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Big top takes big effort to assemble

Before the animals, the clowns or the performers arrive, the hard work at Circus Sarasota lies in putting the tent together.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. February 2, 2022
The work will go on right to the opening of the circus and beyond for the workers who toil behind the scenes.
The work will go on right to the opening of the circus and beyond for the workers who toil behind the scenes.
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Weeks before the circus begins, the big top doesn’t even look like a big tent.

It’s sitting on the grass at Nathan Benderson Park, and hundreds of pieces of steel are strewn about the ground beside it. The animal acts, clowns, contortionists and trapeze artists are on their way, and crews will be working day and night to make sure the tent is ready.

Does it ever feel like they won't have enough time?

“Always,” says Pedro Reis, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Circus Arts Conservatory in the weeks before Circus Sarasota begins. “You know the old saying: ‘It will be alright on the night.’

"That’s what we live by. And the other thing we live by is Murphy’s Law. ‘If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.’ Trust me.”

For Reis, who has set up and torn down the big top too many times to count, it all comes down to an exact science. There are so many pieces that go into putting the tent together, and they have to assembled in exactly the same order every single time.

Reis said that the equipment literally came with a manual when they acquired it, but now they've memorized the process by heart and they've color-coded the pieces for the workers who are new to the job.

CAC Founder and CEO Pedro Reis helps get the show going. (Photo: Harry Sayer)
CAC Founder and CEO Pedro Reis helps get the show going. (Photo: Harry Sayer)

At this point, before the tent is even assembled, it’s labor for about 10 people. There’s a few days of brute force sorting of equipment and of rapid assembly, and then the crew doubles when the tent is up and the seats are going in.

"There’s so many parts. It’s a giant puzzle,” says Reis. "The tent itself weighs an incredible amount. It’s truly hard labor. But we love what we’re doing and the end result is fantastic.”

First, says Reis, the main job is getting all the equipment out of the semitrailer that houses it. Each trailer can carry up to 80,000 pounds of equipment, and Circus Sarasota has seven trailers full of rods and irons and straps and tenting material that needs to be assembled.

The circus crews will use forklifts to take the equipment out of the trailers, but then they'll laboriously sort the equipment by hand.

"The poles themselves, they’re 18 feet long and they’re steel," says Reis. "Each one gets laid out in a special position.”

And when they’re laid out, the real work begins in earnest.

First, the workers drive stake irons into the ground, and then they attach straps onto the tent to stretch it out. The tent still needs to be laced together, and once it gets lifted, 80 side poles will be driven in to give it a stable frame.

That’s only part of the effort. The tent still needs to be wired for lighting and sound; The circus has over 250 pieces of lighting equipment that need to go in before the tent is fully assembled, and the sound equipment goes in right after the lighting is erected.

Jesse Cogswell works on the wiring inside the tent.
Jesse Cogswell works on the wiring inside the tent.

“There’s a method to everything as you progress,” says Reis. “This part fits here. That part goes there. And you’ve got to wait for this part to fit in there. The seats go in basically quite near to the end, and then we finish off by putting the rubber down in the ring.”

Ready for action

The circus performers will arrive about a week before the circus starts, and there's little margin for error. The tent needs to be ready for the performers to be able to orient themselves and also to be able to rehearse before the performances begin.

There's usually time for four days of rehearsals, and then on the fifth day, the show must go on.

"We’ll have orientation," says Reis of the order of business once the performers arrive. "And then the lighting and sound and design engineers will talk to the artists and say, ‘OK, what’s the feel? What’s the mood?’ I send videos of each act to the lighting designer so he’s got an idea before we start. And he’s been a pro who’s been with us for quite a few years."

The lighting isn't just for effect; for many of these acts, the lighting could make the difference in remaining safe and sound.

"There are certain acts that can’t have the light shining in their eyes," says Dolly Jacobs, co-founder and vice president of the Circus Arts Conservatory. "Maybe they’re on the wire or they’re juggling. That all has to be worked out with the individual artists. Pedro and I have traveled the world. We’ve worked in different circles with our own respective act and it’s the same thing. Even if you’re working in a building, you’d be there a day or two before making sure your lighting and music was correct so your act can look the best."

Luis Garcia works on the outside of the tent. (Photo: Harry Sayer)
Luis Garcia works on the outside of the tent. (Photo: Harry Sayer)

"Not even look the best," adds Reis. "A lot of the acts are very dangerous."

But it's this setting and this style of circus that allows for the most intimate setting.

"This is a European style one-ring big top," says Reis. "The audience is really close to the energy. They really see the expressions, see the smiles, see the muscles straining to do handstands."

"They can see the sweat," adds Jacobs. "They can hear them panting."

For tentmaster Luis Garcia, there's more work than time to do it.

Garcia said three generations of his family preceded him into the circus trade, and he said he's spent his life welding and building equipment to better facilitate the assembly of the big top.

And even when the workers can use equipment to help them, they're still in grave danger of injury during the assembly process.

"It's all laid out on the ground. It's all tied together with cables and stakes and gets pulled up with motors," says Garcia. "Still, it’s very dangerous. You have to watch everything. People have to stay way out of sight in case a cable snaps. It could chop your head off."

Garcia is a one-man Mr. Fix It, and his job is basically to troubleshoot every piece of equipment and everything that could go wrong.

When the tent is assembled and Reis is tending to the business of running a circus, Garcia is out there in the background rigging the exit lights and filling fire extinguishers, assembling the ramps and making sure the concessions stands are working.

And he even has to play a little bit of meteorologist on top.

Garcia said that if there is excess wind, sometimes he has to line up all the semitrailers to block it. And if there's rain, then there's no solution for that except the hard work of digging trenches.

"I’m up at 5 in the morning sometimes if there’s rain," he says. "We have to get rid of the water before showtime and make it all clean looking again. We dig trenches and get the shovel, Pedro and I. Sometimes we’ve had to do it in our tuxedos. The show must go on."

There's never a spare moment, says Garcia, and he never has time to take in the whole show.

He'll watch an act here or there, he says, but then he'll go back outside and look for the next task that needs to be done. Garcia said that he feels no relief when the entire circus is assembled; in fact, he doesn't breathe easy until every last piece of equipment goes back where it belongs.

"Once the tent is up, it doesn’t even matter if the show hasn’t started yet. I’m thinking about tear-down," he says. "Once it’s up, I’m already building racks and stuff to prepare for tear-down.

"Yes, everything is safe, but I’m already going backwards. Until the last semi is closed and the lock is on. Everything is done, safe and sound. And then go have a pint."


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