Small Circus, Big Dreams
The contemporary circus movement is finding a growing audience in places other than under the big tent. Scaled-down, independently-owned troupes, which infuse elements of burlesque theater with traditional circus acrobatics, are beginning to showcase in clubs, parties, and notable corporate events. This growing trend is taking the circus from being a fringe spectacle to becoming a viable (and profitable) entrepreneurial pursuit.
"I think [it's] because of the rise of Cirque du Soleil and the desensitization of everything else," says Anya Sapozhnikova, founder, performer, and partner in Lady Circus in Brooklyn, New York. "Our society just keeps forcing everything to be more and more and more extreme, and circus is the most extreme form of performance art."
Allison Williams, the artistic director of Aerial Angels in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has noticed a shift over the last 15 years from the circus being a family business to something that anyone with skill and artistic vision can begin as a small operation. Williams also credits Cirque du Soleil for showing audiences that animals are not a necessity within the context of a circus performance. "Not having animals puts circus within reach of a lot of people," she says.
Timothy Mack, founder of The Imperial OPA circus in Atlanta, describes his "tangible" circus as the down-to-earth and approachable version of Cirque du Soleil. "We drop things now and then and we might not be super tight," he says. "We're trying to get better, but that's touchability." OPA, which consists of an ad hoc collective of 20 rotating performers, was founded in late 2009 after Mack, a seasoned street performer, completed a tour of duty with Cirque du Soleil as a photographer. They average one main production each month, plus an occasional scaled-down free show. Some of his performers were recently featured in an episode of The Vampire Diaries television series.
Like Mack, most of the entrepreneurs have a background in circus arts themselves. "You have to know what goes into every single aspect, from costuming to rigging to fire safety to how much floor space you need to choreograph a number. You have to have physically done all these things and know what it's about from [the performers] perspective before you start booking," says Sapozhnikova, herself an aerial performer.
Start-up costs for troupes are small in comparison to other industries. OPA's start-up funds, which Mack describes as being relatively minimal, were produced out-of-pocket, and he still holds a full-time position with the gaming company Thrust Interactive.
Most performers are also solo artists apart from the troupe and come equipped with their own props as a result. This alleviates circus owners of the financial burden of having to supply every performer with equipment during the start-up phase. However, reliable practice space is "probably the biggest challenge for anyone looking to start a company," says Williams, due to rental costs and insurance worries. For this reason, some companies collaborate with other groups to form symbiotic business partnerships. Aerial Angels is currently in residence at a gym in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they have free access to training space in exchange for teaching classes. Lady Circus works out of The Sky Box, another venture in which Sapozhnikova is a founder and partner and, in this case, instructor to those outside of the circus who are interested in taking classes in aerial arts.
Another important consideration is liability risks. "What is crucial for any troupe to have is workers comp, and that is expensive," says Guillaume Dufresnoy, artistic director of the legendary troupe Big Apple Circus that was the subject of the PBS series, Circus. Due to the expense, many troupes handle their liability risk simply by requiring their performers to sign a waiver of liability and assumption of risk prior to joining the troupe. Dufresnoy scoffs at the widespread use of waivers being used as the only protection for entrepreneurs in the industry. "I think they can easily and always be contested and defeated [in court]. We use them, too. I think it's a first line of defense, but they're easily challengeable," he says. Williams has another take on the financial risks involved. "The biggest defense we as small business owners have is that we don't own anything worth taking," she says. Sapozhnikova echo's Williams's sentiments. "I think the liability's not as much of a big deal as it seems. If you're really paranoid about getting sued, you probably shouldn't be a circus performer."
In addition to waivers, certain troupes mandate that artists carry performers insurance. Specialty Insurance Agency covers performers for bodily injury and property damage to the client for $210 annually. Kasumi Kato, an Atlanta-based aerial silks performer, has more comprehensive coverage through International Special Events & Recreation Association (ISERA) at a cost of roughly $2,000 per year, and requires that her co-performers also be insured. However, she has never been seriously injured during her tenure as an aerialist, which began at the age of four. Now 24, having recently received a degree in public policy from Georgia State University, she's embarking on a full-time career as a performer and instructor and working to form a company with two other aerialists. She also performs with The Imperial OPA on occasion.
An LLC may be the ideal structure for an up-and-coming troupe, due to the relatively simple formation structure and limited financial liability risks for the partners involved. Mack recently converted OPA into an LLC and has plans to seek 501(c)(3) status down the line. Williams also runs Aerial Angels as an LLC. Although Sapozhnikova and her partners operate Lady Circus as an LLC, the Sky Box venue is housed under the House of Yes corporation, co-founded by Sapozhnikova, that also incubates Make Fun!, a costuming and prop-making studio space.
Performers in start-up troupes usually receive their first payments through busking tips and donations, but steady gigs from paid clientele lead to the sustainability of successful troupes and the ability to take their acts on the road. The rates that circuses and individual performers charge varies greatly, and is mainly dependent upon the client's budget and the types of artists that will appear in the act. "You figure out a fair price with the context," says Sapozhnikova. "Let's say it's an upscale club and their budget is $1,000. I'm not going to give them more than two performers for that budget," she says. "But, depending on if one performer is stilt walking for two hours and another person has prepared, specifically, a tailored three-minute aerial solo, we [take that into account]." For solo engagements, Kato charges a flat fee of $350 that covers booking, costumes, insurance, rigging, and other nuances associated with a show. That initial fee is followed by a $100-per-hour performance rate. An elaborate costuming requirement may incur an added expense for the client.
As for Aerial Angels, whose clients have included corporate entities such as Citigroup, Williams pulls 10 percent off the top as a booking fee for both herself and her business manager, and pays the company the equivalent of the highest paid performer at the gig. "The girls who work for us full-time do anywhere from $25,000 to $45,000 a year," says Williams about her company of 11. The Aerial Angels performers are all independent contractors. Dufresnoy recommends that owners of up-and-coming circus troupes stay within the 1099 model because, "it's case by case, one show, two shows, then [the performers can] go away and do other things," he says.
Aerial Angels also scored a sweet deal in 2008 when they appeared on the Canadian version of the hit reality television show Dragon's Den. Their appearance netted the troupe a quarter of a million dollars to finance a large indoor show. Regardless of the win, Williams, a former theater professor at Western Michigan University, and other circus entrepreneurs are doing quite well for themselves both creatively and financially, and see plenty of room for growth in the future. "I like to tell people I make more money than I did as a college professor and I don't have to go to committee meetings," she says.