SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — Time travel is not yet possible, but the illusion of it is, as Circus 1903 proves. Combining old-school circus acts and settings with theater and puppetry, the stage show has entranced spectators with a performance that stands at the meeting point between the circus' past and future.
Birthed in Australia and conceived by the same producers of The Illusionists franchise, which focuses on magic, Circus 1903 — which will be playing Proctors Tuesday and Wednesday evening — has the team looking back more than 100 years ago to recreate the ambience and wonder of the old circus experience by focusing on the performers.
"They were front and center," said executive producer Kirsty Painter. "It was about the danger, the exotic animals, the crazy circus acts. We wanted to go back to that era and show a celebration of how circus came about, but we had to fit it into a theater setting, which was quite difficult to try and make the feeling of being inside the circus tent."
Capturing that required extended research, studying everything from the touring methods of the era and the logistics of creating a traveling circus, to the specifics of historical performers themselves, which inspired the back stories of Circus 1903 characters. Old circus log books were invaluable, offering details of the daily running of the circus, the performers' lives and even accidents.
In structuring the stage show, the team had to choose specific types of acts to feature, since there were far too many in the old circus format to squeeze into a two-hour program. That meant traveling the world to discover the best at trapeze, tightrope, juggling and more.
"If you stripped away every part of production, you take away costume, music, lights, and they do their act and you are still completely blown away, then that was an act that we definitely wanted in the show," Painter said.
The production benefited from the choices. Since so many circus performers are several generations into a family tradition, they have not only the required skills, but a firsthand historical knowledge based on their own family histories and what has been passed down.
The show also gives a nod to the idea of a sideshow, which was common in circuses at the time, by including a contortionist. But given the aspect of the circus that act was expected to evoke, the team, as with other acts, had very specific needs of the performer they sought.
"We were looking for something more on the kooky side," said Painter. "We wanted to create the sideshow of the circus, because they always had the sideshow. We looked for an act where it was dislocation and contortion, where she could twist her spine in a weird way and dislocate her shoulder, but also do the contortion moves."
One of the challenges was to evoke an old-style circus in an era when the role of animals in the circus has begun to be questioned. It was an early understanding that they would want to come up with some way to include animals in the show. The National Theatre in London production of "War Horse," which used puppetry to bring a horse to life before an audience, gave them the method. The challenge was to create that same magic with an elephant. The puppeteers and model makers who worked on "War Horse" were able to work from the same basic mechanism they used in that production, but made larger.
"It took months and months and different prototypes, and then they had to go through all the material that would make it look realistic to the eye," said Painter, "because you can see the puppeteers inside and there are parts of the elephant missing. They had to have that perfect balance so that the audience's mind could make up the rest. They had to be that good. We are seeing an elephant on the stage, but it took the best part of a year to get it to that."
It takes four puppeteers to work Queenie, the mother elephant. There is one puppeteer controlling the front legs and one controlling the back — both of these are on stilts — as well as another puppeteer working the head and an outside puppeteer, who is also a character in the show, to control the trunk. The baby elephant, Peanut is controlled by one puppeteer, still facing the challenge of creating a realistic experience.
"For the puppeteers to learn how to take two steps in unison and make it look like an elephant, it took weeks just to get to that," Painter said. "Three people have to be that one animal. It took weeks of practice, all day rehearsing to get to that stage, and then you get to the theater and they're having to negotiate the wings of the stage and the wires and the cables. It was definitely an intense part of the show to put together."
The circus is going through a transitional phase and Painter thinks the puppetry may be an answer to some of the problems the circus faces. After all, puppetry is a physical skill requiring training and precision, just like the trapeze or high wire. It fits right in.
"Maybe this is a way forward for the circus," Painter said. "When we do the next version of the show, maybe 1904, we would bring more versions of animals to life and see where it could go, because I think it could go many places and to great heights as a new way of showing the circus."