For the Love of Canvas- Thursday, August 15th

Guest Blog by Tent Boss Nat Brown.


My name is Nat Brown. I have had the honor and privilege of working with Circus Smirkus for the past 11 years. I started working on Ring Crew (helping set up the scenery and rigging and participating in the show running props in and out of the ring), and then switched to Tent Crew. I became enamored with the work immediately. The satisfaction of transforming an empty field into a bustling village in less than a day is second to nothing I have ever known.


This tour will be my fifth as “Tent Boss”, a title that is reminiscent of the days of old when the “Canvas Boss” would mind the condition of the tent fabric, the “Pole Boss” would direct the erection of masts and raising of quarter and side poles, and the “Wagon Boss” would direct the wagons off of the rail cars and onto the site in the correct order and placement. We have continued this delegation of labor in a facetious manner by assigning “Bosses” for various jobs. The “Jug Boss” makes sure the water cooler we have is full of clean cold water, the “Noodle Boss” is responsible for placing the yellow pool noodles on the metal guy lines so people do not injure themselves if they walk into them, the “Entrada Boss” lays out the extra piece of vinyl that gets laced to the Big Top and hooks up the ratchets to ready it to become our front entrance, the “Banner Boss” hangs the decorative banners in the Entrada that have been touring with Circus Smirkus since the very first year, and last but not least, the “Womp Boss” makes sure we have music to move us along while we do our work.


As Tent Boss, I direct the Tent Crew in the raising of the Big Top and the satellite tents. My job has been incredibly easy the past few years because I have become more comfortable being “the boss” and I have been graced with capable and caring crew members. We pour more than sweat into our work because we know the space we create will have an effect on not only the performers, but every person that sets foot on the lot.


By appearances Tent Crew tends to illicit sentiments of brutishness. Often we have beards, tattoos, and piercings and our wardrobe choices rely not on the styles of the day but the heat of the sun. The seasonal nature of the job attracts certain minded individuals who are looking not only for a pay check but for an adventure as well. Folks who end up as Tent Crew tend to be very free thinkers and despite appearances, very well-read. It is not uncommon to see us reading a Dostoyevsky to pass the time. Appearances are deceiving, and just like it seems the tents go up on their own, dirty bearded men who do hard labor do not lack intellect. In fact, we have in the past enjoyed the presence of MIT graduates, a math teacher, and a librarian.


In the past few years we have enjoyed the addition of many new upgrades to our “kit” (what we call our infrastructure). We replaced our bleachers with a set from Italy designed to travel down the road easily. We purchased and then outfitted a gooseneck  trailer to haul every single piece of the Big Top in one load. This year we replaced our old Concession and Backstage Tents with new ones from Canobbio, an Italian manufacturer that made our Big Top fifteen years ago. All these upgrades took many years of planning by the company.  Without the care and concern with which we do our job, these upgrades would not have been possible.


We have a few mottos that we live by on Tent Crew. “Constant improvement” is something we strive for in every aspect of the job.  Whether it is how we lay out the bleachers or how we pound stakes, all of us are always looking for ways to improve the job. The idea of “this is how we always do it” does not apply. “It’s not heavy, it’s just awkward” is something we throw around quite a bit.  Some of what we do seems impossible; rolling up a section of canvas (it is PVC coated polyester fabric, but we still call it canvas) that weighs more than a ton or pounding four foot steel stakes through rocks. But with a willing mind and an appropriate amount of gumption (something every member of Tent Crew has an abundance of) anything is possible. At the end of the day the most valuable tools we use are not the twenty pound sledge hammers or the Tirfors (cable winches that raise the masts and Big Top) but our minds.


This past jump to Montpelier we did an “overnight jump.” Normally we tear down at night and sleep and then have the next day to set everything up for shows the following day. Because we like challenges, and because we wanted to prove it to ourselves we were sharp enough to pull it off, we asked to do an overnight jump. Judy Gaeth, Circus Operations Director, was hesitant at first, but with the approval and enthusiasm of the rest of the company she decided to let us do it.  


Our tear down took only two and a half hours, thanks to the help of almost everyone in the company. It was a beautiful thing to see everyone pitching in to make something happen. The energy was as abundant as the laughter and cheerful chatter between all departments. We drove to Montpelier just after the sun set and arrived on the lot by about 10 PM.  Ben Scheff, Technical Directer, and the rest of the Tech Crew had jumped slightly ahead of us and had already set up our two Air Stars (portable work lights that inflate and illuminate the entire site during night hours) providing us with light to get right to work.  


Like clock work our company had moved the entire site to another location. As Troy Wonderlee and Jeff Maynard, Backlot Supervisor, set to placing trailers and leveling them, we began to set up everything we had only an hour before finished tearing down.  Within five hours we had set up all of our tents.  We took a small soda and sandwich break and then finished up the bleachers, bandstand, and hung all of the sidewall.  By the end of it we had completed the entire set up in a little less than seven hours.  In just eleven hours we had completely transplanted our lot from Hanover to Montpeilier.


The luxury of opting for an overnight jump might be lost on a few people. Many shows have to tear down and set up every day. We consider ourselves a mud show but in reality we live a very comfortable life on the road. We all have a bed to sleep in. We get fed three amazing meals everyday. We have time to take naps and recoup before we tear down. Our life is not easy by everyday standards, but by the standards of a mud show we have it made here.


I travel to each site a day or two before we arrive with my assistant, Noah Pierce, and we “mark out” (painting lines on the ground to delineate where each stake goes and where the masts and bleachers will be). We check out the route ahead of time to make sure there are no detours or changes in the directions we have. It can be a grind sometimes spending that much time in a truck (we will have driven about three thousand miles by the end of tour) but it is a privilege to have the perspective of the empty field. Once we measure for fire lanes and make sure everything will fit around it, we mark the center of the ring. From that one point everything will be laid out. My old boss from Big Apple Circus, Felipe Teran, used to always say when we pounded that center stake into the ground, “This is where the magic begins!”


As Tent Crew we are responsible for creating the sacred space in which the magic of the show happens. We open the tent in the morning to let the fresh air of the day in, and we close it all at night to keep it safe and sealed. We live by good habits and accept that there is always room for improvement. The tradition we carry on in “flying canvas” (raising the tents) is not lost on us. We respect our trade and treat it as the age old craft that it is. We are all honored to do our part in the magic of moving this show down the road.

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3 Responses to For the Love of Canvas- Thursday, August 15th

  1. Bravo! And thank you for an educational peek into the inner workings and people who “get this show on the road.”

  2. Em Aitch says:

    This is a great post. I learned much, and it makes me wonder about much more.

  3. Jeff Schoellkopf says:

    Thanks to the whole crew for a great summer. And for such an eloquent post. Hope you all have a great Fall, and we get to see you dtr.

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