Post by Cecil MacKinnon
Each year, our show spends one month under the Big Top – but it takes more than a year to prepare. Every season brings new opportunities, new challenges, and new memories. The Case of the Missing Bellhop sprang to life during a time of great change for Circus Flora, with our new permanent home and our earlier season. It’s my pleasure to share with our friends and fans this behind-the-scenes glimpse into our process.
Each year, we begin with a concept for the show. Then comes the title, and then we flesh out the full story. Casting always presents hurdles; while we try to cast well in advance, issues inevitably arise (e.g., an injury, or an act unsure of availability), and we have to proceed a bit more slowly than we would like. Compounding this scenario is that the artists we want in our show are booked all around the world. For example, after years of conspiring with our founder David Balding to hire Amy G. (Detective Gordon), this year I first spoke with her in New York in November, our Artistic Director Jack Marsh spoke with her when they were both in London in December, and when we finalized Amy’s role in the show, she was in Australia (so we talked about it via Skype).
Concurrently, Adam Kuchler (the titular Bellhop) sent us a wonderful audition tape. We hired him, and we met in Brooklyn on a cold March morning to outline our story. Despite joining us from far-flung locales, the casting worked beautifully. Both Adam and Amy G. arrived at the new Circus Flora Lot with their concepts refined and their costumes in hand.
Of course, the biggest change of all this year was our new venue: the beautiful, permanent Big Top in Grand Center. Our tentmaster Bear and his crew worked through two weeks of incessant rain to get the tent up at the bleachers in. As rehearsals began, the rigging and set went up, and while we were a behind schedule, everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan. Then – just after the ring had been filled with truckloads of dirt – a drenching rainstorm descended. The new lot sloped just enough toward the back of the tent that the massive pile of dirt turned into a thick, slick mud sludge. The stables, just behind the tent, flooded as well. The mess was massive, and in those early moments it was hard to imagine what the solution would be and how we could proceed.
The only thing I could do was continue to work on the show. So, for two days, the performers whose acts did not include animals just worked on the story and the music, both for and in between acts, making choices with our Music Director, Janine Delarte. No one could run their act. In an odd way, this time was a gift: an opportunity for everyone to work and rework the opening, scrap some things, tighten some others, and work together as an ensemble.
Meanwhile, the crew resolved to dig out the ring and the entryway, a huge job that would take all night. As the crew began digging, we retreated to my trailer. There, Amy, Jack, and I wrote and tried out script ideas on each other. We began to loosen up and toss off wild notions: some useful, others terrible. I, for example, was adamant that I keep introducing Alex Wallenda as a lepidopterist. I don’t know why I insisted, but I did, and Amy made good fun of my stubbornness with a series of misunderstandings of the word that ran throughout the show.
We kept working as it grew dark, interrupted by Costume Designer Nina Reed and Lighting Designer Jesse AlFord, who were troubleshooting in their departments. Finally, we agreed on the four “choose-your-own-adventure”-style stories that would come at the end of the show and explain why whomever the audience member picked was the right choice. By then we were cold, tired, and hungry. (Dorothy Carpenter, in the trailer next door, cooked dinner and saved us.)
By late Sunday, it was clear that the ring would be okay. The animals would be able to work. The designers would be able to paint. The Wheel of Destiny would be dry; the Arches would get to rehearse. We were behind schedule in many ways, but we had a clear vision of the show’s arc and of how we worked together. The next days were full, and it was a particularly hard time for the crew. They were exhausted and now had to learn a show where everything needed to move quickly. But they did a remarkable job. One of my most treasured memories is sitting backstage while the show played, watching them work the show and having fun doing it.
And who knows what 2019 will bring? Time to get to work.