Stephanie Weiss On Traveling With Ringling Bros.
On Sunday, May 21st, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed their final show to a sold-out crowd after 146-years of performances.
Growing up, I remember going to Madison Square Garden with my parents to see this amazing circus.
I remember the fun, as a young kid, watching the clowns perform while I was spinning my little Ringling Bros. flashlight, on its tether, above my head.
I remember the animals, the acrobats, the motorcycles in the Globe of Death. I remember pure joy!
Over the course of my career, I have met several people who have worked for Ringling Bros. Stephanie Weiss, currently Head of Lighting for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas resident show Zumanity, is one of those folks. Earlier this month, I chatted with her about her experience with the traveling circus.
Michael Cassera: Hey, Steph. Thanks for taking the time to let me interview you. Before we met at Zumanity in 2003, you worked for Ringling Bros. When was that, and how did you get that job?
Stephanie Weiss: I was on tour with RBBB in 1997-98 and how that happened is a fun story… I was living in Seattle at the time and working for ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) and I used to commute to work on the bus. One night on my way home, we were stuck in traffic by the Key Arena. As I realized the traffic was due to the circus just letting out, I recognized someone leaving the arena and walking across the street. It was someone I had worked with at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival for several years, but had not seen for a long time. I jumped off the bus to say hi. It turned out he was traveling with the circus now. After spending the weekend seeing the show, meeting the crew, visiting the train, and hearing all the stories, I was hooked. A few months later when ACT’s season ended, I thought I would go join the circus for a few months until we started up again. A few months quickly turned into two years and I never went back to ACT.
MC: What was life like working for the circus? How is it different from your current gig with Cirque du Soleil?
SW: One of the biggest differences is that you live with the circus. It is more than just a job. The same few hundred people work together, live together on the train, travel together, and hang out together. There are a lot of families. It is an entire community: there are school teachers for the kids, veterinarians for the animals, cooks for the Pie Car (the restaurant on both the train and in a food truck at the building), etc. The day to day of running a show and maintaining the equipment is the same as Cirque du Soleil, but the environment is very different. Here I have my work life, and my home life …there they were more the same.
MC: Many people I’ve talked to refer to their years with Ringling Bros. as a special time in their career. Do you have a representative moment that made it special for you, something you’d share with us?
SW: It is a very special time. It is such a unique environment living on a train and being surrounded by elephants and tigers. There were a lot of fans that would line up on the street to see the train go by, or watch the animals unload and travel to the building. The wonder on their faces was always fun to see. I love animals, so the time spent with them was always important to me. On one tour we had two baby elephants that were born and watching them grow, learn, and play was special.
I still have art hanging on my wall that was painted by baby elephants that I knew personally, not everyone can say that!
For me, one of the most special things was the lasting relationships that were built on the show. It has been 20 years, and still, some of my best friends came from those years. We got to travel the country and experience all kinds of things together. That builds strong relationships.
MC: Thanks, Steph. Now, let’s shift to a more difficult topic. As anyone with access to the internet knows, Ringling Bros. has celebrated their final show. What was your reaction when you first heard that the circus was closing?
SW: I took it pretty hard. Ringling Brothers has been such an American icon. As a kid we went to Baraboo Wisconsin and Circus World. We always saw the show when it came through town, and then I worked there and was able to share it with my family and friends. It makes me sad that future generations will no longer have that experience. For some city kids, RBBB was the only chance to see elephants up close. I am also sad that future generations of young technicians won’t get the same chance I did. As a hiring manager, I like to hire people with tour experience …if you can troubleshoot and solve problems on the road with little support and limited access to supplies, then you will do great on a resident show. For a lot of reasons, the closing of RBBB makes me very sad.
MC: Thanks so much for your time, Steph. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers today?
SW: I would not trade my time with Ringling Brothers for anything. I am so grateful that I had that time in my life, and will carry the memories with me forever. I still choose to travel by train whenever possible. I just love it. Thanks, Michael.
Also by Michael Cassera: