently touring shows that get re-outfitted for tours in Europe, Asia, and South America. “It's a world of fun,” Garza says, and, surprisingly, one believes him.