This year’s show, entitled “Luminosity,” follows the performers through a year in Times Square, using the narrative theme to guide the performance through the traditional circus story in slightly non-traditional ways, according to John Kennedy Kane, the Big Apple ringmaster.
In a phone interview from the road, Kane said that the show has been receiving a great reception everywhere it has traveled, noting that even in Boston the theme is appreciated.
“We’re in Boston right now and I was surprised how much we’re loved here,” he said. “We probably even pushed the envelope by doing these New York themes with the whole Yankees-Red Sox thing.”
While he is getting along just fine in Massachusetts, Kane eagerly anticipates returning to Queens, where he can get back into his morning routine of taking walks through Cunningham Park.
“Queens has always been very good to us,” Kane said. “It’s a very pleasant crowd.”
While the circus itself is the central focus at Big Apple, the not-for-profit organization uses the revenue generated from ticket sales, along with funding gathered from government sources and philanthropists, to sustain its community programs, such as Clown Care, a hospital outreach program founded in 1986 that sends clowns into pediatric units to brighten up their stays.
While the circus has been receiving positive reviews in its recent touring seasons, Head of Public Relations Phil Thurston said, attendance has declined as the recession put increasing strain on middle-class budgets. As a result, community programs have suffered as well.
Whereas the Clown Care program used to be somewhat larger, it now services 14 hospitals including Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Bronx Lebanon, Johns Hopkins, and both the Boston and Miami children’s, and reaches a remarkable 200,000 children annually.
One of the reasons the program is so important, said Thurston, is that it allows children an outlet away from all the doctors and nurses who enter and leave the children’s rooms and lives at will, unannounced.
“Children don’t have much control over their lives in the hospital. Our clowns are there to help with that,” Thurston said. “Doctors treat the part of the child that is sick, clowns are there to take care of the part of the child is well.”
Other community programs include Circus of the Senses, a performance geared towards vision and hearing impaired audiences; Circus After School, aimed at filling the gap from the end of the school day to the end of the work day with positive activity; and Circus for All, which provides access for children who can’t afford tickets but want to see the show.
Even despite the belt tightening of the past half-decade, the circus maintains an appeal to audiences seeking those more tangible forms of entertainment, something Thurston credits as a driving force behind Big Apple’s survival.
“In a circus we have people sitting around the ring interacting in a very communal experience: Laughing all together, gasping all together, catching their breath when they see something extraordinary,” Thurston said. “The circus harkens back to the days when people were living in tribes and would gather around a fire or a meeting place and would be entertained by some of their own.
“We need this kind of communal fellowship,” he added. “It reawakens in us some of the joy of being part of a larger civilization that embraces us and that we embrace.”
While most circuses celebrate mass appeal by creating shows on the grand scale, the Big Apple Circus is focused on a more modest, intimate approach to their genre. It is that element that he believes has been central to their continued popularity throughout the years.
“No seat in that tent is more than 50 feet from ringside,” Thurston said. “You can see the perspiration on the brow of the acrobats, and they can see your faces when you’re smiling.”