Sarasota Rejoins the Circus Universe

Historically, Sarasota, FL, has been the winter home for circuses for over 70 years, ever since Ringling Bros. was offered 150 acres of land to move there in 1927. Other circuses followed Ringling's lead, and retired performers have made the city their home, but the city did not have a circus of its own until Pedro Reis founded Circus Sarasota in 1997.

Reis is a circus veteran, having performed with Ringling Bros. and Big Apple Circus, and helped found the first circus school in his native South Africa. His wife, Dolly Jacobs, daughter of legendary clown Lou Jacobs, is herself known as “Queen of the Air,” and performs an aerial strap act with Circus Sarasota.

With this pedigree, Reis and Jacobs set out to establish a European-style one-ring circus with performers from around the world to serve the Sarasota area not only with an annual performance season but also with community service, giving exhibitions and classes at local schools, visiting senior facilities, and performing at functions throughout the year.

Reis has great respect for the history and art of the circus, and he knows how important the surrounding visual and auditory aspects are to the enjoyment of the acts. Circus Sarasota is a non-profit organization, and this past year the company put some grant money towards upgrading the lighting system.

Jay Strong has been the circus' LD for three years; he recommended purchasing 10 Elation Professional Color Spot 575s. “For the budget they had and what they wanted to accomplish, that seemed to be the best avenue to travel,” Strong comments. “One of the big things in lighting a show in a tent is the dust and dirt factor. Even though we clean them as much as we can — once a week, sometimes more — it was still a problem, but the Elations are sturdy and seem to hold up pretty good even under the conditions we put them through.”

The Elation Color Spot 575 is a moving-head fixture that packs a lot of features into an affordable package. “It offered a 575W lamp so I could get the punch I needed,” the LD says, “with a combination of patterns and colors. I could set the mood for each one of the acts. I wanted something that had a lot of versatility.”

Aside from the Elation purchase, the rental package (from Bay Stage Lighting Installers) included eight High End Systems Studio Color® 250s, eight High End Technobeams®, and 56 PAR-64s, which are gelled in various colors and provide general fill light. The LD hung the equipment from sidearms attached to the four main structure supports, or king poles.

The show starts with a six-minute video presentation projected onto two 30'×30' (9×9m) stretch fabric screens mounted near the tent ceiling. “We did a brief history of the circus of the past, then segued into what Pedro likes to call the circus of the future, showing how the tradition continues. We used two Iekie 3k lumen projectors that we got from Wagner Media in Texas. They were great.”

Music plays an important role in establishing looks. “Pedro and I listen to the music and discuss the acts. He'll say, ‘Here would be the most effective point,’” Strong says. “I must say, Pedro is very good about that; he listens and as long as I can give him a mental picture of what I would like the audience to see, he's very accepting of that. He's been terrific in that respect. There have been times when he will bring up something that I never thought of and I'll try it out and make it work and it's a lot better than what I had.”

The Russian hand-balancer has very dramatic music, so the LD “didn't want to get too crazy,” he says. “Basically it was just using the Elations to throw a deep red wash onto him, and there's a crescendo at the end where they all flip to white. Then there are other times, like with [aerialists] Dolly and Yuri, where the Elations had to just be very fluid and have different motion, different effects, getting from one pattern to another.” Fun effects included the use of the UV filter for the trick roper, whose ropes are coated in fluorescent paint, and colorful splatter gobos on the tent ceiling to accompany the trampoline act.

Circus performers also require other lighting considerations. “Horses will spook real easily,” Strong says, “so I had to think about that. It was just trying things to find what worked, where they were comfortable.” For that segment he layered patterns on the floor to simulate a cobblestone road. The trampoline performers need to see the roof line for their point of reference, and the aerialists need to see the floor. “Then it's just a matter of trying to meld the whole thing together,” the LD says, “segueing from one act to another, and making it enjoyable for the audience.”

For control, Strong used a Jands Echelon console. “It's been updated so it has the Hog 1000 chip,” he says. “Great board.” He programmed part of the show at home with WYSIWYG. “I'm still learning it, so I got it to a certain point and then I was able to send the information down to the crew in Sarasota.” Crew members include tent master Vinicio Vazquez, plus Tim Carlson, Nikolas Troffer, Mike Duff Jr., and Al Calientes.

“At the end of the season we could say that the outcome was great,” Reis concludes. “I'm just interested in the look that [Strong] developed for me, and that was a splendid job. My concern, in all honesty, was that the lighting shouldn't take away from the artist in the circus ring. But Jay, in his expertise, created looks that only enhanced the acts. I was very pleased. We know that lighting is of utmost importance to capture and captivate the audience.”

Contact the author at aslingerland@primediabusiness.com.