Big Apple Circus: Costume Design Embraces Humanity

Big Apple Circus 40th anniversary
Jenny, horses

For the 40th Anniversary season of Big Apple Circus, chairman Neil Kahanovitz 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, with lighting design by Jeff CroiterCheck out the production design here.

In the Bissinger and La Scala’s first meeting with Lonergan and collaborator and clown Joel Jeske, the vision of the Big Apple Circus seemed clear. “If you compare the Big Apple Circus to spectacle performances like Cirque, who rely on amazing technology and this idea that the performers are inhuman, then that defies who they are as performers,” says La Scala. “Mark made sure that what we were working towards a show that embraced humanity and supported how amazing these performers are without making who they really are.” This meant that costume designer Amy Clark really got to start with the performers.

When Clark was approached about designing the 40th Anniversary Big Apple Circus, she was so excited that she worked hard to rearrange her schedule to be able to design the project. “I love [the circus] so much. It’s like the farthest thing from a play,” she says. She is the only member of the team with extensive circus experience, having designed the costumes for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey twice before. That experience was invaluable to her. “It was an easier transition because I knew the challenges already. Every act and performer will bring their own specificities and needs, but I had a great understanding what fabrics would be successful with the reality of the wear and tear,” she says. Clark is incredibly appreciative of her time with Ringling because the in-house costume head taught her so much about working with the circus.

The process on this year’s Big Apple was accelerated for costumes just like it was for scenery. According to Clark, “We had a really limited budget and a very limited time frame. If we had really screwed something up, there wasn’t really time or money to change it. If I had known nothing, it potentially could have been disastrous.” Luckily, Clark had a great team working with her. The John Christianson Costume Shop built about 95% of the show. The clown water gag costumes were built by Sandy Vojta. She acknowledges the extra challenge but also thinks that it lets her design decisions shine. “Your vocabulary for fabric choices become really evident,” she explains. “You just can’t pick those things that you are necessarily instantly inspired by. You have to use the things that are really durable or make them durable.”

Clark spent a lot of time watching videos of each act and communicating with every performer. The needs of the act and safety were at the forefront of Clark’s mind. But then the costumes needed to work together within the larger design aesthetic. Because of the theme of celebration, Clark’s costumes ended up “being rooted in something more realistic [than many circuses]. Contemporary and sophisticated. That part to me was really hard,” she says. “We would look at all this incredibly dynamic, asymmetrical research but then we had to put that into a unitard. The costumes are so limited by functionality. It’s really tricky to translate. It’s hard to express to someone who is not as versed in costumes.”

The Flyers

While she worked closely with the Flying Wallendas, Clark had to negotiate around the fact that many of the performers are used to designing and making their own costumes. With the flyers in particular, she wanted to embrace the idea of everyone going to a party. “Their costume was truly based on the kids going to an afterparty. Deconstructed formal wear,” she states. “They are all young and attractive and super high energy. They have very graphic costumes. I thought they were really great.”

The contortionist, Elayne Kramer, had very specific costume needs (in addition to her shooting of arrows at the band). Clark really wanted to make the costume look classy and expensive like the rest of the show. “There’s something about the fabrication of typical contortion costumes that feels ‘cheap’ to my eye,” Clark says. “I just didn’t want this to feel like that. I wanted it to feel sophisticated and elegant and not like a boring sparkly leotard.” To achieve this goal, Clark and her team layered different stretchy fabrics to try to create something durable and beautiful. Clark really focused on what could emphasize the beauty of Kramer’s act. “When I drew that costume, so much of the design of it is down the sides because we are always looking at her body in certain ways. Only parts of her body are highlighted in the performance.” It wasn’t until the end of the technical rehearsals in New Jersey, that Kramer wore the costume and was fully warmed up enough to do her act. And she couldn’t do the act in the new costume. The layers of fabric meant that the costume just couldn’t move and stretch with her body the right ways. Ultimately, Clark and her team needed to remake the costume. “For a ‘simple’ unitard, it had to be the most complex costume. It has so many pieces. Adding the layers made it really hard, but we figured it out.”


The Anastasini Brothers are an icarian act in which one of the brothers lies on his back as the base for the other brother’s acrobatics. Their costume needs are very specific: “They had some specific tricks that they knew they needed in the clothes. They had fabric suggestions. Their input is really valued.” Rather than reinventing the wheel, Clark worked with a tailor in Paris who had made their pants before. They are made from fabric used in equestrian events, which is uncommon in typical theatrical productions. Likewise, their shows were made by a Parisian cobbler with very specific requirements. Clark worked with LaDuca Shoes in NYC to make new duplicates. “It took a couple of tries to get it but they love them,” she adds.

Stay tuned for more on the lighting design for the 40th anniversary season of Big Apple Circus.

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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