It starts with emails. A lot of emails. First I e-mailed all the friends I had in various circus communities around the U.S. asking if they knew of appropriate performance spaces. The problem with finding a venue for a circus show is not only do you need high ceilings, but you need rigging from that ceiling that can bear a substantial amount of weight. Asking for 18-25 ft. ceilings is one thing, but finding safe and reliable rigging can be questionable when dealing with theatres that aren’t familiar with the force weight created by aerial performance. First I checked with friends who were familiar with aerial rigging. I’ve traveled quite a bit for performances, as well as worked with the online network Circus Now. This has helped me build a large network of circus contacts across the United States. Unfortunately, many professional theatres are concerned about the liability risks inherent in circus arts, so more often I contacted circus schools or training spaces that were willing and able to turn their space into a temporary venue. I gave them the pitch:
I’m a circus artist with a thirty-minute solo show, which is admittedly a challenging length to book. However, I am traveling with a skilled emcee who has a wealth of material to help fill in extra time during the show. I’m also looking to share the stage with local performers. Part of the mission of this tour is to connect with other performers and circus communities, and it is my hope that I can offer spots in my show for performers of any skill level to present their work. My other expectation for this show is that it has donation-based ticket sales. This is a gamble when it comes to guaranteeing an income from the tour, but I strongly believe in making performance art accessible to people from all income brackets.
In November of 2016 I began sending out my pitch to hundreds of friends, circus schools, training facilities, and theatres. Most didn’t even respond. Some wrote back to say they didn’t have enough resources to put on a show, or it was bad timing, or it just didn’t suit the mission of their particular space. But, a handful of emails came back intrigued by the show and the tour’s mission. Gradually I started piecing together cities and dates for a tour that would circle the U.S. from April to July, enough shows to have at least one performance a week for three months.
Once I had full tour lined up, it was time to create a budget and start fundraising. I bought a used 2004 Ford Ranger with a canopy and bed for sleeping, which would provide transportation from show to show and lodging while on the road. I estimated the cost of the tour would be anywhere from $6,000-$10,000, having the high end of the budget allow for the occasional hotel or catastrophic car failure. I started working six days a week to raise my own funds, and put up a campaign on Go Fund Me. I made an agreement with Anchorage Community Works, a non-profit art facility, to act as my fiscal sponsor so donations would be tax-deductible. In four months of saving I had enough in the bank to feel financially comfortable quitting my day jobs and leaving on tour.
For the most part my tour budget was exceptionally low. I only allowed myself $70 a week for food, which meant buying groceries and cooking as much as possible. We basically lived off rice and vegetables (a mini portable rice cooker was a wise purchase). The lodging portion of my budget was also small. It allowed for the option of a hotel if we were absolutely in need, but it also made me search for cheap or free lodging. Many people associated with our venues opened their homes to us. Occasionally while on the road we would use free sites such as couchsurfing.com or freecampsites.net. The place I wasn’t frugal was with the transportation costs. I left myself a huge gas allowance and repair fund. I’ve had many friends who have had vehicles break down on tour, and I wanted to make sure we didn’t get stranded anywhere along the way. I was fortunate, the largest repair cost I had was $20 for a blown windshield wiper relay.
At the end of March 2017, all the shows were set up, guest performers were arranged, and press packets were sent out. I met two members of my former circus troupe Capistrano Circus in Bellingham, Washington to start out the tour. Strangely, a Bellingham based cabaret performer and musician, would accompany me for the northern and east coast parts of the tour. Esther de Monteflores, a slack wire walker with her own solo show, would rejoin the tour in New Mexico. With the help of these artists and the guest performers in each city, we had a show that was long enough to fill an evening of entertainment.
The most challenging part of tour was promotion. Finding ways to get people to show up when you are an out of town performer is difficult. I sent posters and handbills to each venue. I added my show to local events calendars and sent press releases to all the news sources I could find. In some cities I was able to get a slot on the local NPR station. Though theses tactics may have been helpful, I think the greatest asset to my audience numbers was the inclusion of local performers. It was an honor to present my work next to talented performers from all over the country, and having local names included in the promotion helped bring people to the shows.
In the end the tour just barely broke even, and to me this was a huge success. A first tour is generally not a profitable endeavor, it’s about getting your name out in new locations. Often you spend more than you make. I was lucky, I had the opportunity to spend three months on the road, travel all around the country, and even occasionally pay my fellow performers, all for a final loss of around $300. Though it can be a disappointment to come home without a profit, sharing my work and meeting new circus communities was worth the small loss I incurred. I left Anchorage, Alaska with $2,000 in my checking account, and never had to transfer any money from savings. The amount of profit from each show was just enough to keep me on the road till the next.
