Managing the Big Top – How House Manager Brita Larson makes it happen

“Usually wearing her pink Smirkus t-shirt and walkie-talkie headset, her blond hair in a ponytail, Brita is the first to greet the crush of people in the initial 30 minutes when the tent is open.”

While here in Hanover, we have three days of shows. Three days at a given site is nice because while still being business as usual, there is an extra day to rest and everyone can focus on giving their best effort instead of focusing on how to give their best effort and then getting on the road and to the next site as quickly as possible. So last night, instead of going through the motions of the tear-down-and-jump as we normally have been, the rest of the staff went to a local park across the river in Norwich, Vermont where we made our own brick oven pizzas for dinner.

While there, I caught up with our “house manager,” Brita Larson. Usually wearing her pink Smirkus t-shirt and walkie-talkie headset with her blond hair in a ponytail, Brita is the first to greet the crush of people when the tent opens. The job demands a high degree of attention to detail, not to mention a high tolerance for the most stressful situations. I was curious to know how she does it while keeping her cool, so I put the recorder on the hood of a pickup truck and she told me about her job right there in the parking lot.

Brita’s work begins before the tour. During the off-season, when the Big Top Tour is being planned, Smirkus arranges that a number of shows will be “presented” and others will be “self-presented” shows. At the presented shows, all the proceeds from the ticket sales go towards the organization that presents us (for example; while we were in Brattleboro, the proceeds went to the KidsPLAYce). In this way, Smirkus has raised an estimated $2.5 million for other non-profits around the Northeast.

For the presented shows, the presenter provides all of the volunteers and Brita makes sure she has seven to eight ushers, four ticket checkers, four program distributers, as well as a number of people at the ticket booth and directing traffic in the parking lot. At the self-presented shows, the responsibility falls on her to find the individuals to fill these positions.

“The length of time it takes [to find volunteers] varies,” she said. “Since [Hanover] is a new site, I was able to rely heavily on local parents. So they were able to help a lot. Other sites are different like Waltham, [MA] where we have lots of board members, [and] lots of alumni, and people that we’ve used before.”

Once she has the volunteers confirmed, she makes sure they know when to arrive. The mornings of the shows, she makes sure the VIP sections are reserved, the tent is prepared, and any special seating arrangements for people with special needs, or for larger groups have been made. An hour before the show, the volunteers arrive and she briefs them on their duties, giving each of them the specifics of their respective positions. A half-an-hour before the show, the “doors” open.

“And that’s when the excitement begins,” she said.

As the people file in through the three entrances and find their seats, Brita monitors the performance of the volunteers, making sure they aren’t overwhelmed.

The most hectic time is that half hour before the curtain. As more people come in, sometimes late, she asks the audience to perform what she laughingly calls the “Brita Wave,” and everyone slides in towards the railing, freeing up empty seats closest to the aisles. When she has an estimate as to how many spaces remain in the tent, she can radio the front ticket to sell tickets until the remaining seats are full.

“I just love running out to the booth and saying ‘sell them all!’” she said.

In addition to managing the crowd and the volunteers, Brita also hand-counts all of the tickets. I asked her about the kind of mental stamina needed to do all of this.

“It’s kind of ‘fight or flight’ because it’s happening in the moment.” She said. “It’s not like I can procrastinate or push it off a little bit – the show is starting and I have a 40-person wait list. I have to get to it now. I don’t have a choice – the adrenaline gets going and I have to start running around.”

However, she said it is this challenge and fast-paced atmosphere that she enjoys the most.

“I like the challenge and I like the adrenaline,” she said. “But [the best part is] when I get to sit down and see 800 other people loving a Smirkus show as much as I do.”

Evan Johnson, Communications Intern

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