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It's a wild-child dream that gets under the skin. It's a whisper on the wind at dusk, just as the bright lights that rim the circus tents begin to glow. Come run away, it beckons, Run away with the circus! The thought of it is nearly intoxicating. It's the yearning to reinvent, to start again, to live — maybe for a year, maybe for a lifetime — in a world where clowns run amok, the air is scented with cotton candy, and an empty lot in the middle of a nameless city is transformed by canvas and lights and barking vendors.
"I think we all had that collective fantasy," says Maro Chermayeff, partner and executive producer with Show of Force, the documentary makers behind the PBS documentary, CIRCUS. "We were talking about a number of worlds we'd like to be in ... and the circus bubbled up for everyone," she says. "We were really looking at these uniquely American institutions, and we understood that (circus perfomers') lives may be so different than our own, but we're trying to find the common humanity ... the common experiences we all share: the highs, lows and insanities. It's the ultimate fantasy of running away and joining the circus."
Show of Force cameras followed the Big Apple Circus from August 2008 — when the circus was preparing to go out on the road in Walden, New York — to it's last show in July 2009. A crew of photographers and producers lived on the lot, or close to it in a hotel when there wasn't enough room for the Show of Force trailers, as the Big Apple Circus traveled to ten cities on the eastern seaboard. They then spent three months at Lincoln Center, before ending the circus's 2008-2009 Play On! season in Hanover, New Hampshire. Camera crews documented after-hours pot-luck parties, candid conversations between crew members, the thrill of performing well, and the agonies of injuries and failures. The Show of Force crew captured the hours and hours of sweat and practice, the temper flares, the flirting, and the easy banter between partners, performers and neighbors.
"They are an international tribe, and yet their interactions are like family," says Chermayeff. "Sometimes they are dysfunctional, and sometimes they are best friends and colleagues. (The circus) is both a business and a life."
As filmmakers always on the search for the elements of a good story, Jeff Dupre, Show of Force partner and executive producer, says the world of the circus had the natural drama the team sought. "It's like a mobile United Nations," he says. "There are acrobats from Russia, aerialists from Colombia, performers from China; and they all come together and live in a trailer park for a year, and then (the community) dissolves. It's a high-stakes environment, and they set off together on this American odyssey. There's a built-in dramatic arc," Dupre says.
But cracking the veneer on this tight-knit community wasn't always easy. Show of Force Producer Josh Bennett recalls how wary of outsiders the the Big Apple Circus community was at first. "The circus is a very insulated world ... and their guard is always up," he says. "We were dealing with performers who are serious about their art ... there was a lot of negotiating and questioning of our motives," Bennett says.
From the beginning, Show of Force producers took several steps to blend in seamlessly with the Big Apple Circus family: First, they were determined to be with the Big Apple from the very first day in Walden, New York, when the performers and crew members first arrived, met each other and began rehearsing. Also, the film crew took pains to get to know the cast and crew off camera.
"It's a big mistake to have your camera rolling on the first day you meet," says Dupre, who describes a delicate balance between wanting to shoot everything all the time so as not to miss one important moment; and spending time without the camera and gear, getting to know people and building trust between filmmaker and subject.
"You have to get your story," Dupre says, "and every minute that you're (with the circus) is precious time, but you also have to let people be and let things unfold naturally. The great thing about (the Circus documentary project with PBS) is that we have the ability to spend an entire year with these subjects. We don't have to typecast. We have the luxury of time."
Early in the making of CIRCUS, though, the film crew ran into some trouble. While the Big Apple Circus was still busy crafting the Play On! production in Walden, one circus crew member was arrested for making a bomb threat.
"That came at a point when we were just getting settled in and when it happened there was concern in the circus that this was maybe set up by us to increase the drama," says Bennett. "There were lots of wild rumors that we had to tamp down. It was a crazy situation."
In the end, Show of Force had to prove to the Big Apple Circus community that they were serious about documenting what real life on a circus lot is like, and that the film crew was committed to the project for the long haul.
"They're very decent people," Big Apple Circus Founder Paul Binder says of Show of Force. "They'll tell you that after some time they'll disappear. 'You'll hardly notice us,' they said. But I can assure you we never forgot that they were there. You just kind of get used to them ... but they were great to work with."
For Show of Force, the opportunity to immerse themselves in a different world with each documentary that they produce is a gift.
"My job is a dream come true," admits Dupre. “Maro and I get to take these journeys into the heart of quintessentially American institutions and then, thanks to PBS, share our experiences with the world. On CARRIER, we enlisted in the Navy for six months; on CIRCUS, we ran away and joined the circus. Exploring these iconic institutions from the inside out reveals so much about who we are, not just as Americans, but as human beings. We have a long list of ideas for the next installments in our series, so stay tuned."
View more production photos from the making of CIRCUS.