Circuses are generally family affairs for the performers, but the creative team behind Circo Fantastico, who have enjoyed working together on previous projects, notably Cher's tours and televisions specials, consider themselves to be one big happy family too. Lighting designer Jeff Johnson and set designer Jeremy Railton both met previously on Cher projects and were brought together again by director/choreographer and Cher alum Doriana Sanchez to work on the Latin-themed Circo on its inaugural tour of North America. Sound designer Lloyd Kinkade, though not part of the Cher group, is a veteran of another kind of circus family: he worked for years with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. This comfortable atmosphere helped the team cope with the technical difficulties of designing for a tent, and the budget limitations of a new show.
Circo Fantastico is the only US-based, Latin-themed circus using all Latin performers and music. Although it follows in the footsteps of Cirque du Soleil's successful formula of highly designed and choreographed presentations, Circo Fantastico is themed more as a festival and presents different elements of Latin culture, including food and the use of both contemporary and traditional Latin music.
Triple Emmy Award-winning set designer Railton says, “Our task was to create something that was not traditional but not Cirque du Soleil, and it had to have a Latin feel.” To put circus-goers in a party mood, he created an entrance statement to accommodate Festival de Sabor, the area where guests walking into the 40' gateway tent are offered a taste of Latin cuisine as well as popcorn and other circus staples.
The entrance tunnel was built by the Torrance, CA-based All Access Staging and consists of an aluminum half-circle 30' in radius leading up to the purple retail tent and on into the big top. The huge structure is so lightweight it can be set up by the crew in only 20 minutes without the aid of those traditional circus haulers, elephants. This is fortunate, as Circo Fantastico does not use live animals.
The big top is a 2,500-seat, climate-controlled blue tent with the show's logo, a large multicolored sun, at the entrance, a motif that Railton echoed on the 40'-diameter stage. For the sun's rays, Railton used a gold leaf technique developed by artist Trevor Goss of California. The designer describes it as “a gold holographic material with tiny lines in it that pick out rainbow colors when light is shone on it.”
Despite its radiance, the huge sun was not the lighting challenge it might have been. Notes lighting designer Johnson, “No matter how you lit the prismatic material on the sun's rays, you could still see [the rainbow effect on] points of it. If it had been the whole stage, it would have been a reflective nightmare for me, but using certain inlaid parts was really beautiful.”
The rest of the stage was broken out into different patterns using three shades of grays and black. In another break with tradition, rather than have the ring at audience level, Railton built it up 3' into a real stage and used a dance floor. The show does not use a ringmaster, and most of the acts are introduced with choreographed pieces using dancers who are joined by the circus performers, so the stage height gave the production a more theatrical feel.
Railton had to spread his budget thinly over the entrance, retail tent, big top, props, and backstage dressing areas, so rather than custom-make some props, he found existing ones and had them recovered. For one dance segment, he found several chairs shaped like high-heeled shoes and painted them in purple, orange, and leopard-skin.
To create an affordable yet spectacular look for the end of the show, he chose Russian inflatable company Aerology to make garlands. “The tubes are about four inches in diameter, and as the air blows through the pipe, little pockets like inside-out socks inflate into flowers,” the designer says. During the finale, the tent roof bursts into bloom with hundreds of brightly colored flowers.
Johnson has twice been nominated for Emmys for his work on Cher television specials; he also has worked on concert tours, architectural lighting projects for Las Vegas casinos, and magic shows for Siegfried and Roy. This was his first experience lighting a circus in a tent. “The big problem with a tent,” he notes, “is that there is nowhere to hang anything and there are weight limits.” Johnson chose to use a diamond-shaped rig, three points of which extend over the audience and one point in to the backstage area of the performers' entrance. The show is not quite in the round; the audience sits around 270° of the stage area. The aerial performer's rigging is hung inside the diamond so that there were no equipment clashes. Once he had overcome the physical limitations of the tent, Johnson tried to use the unique environment. He says, “We tried to use the tent like a projection screen as much as possible, projecting gobos on the ceiling for walk-ins and walk-outs. One look was a night theme with slowly rotating stars, almost like a planetarium.” He also used the High End stock gobo Aztec Sun, which turned out to be almost exactly like the Circo Fantastico logo.
