What’s it Like to Work at a Travelling Circus?

Ever wondered what life is like working in a traveling circus? My wonderful friend Eleanor has been kind enough to give us a glimpse into what life is like under the big top! I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed interviewing her! ?

What is it like being a Ring Mistress for a traditional Irish Circus?

Most people think that the Ring Master/Mistress just announces the show, the artists, and their acts but it is actually a much bigger responsibility than that. You are literally in charge of the circus ring which means you have to be alert with eyes open the whole time; covering pauses in the show whilst props are being set, encouraging the audience to ‘make some noise’ if they are feeling a little self-conscious, giving important safety announcements before dangerous acts, checking to make sure any especially enthusiastic children don’t run into the ring, and most importantly keeping the clowns in order!

circus performance

How & why did you get into circus life?

I have my friend and previous dance teacher to thank for that. She was commissioned to choreograph for an English show and unfortunately, one of her dancers fell ill and had to drop out. She needed someone she knew wasn’t afraid of a challenge to come in and learn the show in a day and a half and luckily I was available. The show was a flop but the management invited me back for their new show which was where I met my fiancé who showed me how to develop my dance background into circus artist and the rest, as they say, is history!

What is your average routine?

On average the show moves town every two to three days so that it can cover as much of Ireland and reach as many people as possible before closing for the winter. It’s a lot of work building up and taking down the tent but everyone pitches in and it generally runs like clockwork.

What advice would you give someone thinking of joining a circus?

One concept people have of the circus is that it is a very romantic lifestyle, and yes it can be, but it is mainly made up of a lot of hard graft and physical work. My advice would be that if you are not adaptable, able to endure long nights or afraid of physical work then the circus is not for you.

If it’s such hard work then why do you do it?

When you enter the ring you leave everything behind and all that matters is what happens right there in the moment. It’s a live performance and on paper the same show every day but in reality, each show is different, each audience is different and anything can happen.

What are the best 3 things about circus life?

Travelling, hearing the laughter you know you helped create and getting the chance every night to start anew.

circus performer

Where does everyone live who is working for the circus?

All established artists and those from circus families have their own caravans and transport but shows do provide caravans and bunk wagons with a communal kitchen for visiting artists or troupes.

Do you have a makeup artist? And who provides your costumes?

Each artist does their own makeup and provides their own costumes as it is a mark of their personality. However, if there is a certain look or production piece shows are known to provide costumes.

All the costumes I own are made specifically for me in Mexico, I know that no one will have the same costume and I can design them however I like.

Do you have an understudy?

I don’t have an understudy and it is rare for someone to miss a show for illness. However, on the rare occasion that anyone has to miss a show, circus artists are very versatile and work together to cover for each other to make sure the public get the high-class entertainment they are expecting and have paid for.

How many shows do you do a week?

On a build up day we have one show and the subsequent day two, so on average about 11 shows a week from February to late October/early November depending on the weather. If it’s too cold even the heaters struggle to heat the big top and if it’s too windy it’s not safe to have the big top up.

Has anyone ever got injured whilst performing?

Yes! Including myself. You have to remember that this is a live performance and full of high-risk acts although everybody works hard to avoid any accidents or mistakes that could lead to injury.

Do you get unlimited popcorn and candy floss?

Yes, but I do a gag with one of the clowns which ends with him throwing popcorn in my face. It kind of puts you off it after a while.

circus mistress

Do you see yourself working in the circus as a long-term career?

I will never forget my first job working in Just Books, Ilkley and have always imagined myself eventually working with books but I think I will save that dream for when my body can’t keep up anymore.

Do you have to spend Christmas working or do you get to come home?

After spending nine months out of twelve on the road you tend to get fidgety when the season ends so I like to spend the Christmas Season working. Fortunately for the last 2 years I have been in England and able to spend Christmas Day with my family.

Do you get homesick?

There isn’t much time to get homesick, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t on occasion. Especially for our family cats (love you too Debneys) that live at home. Some people do have pets on the road but it would be unfair to take my cats now after they have been brought up in a house.

Name three comforts you like to travel with;

  • A bottle of Molton Brown shower gel
  • Yorkshire Tea
  • My feather pillow… It’s the little things that count!

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done whilst working at the circus?

I would say performing the Wheel of Death with my fiancé and two others for a publicity stunt. A nearby circus was advertising four people on the Wheel where the norm is to have two so as not to be bested we rose up to the challenge!

wheel of death

Have you had to conquer any fears to become a Ring Mistress?

Yes, the greatest of them being public speaking! I was always a very quiet kid, good with words on paper but if I was asked to give a presentation it would take a lot of effort not to trip up on words let alone project without choking. Even after three years, there are days I want the ground to open up and swallow me whole but the majority of the time I can relax and enjoy myself now.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

That is a very difficult question. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of visiting Mexico which was so beautiful and full of colour so that would definitely be in the running. However over the past 3 years I have also fallen in love with the West Coast of Ireland, the people are so friendly and the scenery is spectacular. And then there’s Ilkley of course, I think a part of my heart will always feel the moors and the heather calling, plus there is something about the air that is so sweet and refreshing. In short, I don’t think I’m ready to settle just yet and I’m sure there is much more of the world to see before I make a decision.

Do you think joining the circus has changed you as a person?

I wouldn’t say that the circus has changed my personality but that it has made me more secure in who I am and trust in my judgement and intuition. In the performing industry you are taught, subconsciously, to compare yourself to others and that you must have a ‘big personality’. However, speaking from personal experience all this effort results in is a false personality and losing who you are. A false personality leads to a false performance, a false performance is a weak performance, a weak performance equals a bad reaction which leads to all kinds of self-doubt, questioning and so on. But the circus doesn’t allow for that, artists are their own person and only a true performance when you allow yourself to shine through creates the magic moments and ultimately defines you as an artist. You are completely exposed, it is liberating and terrifying at the same time but it only lasts for a few minutes. I guess I could say the circus has made me braver, more confident and have a greater understanding of myself.

“Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself” – Coco Chanel.

Any final words?

Three years ago just the thought of speaking in front of people rendered me tongue tied and uncomfortable but now I’m bantering with clowns, improvising to cover gaps and probably talking too much! The point is, never put yourself in a box because you never know where a sequence of events will take you. Adventure is out there!

I’d like to thank Eleanor so much for allowing me to share her story with you, if you have any questions for her, please do comment below.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not check out what life is like teaching English in Queenstown,New Zealand.

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