Ring Boy?

Feature in Issue 13-4 | Winter 2001

What is so special about the circus? Annabel Arndt spent ten days living and working with Zippos Circus in order to find out.

Wednesday night

Tomorrow I’m running away to stay with Zippos Circus and I’m very nervous. I’m determined to be part of the circus and not an observer. I pack enough for a month, although staying a week.

Thursday

Over a welcome tea with managing director Martin Burton I learn the first rule – shoes off when entering a trailer – and am set my homework: What is so special about the circus?

The first person I meet is ringmaster Norman Barrett. He and his wife put me at my ease and give me their mobile number in case I’m worried in the night. I unpack my suitcases and storage crate, and start to read Norman’s autobiography… when the lights go out. It’s midnight and the generator goes off for the night – as do I.

Friday, 6.30am

My alarm rings. No electricity yet, but I have battery light. I help head groom Caroline to muck out, water and feed the horses. Being a novice I’ve been given responsibility for the friendliest two, Silver and Platinum. I creep in to watch practice in the big top at 9am. I’ve been impressed with the large stables, moveable paddocks and health of the horses, I’m even more impressed as I observe Tom Roberts training. He uses gentle words of encouragement, not a cross word or a whip. And the horse gains confidence with its ears pricked forward, wanting to do it right. The only cross word I hear is to a groom who hasn’t changed the horses’ hay, I’m not surprised Tom has such a high reputation and wins awards so regularly.

Countdown to showtime. I groom my horses, polish hooves, comb manes and tails and give a last pat to Platinum – my favourite, due to his habit of blowing down my neck and gently tugging my hair.

I stand by ring doors listening to gales of laughter from the audience being warmed up by the clowns. Meanwhile, a girl does splits up a tent pole, tumblers do handstand push-ups, Batman and Norman prepare foam while Gabi effortlessly tosses six clubs in the air.

It’s time for the horses and I feel emotional as they trot in tossing their heads as the audience gasps. You’d never know Silver and Platinum had been groomed by a first-timer.

Saturday, 6.45am start

I’m enjoying working with Caroline, who is patient and laughs at my ineptitudes. She isn’t prepared to let the show down by presenting horses that don’t look their best and her reward is in the audience’s response. After two days’ hard work I fall into bed exhausted and aching.

Sunday

Today I’m to be ring boy with a smart uniform and a 10am start with head ring boy Neil. Due to torrential rain, the ring has flooded, so trenches are dug and sand and sawdust replaced. I pick up rubbish, sweep and clean the carpets and seats as I find a plastic sword, a child’s shoe, a wallet and loads of sticky sweets. Someone found a baby once. Neil is a saint; he is encouraging and tells me I’m doing OK. I want to do my best for him and feel small when asked to re-sweep the ring fence. He notices everything and, like Caroline, isn’t prepared to let the show down. I like being part of his crew, sharing a coffee and cigarette between four of us.

After changing I’m on. Opening and closing curtains, operating winches, carrying budges on and off, choosing clowns’ victims, leading applause and helping children to be photographed. I’m terrified that I’ll get it wrong and mess up an act but try to look relaxed despite being constantly tormented by dear Tom who tells me to open the curtain in the wrong place and throws horse nuts at me.

I realise how happy I am. I like being part of the show, helping the audience to enjoy themselves and see a smoothly run performance. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

Monday

I can’t hide my pleasure when Norman tells me that because I did well I’m ring boy again. He’s in charge of the ring crew and keeps telling them to give me more to do. Norman is much respected within the circus community and has worked with animals (now budgies), juggled, been a clown and done acrobatics. He knows immediately if there is a problem and how to cover. He loves, lives and breathes the circus, like Neil, like Tom…

So what is it that is so addictive about circus, that makes people love it so much and work so hard? The audiences? The knowledge that you bring pleasure and happiness? The joy of working in a tight-knit team? As I look at the illuminated big top, with streams of people flooding out of the tent while the band plays on, I’m beginning to get it.

Tuesday

I’ve been away moving generators and lorries and I’m surprised how much I miss the circus. As we approach Hampstead Heath we see people walking away from the site waving lighted sticks and get a buzz when we turn the corner and see the tent. I can’t resist going inside and smelling that distinctive sawdust/popcorn/candyfloss smell.

Wednesday

I’m helping Tom mark out the new site. This two-hour round trip will reduce the horses’ stay in their state-of-the-art horse trailer by around 30 minutes.

As it is move day, I see only the first half of the show (with Salman Rushdie and Liam Gallagher!) before taking the horses to Peckham. We arrive first and quickly erect the stables; then unload, feed and water the horses as a trickle then a flood of trucks start arriving. Putting up the big top will have to wait until tomorrow, as will water and electricity for everybody but the horses.

Thursday – my last day

I don’t want to leave – I like being part of the circus.

Work starts at 9am and I can’t wait to see the site transformed. I walked around at 2am last night sensing the stillness and anticipating its transformation.

There is a hive of activity going on as a hand-balancer knocks in stakes, Clunk the clown checks king-poles, Robert the graceful aerialist straightens poles – with wonderful poise and elegance, Tom operates the winch, Ukrainian acrobats tighten guy ropes, and Danny the clown carries sawdust while trying to dodge Tom ‘the clown abuser’ who takes every opportunity to torment him – I think in jest. Everything is happening like a well-oiled machine. To everyone’s relief, it’s a beautiful morning – as torrential rain, hail and high winds have made the last couple of days difficult.

Friday

I’ve juggled work commitments so I can stay longer. This has caused hilarity as I’m told that now I’ve caught the bug I won’t leave.

Tonight I’m watching the show with a friend and enjoy it greatly – it’s a long time since I’ve seen it from beginning to end as an audience member. It seems very different from here, and I notice when the audience laughs and gasps. I just stop myself from leading the applause on cue.

Saturday – really my last day

Very sad to leave. I’ve found circus life so different from common perceptions. There were the parents who angrily pulled their child away because they were talking to a circus person, then those who think we (!) are gypsies, travellers or hippies who don’t do any work. The organisation, work and attention to detail is phenomenal. Zippos employs 70 staff who move weekly to new sites. Everyone I’ve met is highly professional, and cares greatly about doing a good job.

Have I done my homework? I think the show is at the centre. It comes first with everybody and is the reason why everyone works so hard. To run it professionally, safely and enjoyably requires high levels of mutual reliance, and the need to be able to have total confidence in every member of the team. This results in a special working atmosphere with everyone focusing on the audience’s needs.

Over a bottle of wine Linda Roberts told me she leads a privileged life working in the circus. I’d like to echo those sentiments. I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to do so as well. So thank you, Martin and all at Zippos. I’ll be back… soon.

A longer version of this article can be found on our website: www.circusarts.org.uk. Annabel Arndt is director of Total Theatre Network and initiated the setting up of the Circus Arts Forum.

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Issue 13-4
p. 2 - 3