Monday, October 17, 2005

Circuses--getting it wrong

OK, time to fess up here boys and girls. I once lived and worked in a circus.

And no, there were no freaks (not in the mid-eighties--certainly there's a long sideshow history).

And no, the clowns do not walk around in white face.

And no, the elephants are not all horribly abused. There are schmucks everywhere, but most trainers love and take excellent care of their animals.

And no, your heart does not fill with wonder and your eyes fill with unshed tears everytime the music plays.

And no, not everyone who has stayed at the circus for more than a year is a falling down drunk.

So why do I insist on torturing myself by reading books set at the circus? What the *&^#%ing hell is wrong with me? Well, at least I can begin my "getting it wrong" list now.

People who live and work at the circus wear street clothes. Deal with it.

True Story:

In 1989 ABC wanted a live feed from the circus on Thanksgiving to use as part of a montage showing how different people were celebrating the holiday. Our circus dinner was held buffet style in the tent with the food set up in the ring. But the producers wanted the performers to come in costume and asked each clown to come in makeup. Yeah, people want to relax in costume. And the wardrobe mistress would be ever so happy with gravy stains on sequins. Apparently the fact we were partying inside a frickin' big top was not visual enough for the producers.

People who live and work at the circus actually LIVE there.

This one makes me nuts. Joan Wolf's characters in White Horses were owners of a circus in post-Napoleonic France and owners of a string of horses used as performers. And every night they drove some distance away from the horses and the tent to stay in a local inn. Sometimes the other performers would stay at another inn. Why? There is no way on earth that a troupe of traveling performers is going to waste what little money they have to put up in a hotel. That's why you have Gypsy wagons, you idiot. You eat, you sleep, you live with the animals. (OK, certainly workers and performers alike enjoy getting wasted at a local biker bar, but they're not leaving the security of their animals or props at the mercy of the townies.) Well, OK, I guess Joan needed to have her people staying in inns because at one point one of the circus wagons is stolen. Oh, but right, I forgot, she didn't even use the theft of the wagon as a plot device. Sigh. Joan, Joan, Joan.

Circuses have their own logic.

Please don't expect me to read a military novel wherein guys are calling each other, "Hey You!" Last names, rank, it all makes sense in a military book. Guess what? Circuses have vocabulary too. People work really hard to get that show up and running every day. Roustabouts (workers) really don't have that much time to hang around practicing their juggling. And No, they are not going to be incorporated into next year's act, no matter how much they are liked. The jugglers and dancers in larger circuses are usually the junior members of a family troupes brought in for their specialty. No room for roustabouts there. Sorry to burst your bubble. (In other words, if there's a trapeze act with six or seven people in it, there may only be two or three main performers. Their relatives or junior performers are usually mixed with other performers to create that season's "juggling brothers" act. This way the troupes get partial compensation for the secondary act.)

Most acts are regenerations and remixes of classic acts--like vaudeville. (Another Joan Wolf gaffe in White Horses: She tells the reader that a performer is doing the "Courier of St. Petersburg" act without ever telling the reader what that may be. She mentions that it involves Roman riding and flags. I give her props for knowing the title of a famous equestrian act, but perhaps an explanation of what that is would help? Or maybe just don't bother with the name at all?)

How come people can write about the magic and mystery of the theatre and actually get parts of it right? Why are we so attracted to circuses and how come we keep getting it wrong?

But then I realize that actually a lot of writers get a lot of stuff wrong--I just happen to know about circuses. I bet there are some fairly bizarre books about lobster fishing that are making men in Maine just retch, and I wouldn't have trouble with them at all. But if you're going to go out of your way to write about an opera, would you not research the life of an opera singer rather than an actor? Do you know there's difference? In circuses authors get into the "Greatest Show on Earth" trap and think everyone's the same character and we're all hanging out with each other.

Well, except for Burt Lancaster with the hat. He's aloof.

Have I told you that the lot boss (or was he performance director?) at the circus I worked for always wore a large brimmed hat? Can you spell "Affectation?"

I don't think I have a point here. Sigh. Thought I did.

Maybe my brain will come home soon.


CindyS said...

Suisan, you rock!! In all honesty, I have always figured it is back breaking work with little pay.

We went to a fair this weekend past weekend and had a blast. The carnies are genuinely good people but you know that they are living and travelling with the fair. My friend used to work for the hotel in the area and said that they would pack as many of them into one room that they could. They are hard workers and are very good to the kids. All high marks in my book.

Have you read (I'm guessing you have) the SEP book Kiss An Angel? I actually loved this book and yes, there was an elephant trainer who abused the animals which is where the heroine ended up. Not knowing the life I couldn't comment on how well it sticks to real life but, if you like SEP you may want to give it a try.


Kristie (J) said...

Suisan: That must have been a fun job to have when you were young. I was going to say the same thing as Cindy but she beat me too it. KAA is my favourite SEP book too. Have you read it and if you have,is it very authentic? Now was the owner a handsome yet embittered man whose wife left him to marry an accountant?
The interesting things we learn about fellow romance readers.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting site... » » »