Theoretically I could have done this tour without saving money. The tour paid for itself. I wouldn’t advise hitting the road without any money in your savings account though. I was fortunate because this tour was free of problems. I didn’t have any serious car trouble and I was always able to find free places to stay. I took a few chances on expensive venues, and I was able to pay all those rental fees back with ticket sales. I would recommend at least a budget of $4,000-$5,000 to have peace of mind. I probably could have promoted more, but that would have cost more. The line between money spent on promotion and how many people it actually brings to your show is obscure.
Though I didn’t make money, this tour was necessary to me because I practice contemporary circus, a genre that may be commonplace within the circus community, but is still relatively unknown outside of large cities. Many of the communities I visited had no idea what to expect from the show, but they came anyway to experience a new type of art. If I could change anything about this show I would try to book more shows in small towns. I was limited to the small towns I was already familiar with in order to find venues with safe rigging. The shows I booked in already established circus venues helped promote my work to the circus community, but my main goal was to push the knowledge of contemporary circus outside its isolated stronghold within the circus community. I hope my relative success on this tour will encourage others to take the final steps in booking their own tours. We are part of a small niche in the art world that is nurtured by performing within the safety of our own community. Contemporary circus will never be able to grow as an art form if more performers don’t take the risk of sharing their work with a larger audience.
The Cirque Lab
I can’t be completely impartial when it comes to this venue, since it is the place I first started learning circus arts. The Bellingham Circus Guild is a charming community that has been growing over the past ten years to create an incredible space. The Cirque Lab has numerous rigging points, a large elevated stage and low overhead costs. They charge 20% of ticket sales, though this does not include a technician. The Cirque Lab does not require the use an in-house technician, so if you have the option of bringing a friend or technician along you can run your own tech. Bellingham is a small city that is supportive of the arts, so it is easy to promote a show through posters and local publications.
Versatile Arts does not frequently host shows and doesn’t have a dedicated stage, but if you are looking for an intimate performance space, this works to your advantage. The room has a large enough occupancy to become quite full, and it is easy to set up an in-the-round or three-quarter-round stage. Its other exceptional quality is you have plenty of height to work with, and pulley systems that make rigging quick and easy. Versatile Arts did require the use of their personal technician, but his prices were flexible. Versatile Arts is not generally a performance venue, but they appreciate promoting new performances and offer a reasonable ticket split agreement.
Methow Valley Community Center
I don’t think I can express enough how much I enjoyed working with this venue. Twisp, Washington is a small town with a population hovering around 1,000. For its small size, it hosts an amazing aerial coach and a talented group of pre-teen performers. We invited the girls to open the show, and were blown away by the level of skill coming out of this small community. The center itself is an old school house, which was a little tricky to set up as a circus venue. We weren’t able to use the stage because all the rigging points were in the center of the room. Once we set up some stage lighting though (rescued from the recently burnt down Twisp River Pub) the space looked a bit less like a gymnasium. They don’t have staff to run door or tech, so you will have to provide your own crew for this venue, but you will have complete artistic freedom with the space. Though this venue has a flat rental fee of $200-$300, you can almost guarantee a huge return. The town is small so it is easy to promote and you have very little competition. We set up about fifty chairs at the start of the performance, and as people continued to filter in we ended up rolling out the chair rack and had spectators grab their own chairs as they paid admission. This was by far the show with the highest profit and most engaged audience. The folks in this community are incredibly supportive of new art, and I hope those who read this will consider bringing more performance art to their town.
Madison Circus Space
For a small city in the Midwest, Madison has a very well established circus space. They don’t have a dedicated stage, but they have excellent stage lighting installed, so we were able to build our performance space based on the areas illuminated by the lighting. For this show I asked Sarah Muehlbauer, a performer I’ve known for ages but have never been able to collaborate with, to provide the opening material. Sarah bi-locates between Philadelphia and Madison, but I was able to catch her as she was putting together a new piece with a few Madison performers. The venue was wonderful to work with, though one of my more expensive financial agreements. You can choose either a flat rental rate or a 50% ticket split. For this tour, because my ticket sales were by donation, I always chose to go with a percentage split if that was possible. Fortunately, Madison has a strong social network of circus performers and enthusiasts. Most of our promotion didn’t extend past the local circus community, but we were able to fill the space through the social network and the popularity of the local performers.
Esh Circus Arts
Esh has a small occupancy of 40, but the tickets were sold out days before the show. The folks at Esh worked hard to ensure that we had an excellent line up of opening performers, including their visiting artists Terry Crane and Xochitl Sosa (which probably helped sell tickets so quickly). Their space is primarily a teaching facility, but they were able to create a beautiful stage by spreading out aerial silks for a backdrop. They also have custom-made scaffolding that extends throughout the building, providing ample choices for rigging.