As well as coping with the lack of walls and roof, Johnson notes that another challenge was the budget. He says, “I did an initial plot of 200-odd moving lights and the producers about fell over when they did the budget.” He eventually settled for 35 moving lights and used the Canadian-based vendor Westsun. The designer ended up achieving the looks he wanted within budget, and says, “We ended up getting a good size lighting rig. I was shocked that we did so well.”
Johnson used seven High End Studio Spot® 575 MSRs, 18 Cyberlights® with lithos, 1,200W MSRs, 32 Wybron Colorrams, and eight loose Source Four PARs on the lighting rig. He also used four Lycian 1200 Followspot Starklite 1271s with Universal Truss Spot Chairs and Clear-Com beltpacks and headsets. Control was by an ETC Sensor 48 × 2.4kW dimmer rack, and, in the front of house, two Jands Echelon consoles.
Despite the dangerous nature of some of Circo Fantastico's acts — a bright glaring light shining in the face of a trapeze artist in mid-air is not really a good thing — Johnson was able to create some dramatic looks. The España family acts include a bungee trapeze ballet and triple chiffon aerialists, acrobats rappelling to a Skywheel from the top of the big top, and a motorcycle act in the Thundersphere. According to Johnson, “We were lucky with these guys; they can do their acts with their eyes closed. Actually, some of them do perform part of their act with their eyes closed.” Thundersphere, a giant metal sphere where the España brothers perform tricks on motorcycles, culminates in the three of them circling another member of the family in the middle. Because the riders are making split-second decisions, it's important that the lighting remains consistent so as not to dazzle them at a critical moment. “It is crucial to keep up on focuses so they don't get out of whack; otherwise you are going to end up with a pile of motorcycles and bodies on top of each other,” says Johnson.
To contrast with the warm colors of the set, Johnson used a lot of cool colors. To highlight the aerials, he says, “Rather than do a big wash of light, I tried to do a lot of saturation so you could get the full impact of what they were doing.”
Lloyd Kinkade, the Western US sales manager for Meyer Sound, came to the project with some previous circus experience; he was the sound director for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey's Blue unit. He had also worked for Circo Fantastico's producer Alan Bloom and technical director Bill Warner at Ringling. Despite this experience, Kinkade had never worked in a tent before, as Ringling typically performs in sports arenas.
Designing sound for a tent offers up some of the same pitfalls as lighting. Kinkade says, “The biggest technical challenge of any tent show is finding a place to hang the lighting; you can't hang off canvas, so we used the main lighting trusses.” To overcome the unusual acoustic conditions of the tent, Kinkade chose Meyer products because he found them to be predictably reliable. “The tent is a rather strange environment — it has odd walls and other reflective surfaces so you want to concentrate that sound just on the audience,” he says. To achieve this, he used 12 Meyer UPA-2P loudspeakers in three clusters of four, one Meyer CP-10 complementary phase parametric equalizer (two-channel, five-band), and one Meyer LD-2 line driver (two-channel).
Another idiosyncrasy of the show was the combination of live and prerecorded music. The Circo orchestra includes a percussionist, drummer, guitar, bass, keyboard, and singers, and the music covers a wide range of styles. Kinkade says, “There were a lot of different flavors, from Ricky Martin on CD to flamenco and classical Latin music and ballet/folkloric elements with dancers wearing big flowery dresses and guys dressed up like Zorro.” Only three singers were miked; they used Sony mics with Shure monitors. All the artist introductions and announcements were done using prerecorded tape. Kinkade calls the sound system “a work in progress.” He says, “What they have now works pretty well, but they need to take it to another level once they are established on the road.”
One problem that Kinkade did not have to contend with on this circus project was working with live animals. During his Ringling days, he would occasionally meet the tiger trainer coming out of the cage and find that a big cat's claw had connected with the equipment. He says, “I'd find that all the insulation had been sliced off three feet of cable and think, gosh, how is this thing still working?”