A few random things that crossed my desk

This week's edition of News and Notes is mostly about one thing, but there are other things that I couldn't necessarily tie to that one thing. They are interesting things, but must be listed here separately, each in their own idiosyncratic thingness:

(1) The Knight Arts Challenge for St. Paul was only supposed to be for three years. Now they've added a fourth year. Isn't it about time you submitted your idea?

(2) The Region 5 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival was held here in the Twin Cities last year. This year, it's happening down in Des Moines; but plenty of Minnesota schools will be sending representatives. University of Minnesota - Duluth and North Hennepin Community College even nabbed two of the six performance slots at the festival. Go get 'em, kids!

(3) The new Future is Female Festival is gearing up for a national coordinated effort in March. We here at Minnesota Playlist received an email from Grace & Grit: Women's Theatre Collective, who are helping to organize local Twin Cities activities. They've asked interested parties to contact them at [email protected]

(4) Once a feasibility study has been commissioned on building a large arts building, it is virtually guaranteed that the resultant study will be interpreted by interested parties as saying "oh, yeah, this is totally something we should do." This week, The Clyde Fitch Report would like you to consider why you might want to resist that impulse.

Down and out with Big Bertha

Step right up, gentlefolks, and feast your eyes on the most wondrous confabulation of marvels ever assembled to dazzle and delight! Behind me in this very tent dwell the most magnificent spectacles collected from across the furthest reaches of the globe, entertainments guaranteed to befuddle, bemuse and bewilder even the most well-traveled of men… for a few more months, anyway.

After 146 years of operation The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing down. "The Greatest Show on Earth" (known as "Big Bertha" to circus insiders) was the last, biggest connection back to the heyday of American circuses in the 1800s and early 1900s, when dozens and dozens of operations toured across the continent. Practically everything that the average person pictures when they think of a classic circus is derived from the Ringling Bros. operation, from the massive bigtop tent to the three-ring setup to the large-scale productions to the performing elephants.

It's that last one that has caused the most controversy in the modern era. Animal rights groups have been after Big Bertha for decades, alleging systematic abuse by trainers. Those groups are claiming a major victory today, though the truth is much more muddled than that. Ringling Bros. actually won a long-standing lawsuit about the treatment of its elephants back in 2014, and the circus voluntarily ended its elephant shows last year.

In a statement from Feld Entertainment (the parent company of Ringling Bros), CEO Kenneth Feld insinuated that the loss of the elephants resulted in a large decline in ticket sales; but that truth, too, is pretty muddled. Ringling's ticket sales have been declining for years due to many different factors, not the least of which was the Great Recession, which ate into the pocketbooks of the circus' regular audience. In the meantime, Feld and his company have built a billion-dollar live entertainment business on top of Ringling Bros., which includes much more profitable enterprises like Disney on Ice, Marvel Universe Live, and the Monster Jam monster truck rally.

A cynical person could say that the Felds—who bought up the circus in 1967, sold it to Mattel and then bought it back in 1982—used up the circus profits to build up the rest of its empire while ignoring modernizations that could have kept Ringling relevant. (That cynical person is me, by the way.) In that sense, they're basically just finishing the process of cannibalization that they started thirty years ago. However, I do have to admit that Feld Entertainment did take some stabs at modernizing Ringling Bros. They actually axed the classic three-ring format back in 2005 in favor of more centrally-focused shows with expanded multi-media capacity. Just this week, they made a step toward gender equality by debuting the first female ringmaster in the company's history.

But at the end of the day, big operations like this are about money; and big, classic bigtop circuses are just something that modern Americans are shelling out less and less money to see. The New York based Big Apple Circus (a more European-influenced one-ring outfit) filed for bankruptcy last November after years of financial trouble and this week dashed all hopes of its return by announcing a sale of all its assets. Even the big, ultramodern, slick and stylish Cirque du Soleil swam into troubled waters during the recession and only saved itself by selling a majority share of the company to a global investment fund.

And, of course, there was that whole "scary clown" thing last year, which is, for lack of a better word, just really freaking stupid.

There are a lot of reasons why Ringling Bros. is going away, most of them stemming from the massive and complex social changes that have occurred in America in the past 146 years. However, as it often does, the most simplistic and reductive narrative—"Animal rights have finally won!"—has been dominating the news. It's much more complicated than that, and it ignores the unfathomable impact that Ringling Bros. has had on the American entertainment landscape in the its nearly century and a half of existence.