The Muse Brooklyn
New York was the most challenging place I chose to book a show. Venue rentals are extremely high, and you are competing with a wealth of other choices for entertainment. When talking to the Muse I was apprehensive of the return this show would bring. The Muse does offer an excellent artist-in-residence option, which brings down the rental price significantly, but based on my budget still wasn’t low enough. They continued to help me out with options though, and eventually they found a local performer to pair me with who would help bring down the rental costs even more. Chriselle Tidrick is a local dancer who runs her own performance company, and she was invaluable in helping me navigate the complicated world of New York promotion. The venue has a large raised stage with several rigging points, and they are able to pull a curtain across half the room to make it seem more like a traditional black box theatre. However, it is still a very large space, and can seem quite cavernous to a small audience. This show was my largest financial risk, and I did end up having to pay some money for the venue, but based on the original cost of the venue I felt that it was reasonable. Depending on how much you want to present your show to a New York audience, you have to weigh the cost risks with the benefit that will come from exposure.
Philadelphia School of Circus Arts
We lucked out on timing with this venue. They don’t generally have a stage set up, but their student showcase was coming up, so they were already preparing their venue. Rigging is simple because the venue owns a Genie lift, so we didn’t have to lug a giant ladder around. We had a few lights on the floor that we had to run without a lighting board, which worked fine for my show, but could be challenging with more advanced technical needs. PSCA doesn’t do a lot of touring shows, so they didn’t have a dedicated tech person, but since the tech at this venue was so simple, we ran tech for each other without a problem. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find many local performers for this show, but the staff promoted the show well through their social network and we had decent turnout.
This is one of the few professional venues I worked with that was not primarily circus oriented. I have had the opportunity to perform at this theatre several times while living in North Carolina, and they work hard to promote small budget events through their non-profit theatre program. The theatre also had open time during the week and I was able to teach a week long kid's circus workshop. The only problem with getting a discount on rental rates is you have to work around whatever dinner theater shows may be going on at the time. I chose a four day run of late shows (10 p.m.), with one earlier show on Sunday. This turned out to not be best timing. I’ve had better luck booking a single weekday show with an 8 p.m. slot. That said, even though the theatre is not built for circus, it happens to suit the form perfectly. There are only a few rigging points, but it is a lovely black box with 25 ft. ceilings. They also have great lighting and a skilled technician, making it an excellent venue to get high quality photos and video.
Caroline Calouche & Co.
This company started as a contemporary dance studio, but over the past ten years has expanded to incorporate aerial dance. At the time of my tour they had just completed their black box studio theatre. The stage itself was beautifully laid out, though the seating is somewhat limited. There are numerous rigging points and a large marley dance floor that allows easy transitions from aerial choreography to the ground. This is a great place to get footage of a show because the lighting and the curtains are set up to create a very professional looking setting.
Wise Fool New Mexico
One of my favorite things about working with Wise Fool is their commitment to socially relevant shows. I shared this performance with Esther de Monteflores, a former performer for Wise Fool’s show SeeSaw, and three local performers working on Devised Theatre pieces. The director of Wise Fool asked if Esther and I would be interested in performing our technical run-through for their teen summer program. She wanted to show the students an example of women who had created solo performances. Afterward we had a Q&A session with the girls to talk about the creation process for our two shows. This was a great opportunity to work with the community and inspire the next generation of circus performers. Wise Fool’s studio is cut in half by stage curtains, but since the space is mainly used as a teaching facility we had to hang up the back curtain before the show. Both aerial rigging and slack rope rigging were accessible on scaffolding. Wise Fool does not have a percentage split option for ticket sales, so I had to pay a $400 rental in advance plus tech fees. Though I had to pay for one technician, Wise Fool also had a handful of skilled volunteers to help with stage managing and ticket sales. I was a bit concerned about the rental costs, but we had a great crowd, many who came out to support the local performers.
AirDance New Mexico
AirDance Art Space is a gorgeous adobe church that has been repurposed as a circus specific black box theatre. They were able to accommodate slack rope rigging as well as aerial rigging. The lighting was somewhat limited with two light trees that weren’t attached to a light board, so we had to run the lights manually. We had planned a three day run in Albuquerque, which proved to be a bit unnecessary. One thing I learned about New Mexico is that people don’t seem to mind traveling between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, so with our show the week before in Santa Fe, one night in Albuquerque may have been a better choice. AirDance is a non-profit and had a flexible rental rate based on budget. They also provided lots of extra support through volunteers who were able to help with tech and door.
The Prop Box
This studio is a lovely practice space, occasionally turned venue, tucked away in the Bay Area. The best part about working with this venue was that they provided lodging, so I was able to have access to the space as long as it wasn’t being used for other rehearsals. The floor plan itself isn’t very large, and there is only one beam for rigging. The limited space however worked well for my show, which comes across better in an intimate setting where the aerial work is practically over the top of the audience. We set up a few chairs and mats for the audience, and once the room filled up it created a cozy, informal performance. Though I had performed my show in all types of venues, from highly professional theatres to cooperative art warehouses, this venue created the perfect setting for the final show of the tour.