As the first major London revival of Barnum is announced today, American director and choreographer Shanda Sawyer talks about her own experience helming numerous circus productions for Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey, which closed this past May after 146 years. Sawyer has directed and co-choreographed China Goes Pop!, currently running at the Assembly Hall at the Edinburgh Fringe until this Saturday 27 August 2017. China Goes Pop! is a unique collaboration between East and West. It’s produced by the government-run China Arts and Entertainment Group and executive produced by the New York-based Broadway Asia International and performed by the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe from Jinan, China.
I don’t direct traditional theatre, that’s not my background. I come from a very creative, hippy family from the San Francisco Bay Area in California. From the age of 14, I was dancing on the street to support myself and we started creating shows from there. When I had my own theatre companies when I was young, we were always trying to create a new genre: let’s put this together with that and create something different.
For the past ten years of my career, I’ve been focused on storytelling within an arena medium. That’s about figuring out: how do you do things on that scale? How do you take something like the Marvel Universe (as in her arena spectacle hit Marvel Live!) and turn it into a really immersive, compelling, story- and action-driven experience – in an arena format?
Circus was another new medium for me, and I learnt so much working for Ringling Brothers. In 2006, they brought me in, specifically because I was not from the circus world. They’d seen some of my television and arena productions and my concert work with Asian and American pop stars, and they wanted someone who could offer a fresh perspective to reimagine the circus.
It was an entirely new world I was walking into. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my professional life. With most jobs, you know how you’re going to approach them. It might be something new, but you’ll be familiar enough to know what your process will be. With the circus, I was uncertain about many things. For instance: am I supposed to tell the elephants what to do or do they tell me what they’re going to do?
I’ve never known anything like that big circus environment. Every act is from a different country, 120 performers from all over the world, and they come together to work together, to live together, to travel together – they move from city to city, a different one each week, on a mile-long train. There are generations of families who grow up in the circus, living like that. It’s a truly beautiful way of life.
And, of course, Ringling Brothers was an iconic American institution, older than baseball. To be entrusted with that and to bring it into the new millennium was a wonderful experience. The Ringling shows I did from 2006 on were very successful and profitable. But I think over the past five to six years, there was a decline in ticket sales.
It’s so sad that Ringling Brothers has now shut down. There’s still a wider circus circuit so many of the performers will now end up in Europe or Mexico. But it’s sad to see the American aspect of it come to an end. I know that the Feld family [who ran the circus since 1982] felt that they were the trustees of this great American institution so it was a very hard decision to make and one that they resisted for many years. But things change.
“Ringling Brothers was an iconic American institution, older than baseball. To be entrusted with that and to bring it into the new millennium was a wonderful experience.”
In today’s entertainment world, synergy is so important, especially in family entertainment. Children and young moms drive the ticket-buying in families. And kids want to see things that they recognise from their video games and their TV shows and their movies. If you don’t have that kind of synergistic support with branding and intellectual properties, it’s challenging.
That’s the challenge for all aspects of entertainment – look at Broadway and Hollywood movies. The middle class of entertainment is being squeezed in favour of either very small-scale, intimate experiences or the huge tent-pole, arena spectacles supported by hit movies or TV shows.
I always seem to be doing something off the beaten path. I love creating spectacles and I relish the challenge of working on different scales in new mediums. China Goes Pop! is no exception. It’s the coming together and creating something entirely new out of the blend of two very different cultures.
I think audiences in Edinburgh will be entertained from the moment the show begins to the moment it ends, and they’ll be taken on a really exciting and emotional journey with crazy acrobatics merged with an emotional storyline.
During the Edinburgh Fringe, China Goes Pop! runs daily at 16.20 at Assembly Hall until 27 August 2017.