“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, children of all ages….” We’ve all heard this phrase before. Whether you call him the ringmaster, ringleader, or master of ceremonies, this director of the circus has been a crucial player since the beginning. It might seem like all fun and games standing around and pointing at different parts of the stage, but don’t be fooled into thinking this job is easy. Being a ringmaster entails a lot more than simply possessing a loud booming voice and gaudy riding coat. Throughout every circus performance the ringmaster must wear many hats, both in dress and in responsibilities.
The job of the circus ringmaster came about to guide the audience through the various acts, and through the entire journey of the circus experience in general. In early circuses, ringmasters had to literally direct the audience’s attention to various acts through pointing and vocal communication, seeing as there was no modern lighting equipment back then such as spotlights to attract the eye. Additionally, the ringmaster’s voice had to be loud enough to drown out the sounds of the finished acts being broken down and the new acts being setup.
In smaller circuses, the ringmaster was usually the circus owner or creative director, whereas in larger circuses he may have simply been another hired performer. Aside from just announcing the various acts, the ringmaster actually directs the entire circus show itself. So in addition to communicating to the audience, the ringmaster must communicate with the performers as well, giving them all the correct cues as to when to appear, begin, and finish each act. This is especially true in larger circuses of multiple rings, in which it’s impossible for the audience to keep track of what’s going on all the time. In comes the ringmaster to create order out of chaos, and provide guidance for the audience.
As a ringmaster, speaking to the audience involves more than reading off a few cue cards. Ringmasters also have to try and engage the audience, usually by making things sound more dramatic with extreme exaggerations. Often times they’ll state certain tricks are the “most dangerous,” “highest,” “biggest,” or “most amazing.” It’s their job to not only explain what’s happening to the crowd, but to excite them as well.
One of the primary duties of a ringmaster is to ensure that the show runs smoothly. This entails checking to make sure that all performers are present and ready, and that all the rigging and props are correctly assembled and in place, prior to show time. This also means it’s the ringmaster’s job to deal with unexpected events and accidents. If something bad happens, like an error or a fall, it is the ringmaster’s responsibility to keep calm and collected, and keep things moving along, because as the old adage goes, “the show must go on.” Being a ringmaster means being prepared for the unexpected.
On the same note, if a performer or act is sick or unavailable to perform, it’s the ringmaster’s duty to reschedule acts accordingly, find substitutes, or step in and perform as a gap-filler. Many ringmasters are skilled improv actors or trained clowns, capable of performing impromptu standup to keep the audience entertained between acts. Some are even trained in the various circus acts themselves, able to jump in on the trapeze, breathe bursts of fire, or tame the wild lions within a moment’s notice. And still some are trained singers, ready to break out in song to satisfy a void of show time.
Most ringmasters are very busy multitaskers, dipping their toes in almost every stream of the circus. Peripheral duties include setting up the tent and stage, making sure concessions are prepped for business, repairing costumes, paying the circus’ bills, and acting as a regular stagehand, lending a helping hand wherever it may be needed. Traditionally ringmasters were not only the show managers, but also the transport managers, publicity managers, stable managers, front of house managers, and tent masters. Seeing as his face is the only singular representation of the circus, any promotional events in front of the media, be it for television news stations, national programs, or even print media, are usually done by the ringmaster. It is part of his job to perform any public relations or advertising duties when the circus arrives in a particular location, in order to make the circus’ presence known and getting people to attend. Additionally, during any circus show it is the ringmaster’s job to make pitches for the circus’ sponsors, e.g. “Don’t forget to visit our concessions for an ice cold Coca Cola Classic.”
In order to become a ringmaster, today most hopefuls attend circus school, train in acting or improv, or start at the bottom of the circus and work their way up. Many circus schools offer ringmaster programs where students learn the skills they need to be successful leaders of the circus. These programs allow adequate practice in school performances, with new graduates sufficiently prepared to start work with smaller circuses.
Another common way is by studying at an acting school or drama program at a university. Recent acting graduates and working actors may find the grand scale of the circus arena to be the perfect place to hone their craft. A handful of currently working ringmasters were even recruited direct from Broadway productions.
The final method involves starting as a circus apprentice and working up. In this way, a potential ringmaster has the opportunity to work all the different positions of the circus and gain knowledge of how everything works, something essential for being a great ringmaster. In fact this method may have an advantage above the others by producing familiarity with all circus responsibilities, and building close relationships with all the cast and crew, things that will be useful in the duties of a ringmaster when having to announce acts, engage the audience, and handle unexpected emergencies.
The traditional ringmaster outfit has an equestrian association, due to the fact that the ringmaster used to direct horse tricks in the early days of the circus. The costume consists of riding boots, stirrup pants, topcoat with tails, tall top hat, and whip. Traditional colors are red with gold piping, gold trim, and gold details, however today there are no standards when it comes to ringmaster costumes. Just ask Britney Spears.
With long hours on their feet, shouting at the top of their lungs, dealing with constant commotion and clamor, and being surrounded by the craziest environment of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and exotic animals, being a ringmaster is no easy gig. But ask any one of them and they’ll tell you it’s the best job they’ve ever had, because putting smiles on people’s faces is a priceless prize.