The Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and its two traveling shows, “Poppin' Soul” and “Soul in the City,” kicked off new seasons in February. Nicknamed “Cirque du Soul” and “Hip Hop Under the Big Top,” “Poppin' Soul” features a DJ and a live band, as well as a multi-cultural cast of performers, including acrobats from Africa and China, aerialists from France, motorcycle daredevils from Colombia, and several American acts, as well as a few animal acts.
“Poppin' Soul” production coordinator Klaus Becker, who has been with the circus since 1997, says load-ins for the show start by erecting a 147ft. tent. Four king poles hold the structure up, and the center of the roof in the main part of the tent features a metal support structure called a cupola.
“The tent crew comes in at 7 a.m., and they will start pounding the stakes for the basis of the cupola, and for the rigging points on the outside of the tent,” Becker explains. “While they're doing that, the rest of the production crew shows up and unloads the trucks. Once the cupola is actually floating a little bit off the ground, my riggers go underneath it, and we attach any points we need to hang, including our high-speed, half-ton motors and chains for the one-ton motors for the truss. We try to do as much work on the ground as possible, because this rig trims out between 40ft. to 45ft., depending on the slope of the particular lot.”
The lighting rig goes up next, and then carpenters come in to build a 40ft. circular stage for each show.
“The stage has metal stringers underneath, and heavy 3/4in. wooden planks, so it's strong enough to hold three elephants and then some,” explains Becker. “On top of that, we build a gradual ramp that steps up into it, so we can get our equipment in and out easily, and a really thick rubber matting gets laid across the stage. Then, the ring curb comes in, and we build the set and the 17'×12' artists' entrance.”
Laser operator Gordy Hum then sets up the show's laser table. As a special effect, the laser is used sparingly, but with great effect for several acts, both to project stylized beams and for laser imaging in the air and on the tent's walls.
“When you've got the atmosphere just right in there, with just enough haze and fog, that is a killer look — it just takes your breath away,” says Becker. “We use a regular green, mid-powered, water-cooled argon laser,” Becker says. “Later, [Hum] hangs his mirrors, but he usually doesn't do his focus until later on at night, when it's just him and the lighting director working through lighting positions.
“While he's setting that up, we have 10ft. wings that we put the PA system on,” Becker continues. “The unique part here is that we had to merge a new set with last year's audio equipment. So our nine-piece live band is actually in front of, but also underneath, the PA. That's a little bit of a challenge. But our audio engineer, Geno Hocker, is handling it well. He actually mixes the band almost from a monitor position because the FOH position is for our DJ.”
The audio equipment includes: Clark Teknik equalizers; Crown-powered monitors with JBL drivers; a Yamaha 3210 mixing console; a Soundcraft FOH console; a Sony Vaio for the DJ to edit and burn show CDs; Sure 57, 58, and 81 microphones; and audio cabinets that are proprietary to Gand Concert Sound, Glenview, Ill.
Once the bleachers are up, the crew runs FOH control cables through the tent. As Becker explains, there is a method to the crew's madness in terms of where cables and lights and other gear are placed, to protect the equipment during load-in, and also from the animal acts that will eventually wreak havoc in the tent.
“We have to wait until all the metal pieces for the bleachers are in, because more often than not, if you run your cable [first], they will accidentally get cut by the metal,” Becker explains. “Some of our worst problems come from the climate and working on dirt lots. We build plywood highways, but it's not as fast as working on asphalt or concrete lots. Sometimes the heat, the cold, and the rain can really affect the load-in and load-out. Also, we learned many years ago that elephants can easily reach your lights with their trunks. You have to get them up and out of the way because they like to play with them.
“Chimpanzees are probably our most volatile act out there, because they can have an attitude change really quickly,” Becker continues. “So you try to make sure that the foggers won't go off and that there are no rotating gobos in the lighting or any lighting cue changes, because that will startle them. We try to put up a nice look and stick with it before the animals come into the ring.”
Crew members, especially lighting and sound technicians, have to know the acts really well and pay close attention to the performers at all times, Becker adds.
“You have to be able tell if they're having problems,” he says. “Then, you can either bring the music down a little bit, or bring up a general wash. The crew is definitely integral to the larger safety plan. It can be difficult, but the communication is really good. I ask the artists what their signal is going to be if they need to tell us there is a problem. We do want to be very artistic with the lighting and effects, so for certain acts we try to go with moodier lighting. But sometimes, that translates to darker lighting and a lot of circus performers are used to working almost under sports lighting. So, if you are asking them to make allowances for the artistic lighting, you have to make sure they are comfortable with that. You also have to be very aware of the animal acts — if there is ever a problem and you have to evacuate the tent, you have to have a cue in there that will light the exits for the people.”
The lighting rig, designed by Fraser MacKeen, features a Martin automated package with 16 MAC 2k Profiles, 10 MAC 2k Washes, eight MAC 500s, and eight MAC 250s, as well as eight PAR-64 bars of six, four 8-light Moles, four Wildfire UV lamps with electronic shutters, six follow spots, and six loose PAR cans that are used as specials. There are also two Martin I Foggers and one Martin Hazer. Everything is run off a Wholehog 1000 console.
“One of the biggest challenges is playing on a lot where there is a slope,” Becker says. “There isn't much you can do with the tent, but to make everything level, we have to shim up the set pieces. Since everything you hang off of is on the tent, the tent becomes a little lower on one side, yet you're trying to make everything look level. So now, your lighting angles have changed. Something that seemed so simple in a hockey arena becomes a problem because your angles aren't there. It's just really hard to find flat ground, because no one designs flat parking lots — water would build up. But what's good for a parking lot is bad for a circus tent.”
The crew and cast of “Poppin' Soul” are currently crisscrossing the United States, setting up and tearing down their special tent in 48 cities through November.
Catherine McHugh is a regular contributor to SRO and to Entertainment Design magazine. She has been covering live event design for over a decade. Email her at [email protected]