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Big Apple Circus: A Celebratory Production Design

Going to the circus is still filled with child-like wonderment. Perhaps because it is still filled with children. The Big Apple Circus, celebrating its 40th Anniversary season and its recent resurrection, is a single ring circus. There aren’t elephants or tigers, but there are horses and dogs and tremendous high wire acts. Following the financial demise of the not-for-profit which had been running the circus for years, a new commercial enterprise Big Top Works stepped in to bring the circus back to New York. Led by chairman Neil Kahanovitz, the new Big Apple Circus has brought together an incredible team of designers to infuse the circus with a new heightened design aesthetic.

Directed by Mark Lonergan, the new production of the circus features production design by Rob Bissinger and Anita La Scala of ARDA Studio. They were approached by Kahanovitz, who had already brought lighting designer Jeff Croiter on board, to re-imagine the circus for its 40th Anniversary season. The challenge was obviously a big one: “to create something modern, relevant, and new but also to acknowledge and honor the long-standing tradition of Circus,” explains Bissinger.

The theme of the new production is celebration, so Bissinger and La Scala wanted to keep that at the center of the experience. Bissinger says, “We wanted to refer to both the city and the circus, keeping it intimate and spectacular.” The circus tent already existed so Bissinger and La Scala had several limitations on their design. And they had a very truncated design and build process of three to five months instead of a year. Because of the super short timeline, Bissinger and La Scala developed several strong gestures to portray their ideas.

The blue of the winter tent carried directly into the urban feel of the design. La Scala elaborates, “One of the main adjectives that we wanted to carry through was of a sophisticated city, one that echoes our own New York.” They began with the bandstand and the city skyline, which reaches around both the band and the audience. The skyline bandstand was constructed in two layers, the front layer of which is made of sweeping vertical posts and the back layer is the cityscape.

“Focusing on NYC and celebration and making the circus modern, we also wanted to give the audience the kind of circus they remember. The obstacle was ‘what is the NYC skyline?’ We chose to abstract the city but pinpoint a few iconic buildings including the Empire State and Chrysler,” Bissinger adds. “We didn’t want it to be old NY. It’s not about looking back. It’s about celebrating the past but looking to the future.”

La Scala explains that the circus presented a number of challenges, which opened up more exciting design directions: “In our early sketches and model, we chose to embrace the idea of celebration with a gigantic firework chandelier. The tent slope is so great on the sides that we didn’t have enough room to create this. Instead, we broke it down into three smaller chandeliers or globes with LED points.” It wasn’t quite the impact they wanted, but in the round, it helped to give audiences from all around the tent visual elements of interest.

Another enormous scenery element is the Big Apple Circus sign. La Scala and Bissinger used the lettering from the circus logo so it’s very cohesive with the larger brand. “We avoided neon or a neon substitute or the traditional marquee sign,” says Las Scala. Instead, they developed an open channel in the sign with LED tape inside so the light could bounce around. “We had not done this before, and are very pleased. For every act, it felt fresh and tailored for what was happening in the ring.”

The idea of creating a frame for each act was very important. “The ring changes color, and the sign changes color like the space is acknowledging the human aspect, the person in the ring,” explains Bissinger. The ring itself was modified from the existing ring to emphasize the ideas of sophistication and class. In addition to being lit from within, individual panels were cut out and painted gold.

The majority of the set was built by Mystic Scenic out of Massachusetts. The sign was subcontracted out by PRG to a sign company, but PRG did a significant amount of oversight to be certain that it was still a piece of theatrical scenery. According to Bissinger, “We wound up getting something amazing that would have cost much more.” PRG built the chandeliers in-house.

Many of the challenges related to designing the circus scenery had to do with being new to the circus family. Bissinger explains, “We teched the show in New Jersey, and we were very pleased with how the set was looking. And then when we got to NY, the set was in a completely different location and the wind walls were angled much more sharply which diminished their visual impact and the performer access. An additional row of seating had been added that we didn’t know about. The structure of the skyline walls had to be rebuilt.”

Another unexpected challenge was act specific. Elayne Kramer, the contortionist, shoots an arrow at a balloon with her feet! La Scala laughs, “Surprise! How do you prepare your scenery and project the bandstand from a flying projectile? The ring crew chief, Matt Zimmerman, devised a pop-up acrylic panel. We wanted to avoid a big visual distraction from this moment.” The circus family was immensely helpful to these “newcomers” as they navigated the very specific way a circus works.

Bissinger and La Scala want to embrace the history, tradition, and manual qualities of the circus while helping to bring it into the 21st century. As Bissinger explains, “We did not have as much information about the very specific tent parameters; there aren’t really accurate drawings that you can refer to as a new person. Plus, there is a huge onus to re-use pieces from the past, which has the perception of being economic but might not really be. We are happy to be looking forward to the 41st season early on so we can look at how to reimagine things to better serve the show moving forward.”

Check out the costume design, and stay tuned for more on lighting!

Natalie Robin is a NY and Philly-based lighting designer. Natalie is currently the Head of Theater Design & Technology in the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Natalie is also the Associate Producer and a founding company member of Polybe + Seats, an Associate Artist of Target Margin Theater and a proud member of USA 829.

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