Ringing Bros. has a long history in the United States, and its influence on American entertainment cannot possibly be understated. Brass showmanship, death defying acts, illusions, mass spectacle: the visual dramaturgy of the American circus has influenced and informed just about every form of large-scale performance in this country, including concerts, Vegas shows, megachurches, musicals, burlesque and, yes, even monster truck rallies. The human performance arts that were kept alive and and nurtured in the circus—physical stunts, magic, clowning, tumbling, juggling, aerialism, etc.—have not gone away. They have moved on and are being adopted into other entertainment realms.

If you're still hankering for an old-fashioned circus, please know that they still exist; and please know that most of them are animal-free. Here in the Twin Cities, we have more circus/aerial arts teachers than I ever imagined possible, including the great Circus Juventas.

Local Twin Cities actor and clown, Gregory Parks, is a Ringling veteran (there are more clowns here than you would ever realize). After hearing the news, he took to Facebook to offer this perspective on the closure, which I will share in full, since merely plucking a quote or two is not enough:

"Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear."

"There is a sucker born every minute."

Feld's official press release about the decision has a notable trait: it allows animal rights activists to say they won AND it allows people so inclined to blame the animal rights activists. A look through history should be able to dig up parallels. A look at current events should yield the same.

It's business. It's Sun Tzu's The Art of War. It's smoke and mirrors.

Circus can most definitely continue without animals. Don't think for one minute this was all about "we can't have a show without animals." It was never just about the animals. Business decisions yield results. Continue to make decisions along a certain path, born from a certain approach, and those results accumulate and feed each other. This is the endpoint of a lot of decisions and actions taken over at least 20 years: changes in management, changes in leadership, the ability to adapt and evolve (or the lack thereof). And the animals thing provided a coincidental and convenient series of events for this recent action. What's next? We don't know, but something's next.

In some ways, this is also a result of the long-standing devaluation of circus and arts-based forms in the USA. The propagation of a cultural view that enjoying ones work is folly, that money and getting ahead matter more, that serving others tangibly or intangibly isn't as worthy (further demonstrated by relatively low wage scales). Circus as a form of art, expression, entertainment, and cultural exchange is mighty and flexible. Things that inspire and tend to the spirit are of immeasurable value, and our national culture crushes that. Many artists — circus and otherwise — stand, live, love, and work in defiance of that steamroller.

What's next? When the jester's telling of cultural truths steps aside for the selling of smirks, I say: small batch circus. Craft circus. Artisanal circus arts. A metaphoric donning of beards, horn rimmed glasses, buffalo-checked shirts, and Decemberists albums. Smaller collectives, Cirque du Soleil bouncing back (because that and Ringling are all USAmericans largely know about circus). Maybe some odd, unforeseen (or maybe in some circles, rumored) resurrection of Big Bertha, rising like a phoenix.

There's plenty out there waiting to be created, waiting to be done.


OK, one more political thing, while I've got the time. I'm starting to feel like Cato the Elder, ceaselessly uttering "Carthago delenda est" at the end of every unrelated speech, but, what the hell, let's do it again:

Last week on News and Notes, I used my liberal elite platform to exhort you to do more than merely offer up symbolic protests in the new political age, and, yeah, I'm going to do that again. Around the country, some prominent artists have been calling for a "culture strike" on the day we inaugurate our new bloviator-in-chief, and I have to agree with Jonathan Jones at the Guardian: this is futile. Politics and governance are dirty, messy and entirely necessary things, and they can't be properly addressed by standing on the sidelines keeping your shoes nice and clean.

That's not to say that you should never take part in well-meaning symbolic statements; but symbols alone are never enough. The feel-good hit from a statement will not carry through to your elected representatives unless you yourself carry it to their doors. If you want to advocate for something, you've got to advocate for it. Trust me, you're going to have plenty to advocate for in the next four years.

As much as you will be told by the new regime that your art is a frivolous privilege, it's probably more accurate to say that being able to symbolically withhold it is really the height of privilege. (Just ask someone who lives in a part of the world where just doing their art is necessary, difficult and dangerous.)

Whatever you do, don't not do. Not doing helped us get into this mess in the first place. Remember what the outgoing president said all those years ago: "We are the ones we've been waiting for". That's a call to action, not to abstention.